College Quarterly
Summer 2006 - Volume 9 Number 3
Reviews Me Funny
Drew Hayden Taylor
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

There are few tasks more daunting than explaining a particular joke to someone who is too wooden to “get it” the first time, and wonders why everyone else is laughing. One of them, however, is to try to explain jokes in general. What is the theory behind them? What makes us laugh?

Only a few have tried to explain the secret, and the results have generally been awful. So, I won’t try; instead, I’ll simply pirate the only explanations I’ve heard that make any sense to me.

Jokes are different from other kinds of humour from slap-stick to puns. They are different from amusing folk tales or stories (often ethnically based) that reveal the foibles and sometimes revel in the tenderness of ordinary people in ordinary situations. Anyone remember Myron Cohen?

To make a joke, there has to be an acceptance of the formula: a set-up, a short narrative and a “punch-line.” Jokes are a kind of aggressive intellectual bait-and-switch, whereby you are led to expect one thing and get smacked with something else.

Kurt Vonnegut suggested that people laugh at jokes more out of relief than out of mirth. A jokester is constantly testing you, and you know it. You are the object of a comical interrogation in which it is very easy to become the fool. You are always aware that you might not “get it,” and the price to pay will be humiliation.

Anthropologist Gregory Bateson had a different explanation. Jokes, schizophrenia and religion, he used to say, are all the same thing. They are all examples of monstrous violations of Bertrand Russell’s theory of logical types, which states that no class can be a member of itself. Violations occur in situations in which a discourse seeks to enter itself from above. It all comes down to hierarchies of meaning which, in Gregory’s agile mind, led to his revolutionary “double-bind” theory of schizophrenia.

A classic instance is Lewis Carroll’s invention of the Bread-and-butterfly. This poor insect had wings of bread and butter and a head made of a lump of sugar. In “Through the Looking Glass,” Alice asks what it eats and is told “Weak tea with cream in it.” The problem, of course, is that, if it eats, its head will dissolve; and, if it does not eat, it will starve. In either case, it dies though the specific cause of death cannot be localized.

The point is that religion, mental illness and jokes all require that we mix up levels of meaning. We ask inappropriate questions or make logically incoherent statements that try to link different levels in the hierarchy of reality. Religion and schizophrenia are just jokes that usually are not very funny. (I make an exception in the case of Tibetan Buddhism as interpreted by the current Dalai Lama; it can be hilarious!)

Russell’s law forbade self-reflexive paradoxical statements such as “This sentence is false.” It disallowed other muddles as well. Most religion, for example, conflates cosmology and psychoanalysis in the addled creation of a supernatural therapist, an entity that is above all things yet embedded in the daily strife of generations of human beings. Schizophrenics sometimes say things like: “If it’s not the way I want, I’ll prove it!” The punch-line defies or negates the set-up.

It is the same way with jokes. Here’s an early line from a monologue by an Ojibway Indian named Don Kelly: “I hope I’m not offending anyone, folks. If I have, well, as we Indians say: Boy, is my face red!”

Kelly does offend some people when he explains why he prefers his European name. In his native language, he says, he is called “Runs like a girl.”

Kelly is just one of eleven Native Canadians who have contributed to this extraordinary collection of and about Indian humour. He seems to agree with Vonnegut: “A stand-up act,” he explains, “is often a cycle of tension and release, tension and release.” As a Native comic, he deals with controversial issues such as White guilt and why Whites should feel guilty: “I’m an Aboriginal citizen living in Canada. And I just want to tell you, on behalf of all of us: We love what you’ve done with the place.”

The structure and the rhythm of jokes are or appear to be universal. One example from contributor Tom King concerns a French regiment during the Seven Years’ War, when the Mohawks were allied with the British. A Mohawk warrior was attacked by French soldiers and, when the dust settled, all the soldiers lay dead. More and more, the French commander sent his troops against the lone Indian, always with the same result. Finally, a bruised and battered soldier survived the battle, and returned to camp pleading: “Don’t send any more men up the hill, sir. It’s a trap! He’s got a Mohawk woman up there with him!”

People with a Scottish lineage will perhaps recall Matt McGinn’s song “Grigaloo,” which tells a parallel story of Scotland’s hold-outs against Roman conquest. It follows an almost identical story line and ends with the narrator answering the question of why he “told this tale at all. It has a simple moral, and they call it Hadrian’s Wall!”

Tom King, by the way, is one of the originators of the CBC radio program, “The Dead Dog Café.” An episode is recounted in this book about an attempt to make puppy stew. A puppy, procured for the purpose by the character known as Jasper Friendly Bear, evokes much sympathy and is saved from its grisly fate when it is named, by King, after his own childhood pet, “Cuddles.” It is hilarious: more tension and release.

To engage a White urban audience, I should add, it is possible to enter the Dead Dog Café and obtain your own authentic Indian name, derived randomly from spinning a wheel. Everyone who asks is given either a French or an English first name, an adjectival second name and a noun for a surname. Mine is François Beguiling Gizzard. Don’t say Indians don’t sometimes get the last laugh.

Among the other authors are Natasha Beeds. Part Cree and part Caribbean, she has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She can certainly get your attention. Also represented are: Ian Ferguson, 2004 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal winner; Alan J. Ryan, who holds the New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture at Carleton University; and the fine playwright and novelist Tomson Highway. They offer serious literary analysis and a lot of laughs.

They also test your will to listen and to read.

Those squeamish about political correctness will have quite a lot to handle. Native people, as represented in this anthology, have developed the important capacity of reclamation. African-North Americans have reclaimed the so-called “n-word.” Gays and lesbians have reclaimed the term “queer.” What were once terms of abuse have been appropriated by the abused, and are now turned into weapons.

Meanwhile, the dominant groups are tongue-tied. They are afraid to offend and uneasy in the presence of self-deprecating Native humour. “If I laugh at that joke am I laughing at Native People? If I laugh at that stereotype am I admitting that it’s true? If I don’t laugh am I offending the poor Indian on stage? If he’s making fun of himself, can I laugh? … At this point,” says Kelly, “said individual’s head usually explodes, which distracts from the show and forces me to end my set early.” Kelly’s comedy style is not that of a pit-bull. He is not hostile or preachy. But his politics are plain: “It’s been said that simply being born Native in Canada is a political act. You’re a walking shadow of the unfinished business that hangs over the country, an uncomfortable reminder of the reality that gives the lie to Canada’s cherished self-image as a fair and just country. You’re Canada’s living, breathing dirty little secret.” He is right.

Comedy is a way to claim recognition. It is a method for opening up discussion, a way to seduce bigots into dialogue. It has its limits. It cannot overcome structural power relationships, and sometimes it has the effect of merely greasing the wheels of oppression.

Humour is also unsafe. It is especially unsafe in a classroom. Nurtured on a thin diet of happy talk about social relations, students today seem extraordinarily sensitive to offending remarks about themselves or anyone else. This is especially true in an era of PowerPoint when education is supposed to be technologically mediated and highly predictable fun. In such circumstances, the closing section of “Me Funny” is not recommended for classroom use. Entitled “Astutely Selected Ethno-based Examples of Cultural Jocularity and Racial Comicalness,” it concludes with this: “These two Indians walk out of a bar … {pause} … Hey, it could happen.”

A special mention is due to the editor and contributor, Drew Hayden Taylor. I came across his work long ago in an issue of “This Magazine.” It was entitled “Pretty Like a White Boy,” and detailed the tribulations of a young part-Ojibway boy whose mother had shown a serious lapse of judgment in selecting his biological father, with the result that he grew up a blonde, blue-eyed Indian. When the kids on the reserve played cowboys and Indians, you can imagine who was always chosen to be among the losers.

Taylor is a stand-up comedian, and a lecturer. He is a newspaper columnist, an award-winning playwright and author of fifteen books and counting. He has written for television and film, and he directed the National Film Board production, “Redskins, Tricksters and Puppy Stew.”

In this enterprise, Taylor has assembled a fine group of writers to show the world how Indians laugh. If the results make us blush or tremble, so much the better. They also inform and instruct. Mirjam Hirch speaks eloquently of “subversive humour” while identifying the two universal themes in Native comedy: teasing and self-deprecation. She raises up the role of the Trickster, a “Native version of Jesus” who was decried as obscene, crude and primitive by Christian missionaries, but remains “a being for whom human existence is not a struggle for redemption but a joyous celebration.” Above all, the Trickster is a token of comic liberation.

Those emboldened enough to hear Native voices and strong enough to look in a mirror will understand, as Taylor explains, that “Native humour comes from five hundred years of colonization, of oppression, of being kept prisoners in our own country. With legalized attacks on our culture, our languages, our identities and even our religion, often the only way left for Native people to respond to the cruel realities of Fourth World existence was in humour. Humour kept us sane. It gave us power. It gave us privacy.”

In this book, Taylor and his colleagues have chosen to share their heritage of survival and their method of healing. In this context, it is worth giving Taylor the last word: “What do you call a politically correct comic? Boring.”


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology