Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.
Who Put the Slap in the Schtick?
[p.105] In the final scene of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, private investigator Eddie Valiant, reminiscent of a Joseph Campbellian hero archetype like Luke Skywalker, encounters the Dark Side, except the setting is in a warehouse filled with cartoon ACME products (portable holes, hammers with spring-loaded boxing gloves, singing Frank Sinatra swords, and everything else Wile E. Coyote ever ordered by mail). In this setting, Valiant must defeat the Dark Side and his own inner demons to save a not-so-Joseph Campbellian, yet nonetheless archetypal, heroine and … her rabbit. Armed only with acting skills and a latent sense of humor (Skywalker, of course, had neither), Valiant engages in combat with Judge Draw (or is it “Drew”?) and his weasel cartoon minions. Valiant discovers the key to conquering the [p.106] apparently indefatigable weasels when Judge Draw says, berating their constant snickering at anything remotely funny, “One of these days you idiots are going to laugh yourselves to death.” When the Judge conveniently exits the screen to fix his broken eyeglasses, Valiant turns to the weasels and performs a series of classic pratfalls that would’ve made President Gerald Ford proud: (1) a step-on-a-rake-handle whack-to-the-forehead move, followed by (2) a bowling ball juggling act ending with the balls landing on his head, and (3) several nifty trip and fall bits thrown in as well. Valiant’s routine induces, one by one, a terminal case of hilarity in each diabolical weasel, their spirits inexplicably winging it toward Toon Heaven rather than Toon Hell (perhaps they fulfilled the measure of their creation?). Roger Rabbit spurs Valiant on by saying, “That a boy, Eddie, you’re killin’ ’em, you’re slayin’ ’em, you’re knockin’ ’em dead!”
Humor is often linked to violence, substantiating in part Cicero’s theory of humor as a form of sadism. For instance, my three-year-old cackles whenever he whacks our cats with a whiffie bat, and my six-year-old laughs with me when we watch an anvil fall on Wile E. Coyote’s head. Even my wife, who hates violence of any sort in a movie even if Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Daniel Day—Lewis, and Brad Pitt are all co-stars in it, gig-[p.107]gles when I walk into a door, table, support pillar, or some other immovable fixture, although she composes herself quickly and asks, “Are you okay? ‘Cause if you are, that was pretty funny.” And on a more universal note, was there ever an America’s Funniest Home Videos episode without an obligatory errant golfball, baseball, or tree slamming into a man’s crotch?
Roger Rabbit’s remarks are metaphorical since we often say someone is “dressed to kill,” or suggest that “looks could kill,” but it still makes you wonder. I imagine someone died at least once from laughter, or choked on their own laughter, or at least someone couldn’t stop laughing and had to get medical treatment, the way some people get with hiccups. Maybe Guinness even has a record for non-stop, involuntary laughing.
I’ve often been afraid my dad would laugh so hard he would choke since sometimes his hearty laughter turns into a violent coughing. The first time I noticed this was when we watched It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad (is that enough “Mads”?) World on the late show one night, especially during the part where Jonathan Winters tears down a gasoline station with his bare hands, chasing two goofy attendants around, throwing tires at them, and throwing the attendants at each other and through the station walls. I bet if earnest actors did [p.108] that today on an Off-Broadway stage (or, better yet, in France), say dressed only in balloons tied up around their waists like loincloths, it would be a critically acclaimed “performance-art” hit reflecting, I don’t know, societal angst over Western civilization’s sudden loss of … full-service gas stations. The In-Laws also nearly killed my dad one evening as we watched one of the many Alan Arkin “serpentine” incidents; I thought I’d have to perform the Heimlich maneuver to clear his throat.
Sometimes we use humor to belittle at best, and cripple at worst, the targets of our comedic derision. I confess that I have a mean humor streak running down my back as long as the stripe on an unfortunate cat in a Pepe LePew cartoon, and it’s all I can do sometimes not to give in to it. My fear is in my old age I’ll become Don Rickles, a grimacing, sourpussed heckler. Like adult-onset diabetes, this illness appeared in me all of a sudden when I graduated from BYU. Judging from my youthful sweetness, you’d never have suspected a congenital meanness time-bomb hidden deep within my soul. My only solace is that, according to Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young had bouts with the same disease. Here’s an excerpt from a letter by Brother Brigham to a member who had requested her name be removed from church records: “not being able to find the [p.109] name of ‘Elizabeth Green’ recorded therein I was saved the necessity of erasing your name therefrom. You may therefore consider that your sins have not been remitted you and you may consequently enjoy the benefits therefrom.” On another occasion, when immaculately dressed John Taylor, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, walked by a meeting held in Brigham’s office, Brigham exclaimed, “Well, if there isn’t Prince John!” Elder Taylor was not amused (see American Moses, pp. 198-99).
Humor can also be a way to control and manipulate, an ugly form of attempted enslavement, akin to hypnotism. I don’t recall Machiavelli or von Clausewitz ever mentioning humor as an extension of politics, but maybe it is. Let’s see, if war overlaps politics on a Venn Diagram, maybe humor overlaps war. Believe me, I negotiate contracts for a living, so I fully understand the power of humor to break down your opponent. Forget about brainwashing, torture, ESP espionage, or Reagan’s star wars program—in the next war we should send Jerry Seinfeld, Helen Hunt, Paula Poundstone, Paul Reiser, David Letterman, Rosie O’Donnell, and a myriad of other comedians to the front lines, not to mention our secret weapon, William Shatner (Wait, you have to intend to be funny). And don’t be surprised if a United Nations inspection team finds some Iraqi SCUD [p.110] missiles with fully operational laughing gas warheads. Ingratiating laughter is a time-honored method to turn the tables on your enemy. Perhaps this is the way the world ends—not with a bang, but a snicker.