Why Is The Despicable Hysterical If It’s A Cartoon?

So, as a follow-up on my recent “Crimes of Hilarity” blog, I’ve been on this kick examining the experience of Irony. And in an ironic turn of events, the very night that same blog went Freshly Pressed, we were having dinner with the “in-laws” and I situation occurred for which my only outlet so I could immediately let it go and dig my way out of the giggle-hole was the following Facebook post:

“[My wife]’s Mom just told a story about a blind guy and his dog who walked in to wet cement and got stuck and I can’t stop laughing. If there is a hell I am going there.”   

Now…first off…it’s a tragic but funny situation.  And what made it funnier was how her mother spent the time painting the picture of this extremely vision challenged man she works with at the university EYE center,  wears a steam-punk like monocle to read documents and travels with a guide dog walking around campus.  She wove the tale of her arrival to the parking lot at work, where – in slow motion – as she was getting out of her car, watched as he and the dog approached a freshly poured side-walk that had not yet been cordoned off.  She observed, before she could get close enough to shout a warning, as the vision-impaired gentlemen, led by his oblivious dog, walked straight into the pretty deep wet cement and suddenly began to slow down…not knowing what had happened.   She immediately went to their aid and got the dog washed off before it turned into a canine art installation.

I have to admit, at first I had missed the part about it being a sidewalk and in my head saw this guy and his dog walking face first into a sticky concrete wall….which i thought was all kinds of hilarious…like a Roadrunner cartoon.  And then, even once I got the story straight I still envisioned the scene in some sort of animated Mister Magoo style.

My wife’s mother, having seen it live and having a relationship with this man / being a dog lover did not seem to understand why everyone else in the room suddenly couldn’t contain their laughter.  But the rest of us, being removed from the empathetic factors that would have filtered our faux pas, were about ready to pee in our pants:  all of us later realizing we did see the events transpire in cartoon-like fashion in our heads.

A while ago after  watching a particularly deviant and disturbing episode of family guy in the company of a couple of “dudes” who had come over to hang out< I started contemplating the phenomenon of cartoon humor.  We had a long conversation about how cartoons were originally intended for adult consumption at movie theatres; and in actuality was an art form that allowed adults to express subversive opinions about politics and mainstream culture without raising too many eyebrows:  because to the narrow minded they were just anthropomorphized animals doing silly stupid things – but to those who were paying attention, they were clever commentary that went over everyone else’s head.

But as we look at the cartoons we see on prime time television and cable, we see that the art form has evolved to feature almost exclusively  fairly transparent human renderings (save the metaphorical talking dog, Alien or misunderstood talking baby).   Cartoons like South Park, for example, use characters who represent a collection of stereotypes to take on serious societal issues with extreme hilarity.  Family guy takes on topical suburban culture for Americans who grew up with television as a baby sitter and often delves into the dark side of human nature – getting away with subject matter and visual imagery that would get an NC-17 rating or all-out ban if it were narrating scenes played out by live actors.

So I bet the question yet again:  what is the societal, cultural or psychological switch that flips that automatically either makes us translate far-removed uncomfortable, illegal or immoral circumstance into something surreal so we can laugh at it?  And at what point do draw the line and say “that’s too real to be funny?”

I think the concept of art imitating life is a very real one…and that art really is our way of making sense of what we perceive as a “mad mad world”.  We don’t just see it in pop culture cartoons, but in a variety of play-acting traditions across cultures.  From Shakespeare to Kabuki theater  to the Three Stooges, we see creative performance as a means to soothe the savage beast by allowing us to laugh at life.

So, I think we have just got so well-trained in how to view life through a psuedo-reality lens that we have started doing it in our heads:  and maybe getting us in more trouble with the in-laws a bit more often than we’d like.  But what are you gonna do?  Blind guys walking into wet cement is funny.  I laugh at myself all the time for walking into walls …and I have perfect vision.  I have to remember that in real-life, you can’t just paint the doorway on and walk through.  But then again, I have been called a human cartoon.   I think it all is starting to make sense….or is it?

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