This past week, I posted the cover of the New York Post on my Facebook wall. I shared it from another friend's wall, a journalist friend in New York, who'd come across the "toasty" cover and, presumably, found it too horrible -and horribly amusing -not to share.
While the cover didn't get too much reaction on my journo-friend's wall, it lit a bonfire on mine. Some people howled at the hilarious awfulness, others howled in derision at the aggressive cruelty. It was interesting to note not only the nationalistic splits (Canadians, you really are a nice bunch, mostly) but the fact that some people reacted in such a personal manner. The incident forced reflection on my recent love of mean humor, something I never used to indulge in, perhaps out of guilt, anxiety, or a caustic mix of both.
Now, I've sat through some rough stand-up material involving the most blatant, stomach-churning sort of chauvinism; I've sat beside people I had deemed intelligent as they haw-haw-haw'd at sexual and racial cliches being exhaustively exploited. That sort of humor isn't mean; it's lazy. And the Post isn't much different in its laziness - but the difference is, it's agonizingly clever. That cleverness that makes urban smarty-pants types like me (who poo-poo the Post, rolling eyes and making yucky faces) feel ashamed at the vicarious thrill to be gained from enjoying the notoriously bad taste of the News Corp tabloid in their quest to outdo themselves each day with the clever-meets-queasy quotient of their covers. My journo-friend admitted the cover was "tame for (the Post)." Too true.
Dark humor is more prevalent in some cultures than others. Living in Ireland taught me how often it's been used as a survival tactic, meant to provoke and polarize; that's a big part of its effectiveness. At the moment, I'm reading Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy (Riverhead), a book that's chalk-a-block with dark humor, revolving around... the Holocaust, and what happens when the main character finds that a grown Anne Frank is living in his attic. Auslander mercilessly mocks -and shamelessly milks -a persistent, pernicious victim mentality as personified in both his main character as well as his mother. Upon the book's release, author A.L. Kennedy observed that the book "will make very many people angry. It will also make very many people happy."
Hope: A Tragedy makes me laugh, even as I gasp and feel slight pangs of guilt. Good, dark humor, when it's done well, finds our weak spots and exploits them, as it should. The Post is not nearly as deep as this book, not by a long shot, but it is a cultural by-product of a human yearning (conscious or not) to be poked and prodded. Macabre humor isn't only accepted but welcomed, especially by those of us who, having been bullied, beaten, and mocked, have emerged at the other end, with a ready smirk, triumphant, no longer victimized, but defiantly, vividly alive. At the end of the day, that is humor's highest compliment, and its greatest achievement.