So, in the latest chapter of my ongoing bid to write about stuff without ever putting on pants or leaving the house, the news has found me, yet again. Remember that time 20 years ago when the president indirectly suggested people consume household disinfectants and cleaners in an attempt to counteract COVID-19? Wait, that was last week? This is going to be a very long, bad year. So, He did, and then the nigh-universal response from the right was the exact same response as every schoolyard bully after some poor aide is compelled to call them on their unacceptable behavior, “Just kidding.” Beloved Leader Himself claimed he was being sarcastic. There are multiple logical problems with this argument, and we’ll get to them as soon as I get through this pitcher of margaritas; but, chief among them; genuinely stupid people have no sense of sarcasm or irony. If you, for instance, literally interpreted what I wrote a sentence ago as, “He’s day drinking” instead of, “He hates this issue of having to explain humor to humorless people and then writing about it,” you’ve failed the first test. We’re going to be covering a lot of ground today, folks, so strap in.

My social circle — at least the social circle that’s survived and reconstituted itself in my post-cancer-pre-death existence — tends, politically, to be divided as shades of liberal, moderate conservative (and most of them have been driven away by The Donald’s relentlessly bad behavior), and, a very, very few hard-line, always-Mitch McConnell (and Beloved Leader might’ve come in with some bizarre, novel ideas, but he’s emerged from the past three years as a ring-wraith)(I mean, an unoriginal GOP hard-line front man). At this point, the number people in that last group are on-par, numerically, with my long-term glioblastoma survivor friends (although they’re significantly less likely to use medical marijuana). And now they’re experts on COVID. In a sane, sensible universe, that would be the end of things; I’d take a shower and go back to bed; and we’d all get on with life. Unfortunately, because I inevitably become the target for the forces of ludicrous weirdness and/or insanity; dark, inhuman forces were at work on the Internet before I was even taking my morning Keppra and considering which source of caffeine would most-preferable today. The forces in question, were the meat-stacks, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, two private ER owners in Bakersfield, California. If you’re really in the mood to experience the sort of anguish that defines long-term cancer survival, you can check them out; I’m tired (and I haven’t finished my drink). They’re licensed as physicians, but their two-minute YouTube video “debunking” the COVID-19 shelter-in-place measures taken by California (and other, more-sensible states) has now been thoroughly debunked, and, I feel certain, they will never be allowed to see patients again. At least, they wouldn’t be, back on Earth 616; here, things got weird, quickly. A die-hard Trump supporter friend (we’re not terribly close, but the scope of this essay prevents me from going into detail)(just kidding; we’re going to be going in-depth about when things are and are not funny; he’s the brother of a very good friend of mine), unironically posted those chuckle-fucks’ video (I’d apologize for the profanity, but there’s sobriety, good humor, and me contemplating nose-bleeding idiocy; you can have me with two of those without four-letter words). Which then descended into another friend explaining why the first friend (and Mssrs Erickson and Massihi) were wrong, and me eventually chiming in by pointing out that there is so little known about this disease that it might be better to err on the side of caution and safety. Which lead, perhaps inevitably, to more patter, until I — I’ll take full responsibility for this one — wrote the following:

But we’re not going to have more data unless we have more cases. Really, these guys are just unsung heroes trying to get more information about a poorly-understood novel disease.

Friend A responded that he agreed, and we needed more testing and information (I’m summarizing).

It’s quite possible that, in a complete 180 of prior policy and personal experience, Friend A just decided to meet my level of snark with an equal level of snark. Certainly, that would be one appropriate, mature response to my deliberately-Mengele-level suggestion that we just let more people die so we could study how they died. But I’m doubtful we’ve lived in that universe since Nov. 8, 2016. I suspect Friend A was mostly-sincere, which leads me to the focal point of this essay: humor and the absolutely humorless.

I don’t have very many first-date deal-breakers (apart from “obviously a psychopath” and similar rules that you have), but there is a line that immediately sets off all the klaxons and ensures we’re not getting coffee and dessert. Care to guess that line? “I have a great sense of humor.” I have a great sense of humor. Most of my family members do, too. My father and brother are professional comedian-level funny. None of us has ever told anyone that, ever, because it’s usually obvious. We’re about to dissect humor, folks. Hang on while I check the vodka supply.

To paraphrase Glen Duncan in I, Lucifer, “Humor is what bridges the gap between what we wish reality was, and what it is.” He was making a point about God not having a sense of humor (I think any deity who designed hippopotami, the duck-billed platypus, gonorrhea, and humans would have a vicious sense of humor)(I stole and repurposed that joke from the immortal Kurt Vonnegut, give credit where it’s due), but it’s a quick, reliable IQ check. Even though I’m not going to accuse the Warlocks of being overly funny, they definitely have an odd sense of humor that they occasionally brandish (Head Warlock in Charge started the most recent teleconference in full PPE). Radiation Oncologist, in addition to being a living saint, is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met (she also, succinctly, described this entire mess of an administration with the summary, “You do realize, some day, this will be a movie, right?”). I don’t have a whole lot of faith in standardized testing or most other conventional means of judging intellect; but, the ability to recognize a joke and turn it on its head is the most reliable indicator of intelligence I know of, if only because a sense of humor demonstrates when someone can recognize how bizarre a situation is, and then demonstrate an awareness of how abnormal things are.

To bring all of this back to my ultra-conservative friends, and why Beloved Leader could not, possibly, be sarcastic; in the same sense that he can’t fly; it’s not a judgment call (okay, it sort of is); it’s factual analysis. And, even worse, none of his ongoing followers are capable of the level of intelligence required to understand — let alone transmit — sarcasm, facetiousness, irony, or any of my other defining attributes (I’m also kind, mostly-gentle, etc, but we’re not talking about that, today). The trick with all humor is; it requires a bit of audience participation. Like everyone else, my first jokes were flatulence-based; but even those rely on the common knowledge; “Farts are weird and gross.” Most of us evolve beyond that; sometimes even up to that episode of Fawlty Towers where Basil tries to beat his own car with a stick (that marks one of the few points in my life when I laughed so hard it hurt). Some of us will even make it to Raising Arizona, Dr. Strangelove, and The Big Lebowski. For me, the acid-test of humor is Fight Club. Despite what modern followers of Jordan Peterson might think; it’s neither a drama nor a manifesto; it’s a pitch-black comedy about when toxic masculinity runs amok. But you would have to be aware of toxic masculinity, what it looks like, and what fascism and cults (in the very early stages) look like to “get” the joke. If you screened it to a bunch of 12-year-olds, they’d come away with the message that men are disenfanchised (we’re not), and punching strangers is awesome (also, it’s not). The humor comes from knowing that those things are all kinds of fucked up, but the actions society does to prevent it are largely honor-based and kind of arbitrary (I’m not arguing that “punching people is bad” is an arbitrary rule; I’m saying that the systems we have in place to stop violence are arbitrarily enforced and full of loopholes). It’s that cognitive dissonance wherein humor dwells. When I wrote to my friend that we should let more people get sick so science has more data, I was writing something with the goal of highlighting how preposterously amoral it is to ask people to put money/capital ahead of community health. His possibly-sincere response was a pretty clear indicator that he either didn’t share that value (of human life over money), didn’t have the education/experience necessary to make that judgment… or just didn’t understand how subtext works. Or I’m interpreting his comments the same way that I’m interpreting the comments from Beloved Leaders’ last three dozen ardent supporters as sincere, when he isn’t. Part of the problem of joking around is that the jokes sometimes go above everyone’s head.

And that’s a problem. I have some friends who believe that satire should be labeled as such. My argument with that is that there is absolutely no lower-limit to how stupid people can be, and, even if it’s labeled as satire, some people will be dumb enough to take it literally. I know this, because people were upset that the Harry Potter books taught children witchcraft and magic; even though — correct me if I’m wrong — Harry Potter is fucking fictional. If there’s a group dumb enough to experience those books (which feature trolls, giants, hippogriffs, three-headed dogs, and other creatures which, while possibly metaphorical, are completely imaginary) as “How To” manuals, there is a group of people who drank bleach at Beloved Leader’s “sarcastic” suggestion. There’s no need to be subtextual or theoretical in that statement; a man actually drank disinfectants after The Donald “sarcastically” suggested it:

Let’s assume, for a second, that everyone who voted for The Donald and still whole-heartedly supports him (a group that’s being further-sterilized by the day if they don’t knock that Clorox habit) is also capable of the prerequisites for sarcasm: context and subtext. Just roll with me for a second on that hypothetical. D. Trump has never, ever displayed anything approaching a sense of humor. The closest I’ve seen is when he made fun of a disabled reporter (I don’t think bullying and ridicule are the same thing as “a sense of humor,” but, as I’ve noted, humor is different for different people). That’s pretty much it. This is not the Obama Administration or W, when an occasional off-color remark or anecdote was told. This would be the very first time, on-record, that Beloved Leader has attempted a joke. And it’s already lead to one Kansas man drinking bleach. I’m not wild about humorless people, but what scares the hell out of me are humorless people who insist that they’re funny. They’re actually dangerous.

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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