January 12, 2005

Is Humor Conservative?


Paging through the massive new book of New Yorker cartoons from 1925 to 2004, it strikes me that most humor is conservative, even in a liberal magazine. Not "conservative" in the ideological sense of whatever kind of wacky risk-taking "conservatism" stands for in 2005, but in the general sense of "being skeptical of innovations."

For example, my wife and I find hilarious the recent cartoon of the man walking down the street talking on his cellphone who says, "Can you hang on a sec? I just took another picture of my ear." My wife and I know that it's obvious that God only meant for us to talk on our cellphones, or maybe text-message a little, or, in a pinch, surf the Web, but to take pictures with our cellphones is inherently ridiculous and anybody who tries it deserves whatever come-uppance they're sure to get.

My kids, however, can't understand what's so derisible about combining a camera with a telephone. Isn't it totally obvious that they go together? Was there ever a time so primitive that nobody had a camera in his cellphone? Why would he have to hold on a sec just because he took a picture of his ear? Is he that lacking in bandwidth?

On the other hand, both generations of Sailers are baffled by the cartoons from the 1920s that apparently are trying to make fun of the tall buildings that were then under construction in New York. What in the world is funny about skyscrapers? What would New York be without skyscrapers? What kind of cavemen were so unfamiliar with skyscrapers that they found the very idea of them amusing?

Paradoxically, it's this conservatism of humor that means that old humor doesn't endure well. Judging from the New Yorker collection of their best cartoons, the funny stuff (from my perspective) goes back to, oh say, my birth in 1958 and the amusing stuff to about 1935, but the cartoons from the decade before that are about as laugh-inducing as League of Nations white papers. The problem is that I'm so inured to everything from 1925-1934 that I can't even begin to put myself back into the shoes of people to whom skyscrapers, subways, and talkies were such outrageously new-fangled novelties that they were automatically funny.

Steve Sailer's homepage and blog is iSteve.com

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