Is This Funny? Navigating the Confusing Space of Ironic Reality

 

If you know me and read some of my articles, you know I am a big fan of Atlanta (two seasons on FX with more to come), and what makes that show so innovative and creative is that it’s funny until it’s painful. And when it becomes painful you realize that you stepped into a reality that is dark, ironic, and telling of our times. Recently, I’ve been asking myself: Is this funny? On purpose? And is this a means to access something darker, something realistic and fatal in the commentary?

I grew up loving slapstick comedy of Faulty TowersMonty Python, Steve Martin, and Chevy Chase and because of these comical influences, we were kids who cited lines from movies. And from there we liked watching offbeat humor like The Young Ones and even Twin Peaks because it was strange, kind of funny, and scary all at the same time. These elements shaped my sense of humor (along with my family) and it made me look for the humor and the irony together in comedy. And sometimes, it wasn’t all comedy, but there was enough silly or quirky parts to keep me invested. Eventually it brought about great movies like Fargo, Quentin Tarantino films, and other odd movies that were hyper real while being funny. We all remember Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs because no one wants to be Mr. Pink. And frankly this style of absurd humor and stark reality was also absorbed into David Foster Wallace and Chuck Palahniuk. Is it meant to be funny?
Eventually, off beat movies like Fargo (billed as a black comedy thriller) would begin the absurdity of storytelling with hyper-real lives dealing with realistic and dark stories of murder and mayhem. Eventually, that would become a television show that lends itself to the same conceptual point. Some of these films and shows lend themselves to a comedic format and others feel like dramas with some humor sprinkled in. Is Pulp Fiction funny when two hit men blow off a guy’s head in the back of a car and have to have the cleaner come out and deal with their mishap? Marge Gunderson is funny as the police detective, not because she is telling jokes, but because of her character and her vision of policing in the Midwest. Is it funny?
And then Wes Anderson comes along and changes the way we see the world. His innovative style and creative flair changes the way we see things. In his “coming of age” film Moonrise Kingdom, he creates subtle and cartoonish elements to set his story into a brilliant narrative that is constantly in the hand of a creative visionary who sees scenes and setting as complicated and meaningful experiences. In my personal favorite, The Grand Budapest Hotel (comedy drama), we are taken on a journey that is both profoundly silly and stunning. And at times, you don’t know what to think until you see the purpose and vision of this storyteller. Is it just damn quirky? Or is it funny?

 

I find that I am constantly reading books that I don’t find hilarious, but I think are humorous in the ironic sense of their circumstances. I rarely read and laugh out loud. But if you read The Black Obelisk by Erich Remarque and watch the complicated, funny, silly, and often sad vision of life after World War I, you get the sense that the world is crazy. The story and the vision of the lost generation after this carnage is both funny, endearing, and often down right sad. Which brings me to Jojo Rabbit which is billed as a comedy-drama. This film is complicated, endearing, and hard to watch. Is it funny, sometimes? Is it pushing back on the darkness? Yes. But I feel like I am struggling between the laughter and the stark reality of the film. Even Parasite (a black comedy thriller) had some funny parts to it that drew me in and kept me watching. But in the end, I didn’t think the film was really that funny at all. It felt like a strange, twisted version of American Beauty, a drama on the notion of middle class values in America as they refocus beauty and materialism. Don’t get me wrong, it was an interesting movie to watch, but it wasn’t funny in terms of a comedy. But it was ironic.

 
I go back to Atlanta (comedy-drama) and think: there are parts of this show that are funny. And that is why I watch it. I watch it like I love to watch Monty Python episodes to catch the lines, recall the skits (I would like to have an argument. No you don’t.) and to see how they created that interconnection for me. There are a lot of cultural connections to Atlanta that I see all the time. But more important, there are also connections that were created in the show, like Teddy Perkins that was brilliant, kind of funny, and very creepy. The cast is funny, endearing, and they show you life through different lens, but there is a stark reality in the shows. Someone is killed by the police wearing Earn’s jacket. Drugs, poverty, violence, and cultural misunderstanding. Allison Keene of Collider said, “Atlanta is a deeply specific portrait of a certain way of life, one that’s often desperate but that’s tempered – for our benefit – by a casual, sometimes even caustic humor.” That caustic humor is where irony and social commentary linger. And in creating that broad emotional response to humor, we also have the response of gravity, the response of hitting bottom.

 

The shows and films that I’ve been discussing fall into a hybrid mix of comedy and drama. As we see complex plots and stories evolve in the binge worthy world of streaming services, we also see hybrid version of the stories we are telling. These labels (genres) we use begin to shift and misrepresent the work. Atlanta is funny, sometimes,  Some of these stories lean heavy on the comedy or push hard the reality of the drama, but they are deepening the way we see good storytelling. In the world of books, some of the best conflicted labels that we’ve slapped on novels have been the most intriguing for me. And in thinking about the philosophical
adventure of Moby Dick (Herman Melville), or the picaresque A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole) have created slow to arrive visions of humor, irony, drama, and stories that emerge in our culture. This is now coming into the stories we see in video and film. When humor and drama blend and shift, we don’t see one thing or one color, we see the complexity of our evolving vision and expression in the medium. Some of the best books and films are not clear, no funny, but not too serious. And that brings about this complex sense of humor along with a vision of irony and social commentary that is moving us forward.

 

 

Journal of Disasters – Problem Solvers (Journal Series II)

In a Paris Review interview with James Cain (1978), among his conversation, he mentions two points that help us examine the journal of disasters. He says, “But novel writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can’t be taught.” The focus being on the experience of going through the process and writing them. The hope is that you write one and think: that was really complicated, hard, confusing — but I can make the next one better. That is a hard pill to swallow for writers who finish their first novel and expect to send it off to the agents and begin their book tour. What it suggests is that you may have to write more books to get to that moment of acceptance. I know when I was younger that would have been the last thing I wanted to hear when I completed my first book. Yet, many of the craft books that you read discuss the idea of pipe-lining novels, working on a book and getting feedback and editing — but then work on the next one. 

The next bit that James Cain mentions is closer to the idea that your journal is meant to be a place for all your mistakes and ruminations. He says, “Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.” I appreciate his tempered vision of the novel here. There is the inspiration that moves a writer to research, think about form, and finally get motivated to write. But after some page accumulation and some decision making, the shine wears off and you have to sit down and work. This is where your journal moves from a series of ideas, to a series of problems that need to be solved. Your journal now becomes your map of poor decisions. That is not to say that you will use these poor decisions, but you pose them and you build ideas around them. 

“There are problems to be solved,” is something that should probably be on my tombstone. If being a writer is about seeing your work on the page, discussing books, and sharing the literary culture — I am on the wrong floor. My life has been about solving problems. Not just solving problems in my novel – i.e. what happens next, but also solving my own problems of dyslexia, lack of focus, grit, and just not seeing what is right in front of me.  In the end we are all problem solvers, from the first decision you make in your novel to the last, you are constantly solving the problems. That is your job. Your journal, your place in the world that no one sees, is not only a place to write these solutions and connections, but they are also a place to try them and see where they take you. Sometimes, it feels like I write three novels to get one good one, meaning, that I write in my journal, write the novel, and then write more in my journal. Between cut pages, silly sidelines, writing in my journal, and everything else, I probably take on 700 pages of writing. But it is also a way to refine the pages that people will see. It is a way to think and be creative. It is also a way to generate things that won’t make it into the novel, but will come back to your writing life. Nothing is wasted. No good idea will go away, it will just be set aside. That is what the journal is for. 

I realize that I am being hyperbolic when I say it is a journal of disasters, but it makes the point that we are problem solvers. My journal isn’t for rumination, it is to solve things and figure out how I got here. It makes the point that when the inspiration wears off, the work is hard. What can you live with? When is it right? What solution to your characters can you live with? What’s the right answer to a question that only you know about? How can you live this way? When you come to these questions, you are emerging as an artist. You are emerging as a thinker and a problem solver. We don’t get a chance to watch a Youtube video on how to solve the problems in our novels. We don’t always have someone to immediately ask. We have to read other novels, we have research, study, think – deeply. And this is deep and meaningful work. And when you get there (if you are not there yet), it will feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. But isn’t this where you always wanted to be? You are a writer. And as long as you have a problem to solve, you will constantly move back to the process that has crafted you. 


#Rhizo15

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been connecting and interacting with Rhizo15 created by Dave Cormier and an ever expanding group of thinkers, educators, and creative people. The idea behind the collaborative connective course is to discuss the topic proposed every week. How and what that conversation looks like is something that is defined by the people involved.

On Dave Cormier’s blog, he explains that “Rhizomatic learning is a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in a thousand plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.”

During this course, there have been some fascinating conversations, connections, and interdisciplinary ideas that have really changed the way I look at learning. Two projects that inspired me to action was the idea of subjective learning. I took two students in my writing course who were doing really well. I asked them to take the last two weeks of the course and explore and create a subjective learning experience. I wanted them to advance some idea or work they started in the course and bring it back to me. I wanted them to have the freedom to explore, work, and change their vision of learning and hard work. The results of that experience are coming in a blog post that will end up HERE. The other creative idea was to write a story about a student that is involved in a rhizome course. It is a strange story about a girl who begins a class that never starts and ends up realizing that she isn’t the student, but the teacher, the student, and the curriculum. Check it out in its rough draft form here.

The most impressive and exciting part of this experience was the complete and utter uncertainty I felt entering this very open and creative group. It wasn’t that I was fearful, I simply didn’t understand how it worked. I didn’t understand how to get in, how to participate, and how to give people feedback. It seems that social media (Facebook and Twitter) were the nexus, and people established blogs to expand their ideas and post different kinds of media (photos, video, articles, and even radio). There is so many good reasons to jump into the world of unconventional learning. It is in this type of experimental thinking and change that we can develop some of our most significant and unseen drivers to push our learning, thinking, and connections to one another. Check out my blog and read some of my thoughts on this world of unlearning and subjective ideas in and out of the classroom.

Seeing Is Believing

by Ron Samul

When I was a kid, my dad and I were in the supermarket. A woman tripped over a cord in the frozen food section and hit her head on the freezer case. My father quickly ran to her and helped. He was a trained Vietnam medic, EMT, and firefighter. It was a given that he would help. As I watched the woman recover and the staff come out to help, I went over and did my part. I moved the cord so more people wouldn’t trip over it. Why did I do that? What was happening that empowered me to take action? When I saw my father helping someone, I wanted to help too. While I couldn’t offer medical assistance, I could go to the root of the issue, and help prevent this from happening again. The reason that I was empowered was because I had witnessed someone else acting. The fact that this story is still in my working memory proves that watching someone inspires action from others.


This week (4/14) in the New York Times Sunday Review, there was an article titled Raising A Moral Child by Adam Grant. In this article, he poses that we need to empower our children and allow them to act. But how do we do it? In the cited study and narrative, he concludes a fascinating fact: action speak louder than anything else.

“The most generous children were those who watched the teacher give but not say anything. Two months later, these children were 31 percent more generous than those who observed the same behavior but also heard it preached. The message from this research is loud and clear: If you don’t model generosity, preaching it may not help in the short run, and in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.”

It seems that what my father did, and what this study concludes is that seeing actions, inspires others to action. What is really interesting is that he suggests that “in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.” It seems counterintuitive to think that my father didn’t sit down with me and turn this moment into a life lesson as to why he helped this woman. His actions has already empowered me. In fact, in context to the article, I was more likely to give my help because he didn’t preach to me his intent and purpose. What he did was notice that I helped by moving the cords, and told my mother how I had helped.

It is a tricky world of empowering children, giving them

a sense of purpose, and shaping them into caring, empathetic people. However, sometimes telling or “preaching” a value will not help someone understand. They simply have to see it. A picture, in this case, could be worth a thousand words.


Awhile back, my step-daughter was in the hospital for a nasty bloody nose. While waiting, I was outside and noticed a man helping someone from a van into a wheelchair. Moving this person from the car to a wheelchair was tricky for one person. I quickly rushed over and offered some help, stabilizing the wheelchair and helping get the person seated. It took less than a minute, and they were very kind in their thanks. Once they were inside, my step-daughter said, “You like to help people, don’t you.” I just nodded.

Ron Samul is an educator and writer living in New England. http://www.RonSamul.org