WHY is there so much incivility and downright nastiness in everyday American life? It's because we take ourselves too seriously. Americans have lost their sense of humor.
In 1977 a pair of jokesters in the U. S. Department of Agriculture posted a plaque at the door of the Department cafeteria christening it the "Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill."
Packer had been a Colorado gold prospector who was convicted in 1874 of cannibalism. According to legend, the sentencing judge roared, "There were only six Democrats in all of Hinsdale County, and you, you [expletive deleted], you ate five of them!"
The point was that diners in the Ag Department cafeteria could get a laugh out of a not-very-good daily menu. Lots of people, including the Secretary of Agriculture, thought that was a good joke. Newsweek magazine gave half a page to the "Friends of Packer" clubs and their gallows-humor activities.
At least one person saw no humor in it. A General Services Administration bureaucrat removed the plaque because it was "in bad taste." An unintended pun, if ever there was one!
It's been a long time since we had a president with a sense of humor. Franklin Roosevelt could be funny when he wanted to, and John Kennedy had a famous wit. But our last truly humorous president was Ronald Reagan who, after being shot, told his wife, "Honey, I forgot to duck," and facing life-threatening surgery, joked with his doctors, "I hope you're all Republicans."
Sports celebrities are no longer funny "characters" like Yogi ("A nickel ain't worth a dime any more") Berra, or "Goose" Goslin and "Heinie" Manush, who in the 1930s amused baseball fans during a rainstorm by slipping and sliding down the muddy third base line and claiming that they were having a foot-race.
Self-importance (think Howard Cosell) has replaced the good-natured humor that Ty Tyson and Ernie Harwell brought to the broadcasting booth.
We used to have social critics like Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, and Will Rogers, who got off some wonderfully funny one-liners. (For amusement, hunt up Mencken's definition of a "starlet" or Parker's rhymed excuse for limiting her Martini intake to two.)
Contemporary social critics are stuffy at best, and sometimes just plain vindictive. They manufacture conspiracies out of what used to be considered just humorous human foibles.
Where did our national sense of humor go, and why? I blame it on television, and specifically on the laugh-track.
In the golden days of radio, comedians created funny situations using dialogue and sound-effects. No pictures: our imaginations did the rest. Americans listened faithfully to Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Red Skelton because they could make us laugh spontaneously.
Then came television. The early TV humorists such as Skelton, Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle had cut their teeth in the age of radio. They experimented with the new medium gingerly at first, and later robustly; but they never used the medium as a substitute for humor, and they employed teams of writers whose genius was in being funny.
The problem was that there weren't enough humorous writers like Carl Reiner and Gleason to go around. The industry's answer to the shortage of funny dialogue was the so-called "situation comedy," where the situation itself, rather than the dialogue, was the centerpiece of humor. It was humor on the cheap. The pratfall (which the viewer could see) replaced the wisecrack, (which required a bit of figuring-out by the listener to appreciate).
A few TV shows, Barney Miller, Cheers, Mary Tyler Moore, clung doggedly to the notion that dialogue was meant to entertain. The rest succumbed to the temptation to take the easy way out and use a laugh track. The laugh track is a put-down of the viewing audience. It says to the viewer: "Are you stupid or something? Don't you hear the studio audience laughing? So laugh!"
The problem with that is that most of the time there isn't any studio audience or, if there is, they are being cajoled, prompted, or coached to supplement the laugh track with whatever forced giggles they can muster.
After a while, along came political correctness to decree what was funny and what wasn't. That finished off what television had begun: the death of spontaneous humor.
A case in point is the highly rated sitcom Friends. It ran for 10 years, during the final seasons of which the six principal actors demanded and received $1 million dollars each per episode. Friends was highly publicized as a comedy, won various awards, and added one or two personalities to the celebrity culture. Four times I made a serious attempt to sit through an episode because I was curious to see whether the show lived up to its notices.
It didn't, at least not for me. I never made it beyond six minutes. It was the repetitious laugh tack that turned me off. I wish now that I had taken a stop watch and timed the amount of time the laugh track dominated the screen, while the faces of the cast were frozen into vacuous, silent immobility.
So the put-down replaced the witty response in American conversational culture, because we no longer needed to find for ourselves a reason to laugh. Someone else tried to tell us what was funny.
From there it was a short step from indulgent good humor to ridicule, which spawned the serious, attack-dog tactics of road-rage on the highway, sarcasm in the courtroom, character assassination in political debate, and Michael Moore.
Can we reverse that? There is still hope. Sen. John Kerry's concession speech set an example for graciousness as a point of departure for healing differences, if we truly want to heal them and restore civility.
Out of that civility can come a rebirth of the gentle humor in Booth Tarkington's novel Little Orvie (a hilarious spoof of permissive parents), or Leo Rosten's The Education of Hyman Kaplan (the gentle, yet side-splitting story of foreign-born adults learning the tricky ins and outs of English grammar in night classes).
Americans must learn to laugh again, and to separate what's funny from what's nasty. It's not easy to dislike someone with a genuine sense of humor.
Robert G. Morris is a Toledo attorney.
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