Revisiting classic movies can be a seriously startling experience. Last night I watched some scenes from Death Wish 3. The story of a once mild-mannered liberal, New York City architect, played by Charles Bronson, who snaps when intruders break into his home, murder his wife, and violently rape his daughter. His frustration with the police, unable to find the intruders, leads him to moonlight as a vigilante, and gingerly gun down any criminal that crosses his path.
There is a scene, in Death Wish 3, where an elderly Jewish couple’s home is broken into by local scoundrels that have been terrorizing the neighborhood. This scene, by today’s standards, would be considered inappropriate, tasteless to say to least. The stereotypical representation of the elderly Jewish couple is both comical and dismal, not to mention the character that leaps in through their window, like a flying monkey version of Rick James, in a crop top, may he RIP.
This got me thinking and reflecting on some of the classic movies I grew up with, such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I asked myself, how does Mickey Rooney’s stereotyped performance as Holly’s Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi, fare by today’s standards?
Hell, they’ve even censored Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry for depicting racial stereotypes and caricatures.
Recently we’re seeing more and more censorship, and Disney is a perfect example. They’ve edited and censored everything from the movie Splash to Toy Store. What exactly are we concerned about?
They say humans start laughing as early as three months, in life. “In a study of thousands of examples of laughter, the speakers in a conversation were found to be 46 percent more likely to laugh than the listeners.” This is because laughter is also a way for us to signal that we want to connect and collaborate.
Laughter may have evolved as a way to enhance connectedness in societies but it goes far deeper. Have you ever asked yourself why people will laugh at the misfortunes of others and in the realization that a norm has been breached?
Plato, along with other ancient Greek philosophers maintained that people find humor in, and laugh at, earlier versions of themselves and the misfortunes of others because they feel superior. The bottom line is that people are attracted to authenticity since it stands to reason that by revealing our own flaws in a humorous way, we can build bridges so that others might feel comfortable lowering their guard.
Several centuries later Freud advanced the notion that laughter is a release, allowing people to let off steam or release pent-up “nervous energy.” This theory also explains why tabooed scatological and sexual themes and jokes hinting at those familiar thorny social and ethnic topics are amusing to some.
There are many definitions of humor, yet it still seems to be elusive. However, whether it’s slapstick, double entendre, or ethnic jokes that induce laughter, these all have one aspect in common; A person realizes that an ethical, social or physical norm has been violated and that this violation is not reprehensible.
Shock, subversion, and transgression are essential elements of comedy. Nowadays we are experiencing a redefinition of humor. Some comedians are sounding the alarm, stating that cancel culture is killing comedy. Chris Rock, Jennifer Saunders, and more have argued that ‘wokeness’ is stifling comedy. Has social media become a tool of oppression?
Comedy has historically pushed boundaries and poked at sensitive issues and topics and as with all other artforms, comedy is also hatched in a dark, deep personal realm where everything is unfiltered. Many comedians draw from personal experience. Take Richard Pryor for example, who through his own personal experience and raw, uncensored brand of humor brought to light issues surrounding poverty, racism, and drug abuse.
I read somewhere that humor can turn anger and frustration into fine art. Even science advocates the value of self-mockery. In a recent study, researchers discovered that self-deprecating humor improves our health. It goes without saying that one shouldn’t use self-deprecation in order to camouflage insecurities, however in this study, it was observed that people who regularly poke fun at themselves exhibit greater levels of emotional well-being.
Having a good laugh is excellent for reducing stress and it makes us more flexible, creative, and effective in the face of challenges. Comedy is very much like a pressure valve, releasing us from our daily challenges and existential strife.
Without shock, subversion, and a little bit of transgression comedy cannot fulfill its important social function. Laughter is revelatory and can awaken our awareness of injustices, as well as open our eyes to what is wrong in our world and needs fixing. Laughing unites people.