What's Not Funny?

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There are certain things that you can't or are not supposed to joke about and when you do you receive the remonstrative "that's not funny!" followed by a disconcerting disengagement by the offended party. That's may have been what George Carlin was trying to avoid when he cancelled "I Kinda Like it When a Lotta People Die," which was filmed on September 10, 200l. The special is finally seeing the light of day ("George Carlin's lost pre Sept. ll routine gets new life on CD," CNN, 9/12/16). Which brings us to the case of the Muslim marine recruit who was put in an industrial level dryer by his drill sergeant at Parris Island ("Marines Scrutinize a Culture of Toughness After a Muslim Recruit's Death," NYT, 9/14/16). It's a horrific bit of abuse, but there's also something undeniably humorous in it. It's the kind of black humor that goes into make a musical like The Producers with its "Springtime for Hitler," or Wally Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon. Horror becomes the butt of satire. After all putting someone in a dryer is not too far from "hanging them out to dry" and the blustering drill sergeant has always been a source of comedy. Phil Silvers made a big hit of Sergeant Bilko back in the 50's. Still you have to ask yourself how far is putting someone in a dryer from putting them on a leash like in Abu Ghraib or, for that matter, in an oven. But rather than silencing the laughter, maybe when things reach a certain level of grotesquery, the only thing to do is laugh. Alfred Jarry was prescient in Ubu Roi. His tyrannically comical character bears an uncanny resemblance to the preposterous rantings of dictators like Kim Jong-un and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}

George Carlin in l969 (ABC TV)