Humor has a way of picking at scabs, and it loves taboo territory: The shock factor of transgression is liberating. So, George Carlin‘s seven dirty words. The flip-flopped race-baiting of Melvin Van Peebles‘ movie satire The Watermelon Man. The rank exploits of a supervillain chunk of flying excrement in Dav Pilkey‘s juvenile Captain Underpants comic books.
Humor can be rough when it deals with the “other” — the resented and ridiculed Micks and Wops and Yids and dumb Swedes, all butts of the joke of an emerging nation trying crudely to make sense of its own sprawling immigrant variety. And it can be every bit as tough when it looks inward: I just finished reading Michael Chabon‘s dark detective comedy The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and its feverishly over-the-top depiction of religious and cultural Jewishness (and, for good measure, Christian fundamentalist extremism) is hilarious and could only have been written by a Jew. In the annals of comic history, the seriously dimwitted — whether actually dumb or only considered dumb, for mocking purposes, by a core culture that thinks it needs an outcast — has always had a special role to play. Shakespeare had his Dogberrys and Aguecheeks. Sheridan had his Mrs. Malaprop. Texas has its village idiot. How many humorless pedants does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Until this morning I’d never heard of Andy Riley or his cartoon book The Book of Bunny Suicides. Then, there they were, both of them, on the front page of The Oregonian, in this story by Joseph Rose. The idiot bunnies and their creator are the focus of a book-snatching in the town of Halsey, between Corvallis and Eugene in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A 13-year-old boy brought the book home from the high school library, which also serves middle school students. His mom looked at it. She was horrified and disgusted — and now she’s holding it for ransom.
Not ransom, actually. True, she’s filed an official complaint to have the book removed from the library shelves. In the meantime, though, she’s not giving it back. She says she’s going to burn it instead. Which is funny, in a perverse sort of way. Braised rabbit is a favorite fall dish in Oregon country.
I’m not about to anoint Riley with a crown of comic genius, at least not on the small sampling of his work that I’ve perused. It’s pretty juvenile — but then, it’s for juveniles, and a lot of humor gets its verve and sting from its immature prankishness, which allows it to view the careful concealments of adult convention and pull its pants down at it. I happen to be the father of boys 14 and almost 11, and every day I wince at some sort of boy crudeness or another. I try to herd them, rein them in, get them to understand the limits of civilized speech and behavior, for crying out loud, and I’m sure they’re thoroughly sick of all the nagging (they tell me so, regularly). But I’d also worry if they weren’t poking at the edges. Life is a scary thing, and if you can’t laugh at it, how are you going to bear it?
I have sympathy for the Halsey mother, whose name is Taffey Anderson, though not for her methods, which smack of zealotry and misplaced messianism. Despite the efforts of the current federal administration, you don’t get to make law all by yourself. Rules exist for the entire community, and so the entire community gets a say. And there remains, it seems necessary to point out loudly and frequently these days, a little thing called the First Amendment. That said, let’s agree that actual suicide, as opposed to metaphorical suicide for comic effect, is no laughing matter, and Ms. Anderson’s anger and revulsion are understandable.
Let me also suggest something that doesn’t seem to have occurred to Ms. Anderson: A prime cause of suicide is the inability to laugh. It is innately (some would even say divinely) human to laugh in the face of death. We know that, most of us, instinctively and from a very young age. It’s the great BOO! of life, the bravado that keeps us from falling into the void, the great lie or great truth (depending on where you stand on this whole God thing) that fills the gaping hole and allows us to keep bouncing merrily, or at least tentatively, along. When we lose that ability to laugh, it’s like Wile E. Coyote looking down after he’s run off the cliff: With the stark realization that there’s nothing under our feet, we plunge into the abyss. The cosmic joke, far from being cruel, is the tickle that keeps us ticking.
So, laugh, Luigi. Life could be worse. It could be over. And if you haven’t at some point contemplated the desirability or undesirability of that (Hamlet’s speech is famous for a reason) you are a chirpier and more blessed individual than anyone I know.
Which brings us back to Andy Riley and his suicidal bunnies. In the catalog of kids’ lit they’re a step beyond morose, plodding, polite, tortured Eeyore and his “Thanks for noticing me.” With their ears sticking out of plugged-in toasters and their elaborate catapults and their grenades tied to boomerangs they come across like the intensely stupid crocodiles in Stephan Pastis‘ brilliant comic strip Pearls Before Swine. Or, from an earlier American cartoon standby, it’s like Donald Duck painting himself into a corner — except it’s no accident: The bunnies fervently want to get stuck in the corner, away from the slamming doors and incessant interactions and ghastly noise of everyday life. Any kid looking at these cartoons can see that.
And any kid can see how perversely alive the bunnies are when they’re trying to figure out complex ways to off themselves. The great joke here is that in their eagerness to end their lives they’re living it to a frenetic, possibly even fulfilling, degree. Never so happy as when they’re sad. This is funny stuff. It reminds me in an inverse way of the creative evasiveness of the idiot-savant Schweik, Yaroslav Hasek‘s great comic character from the First World War, smiling and sidestepping and surviving the madness in the novel The Good Soldier Schweik. There’s a Rube Goldberg quality to the thing, a mad tinkerer’s inventiveness to it all, a pedal-to-the-metal joy in creativity that belies the purported purpose of the exercise.
These bunnies don’t know themselves. That makes them foolish. And for kids (for adults, too) foolishness observed is a great fount of comedy. When you see how dumb someone else is being, and you’re really paying attention, you learn a little bit about how not to be dumb yourself. The big lesson of the Three Stooges is not how to poke your buddy in the eye. It’s how to not be so stupid — how to behave in a more civilized way, so you don’t become one of the Stooges.
Same goes for suicidal bunnies. Laugh, and learn.
And don’t burn ’em up.