Economists refer to the "misery index", which roughly translates into how much an economic downturn impacts daily routine. Despite all the media attention to supposed gains in the stock market, lower fuel costs, purported gains in employment, the misery factor is still pretty darn high. We are all paying a great deal more for necessities than a year ago. The averge loaf of bread is well over $2.50. For many of us, the lower cost at the pump is too little, too late. I hate to think about the portion of my credit debt that is directly related to fuel costs in excess of $4 per gallon. As an adjunct to this article about the misery index, through MSNBC, were links to other "heartening" news items. Certain economists, as well as CIA agents, (although why I should care about their opinion on the economy, I am not quite certain.) forecast an economic collapse that is supposed to make the Great Depression and the Crash of 1929 look like a Sunday School picnic. It appears that there are trends in various sectors of the economy that mirror the conditions pre-1929, and the trends are depicted in bar graphs and pie charts overlapped from 1929 and today. And the final piece to this trilogy of gloom and despair was an article based
upon the "Seven Things that Middle Class Families Can No Longer Afford."
At the top of the list was vacations. Reference was made to families having to give up going to the movies, or going out to dinner, if they expected to be able to afford a vacation trip of any kind. Basically, anything recreational might well be eliminated to save for the once per year trip to Disney theme parks or cruises or other resorts. In essence, anything recreational, anything fun, anything relaxing or stress relieving on a day to day basis is subject to economy. I, personally, know of many families that have given up cable or satellite TV, the internet at home, Netflix or Hulu as ways to further economize for the annual family vacation. Even so, with mounting air fares, there is no guarantee that they will be able to afford the trip, despite the sacrifices all year long. What appears as luxury, might well be essential to mental and emotional fitness in the face of ongoing stresses
After reading these gloomy reports, I was reminded of what my grandparents told us about the experience of living through the Great Depression. Escapism was what made the day to day scarcity acceptable. Going to the movies was something that folks did on a regular basis, and sometimes more often than once per week. There were the ballrooms all over Chicago, and on Friday nights, dressed in their Sunday best, men and women of all ages would gather for live music and dancing. And, of course, the family relied on the radio as families of today rely on television. Businesses had to compete for scarce consumer dollars, and sponsorship of radio shows and contests kept brand names on the necessity list in most households. Movie theaters had premium nights. The price of admission included your movie seat, but also glassware or dishware. Each week featured different pieces, so you had to attend often and regularly if you wished to have a complete set. But probably the greatest bolster to morale came from comedy. Radio, theater, movies, and even supper clubs made sure to include a goodly dose of humor in the entertainment line-up. Let people laugh and forget the problems for awhile.
I have several CD's of vintage comedy, as well as a pretty great collection of comedy movies from the 1930's all the way up through the 1970's. What strikes me most is how much of this material would not be acceptable by any standard in our politically correct world. The characters, by necessity, are bonafide stereotypes, bigger than life. By magnifying a specific trait or behavior, it becomes funny. Recently, while enjoying Mel Brook's "Blazing Saddles" for about the 100th time, I realized that in all likelihood, even the great Mel Brooks would not have been able to create the two hours of belly laughs in our present politically correct mindset. Afro Americans would be upset over the role of the sheriff. Those of German descent would be totally aghast by the portrayals of Madeline Khan and Harvey Korman....a saloon performer/call girl, and an unscrupulous businessman.....Mongo would probably have those advocating for mental health out in force for being laughed at as being slow witted. There was something to offend everyone, and I am sure that the lawsuits would fly while the protests and boycotts were advocated. And lest we forget the portrayal of the native American as being somehow demeaning.
The message is that we have come to take ourselves way too seriously, and as a result, take offense much too easily. A character, be it in a movie, TV show, story, or joke, is only a fictional representation. We cannot internalize that character and take offense. We cannot be constantly looking for hidden agendas and slights in something that is just plain silly and funny. Humor has to have a grain of truth, a reference point, and a relevance in order to appeal to us as humorous. If you don't understand physics and philosophy, then the whole "Schroedinger's Cat" thing has very little humor for you.
So where does that leave us? Quite frankly, we have very few acceptable outlets for stress. It has become politically incorrect to have the funny bone tickled. When I was growing up, the kids in the neighborhood messed with each other all the time. I imagine that today it would be termed bullying and squelched completely. Back then parents would continually remind us that words were only words, and that words only had the power to hurt us personally, if we allowed ourselves to be hurt, to be goaded. In other words, we were told to toughen up and not take everything so personally, so seriously. My Grandma used to say: Smile, because life is going to laugh at you anyway!" If you can smile at yourself, and if you can see the ridiculous in your own behaviors and attitudes, then jokes are just that, without the power to crush your spirit and destroy your world. We harassed each other for being boys or being girls, being fat or being thin, wearing glasses or not, being smart or dumb, being Catholic or Protestant. Short, tall, older, younger, blonde, brunette, or bald....nobody was spared. Everything was a potential laugh. Was some of it inappropriate? Possibly, and yes, we learned the limits of good taste by trial and error. But what we also learned is that some things are universally inappropriate, while others depend an great deal on the context.
Slapstick comedy could not exist and develop in today's world. No Three Stooges. No Laurel and Hardy. No Abbot and Costello. All that slapping and nose tweaking would be considered bullying. As we appear to live in a society that views lawsuit as a form of lottery, in which straining to find harm in innoccuous stituations can result in huge payouts, there really isn't anything to laugh about any longer. Or perhaps, we are discouraged from finding humor in our condition. Even ethnic comedians are accused of fermenting racial tensions for making jokes about their own background and experiences. To find humor in the political process or the mechanisms of government is viewed as being subversive to our nation. Unless our mouths only utter praise for the incumbents and policies, we are obstructionist or worse.
Comedy and humor have served as a huge relief valve. In previous eras, there were even cartoons depicting the excesses in government and disagreements between parties and policies. In America, 2014, it appears that "1984" has finally arrived, about 30 years late. Big Brother is firmly in place, and the thought police are out there at every turn, telling us what is and is not appropriate to laugh about. Hence, we don't have the advantage of venting all the negative with a good dose of humor. We are not allowed to laugh at others or even ourselves. Ever wonder if this situation has created the desperation that results in mass shootings? Perhaps, we need more laughter and less medication for depression, and anxiety. How can we cope with the huge problems facing our nation, if we aren't even allowed a giggle or two at the smaller things. Perhaps we need to be less self centered, less inclined to believe imagined personal insults where none were intended.
Neil Simon could not bring a character like Archie Bunker to the public today. Poor Archie wouldn't make it to the first commercial break of the pilot episode without being carted off by the officials for hate speech. But Archie Bunker gave us a way to assess our own prejudices and bias. He was the extreme, the stereotype, but yet few hated the character. We could all see a bit of our own human failings by watching Archie and laughing at his extremes. Humor could be a tool for social change. People are not threatened by the things that they can laugh at, and acceptance would come easier for things that are not feared.