The Joker or OSU Professor Reveals He’s as Clueless as President Gordon Gee

June 11, 2013

Uncategorized

OPINION

The Joke’s on All of Us

Graham Roumieu
By ANDREW HUDGINS
Published: June 8, 2013

EVERY compulsive joker knows that joking leads to trouble. And so it has for my boss, E. Gordon Gee.

Mr. Gee, the president of Ohio State University, announced on Tuesday that he would soon retire. Lately he’s been under a lot of pressure for a few choice remarks. Like the one from last December when, teasing with the university’s athletic council about Notre Dame, he said, “The fathers are holy on Sunday, and they’re holy hell on the rest of the week.” When he was asked about Southeastern Conference fans mocking the Big Ten because it contains 14 schools, he joked, “You tell the S.E.C., when they can learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we’re doing.”

A university president is not supposed to have that kind of fun. Some found the remarks more offensive than playful, and they cost the man whom Time magazine just a few years ago named the best university president in the country a job he loved.

As an obsessive joke teller, I live in fear of a similar fate. I sometimes leave my classroom, stricken with nervous regret, praying nobody files a complaint because I told the joke about the Scotsman and the goat, which I’m sure had some relevance to class discussion. I wake up in the middle of the night after parties, thinking, my god, I can’t believe I told that dead baby joke. Yet I can’t resist. The riskier the joke, the funnier it can be.

I certainly don’t look to Fritz Darges, an army adjutant to Adolf Hitler, as a model, but I often think of one moment from his life. During one 1944 strategy meeting, a fly started buzzing around. It landed on the map, Hitler’s shoulder, and the map again. The Führer ordered Darges to kill it. Without a moment’s hesitation, Darges replied that the fly was an “airborne pest” and therefore the responsibility of Nicolaus von Below, the nearby Luftwaffe adjutant.

I love the joke, but I love, fear and identify with the impulse that drove Darges to tell it. By 1944, he must have had an inkling that his boss wasn’t blessed with a generous sense of humor. Didn’t matter. Darges had his joke, it was a good one, he had to tell it — and the joke is funnier now because it was dangerous then. Hitler turned to Darges, screamed, “You’re for the Eastern Front!” and dismissed him.

Historically, being a jester was a high-risk profession. In medieval and Renaissance courts, jesters softened with humor truths the monarch would otherwise forbid. But a successful jester needed tact. The beloved jester of Henry VIII, Will Somers, for example, once implied that the king’s wife was promiscuous and his daughter a bastard. Henry threatened to kill Somers with his bare hands. But Somers, who amused Henry by sleeping with the royal spaniels, was eventually forgiven.

Others weren’t so lucky. After assuring us that it was extremely rare for a jester to be punished, the historian Beatrice Otto, in “Fools Are Everywhere,” goes on to recount enough beheadings, banishments and autos-da-fé to give even the most benign wit a reason to think twice before teasing a king.

Though I’m not particularly scared of being beheaded, I do worry about ending up like “Santa” John Toomey, who for around 20 Christmases belted out rich baritone ho-ho-hos at a San Francisco Macy’s. Children adored him and so did adults, but for different reasons. When grown-ups sat on his lap, Santa John asked if they’d been good that year. When they said yes, he replied, “that’s too bad.” He said he was jolly because he knew “where all the naughty boys and girls live.” It was a bit of shtick he’d been doing for ages, but never, he insisted, when children could hear.

But in 2010, an older couple unacquainted with humor asked to sit on his lap, and Santa soon found himself stripped of his red coat. He died within a year.

With all due respect to Don Imus, the most famous joke-instigated firing in recent history was probably the 1976 canning of Earl L. Butz, President Gerald R. Ford’s secretary of agriculture. Mr. Butz was an inveterate joker. At the 1976 Republican National Convention, he amused himself by pitching pennies at the secretary of the Treasury, a stunt that walks the line between gratingly juvenile and almost charming. Who better to pitch pennies at?

John Dean, who was covering the convention for Rolling Stone, later asked Mr. Butz about the tepid reaction to a speech by Bob Dole. With a “mischievous smile,” Mr. Butz said, “Oh, hell, John, everybody was worn out by then. You know, it’s like the dog who screwed a skunk for a while, until it finally shouted, ‘I’ve had enough!’ ” It was a folksy and apt metaphor for an unproductive political convention grinding to an exhausted halt. But then he went on to tell the famously nasty racist joke that got him fired.

“IT’S only a joke” is more or less the defense every joker resorts to when humor blows up in his face. Every time I think of Earl Butz, and now Gordon Gee, I wince and think, “There but for the grace of God — and the fact that reporters don’t follow me around the country — go I.”

Still, I love jokes, even in their frequent ugliness. They illuminate the irresolvable contradictions our lives are built on. And they make us vulnerable to other people’s reactions — will you laugh, or not? Will I please you or offend you? That’s a complicated calculus when humor depends on surprise, which is close to shock, which is perilously close to outrage. It’s possible to make jokes about anything — even rape and the Holocaust — but I can’t think of a truly successful joke that is, at its base, attacking the victim. It hurts us when our jokes hurt others.

But we can’t give it up; we keep trying to tell good jokes, because we love the sound of laughter, my voice joining with yours in a fearful celebration of how the frailties of others are also our own.

Andrew Hudgins is a professor of English at Ohio State University, a poet and the author of “The Joker: A Memoir.”

 

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