Thursday, August 13, 2009

When is dark humor too dark?

Last week, as we drove from Kansas to Kentucky, the family listened to James and the Giant Peach. Jeremy Irons reads it, and he did a really great job. But there are the parts where James's aunts are killed by the giant peach rolling over them and making them flat as pancakes, and I had that little twinge where I really didn't want to hear my kids laughing about people getting killed, even if they were really nasty ladies.

I am a bit of a prude about this, and my husband and I argue about whether it's OK for the kids to see The Simpsons. I grew up during the heydey of the show, but my parents didn't like for us to watch it, because it was too dark. Don't even get me started on South Park.

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors, and I'm currently reading Hocus Pocus. The book is darkly comic, like all of Vonnegut's work. One of the little blurbs (written in Playboy, of all places) on the back of the book sums it up nicely: "Vonnegut evokes the cynical chortle, the knowing grin, the inner laughter that soothes our troubled reflections ... He's mad as hell and laughing all the way to the apocalypse."

Does dark humor soothe our troubled reflections? Is it easier to see the world in cynical terms, and just make fun of it? The jesters have long had a tradition of "speaking truth to power" by making fun of it, and the current work of people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert follows that worthy, and perhaps necessary, path.


I still don't like it when my kids laugh cynically. There is time to be cynical later, my loves. Can't you just be sweet and innocent for now?

1 comment:

  1. We're big fans of South Park, which is brutal. I think what matters more than what you can laugh at, is what you can't laugh at: real pain, real tragedy, real death. I'm an extremely sensitive person who is constantly crying over other people's suffering, but I can totally laugh at the image of a cartoon child being killed. It doesn't diminish my compassionate heart one iota. I don't really have a good explanation for that, but I think it has something to do with how caring and humane my parents are, and understanding fiction. But yes, cynicism can wait. We have our whole lives to appreciate black humor.