Why Oedipus is Funny

I wrote this late the night of November 9th, 2008, after attending a variety show fundraiser. Since then my appreciation for the ideas I here express has only grown, as has my conviction that the best stories are the ones we feel least comfortable about when they happen.

THE NATURE OF COMEDY, or
Why Oedipus is Funny

“Comedy is tragedy plus time…Oedipus is funny–that’s the structure of funny. ‘Who did this terrible thing to our city?’ ‘Oh my god, it was me!’ See? That’s funny.”
-Lester (Alan Alda), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

There were six of us sitting around the table in an elegant dining room. One of the hostesses addressed the group, asking whether any of us wanted coffee. I was still processing the inquiry when she walked away at the behest of the rest of the people at the table, who were able to make the decision far more quickly than i had. When another hostess came over a few minutes later, i went to say “well, actually yes, i would like a coffee” but got no further than the “w” before the disenchanted glances of our party had banished her in a similar manner. Looking around the room, i spotted someone with a small wooden case filled with assorted teas, and at this prospect i perked up a bit, supposing that providence had kept me from the bean only so as to benefit me with the leaf. She didn’t make it over to our table for quite some time, and i grew well distracted by the performances going on across the room to my left, something i felt entitled to doing in light of my wallet having recently grown three dollars lighter. When she did arrive, i looked down at my cup and realized it was half-filled with ice water. I hastily gulped that down, slammed the cup on the table, and was about to point to the flavor of tea i desired to try when she closed the box and walked away. I stammered for words, and the guy sitting next to me–who had apparently been observing the entire episode–started to laugh. When the others at the table wondered what was so funny, i gave a quick recap. “It’s alright though. This just means i’ll have something to blog about.” The girl across the table replied with the sort of “awww” that follows something truly deplorable and pathetic, like a kitten not landing on its feet, and so i felt inclined to explain. As i looked back over the history of my writing, i discovered that the common factor in my comedic writing was, ironically, tragedy.

It’s not at all uncommon for me to say something like i did in that dining room. What others call “optimism” I refer to by a different name: cynicism. I think it unlikely that any man will ever confront tragedy and truly overcome it. Eventually he arrives at a crossroads, and must determine whether he shall be overcome by anguish and depressed into oblivion, or else flash a smile and brush the tragedy aside, wryly attempting to marginalize its gravity. The most cutting humor is self-deprecating–for who, after the large man has told a joke about obesity, dares confront him with the idea of weight loss–and likewise the funniest stories are those at which we are least inclined to laugh as they are unfolding. I could tell you, for example, that a certain relative had died, and depending on my inflection you might try to console me for my loss, or else laugh along with me, only after my delivery has assured you that such laughter is acceptable. We have sidestepped the reality of Death with laughter; we wink not at what is funny, but rather at the way in which the unfunny has been dealt with: you laugh not at my loss, but at my surprising callousness despite it.

The result is the sense of humor described in that hallmark of nineties pop music, “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies. I am, beyond a shadow of a doubt, “the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral.” Can’t understand what i mean? Then perhaps you need to reread the first two paragraphs. Sure, i may not be audibly cackling in the back pew as the mother of the deceased leaks saline rivers over a casket, but i am able to appreciate the ridiculousness of mourning–especially in a Christian context, when we are technically crying because someone got to waltz through the Pearly Gates a little early, and if we are perfectly honest with ourselves, we’d like to be there too right about now. As for my own death, the only regret i will have in passing is that i will not be around to make sure the funeral procession is done properly, as i am certain that the eulogies will be far too reverent for the life i’ve led, and the epitaph will either be nauseatingly sentimental or else a terrible attempt at what is known in some circles as “humor.” It is therefore my purpose, before i ever write a will, to write my own eulogy, in the hopes that the only tears shed in my passing are those that follow especially hard laughing, as well as a list of potential epitaphs, one for every cause of death i happen to conjure up in my imagination, and a catchall “didn’t see that coming” for anything i miss.

But more to the point, the writing i’ve done over the last two years that has received the best response is that which was brought about by the worst circumstances. For example, the saga from that first midnight stab of pain in my abdomen to the drug-induced trip to the emergency room after my gallbladder had been removed, the caricatured encounters with stock customers at a grocery store, the times at which i realized i was overweight and made laughable attempts to alter that: every time something went wrong with my life, it went right with my writing. In fact, the writing suffered most when life was going well, and i was forced to delve within myself for source material–wherein, i assure you, we will only ever find arguments against delving within. And it was this realization that incited my comment that night, as well as the furious scribbling thereafter, when i realized i had never gone about explaining what an utter disaster our family’s trip to Disney World had been. It’s a shame, really, because in hindsight that would have made a terribly funny story. Consider, as I transcribe here, for the first time, the testament of my weather-worn moleskine journal at the time:
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August 06, 2007 | 8:56 a.m.
Things were running relatively smoothly until we got past the carry-on check, where we learned that the flight had been delayed. They just informed us that the 8:25 flight to Orlando has been pushed back just a tad–our new ETD is 12 noon.

9:17 a.m.
My father just informed me that the reason for the delay (according to the information booth) is that the plane’s hydraulics need maintenance. Thus they’re bringing in a mechanic–from Atlanta–who should be here by 11. Oh joy.

9:24 a.m.
Our flight has just been cancelled.

10:11 a.m.
Evidently there are no flights leaving from this airport that can accommodate our party of five and get us to Orlando today. They are now searching other airports for possible remedies to our plight.

10:29 a.m.
We are currently booked for an 8:25 flight for tomorrow morning, thereby eliminating a day of our trip. As this is awful, we are going to try the airport’s wireless access to see if there are any plausible options at all that will get us there sooner. Fingers crossed for Expedia, but morale is low.

10:47 a.m.
There’s a flight to Orlando through Cincinnati via Delta Airlines. We’re going to try to get on that one. If successful (and if that doesn’t get delayed) we arrive at 6:50 p.m. In my opinion anything goes so long as i am in Orlando tomorrow morning and NOT back here.

11:58 a.m.
The cool thing about this new flight is that it’s both more expensive–170 dollars more per person–and longer than our original booking. The cherry on top is that airTran, the line we were originally flying with, doesn’t feel obligated to return our money on the basis that they found us a perfectly acceptable alternative; namely, the 8:25 tomorrow flight. Naturally we are going to fight this tooth and nail. In the meantime, they just called the second ‘final’ boarding call for the flight to Atlanta we couldn’t fit on.

Another amusing facet of this hold-up is how it’s allowed us to listen to the brainwashing alerts of the TSA. For five hours we’ve been incessantly reminded that strange people who hand us mysterious ticking packages are not to be trusted. Also, we are to report anything or anyone that strikes us as out-of-place. It reminds me a bit of 1984, where you are endlessly calculating your actions in the fear that something you say or do will get you reported to and dragged away by the mysterious men in black.

From where i sit i can see that mechanic from Atlanta is finishing up on the plane we were originally supposed to hop onto, a little after 12, just as predicted. Had they not cancelled the flight, we’d be able to board now and would be in Orlando about three hours earlier than we will be. It’s their fault we’re not on that plane, and it’s them that should pay for it.

1:25 p.m.
We snagged lunch at the same shoddy cafe/diner we ate breakfast at. Josh and I had to sti by ourselves at the bar due to lack of booth space. After that it was time to face the TSA security checkpoint–again.

After everything that had happened to us already, i doubted much else could go wrong. After all, it was just a quick trot over to the conveyor belts, removing the shoes and watch, retrieving my belongings on the other side of a metal detector and getting aboard the plane. Boy was i wrong.

We stepped past the woman who’d taken our boarding passes towards the belts when she stopped us and gestured towards a separate lane of traffic. As i was the last member of our party to follow this instruction, i assumed our sudden stop was because of those in front of us. But when i turned around, there that woman was again, closing me and the others in a small, roped-off quarantine zone of our own.

Five minutes later we finally mustered up the courage (aka impatience) to ask a nearby TSA worker why we were so special. She informed us that Delta had flagged us for a special security processing, as indicated by the string of “s”‘s on our passes. After what seemed like an eternity we were finally released, as a man on the opposite side of the belt instructed us to put everything in the plastic trays. But not the normal ones–the special ones with orange tape. When a novice came over to assist us with standard trays, he was told “NO–they’re orange.”

Stepping through the metal detector ought to have, in my opinion, ended the ordeal but in actuality there was one more step: the pat-down. Yes, we’d been specially selected by Delta Airlines to have our butts, legs and chests rubbed by TSA attendants just in case my 10 year-old sister was secretly harboring an AK-47. Meanwhile, they rubbed circular pads around our belongings and the special orange trays, which were then put in a special tester (God knows what we were being tested for).

Now i am sitting in the queue, waiting to get on the NOW BOARDING! Delta Airlines Flight 5963 to Cincinnati. Perhaps I’ll get on now. Or perhaps i’ll wait for the third “final” boarding call.

2:00 p.m.
I thought my dad was kidding when he said we’d have to walk across the tarmac to the plane. I also thought he was kidding when he said we’d be in the back of the plane. Turns out he was, but both happened anyway. So here i am, in 11D, seats only going as far as 13B, waiting to take off for Cincinnati.

5:17 p.m.
As i said earlier, the plane was quite small. Nevertheless it was good for Josh and Rachel’s first flight. The transfer at Cincinnati was flawless, and we are on a much larger (and newer) plane than earlier. There is one hitch, however: the young screaming toddler sitting (and kicking) behind Josh.

August 07, 2007 | 8:43 a.m.
I might have told you about our airport experience, the bus ride to our resort, the resort itself, or our experience in Downtown Disney. But we just found out that the moron who my dad ordered the tickets from just put my family in debt. My father asked for five tickets, and he was told the cost was around 600 dollars. What was never told to him, that is until he read his e-mail this morning, is that the 600 dollars was per person. Thus, although the man from Delta never once rattled off a total, we just paid over 3,000 dollars to fly in a small plane’s coach section and have to get strip searched, walk across a tarmac, and connect elsewhere. We could’ve flown first class on any flight for cheaper. Now, I’d been under the impression that last-minute seats were cheaper because, after all, the seats are about to go unused anyway, so if they can get a little money for them, may as well.

Right now our vacation is like a black hole leading straight to Hell, which is where airTran and Delta can go too.

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It wasn’t enough that our flight got delayed; it had to get cancelled.
It wasn’t enough that our flight got cancelled; the airline couldn’t reschedule us.
We had to pay for Internet access so that we could check Expedia for other outgoing flights–from the same aiport.
We thought we were paying twice as much as the tickets were worth, and then thought we were topping it off when they strip-searched our family.
But that wasn’t all. The next morning, when that e-mail dropped the bomb on us, the good spirits that are generally engendered by Disney World were crushed under the reality of hard economics.
We’d spent over 3,000 dollars to get delayed, cancelled, strip-searched, walked across a tarmac and jammed like sardines into the back of a plane with freaking propellers on it. By the time we were ready to leave for home, i was almost praying for the turbines to fall off, hurling us headlong into the Atlantic Ocean.

And why?

Because i knew the making of a good story. If we had survived that crash, i’d be sitting there on the 9 o’clock morning news in an oversized chair next to Matt Lauer, reading my moleskine entries with the air of one who has been through the fires of Hell and has the ashes to prove it. I wanted that in earnest. Not for the money, not so that people would pity us and send hate mail to Delta Airlines, not so that guy who sold us the tickets was fired for lacking clarity, but because i had a story that needed telling, and was painfully lacking an audience.

I ended my moleskine chronicle of that trip on the very first day, with the verbal equivalent of a stiff middle finger to one sales representative, two airlines, and the corporate world in general. I was living a tragedy. But now, more than a year later, i can read through my entries and laugh. Woody Allen is right: comedy is, in essence, nothing more than the tragic in retrospect, when the observer is removed from the dire consequences he was previously needing to be wary of. Bring on the tragedy, then.

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