When your instrument cannot play the very high or very low notes in the music, you can transpose the music into a lower or higher octave. When the truth is hard to hear, you can transpose it into a funnier key so that it is easier to listen to. You can also transpose overwhelming grief or wonder into lighter, funnier keys so that they do not drown your spirit. Warped, twisted, and black humor help make life more bearable, but their abuse cheapens wonder and awe for the sake of a laugh.
My favorite comic is The Far Side by Gary Larson. He leaves the punch line to your imagination, tapping into your senses of grotesque anticipation and subliminal horror. He occasionally introduces bizarre juxtapositions in order to address social ills. In one comic, there are two elephants in a bar and one of them is getting ready to fight a man he was drinking with. The other elephant is holding him back, saying, “Hey buddy, I don’t think he knew you were an elephant when he told you that joke!” Larson transposes the high and shrill, “Telling racist jokes is a consciously offensive choice!” into a funnier key, so he is able to play profound notes on the kazoo.
Gallows humor transposes the awe and terror of fearsome, mortal situations into a funnier key to show that death is ordinary and happens amidst the continuing grumpy Monday mornings and tedious staff meetings of life. When murderer William Palmer stepped onto the gallows to meet his death, he allegedly looked at the trap door and asked the hangman, “Are you sure it’s safe?” Rather than wetting his pants or making a passionate speech about capital punishment, he tipped his hat to the mundane. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes about political prisoners under the sentence of death following their arbitrary arrests by the secret police:
They moved away and looked on indifferently while the condemned man was tied up, while he cried out for help, while they shoved a child’s rubber ball into his mouth. (Now, looking at that child’s ball, could one really guess all its possible uses? What a good example for a lecturer on the dialectical method!)
Solzhenitsyn rebels against the hopelessness of being taken by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. The instruments in his orchestra cannot go low enough and the hearts of the audience cannot bear the sustained heaviness of the subject at hand. Gallows humor transposes the terror and horror into a more bearable and appreciable key.
Perry Bible Fellowship, a boundary-pushing webcomic in no way connected with any church, regularly amazes me with its juxtapositions of cuteness and horror. A recent example is the comic about what happens when you drink and drive and crash a clown car. The cartoonist for Perry Bible Fellowship evokes wonder and amazement—nay, shock—as he overlays gruesome and macabre circumstances with adorable forest animals and children’s games. Shock is a negative form of awe, and shocking things are effective substitutes for beautiful things. While I thoroughly enjoy the comic, I find that my taste for the beautiful declines when I partake in too much of the shocking.
I once saw a meme that said of jokes about tragedy, “Tell or tell not. There is no too soon.” Either the joke goes too far or it does not, and humor does go too far. Rape jokes, combination racist jokes calculated for maximum offense, and murder and suicide jokes served up too often as a main course—these things go too far. They violate our ability to feel wonder and awe when we see wonderful and awesome things. Shocking and disgusting things artificially stimulate our aesthetic senses, so we want a Beethoven symphony in every joke if we are accustomed to shock and disgust. Obsession with the twisted stimulation of wonder and awe keeps us from being able to enjoy the mundane features of life.
“Mundane” does not merely refer to boring things. It refers more broadly to things of the world, as opposed to heavenly things. We are both body and spirit, and most of our experience of life is earthly rather than heavenly. There is some sense in which we should be able to meet with God through our interaction with the material world, and God made both material and immaterial things to being him honor and glory. If you cannot sincerely enjoy some aspect of getting up for work in the morning, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, or seeing your own reflection in the mirror, then perhaps you have lost your natural good taste.
“Going too far” with warped and twisted humor is an objective thing measured mostly by its effects on the tastes and preferences of those who repeatedly go too far. Warped humor can be an escape from the buildup to a good punch line. Because it takes a long time to write, practice, and perform a symphony, the warped humor kazoo turns band practice into a laugh session. Never mind the fact that the orchestra never gets any good at the music, the kazoo provides immediate wonder at the player’s proficiency at punctuating musical passages with a wheezy toot. Kazoos lighten the tedium of band practice as warped humor breaks life’s oppressive gravity, but playing only the kazoo makes you fall further and further behind in orchestra practice and makes you more dependent on its discordant wheeze to make life meaningful.
Warped humor makes leaps between the ordinary and the extraordinary: from the ordinary to the extraordinarily strange or bad, or from the extraordinarily good or bad to the ordinary. It can either violate or confirm the boundaries of ordinary life. In the end, warped humor, skillfully handled, twists life back into shape when it is twisted beyond recognition. It introduces necessary curves where life is too straight. It transposes the very high and very low things of life into a playable, listenable key. Although envelope pushing and limitation breaking preserve life’s essential shape, it is not life being lived out.
I play the Great Highland Bagpipes, and there are exactly nine playable notes. Beyond those nine, the music has to be transposed, and the transposed music usually sounds awful. Something about it is not quite right—it is neither the original nor a pure transfer of the original. By and large, you have to stick with bagpipe music on the bagpipes—the Star Wars main title is amusing on the pipes but it is not right for the instrument or the music. The best parts of life are not shrinking wondrous things or magnifying infantile things. Really living life requires learning to play a variety of instruments, as it were. Learn many varieties of humor, learn many ways to communicate, learn many ways to live. Variation is variation from something and not from nothing, and if the original something is not strong, the variation will be weak.