Wednesday, December 8, 2010
She Who Laughs Last…
[Why is writing about humor so dreadfully tedious and unfunny? The process is deeply humbling. Despite this, I assure you that I am a barrel of laughs, a hoot, riotously funny. Present moment excluded.]
The first time that I understood that I really, really liked to make people laugh probably took place earlier than this, but that most obvious first internal click that I recall happened when I was about five or six. A man was at our house to talk to my mother about insurance or something equally soporific and as he sat at the dining room table with her, talking about boring, stupid things, my brother and I chased each other around the room, inspired by the novelty of having an unfamiliar visitor. For some reason, I had a styrofoam cup in my mouth as I chased after my brother, and I slipped on the tile floor and fell, which caused the cup to break off in my mouth. This elicited a big laugh from our visitor. In hindsight, it may have actually been a polite little chuckle, it may have been a titter or a full-on, hearty guffaw, but whatever it was, it was unexpected and highly appreciated. For the rest of his visit, I tried to recreate that unintentional pratfall to ever-diminishing returns. Of course, the insurance salesman didn't laugh again, just adjusted his glasses and returned to his papers, and eventually my mother barred me from the room, but it is easy to see in retrospect that a desire to make people laugh was internally wired from an early age.
Maybe I’m naturally inclined toward clowning because of The Jewish Thing, programmed through an ancestral DNA imperative to distract the guys with the daggers and rifles long enough to survive another day. Maybe it's the result of trying to bring levity and fun to an often claustrophobically unhappy house. Probably it's the confluence of a bunch of factors that astrologers, birth order experts and numerologists can argue over. In whatever case, the end result is that I'm someone who consciously and unconsciously strives to be funny, and, as such, I’ve always looked for the comedy in life. A life without absurdity, inside jokes and the well-timed aside would be such a flat, empty and dreary one that it makes me depressed to even consider it. Like you know how you feel when you're all congested from a bad cold and you can barely feel anything for a couple of days but your clogged up, numb head? That's how I imagine a life without humor to be, a vast internal Siberia.
When I first became involved in advocacy, I was in college. Even though I knew that I was supposed to be serious, grim and strident to be respectably outraged by society, I quickly became bored by anything that seemed like a traditional display or form of protest. As a painting major, it was also expected that I be serious, grim and strident and as much as my wardrobe reflected the Gothier side of life, my spirit did not conform. Why shouldn’t I have been happy? I was out of my parent's home. I had a revolving door of cute, irresponsible boyfriends who set my heart ablaze. I was able to drink what I wanted (and, boy, did I), eat ice cream for dinner, and stay out as late as I wanted along with countless other perks. These were all reasons for a celebration, not sour-faced moping. I couldn’t hide my exuberance and I was told directly and indirectly more than once that I needed to tone it the heck down if I wanted to be taken seriously. Occasionally I bowed to social pressure but usually I did not: I couldn’t suppress myself.
Despite my instinctive rebellion against how the traditional protest takes shape, I have done my share. I have stood with countless signs, collected signatures, exchanged words with smug passersby. I have marched, yelled, and chanted with the best of ‘em and I have no doubt that I’ll do those things again. I know that sometimes they’re absolutely appropriate and effective. I just believe that the most successful, persuasive advocates work with their best skills front and center. Being creative with our activism, being fluid and treating it as unique to us as our fingerprints, is essential for our messaging and our longevity as activists. I believe that so many people get burned out on this work because they are not doing the sort of outreach that they excel at and enjoy, whether it’s handing out educational materials, organizing vegan bake sales, suing animal abusers or starting a shelter for dogs and cats.
The pivotal moment when my personal advocacy changed was about twelve years ago, when my husband and I were going out to meet some local activists for a protest in front of McDonald’s for World Vegetarian Day. As much as I wanted to see my friends and let the world know how much I loathe McDonald’s, I dreaded going. Every year, it was the same thing: go to the River North McDonald’s, get mocked by smirking tourists, chant for about an hour, pass out some brochures (and pick up the ones that get tossed on the ground), load up the signs and go home. That year, though, I decided that I was done with business as usual. I just couldn’t abide another year of it. So an image flashed in my head, and I found myself spontaneously telling my husband as it developed in my mind like a vision, “What if I go as a veggie burger this year and hand something else out?”
I am lucky to have the partner I do for many reasons. He’s a kinder, more patient, more considerate person than I am many times over. On this day, though, the qualities I most appreciated were his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get behind one of my schemes and his handiness. The man is an artsy MacGyver with an Exacto knife and foam board. He constructed a colorful sandwich board of a veggie burger that I could wear and I was immediately transformed into my vision: Valerie Veggie Burger. The Chicago Diner agreed to let us distribute two-for-one veggie burger coupons, and my nifty husband put together a nifty new brochure for us to distribute. (You should have seen the well-intentioned but virtually unreadable materials – bad photocopies of print outs from ten years before - we were handing people in the 1990s.)
The experience was transformative: instead of people dodging me and averting their eyes, they came to me, seeking what I was handing out. Instead of jeers, I got smiles and thumbs up. Instead of people covering up their children’s eyes, they took my brochure and had them pose for photos with me. Instead of people mumbling that I should “get a life,” they came to me and started conversations, asking for ideas of where to eat. It opened up whole new dialogue opportunities and created a fresh way of relating to each other that wasn’t defensive or aggressive. The dismantling of the old dynamic was disarming enough that we could actually communicate in a way that was real and mutually beneficial.
After I got a taste of what it could be like to stray from the traditional format, I couldn’t get enough, and being the person I am, it usually took on elements of street theater. We handed out green ribbon-bedecked vegetarian dining guides to Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day with the title “Erin Go Broccoli” instead of Erin Go Bragh. I marched in Gay Pride as Valerie Veggie Burger (my husband was Tommy Tofu Dog) and we amused the revelers with our “Eat me!” signs. We put on puppet shows to the lines of people in front of the Shedd Aquarium. Two of my favorite memories: my husband dressed up as a guitar-playing fox and a happy group of us who toasted our good fortune with champagne, singing joyful songs outside of Andriana Furs when a location went out of business: we actually were able to hand-deliver an oversized card we’d made to them, one that said on the outside, “Congratulations on the new chapter in your business…” Inside, it said, “Chapter Thirteen!” Another time, we went to a rodeo protest, with him dressed as a bull and me as a violent, idiotic circus clown: it was a great opportunity to torment my obliging husband for the purposes of satire.
Not everyone loves this style of activism, that’s clear. Although I noticed that in general fellow activists found their spirits invigorated with our unique approach, others accused us of being silly, making grave issues seem too lighthearted. I can understand the criticisms but I disagree: satire, wit and irreverence should not be underestimated for their sly way of making people challenge their accepted views. Historically, we can look to Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde, political cartoonists, Dorothy Parker and the Merry Pranksters, and we can find that their influence on culture leads us today to Jon Stewart, Dan Piraro and countless others who are upending accepted social mores, exposing the absurdity in conventional thought, and have a talent for incisive wit, forcing people to stop and think about things they’d scarcely even noticed before.
This is unproven, but my guess is that if you can make a person laugh, you can make a person think. It’s the same pathway to the brain. If people are more likely to approach you because the way you’re communicating is more appealing, or if they are challenged to think of things in a fresh way because you’ve reframed an issue, I cannot see the harm in it. In fact, using a diversity of approaches is very much to our benefit. Thankfully, it doesn’t need to be an either/or dichotomy: we can draw from as many sources of inspiration as we like.
More important than the issue of whether to use humor or not in one’s advocacy is that we bring our talents, perspective and passions to the table instead of feeling forced into roles that do not fit us. As I said earlier that is a recipe for burnout and the animals very much need for us to stay engaged, empowered and productive.
Over the years, my personal contribution has become more and more fine-tuned and specific, clearly favoring writing over even my old passion for street theater. When I can merge comedy with writing, that is my ideal point of entry. As I did with the insurance salesman, I’m still seeking that serendipitous comedic moment, that burst of unexpected laughter, and that’s what drives me forward with my advocacy.
But enough about me. What is a passion of yours? How can you utilize it to help make the world a more compassionate place? My guess is that identifying this passion and finding a smart way to harness it (and there has to be a way) is going to be the very best way that you can make a positive difference in the world. It is certainly a better long-term plan than adhering to a tired stereotype or someone else’s notion of what an activist is supposed to be, don’t you think?