Laughing In The Face Of Horror

A rumination on coping through comedy as a Black American.

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Years ago, I witnessed the immediate aftermath of a drive-by shooting. My neighborhood had a bit of a reputation for being rough, but this incident proved particularly brazen and violent as over a dozen shots rang out in broad daylight while people - such as my mother - were picking up children - such as my little brother - from school. As I peered from my window at the victim's relative screaming in agony and frustration about the slow to arrive EMS team, I thought to myself with a smirking grimace "damn, that guy must've reeeeeaaaally pissed somebody off".

Later on in life during my first tour in Iraq, I experienced the first of many indirect fire attacks. When the IDF alarm sounded. I tried to dash towards a bunker, but the two hard points in sight were a good 200 feet in either direction. For a moment, I dashed from left to right as if I was Wile E. Coyote, desperate to avoid a falling boulder. After that brief flash of panic, the training kicked in and I dived for cover in place. After the initial volley, I sprinted towards the bunker as per our SOP, and found a couple of other soldiers huddled together inside. "You good?" one of them asked. The mortar ended up landing several hundred meters away - well outside of my area to be of any danger - so I knew he was really asking if I was okay from nearly shitting my pants in fright. I replied that I was OK; If I hadn't been so scared, that would have been the funniest comedy routine I've ever done in my life.


I have never been into the horror genre. After years of growing up with the ubiquitous threat of violence, followed by the carnage and mental anguish of several military deployments, engaging with gory flights of fancy seemed utterly pointless to me. I sought reprieve from my waking nightmares and was never inclined to revisit them via someone else's imagined terror. In this constant struggle, humor has been the only weapon effective enough to fend off depression and dread. Although this is my singular experience, I have found that I am not alone in this practice, which is especially true when I take a closer look at black culture of the past and present.

I think back to comedy legends like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, who injected varying degrees of righteous indignation into their ribald routines as a way to fight back and share with the world the racial injustices suffered by their people. Redd Foxx took on subjects such as lynching and segregation in his routines of the '50s and'60s long before his break into the mainstream. Richard Pryor dipped into '70s counterculture and met with famous civil rights activist Huey P. Newton, which factored into the Afro-centric tone of his later comedy. Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle would continue this trend, incorporating a level of absurdity into their incendiary comedy to face an increasingly absurd reality. This approach seemed the only way to maintain a level of sanity in the face of the tragic L.A. Riots, the circus of the O.J. trial, and a decade of geopolitical madness after 9/11. In recent years, the comedy duo Key & Peele have continued in the lineage of racially charged humor, though their brand of comedy is decidedly safer and more digestible than the harder edges of their progenitors.

That digestibility and the ubiquity of their brand isn't necessarily a bad thing though; it is but a reflection of the era in which they've gained prominence. Redd and Pryor connected through stand up and audio recordings; Redd and later on Cosby would make their mark on television sitcoms; Eddie Murphy established himself with an unprecedented successful movie career along with his stand up; Rock and Chappelle took advantage of the burgeoning power of sketch comedy; and now, Key and Peele are attuned to the power of the internet, social media, and pop/youth culture omnipresence. And it is in that power that I see the links to the horrors of the past and our struggle to move past them towards a better future.

The nation at large saw glimpses of the terror of segregation during the Birmingham campaign in 1963, where the abuses at the hands of police officers were televised for all to see. In the '90s, the inhumanity of police brutality gained the world's attention once again with the home video footage of the Rodney King beating. In the past few years, an explosion of information revealing the savagery of those in power has made its way to the forefront due to the murders of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin going viral on social media, as well as the ubiquity of police brutality caught on smart phone video such as the murders of Oscar Grant and Eric Garner. In the wake of these viral phenomena, real world change has been accomplished or at least initiated as people find unity through a common voice.

And strangely enough, the lens through which these horrors have been brought to light has also delivered the reprieve from these desperate and trying times. One thing I have marveled about in this digital age is the boundless creativity and energy displayed by the younger generation and the black youth in particular on social media. The hilarious and often times brilliant shenanigans of young minorities on YouTube, Vine and Twitter constantly surprise me. In many cases, the level of talent, skill, and vision at work in an eight-second video clip or a string of tweets has more depth and poignancy than your average screenplay, television sitcom, or latest CGI blockbuster debacle. Black youth culture continues to define modern culture as a whole, just as Hip-Hop did from its inception and through its ascension.

When Vine recently decommissioned, my social media feed was abound with people thumbing their nose with a haughty “good riddance to those stupid internet stars”. How sad that they don't even realize, the same community which fostered the rise of those social media stars is the same community that helped boost awareness of important issues. The same medium that circulates silly memes is the same one that provided unfettered first-hand footage of the Ferguson protests and other major demonstrations across the country. Social media stands as one of the few means available to minorities and disenfranchised people to express themselves freely and to reach a larger audience, while most mainstream media continues to marginalize their existence.

This is the constant ebb & flow we find ourselves in; with every indignity and terror we suffer, we fight back with a sense of humor sharper than the barbs of injustice that sting us to our core. That particular link between horror and comedy has existed in our consciousness for a long time, and will be with us through each new adversity we face. We may yet endure greater calamity and chaos in the next several years of an uncertain future, but I know that so long as we have the spirit to find an inkling of humor in the horror of reality, we will also find the strength to endure and carry on.

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