For reasons that are uninteresting and irrelevant, I recently had my photograph taken. I was kind of joking when I asked the photographer “Should I be causal or regular?” and only later realized that the question was much less funny than it was accurate: “casual” is not my default setting, but is something that I have learned to relentlessly effect in order to appear fit for human interaction. Which is to say that I worry a lot, and about everything. I am literally worrying now, because as the newest contributing editor to Humor in America – Visual Humor, check it – I would love to be writing a really stellar and memorable and job-keeping first post.
In lieu of a lengthy biography, then, let’s just say that the joke with which I most resonate is Woody Allen’s quip about his boyhood stint on a all-neurotic softball team: “I used to steal second base, and then feel guilty and go back.” (As a legendarily dreadful athlete in my youth, I should note that I’m lucky not to have had this particular problem, but you get the idea.)
I have decided, therefore, that instead of attempting to be causal here and not worry about it, I will try to funnel my constant companion into something useful for once: a kind of critical/confessional analysis of a rare moment when worriers of the world are afforded a little relief. I am referring to unlikely humor of phony “Lost Dog” and “Missing Person” fliers, which – while occasionally pretty funny – operate by exploiting our capacity for random and disinterested compassion.
Because when these signs are for real, it is hard for me to feel anything but hopelessness and defeat; I know that I will never heroically spot this cat/bird/daughter, and probably neither will whoever put up the sign. But when these fliers are a joke – which, as we’ll see, they sometimes are – I am torn between feeling relieved and riled, thankful and furious. Because at a distance, the phony lost/missing flier is no different from the real thing: a picture, a description, a local number to call with what I assume is a devastated child or graduate student on the other end. (I should note that at present I have two kittens, to whom I am still devoted despite their best efforts to forfeit the deposit on my apartment.) So to see, then, that this stapled and wind-warped flier is just a joke is to know that whatever helpless creature I thought was in peril is not, but that whoever took the time and effort to put up this flier has elicited a smile only at the expense of my initial sympathy.
I began thinking about these kinds of fliers over the summer when I came across a “Missing Person” flier for Laura Palmer on a telephone pole outside of my public library. In the moment, I was felt a kind of cool pleasure of being in on a joke. I knew, of course, that the smiling face of “Laura Palmer” had not been “missing” since the early 1990s, and had never been really missing, and had never been real. I later showed a friend of mine a picture of the flier and figured that like me, she would smirk a little and nod approvingly. I was surprised at her concern: “Um, what if people think that this is real? Like a family is still looking for their little girl after 20 years?” (For an astute analysis on the improbable humor of missing white women, please see Sharon McCoy’s recent post on the late comedian Patrice O’Neal.) To me, the death of Laura Palmer had never been more than a mystery that I had waited patiently to be further mystified; I hadn’t actually thought of this face as something simply to be seen, which – if you don’t remember or haven’t seen Twin Peaks – is all that the smudgy black-and-white photo this young woman’s face actually and ultimately is. Being cool and funny and therefore totally in the know, I saw no reason to worry about this flier. But now that I think about it, cool and funny was probably the minority in the case of local passersby.
I’m almost positive that this flier was meant as a joke, because if you call the telephone number listed at the bottom, you will most certainly and literally be calling the Seattle office of the FBI. Really. Just go ahead and ask for “Dale Cooper” and see how that goes over. This is not to say that having misplaced Laura Palmer hasn’t been used more calculatedly in the recent past, but the difference between a poster on a London bus-stop and a flier on a St. Louis telephone pole is the difference between a comprehensive marketing blitz and a post-ironic hipster with access to a photocopier. This is not to disparage hipsters, of course, but merely to accuse one of them in my hometown of something for which I have no evidence pointing to anyone else. It’s all the same anyway, since hipsters don’t actually exist. As Des asks of “yuppies” in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, doesn’t someone have to say “I am a hipster” for such a group to have members, and really, what hipster would ever say that? If anything, the impulse to design and print and post a surreptitious missing/lost flier – like this one, let’s say, or possibly all of these – typifies the cool, ironic distance associated with being hip. But only here the distance is literal. This is humor cast into a void, basically, because the seeming mass production and absentee authorship all but ensures that whoever made the flier will likely never be there when it is finally viewed. It’s like the comedic version of a commercial fishing longline: set it, forget it, and hope that someone takes the bait.
So maybe the appeal of the joke to its maker is that he made it without even being there, and part of my lingering sense of unease with this flier is the recognition that, yes, there is someone missing after all. It’s just not Laura Palmer.
I am not trying to say that this kind of visual humor isn’t funny. Quite the opposite. What is interesting to me, though, is how explicitly the logic of these fliers acknowledges the degree to which humor is coupled with and compelled by anxiety. However quickly it happens, what makes any joke satisfying is as much about relief as it is about resolution. In this respect, a punchline is less like an answer than it is like an aspirin; we literally feel better when we can finally stop worrying about what something means. This is the transmutation of not knowing to being in the know.
The most obvious example of this premise might be the knock-knock joke, wherein, as we all know, a putative stranger taunts you from behind a door that said stranger has required you to imagine. (As in “Don’t look at me!”, if we want to back it up from Twin Peaks to Blue Velvet.) I’m not sure if this has been discussed at length anywhere – it probably has been, famously, and I’m just really bad at my job – but there has always been something a little terrifying to me about knock-knock jokes, as though I was being invited to betray the very wariness of strangers that had been so engrained by parents and teachers. At its core, the knock-knock joke relies on a kind of vertiginous anxiety: not only not knowing who is there and having to ask, but receiving such a maddeningly partial answer the first time that you have to ask again, while trying simultaneously to piece this person together based on such limited information. Basically someone is there at the door, and he either a) already knows, or b) doesn’t actually care who you are. And whoever it is out there is so enigmatic and cool and desirable that you apparently have absolutely no reservations about playing his game. (I’m referring to the knocker as a man here because it feels menacing to me personally. The knocker could easily be a woman if that makes you more anxious.)
If it seems as though we’ve moved too far from the visual – which is what I’m supposed to be doing here, check it – then it’s worth considering that one of the curious linguistic anomalies of the knock-knock joke is that visuality is implied in the need to not see and therefore ask “Who’s there?” What we don’t see in this classic joke is equivalent to what we do see in the phony missing/lost fliers: someone or something that ends up having been there all along.