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Matt Groening likes Gershon Legman, Gershon Legman likes John Sanford

I was pleased to see that my culture hero Matt Groening, likes my other culture hero Gershon Legman:

Examining humor too closely does seem to destroy it. I think an example of that would be the movie The Aristocrats, the retelling of the filthy-aristocrats joke over and over again in so many different ways by all these comedians. What’s fascinating to me is not the joke, which is pretty bad, but the inability of the tellers of the joke to understand what it is they’re giving away with their own versions of the joke. [Laughs.] To me it’s like truth serum. So what that says about the work I do and the work they do in collaboration with others, I’m not sure exactly. But I will say that definitely hostility and fear are at the core. There’s a great couple of books that are really demented, ultimately, but have moments of insight, and they’re both written by Gershon Legman. One’s called Rationale Of The Dirty Joke, and the other one’s called No Laughing Matter: An Analysis Of Sexual Humor, and they’re Freudian analyses of dirty jokes. I think anyone who is a humorist or working in comedy should read these books if they want to understand better about their own internal insanities.

Legman’s books (really one long book in two volumes) run to about 1,500 pages and are a masterwork of obsessed cognition like few others I’ve encountered.  At their core, as Groening says, is the claim that every telling of a dirty joke is a vengeful act of aggression; and that to know someone’s favorite dirty joke is to know against whom, or what, they desire revenge.  Here’s how it starts:

Under the mask of humor, our society allows infinite aggressions, by everyone and against everyone.  In the culminating laugh by the listener or observer– whose position is often really that of victim or butt — the teller of the joke betrays his hidden hostility and signals his victory by being, theoretically at least, the one person present who does not laugh.

In an excellent New Yorker piece, Jim Holt writes about Legman and about the strange project of joke-collecting more generally.

Legman mentions at one point that John Sanford’s Seventy Times Seven is a “Great American Novel,” which was enough incentive for me to take it out from the library.  It isn’t great, but it’s good, and its virtues are unusual.   It features the kind of flourishes conventional to the big 1940s social-realist American novel — words runtogether in a way that I think of as “e e cummingslike” but which Steve Burt tells me are, in this context, imitation Dos Passos; little departures from the prose fiction format into stream-of-consciousness, court stenography, lines of attributed dialogue as in a play.  But it is in fact a very simple book — really just about two characters, one who’s had it hard, one who’s had it easy, and the resentment of the one towards the other.  The resentment builds in what feels like a physical way, like pressure on the boundary between two regions of different mass densities.  Which is what makes it work as a piece of 1940s social realism — to participate you have to believe that economics and sociology and maybe psychology too are a lot more like physics than we now think.

The book is well-written in places but feels antique in others.  I think Sanford makes the idea of the book too explicit in the last section — but maybe to participate in 1940s social realism you also have to make the point of your book more explicit than we now like.

Fun fact:  Seventy Times Seven was reissued in paperback with the more commercial title Make My Bed In Hell.

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