By Michael Heffernan
I do not know why I laugh when people get hurt, but I do. Not a staged pratfall like John Ritter pretending to take a shot to the nose from a swinging door in Three’s Company. Please don’t misunderstand me, I do not want to see someone seriously hurt; however, a stranger falling on ice … comedy gold in my twisted world. Better yet, someone texting and walking into a parked car or an ambush interviewer walking into a sign pole. I am not a mean person–really, I am not—but, there is something about a sudden fall down a small flight of stairs strikes me as humorous.
I know, deep down inside, many of you are just like me. You snicker and point, elbow your friend in the ribs and say, “look!” or “did you see that?” I would go as far as to say there is an element of universality to this humor. It is not the absurd faces or, wanting to see people in pain, that certainly is not it. I certainly would not laugh at someone falling out of a 10th floor window – I am not a monster! Maybe it is the cheap thrill of the unexpected or a quick giggle at someone else’s expense, a normal situation overwhelmed by a surreal absurdity. Like someone stepping on a rake. Yes, I have seen it happen, and let me tell you, it is exactly like in the cartoons … only better.
When, out-of-the-blue, an accident is hilarious, especially if it is someone you see as having it coming to them. Is there not an expression about dishes best served cold or, just desserts?
I myself am no stranger to the accidental slip or fall and the resulting red-faced walk of embarrassment, often times with more bruised than just my pride. Some of my friends say I am crazy, and maybe I am. However, I have the feeling I am not alone in my love of a jocular fall fest, whether it be on ice, skateboard or start with the sentence “Here, hold my beer.” Oftentimes, I find myself wondering what Sigmund Freud would say on the subject or about me. I imagine him saying it in a heavy stereotypical Germanic accent, “unt darefore you iz, how you zay … Bonkerz!”
In my own defense, I presume it can be traced back to my childhood. Perhaps, if I had not been introduced to such odd and frequently painful situations as a child my sense of humor may have been a tad more mainstream. Let me explain. We, my brother and I, were rambunctious children. Remember, this was a time when parents let children play alone outside and the idiotic term “playdate” was yet invented by what would become the soccer mom set. A summer morning included the maternal instructions to, “go play outside, come back when I call you for lunch … don’t rip your pants.”
My parents liked to take us on unusual and unforgettable vacations when we were very little, like the week we spent on a working farm. As I recall, I was about seven and my brother a year older. We would spend our days wandering alone down the lane to the beach—something unheard of in this day and age—and playing/torturing each other. It was not unheard of to dare each other to touch the electric fence designed to keep the cattle in their pasture. Often times we would to push each other out of the hayloft into the huge piles of unbaled hay while playing secret agent or even just for kicks. It was not an abnormal occurrence during that summer week to slide some leftovers into the other’s jacket and blow the dog whistle so the pack of eight or so farm dogs would come charging and bowl the victim of the prank over in their quest for treat.
Maybe it is a sign of the times; I am by no means no cultural philosopher, and I would never make such a claim. Nonetheless, I do know my parents and my maternal grandmother, who lived with us when I was a small child, in particular particular would scold me and lecture me on the evils of deriving such fiendish pleasure at other’s expense. These are the same people that laughed at the antics of Laurel and Hardy and The Keystone Cops. Therefore, in my own defense, I must say there was a fair amount of hypocrisy being served along with their admonishments. However, bear in mind these were the same people who apparently knew all the starving people in India personally, or so one would believe based on their dinnertime rebukes of my refusal to eat Brussels sprouts. But, I digress, and so back to present day East Setauket where I have of recent months developed a taste for the wonders of YouTube and the plethora of agonizing and humiliating video clips of people walking into signs and open manholes; alternatively, the seemingly endless array of trick bike spills.
As I sit here with a YouTube screen minimized, I am somewhat ambivalent about this revelation. Will people be shocked that I revel gleefully when someone just got their clock cleaned walking into a No Parking sign? Maybe, maybe not. I suspect there are more people with gallows humor than I suspect. I am sure there are many, many like me who laugh at a little embarrassment—especially if they are not the red-faced ones. After all, America’s funniest Home Videos—a cavalcade of home-brewed errors–ruled the airwaves for a decade. Thank God for the Internet and capability to binge on Netflix and YouTube. Their constant stream of off the air television shows’ steady stream of insanity in the form of skateboarders shattering their manhood on railings or wrists on concrete in the guise of entertainment. Or Reddit, and its massive collection of “NSFW” videos—although they can be overly graphic and frequently live up to the acronymicized phrase Not Suitable For Work tagged in the subject line. Such a mundane task such as walking or sitting upon a fence, for example, is turned into a laugh riot following an inadvertent misstep or accidentally getting your center of gravity off center. The resultant benign mishap is comedy gold in my book. Additionally, if happens to one of your friends in your presence … the stuff of legends. One minute walking down the street talking on a cell phone minding your own business and then Whamo! Right in the kisser!
Psychiatrists will tell you it has to do with an unexpected non-lethal alteration of routine. The Germans even have their own word for it: Schadenfreude, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people.” Personally, I do not get my kicks from hearing about the misfortunes of others; and, I would never wish harm or trouble on another person. Conversely, seeing someone, arms windmilling, and legs askew immediately prior to his or her derriere hitting the ice is precious. Now with summer officially over and the skateboards have mostly ben tucked away, I for one, am looking forward to the winter and all its spills and thrills.