Friday, September 21, 2007

The Heckling Hare

Ever since man has seen fit to orate, someone else has seen fit to take that man down. It pleases me to imagine that when Ugga, newly gifted with speech, got up on the rock and proclaimed himself the strongest, some other caveman was making hand gestures and winking at Ugga's wife. Hoping to lift a country out of the depths of depression by will alone, Roosevelt pronounced "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" A heckler replied, Actually Frank, this grinding poverty's got me kind of down too. "I see a shining city on the hill," said Reagan. Try stepping outside the gate, asshole. "A coward dies a thousand deaths..." Now see, that's why we've got to get rid of all these damn heroes. "I intend to set up a thousand-year Reich..." Oy, over my dead body. No! Wait!

Better bloggers than me have observed that comedy favors the oppressed. There's no triumph in breaking the already broken, only cruelty. But cracking the oppressors, humanizing them, that'll get you somewhere, maybe even get someone a glimpse into their own shadowy soul. This is why for decades, black people could get away with making fun of white people and not the other way around. It's why making fun of poor retards is bad for the conscience (unless you do it ironically of course), but making fun of influential ones is very nearly a national imperative. Authority is the natural enemy of humor, and thus are hecklers born.

Hecklers make the best storybook heroes. Yeah, you have your square-jawed types, your wise daddy deities, your fecund fertility goddesses, but wisdom and power--even stupidity--will only get you so far if there's no one to tell the story. The tricksters in the pantheon: the Monkeys, the Coyotes, even the Lokis are the ones who keep it interesting, poke the holes in seats of divine authority. Even if Jesus saw fit to nudge the occasional Pharissee, Judeo-Christian mythology evoloved to be such a dour faith, it requred a secular culture to knock The Old Man down every now and then. From a modern version of that secular effort, Tex Avery and Al Gaines taught me more about authority than Mom and Dad and Sunday School combined. I learned that when the powers that be fear humor, when they crack down on the ones who note their foibles, then they have something to hide. And given the power to hide it, expect hard times. Hard times, but pointed mockery.

Heckling is not comedy, but there's a similar art to it. The trick to heckling is timing, and unlike comedy (maybe unlike comedy), you're limited to brevity. To heckle well, you have to choose the right targets, you have to have the truth on your side. The powerful but sheltered are the most deserving, the pompous almost as good, the abusers of privelege. Barring that, it's whoever the hell has the audacity to show up in your face uninvited, whoever insists on making a point whether or not it deserves the attention. The necessity of heckling rests on presumption.

Performance art is another opposite of heckling. It's pointing out alternative viewpoints without taking a gamble with the audience's judgement. It's got a mighty presumption of its own, without, frankly, any evident ability to sway. It's totally unfair, but these things are almost always made right or wrong after the fact. The taunter and the pundit reside in a sort of offensive/defensive arms race, with the loser judged the more deserving. The heckler has power of the one-liner, a short window to win the crowd. The speaker has an advantage of inertia, some limited sympathy, some pride of protracted effort. Did the barb score it's point? Did it need to be scored? (Sometimes it's a race to the bottom.) Go on too long, and the heckler deserves the hook too.

But not the taser.

(What'd y'all think? Don't be shy, I'll be here all night.)

[Oh fuck it, just go read switters]


Archaeopteryx said...

Again, this is the kind of thing I'd write if I could write. People keep talking about how the tasering of Meyer isn't a First Amendment issue--that he's a Johnny Knoxville-wannabe, and not worth invoking the Bill of Rights over. But heckling is often one of the first steps toward change.

As always, you make me think--either about fundamental human rights or pumpkin pie. Either way is good.

Keifus said...

Nothing wrong with making the poke at Kerry--the senator has earned a boatful of 'em--but Meyer made the fundamental mistake of going on well after losing his audience. Not that tasers were the answer.

And thanks.


twiffer said...

bonus points for the pic of statler & waldorf.

muppets are awesome.