Tag Archives: humor

Flight 1095


Coming home from Phoenix on Friday, I found myself sharing the plane with Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, and Bret Stephens. Bryant and Bayer are SNL players. Stephens (below) is Foreign Affairs columnist at the Wall Street Journal.


I am guessing Bryant, Bayer, and Stephens have different views of the world. (This is a guess, but I am comfortable working by the “available light” of SNL and WSJ.)

I am guessing one difference of opinion turns on their ideas of America.

Bryant and Bayer taunt us for the sexism that diminishes men and women. Both of them excel at the performance of  a certain “sweet-faced” agreeableness, occupying stereotypes the better to destroy them.

Stephens, on the other hand, is a student of the American presence abroad, and especially alert to how it serves the cause of reasonableness in a world where fundamentalism now routinely makes reason almost impossible to obtain. (See his excellent book: America in Retreat.)

Not such different projects, after all. We could say these three Americans stand for different versions of liberty, that most American idea. Bryant and Bayer champion personal liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose personal identity, (and not have it forced upon them). Stephens champions political liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose collective identity, (and not have it forced upon them).Both oppose the enemies of liberty.

And they work together. Stephens insists on America as a “city on a hill” that promises liberty to those held captive by other polities, even as Bryant and Bayer keep the “city” true to its mission and investigate what happens to identity once gender stereotypes are thrown off. (First political liberty, then cultural liberty.)

To this extent, these three are all “on the same plane.”

But things, I think it’s fair to assume, end there.

When it comes to the presidential race, Bryant, Bayer and Stephens have much less in common. I guess that Bryant and Bayer favor Hilary, if not Sanders, while Stephens favors Cruz, but not Trump. (A man who cares this much about foreign affairs could not vote for a Donald Trump who, as the joke has it, doesn’t know who the prime minister of Canada is. We don’t need “available light” for this one, first principles will do.)

This difference makes a difference. Now these three, with so much in common, begin to press in opposite directions. Eventually, what they share, like the rest of American politics, begins to tear and perhaps eventually to vanish. I expect the political science of this problem is well charted. I want to comment on the anthropology.

Consider what might have happened had Bryant, Bayer and Stephens struck up a conversation on flight 1095. (As far as I know, they didn’t. They weren’t seated together. And, to my great regret, they weren’t seated with me.)

What would have happened to this conversation? Once they got beyond the pleasantries, was there common ground? Or are we now living with pockets of difference so different that mutuality is now in peril. This is what scares the anthropologist.

We could use comedy to construct a continuum. In a fully mutual culture, every one “gets” the joke as a joke. In a culture of failing mutuality, there are some people who don’t get they joke but they do at least understand that a joke was intended.

We have a linguistic convention here. The person who loves the joke looks at the person who has a puzzled expression, and asks, “You get the joke, right?” And the puzzled person says, “Oh, I get it. I just don’t think it’s that funny.”  At this point, we know there is some noise in the cultural system, but only some. Not all jokes are fungible. But all jokes are visible.

Then there is the third stage, the one we may be approaching now, and that’s when the puzzled person can’t tell that a joke was intended. (Some of Sarah Silverman’s jokes strike me that way. I am of course joking.) The puzzled person (me) is as if from another culture,. They do not share an idea of what “funny” (at least in this case) is. Somebody does something. Other people begin to laugh. Now when asked, “You get the joke, right?” the puzzled person replies “Um, no, I don’t. It’s funny? What’s funny?”

Sometimes when we storm at one another on the political stage, I wonder if this is not a theater made out of the narcissism of small differences. Really, we are just seizing on our differences as an opportunity for a jolly good shouting match. And who doesn’t like a shouting match.

But sometimes you have to wonder whether we are approaching a stage in which we are no longer (or less) mutually intelligible. You could argue that it is the unacknowledged task of SNL and the WSJ to craft a commonality, to help build a shared language, shared values, as we go. And sometimes this appears to work quite well.  But other times we are looking at the emergences, driven in part by the creative efforts of SNL and the WSJ, where small quantitative differences add up to big paradigmatic jumps. We start to separate.

There is no narcissism of big differences. The “jolly” and the “good” disappear. Then it’s strangers on a plane. Mutuality is now fugitive. (Having taken another flight.)

Here’s one possibility, that there is something about our present political process that is really perilous in the present moment. It’s an old system, designed to make it possible to capture the political will when people are scattered across a continent. This politics is a Mississippi where tiny differences in the hinter land are driven to aggregate until at the end of the day we have two parties and a few ideas. This aggregating process was valuable when the country was so geographically disaggregated. But now that we are so cultural disaggregated, it may force some contests and oppositions that are unnecessary.

Force us to make simple choices, and we rush to opposite sides of the ship of state. Find some way to capture the political will(s) in a more nuanced way, and we might escape we some of the enmity and some of the shouting match. (But now we are back in the realm of political scientist, and the anthropologist must defer to her better judgment.)


Ida Blankenship R.I.P.

Ida Blankenship died on Sunday.  At her desk at the advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  She will be remembered as Don Draper’s secretary. As one her colleagues put, it "She died as she lived–surrounded by the people she answered phones for."

The good news is that Ida is a fictional character.  Her death was therefore a fictional event. No mourning is called for. Unless of course you had grown to love her contribution to Mad Men, as many of us had.  

(It tells you how absolutely, effortlessly creative the Mad Men team is that they could kill off Ida so casually and so early. Most TV shows would thrill to have a character half as rich and funny.  Having created her, they would have given her up only with the greatest reluctance. The Mad Men team evidence a certain arrogance.  As if to say, "Oh, there are plenty more where she came from.  She was easy as anything.")

That Ida is a fictional character didn’t stop the Daily Beast from running a eulogy for her. Which is pretty charming.  I think.

For starters, it plays out the Mad Men fiction.  It pretends Ida Blankenship were the real thing.  It’s a small act of cocreation.

But it’s more than cocreation.  It’s witty.  It attributes the honor given real humans to a pretend human.  "Ah," we think, "clever."

Lots of wit has this quality.  We take the properties of one thing and we assign them to another thing.  When we say Roger, the family poodle, is considering an advance degree in opthalmology,we suppose…  Well for starters we are acting as if Roger has a first degree. This is a cultural act of transposition or relocation.  We are moving cultural meanings around.  We are reassigning them.   (Witness relocation, kinda.)  

We may also think of the Ida eulogy as simple play.  It’s a little "what if."  As in, "what if we treated Ida is if she were a real person."  As in, "let’s act as if Roger isn’t a dog."  And this gets us a little closer to the mechanics of the transposition.

This movement of meanings is successful when it fails.  If we attribute something to Roger that does work, "Roger is a good doggie woggie" for instance, it’s like "so?" It’s only when we say Roger is a) thinking , b) about an advanced degree, that we begin to get somewhere humor wise.  

This cultural act is designed to make a small buzzer sound in our brain.  It designed to forces us to say "that doesn’t go there.  Roger is a dog."  It’s only when we think of Roger otherwise that it’s drole (drool?).

I’m surprised.  Apparently, we don’t mind it when meanings are reassigned.  Apparently, we actually quite like when culture is corrupted.  (Well, not stupid people.  Stupid people get confused and then they blame the rest of us for their confusion.)  But the rest of the world, and that’s most of the world, love this kind of play.

Maybe this is just the kind of thing that bothers an anthropologist.  (It is after all only linguists who do not groan at puns.  They just fall into a reverential silence.)  I guess when you spend your life looking at how we build culture up, there is something astonishing at looking at the pleasure we take when someone ever so briefly tears it down.   

It could also be that I am writing this at 31,000 feet courtesy of American Airlines and Go Go In Flight.  It’s the oxygen debt talking.  But it is weird.  No?  Just me?  Ok, it’s just me.  


To Pam DeCesare for giving me the head’s up on the Daily Beast article.  

To Randee Heller, the very gifted actress who helped invent Ida.  


Anonymous.  2010.  A Eulogy for Don Draper’s secretary.  The Daily Beast.  


Sapir, J. David, and Jon Christopher Crocker, editors. 1977. The Social use of metaphor: essays on the anthropology of rhetoric. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.