"There is no humor in heaven" tattoo in black ink

There Is No Humor In Heaven

“Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
~ Mark Twain, Following The Equator

Starting in college, I began getting tattoos that represented various facets of my personal philosophy. Considering the direction of my life, it seems rather prescient that my first tat was “the Road is Life” from Kerouac’s On The Road.

Now, 15 tattoos into my inkification, I have added one more literary icon to my chest plate: Mark Twain. I have always been a fan of the great American satirist, even taking a course in college devoted entirely to him (taught by the incomparable Susan K. Harris), but this was the first quote of his that struck me not as more than just a pithy insight, but also a universal truism.

In fact, I didn’t come across this quote through reading Twain. Instead, this phrase was brought to my attention while reading Touched With Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison, a masterful investigation of the link between bipolar disorder (or manic depression) and the artistic genius. I cannot recommend highly enough this scholarly exploration of mental illness and creation. So rarely does a book tickle both the right and left hemispheres of the brain like this work does.

So why did this quote stick out so much that it would earn valuable (and ever dwindling) skin on my chest?

Over the years of this blog, I have written about both my personal struggle with mental illness as well as my adoration for the art of stand-up comedy. If you have any familiarity with comedy, you’ll immediately know why those two are linked. Stand-up comedians are generally known as miserable people in real life, the type who will turn their personal misery into comedy gold for an audience. With the uptick of popularity for the form in the last couple decades, that is by no means a rule anymore, but the great comedians from George Carlin to Louis CK, from Don Rickles to Maria Bamford have always pulled their best material from personal darkness.

Humor doesn’t come from the perfect peace of heaven, it is formed in the stark despair of hell.

Twain’s quote could be limited to the art of humor and it would still be profound (especially considering that he remains the greatest American humorist of all time), but I believe that he meant to convey even more in those simple words. It’s not just humor that is forged out of hurt. The basic creative spark is birthed there, too. Are there musicians and writers who have created great works without suffering from mental illness or facing horrific life events? I’m sure. But they’re the minority.

Any study of artistic achievement and mental illness will reveal that the two are intrinsically linked.* A creative mind will create regardless of circumstances, but creativity spurred on by the dark nights of the soul will almost always produce works of grander, more universal elegance. As technology advances and our ability to predict the genetically preordained occurrence of depression grows stronger, our society will face the challenge of whether we should pre-select for healthier, non-inflicted offspring.

If I were to be a potential parent, I could understand the instinct to protect my child from the pain of mental illness, especially that of depression and its many variants. As someone wholly devoted to the creative longevity of the species, though, I find the idea that we could selectively eliminate mental illness quite terrifying. What great works of art would be lost if such possibilities had been available to us centuries ago? (A fair rebuttal to that concern is to ask, “What great works of art would we have had if the mentally ill had not succumbed to their disease before their time?”)

There is no simple answer.

The question of whether or not mental illness in general (and depression, specifically) has its benefits in human society and art is one that we will likely never satisfactorily resolve. But, as long as such ailments still exist, we can take solace from the truth that the erstwhile Samuel Clemens articulated so many years ago: There is no humor in heaven.

*This is also likely true of important scientists, but I haven’t studied that enough to make a definitive statement.
A photo of Martin Manley, a Kansas City sportswriter who blogged about his suicide.

“My mom said I was always a happy baby.” The Suicide of Martin Manley

[This post obviously deals with suicide. Do not read on if the subject makes you uncomfortable.]

Martin Manley killed himself.

This in and of itself isn’t so unique. Thousands of suicides happen without much notice. Manley was a public figure, a former sports writer for the Kansas City Star and editor for the website Sports In Review. However, what makes his suicide bizarre is that he created a website (no longer active; going to the URL now could subject you to a virus) to explain his reasons for his actions. The final thing he wrote was a post for SIR.

In his final post, Manley explains:

The reason for my departure is 100% within my ability to control. You see, earlier today, I committed suicide. I created a web-site to deal with the many questions a person would rightfully have. It’s called martinmanleylifeanddeath.com. It went live today. In my opinion, there is no question which you could conceivably ask that I have left unanswered on that site. My goal with this post is closure for SIR.

Martin Manley shot himself in front of a police station. His final post touched on some of his reasons, but mostly he seemed to just want to put everything in order. The website he created was split into 2 categories, ‘Life’ and ‘Death.’ I won’t try to summarize or pull quotes. There was too much there to be crammed into a single blog post. The man laid bare his entire existence, from beginning to end, and if people are interested, there are mirror sites where people can still read his writings.

martin manley


There are two reasons this story caught my eye (besides for the sensational angle of it):

First, he was from Kansas. He says that he lived in Topeka and then moved to Overland Park. Both of these cities are about 30 minute drives (in opposite directions) from my hometown of Lawrence. While I haven’t lived in Kansas in years and I was never one to read sports stories in the newspaper, I have to imagine that I have a lot of friends and old acquaintances that were familiar with this man, maybe even regular readers.

Secondly, there was something he wrote in his Pictures section of the site:

These are pictures of me when I was around one. My mom said I was always a happy baby. It seems odd to me that would be the case considering I’m not sure I ever really learned what happiness was as an adult.

Emphasis mine. That really stuck out to me, because my mother has said the same thing of me. She says I was her “sunshine baby.” This has always struck me as odd because for as long as I can remember, I have dealt with depression. I’m sure for anyone who has dealt with lifelong depression it’s hard to remember a time when you could be roundly described as “happy.”

If this story blows up, and it likely will because of its odd, viral nature, it will almost certainly spur a conversation on suicide. I hope it does. But if the comments on related articles are any indication, the conversation may get buried in dross. As soon as a public suicide hits the internet, the opinions start flying: People should be allowed to kill themselves. People who commit suicide are idiots. Only God can help you fight depression.

Everyone brings their preconceived ideas to the topic and nothing of importance ever gets discussed. The conversation takes bunny trails off into topics such as “Is depression genetic?,” “Is suicide wrong?,” and “Is there a God?” Personal agendas get brought in and pretty soon no one is talking about what really matters: How do people who have suicidal thoughts cope?

There is no single answer for everyone, and I don’t feel like getting into my personal beliefs on the topic. (I’ve done so elsewhere.)

It’s that phrase that keeps coming back to me: “My mom said I was always a happy baby.” We all have loved ones in our life and we think we know them, we think that we know what they’re capable of. Part of the reason that suicides so often take us by surprise is that most of us pride ourselves on being perceptive, at least when it comes to the people in our lives.

The TV show House M.D. had an episode where a main character committed suicide. At the time, there was considerable online chatter about whether it was just for shock, many arguing there was no hint that the character was going to do it. But, as unexpected as the episode was for me, it also struck me as incredibly true. My own personal experience of suicide was with someone who I (and, I imagine, most of the kids who knew him) thought was the happiest, most well-adjusted person.

I wasn’t familiar with Manley. I’m sure as people unpack his website and his backlog of articles things will come out that will make his suicide “obvious” and easy to predict in that perfect 20/20 hindsight sort of way. And maybe he had hinted at it to his readers for a while, I don’t know.

But the broader truth is that suicide isn’t something we usually can predict, especially not with our loved ones. There are those who display early warning signs, but for every person on suicide watch, there is a ‘happy baby’ who takes their families and friends by complete surprise.

I think what Manley was trying to do (what the writers of House were trying to do too) is bring this difficult conversation to the forefront and get people talking. Your opinion on Manley’s actions are irrelevant. It happened. Where do we go from here?


If there is any one person in culture having this conversation the right way, it’s the stand-up comedian Maria Bamford. She talks openly in her routine about her Bipolar Disorder and suicide. One of her best bits is called “Stigma” and you can listen to it on Spotify. I can tell you that for someone with depression, it is one of the funniest, most cathartic comedy routines I have ever listened to.

I don’t know if society will ever be capable of taking on this topic in a way that doesn’t fall back on preconceived judgments and fears, but I hope that if anything positive can come out of Manley’s death, it will be a willingness to look at this subject with fresh eyes.

Let us not hide from this.


Twitter Hate

I’m on Twitter. I don’t post with it all that much and I honestly don’t have the knowledge or the inclination to build a larger Twitter presence. It’s a kind of social networking proficiency I’ll never grasp, and that’s okay because for me, Twitter is more about what other people are saying, not what I can say. I’m a little too wordy to ever effectively utilize the medium.

I was one of the countless people who absolutely shit on the idea when I first heard about it. A kind of Facebook Status Update minus all the other features and with a limit of 140 characters? Who would use that, and more importantly, why? It seemed designed for the kind of banal, self-centered, grammar-challenged postings that are the bread and butter of teenagers. Why would anyone want teenagers to have even more ways of expressing their pointless ‘opinions.’

Well, it turns out my kneejerk reaction was ill-informed and hasty. Twitter is full of teenage idiocy (and adult idiocy), certainly, but there is so much more to it than that. From interesting articles to hilarious one-liners and thoughtful conversations, Twitter is actually an impressive and useful amalgamation of all the best things on the internet (it’s also a collective for the worst things, because Twitter is essentially the Cliff Notes of the World Wide Web).

Today alone, my feed has been filled with a couple related but separate conversations that I found endlessly interesting. One was a debate that Michael Ian Black has spurred, anew, about ‘Rape Jokes’ and whether they are ever permissible (a topic I covered during the recent Daniel Tosh kerfuffle). This seems to be one of Twitter (and the internet’s) favorite topics of debate, and while it so often breaks down into histrionics, MIB was making some wonderfully un-hysterical points.

The other was a conflict between Patton Oswalt and Aaron Belz (a man I’ve never heard of until today) because of the latter’s apparent defense of Sammy Rhodes, who Oswalt accused of joke thievery. Rhodes has since taken the particular tweet down, so I don’t actually know which joke it was, but I spent a good amount of time going down the rabbit hole trying to find out. This basically came down to whether or not you were a fan of each respective joke teller, but Oswalt is a bigger name and a more talented debater, so the fight felt pretty one-sided (plus, joke stealing is never okay: If I see something funny, I retweet it directly).

As both topics are hugely contentious subjects among stand up comedians, I read each one of them with quite a bit of fascination (if not at least a little bit of schadenfreude). No, neither topic was going to be settled, but unlike blog posts or comment sections, a Twitter debate has immediacy to it. It’s as close as the internet gets to a coffeeshop debate. Granted, Twitter isn’t the best medium for finely nuanced discussion, but the character restriction does require that participants whittle down their arguments to their most cogent and relevant points (ideally).

I follow plenty of provocative writers and thinkers, including Ezra Klein, Cory Doctorow, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anonymous to name a few, but comedians and humorists are clearly the most adept to and well-suited for the medium. This isn’t just because Twitter is a natural place for one-liners. As Shakespeare once wrote (or didn’t because SHAKESPEARE IS A LIE), “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Intelligent, funny people tend to know how to get the most humor out of concise thoughts, because nothing kills a joke like an endless, meandering build.*

Even a year ago, I would have said I could give or take my Twitter account. I only created it because I felt like I should have one. I was basically peer pressured into it. But, recently I’ve found that Twitter can be a limitless stream of humorous, insightful and/or challenging thoughts. It’s better than Facebook or Stumbleupon for presenting me with links of interest, not because it’s more refined in its targeting (its a whole lot less refined) but because the sheer number of posts is so massive. And unlike Facebook, it doesn’t attempt to weed out posts based on what it thinks I’ll be interested in, it just gives me everything.

Now, that can be overwhelming from time to time. Sometimes looking at Twitter is like having dozens of magazines and newspapers dropped in my lap. While I’ll never have the time or focus to read every single news item that looks interesting, it’s nice knowing that that repository is there when I want it.

And of course, the power of Twitter’s omnipresence can be both marvelous (See: Political uprisings around the world) and dangerous (See: The Boston Bomber Manhunt), but that’s true of any tool. And that’s just it, Twitter is a tool, neither inherently good or bad. Twitter is a lesson for everyone who claims that technology is ruining society: It’s not about the technology, it’s about who has access to it.

Consider me converted. Humanity created something that seemed solely designed for the frivolous and managed to elevate it to the level of profound discourse. And pictures of food.

Plus, when I just need a good laugh, my Twitter cup overflowth:

Twitter Girl Talk Twitter Gun Twitter WavesTwitter Redditors

Um, follow me?


*Actually, long jokes are usually my favorite because they require so much of the listener, but you have to be an especially talented storyteller to pull them off.

“So You’re Offended, So Fucking What?”

~ Stephen Fry

Let’s skip the foreplay: Once again, a comedian has gotten themselves into trouble for a bit he did in his stand-up. This pretty much happens every other week. Offense was taken, the internet has thoughts. Here are mine.

Daniel Tosh (of Tosh.0 fame, though he was doing far better stuff before that) was making some rape jokes at a show, a woman got offended and interrupted his set, and then Tosh started aiming the jokes at her. You can read her account (or really, a friend’s transcript of her account) here.

This woman’s personal experience is her own, and I have no ill will towards her. I just don’t happen to agree with her assertion that, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”  Because, actually, sometimes they are. I mean, I laugh at rape jokes. Not every one. A rape joke is like any other kind of joke: If it makes me laugh, I consider that funny.

(Edit – For the record, even though I don’t believe this should have to be said, I’m going to say it: I don’t think rape is funny.  I think it’s horrific and should be punished.  But humor helps take away the power of horrible things. It’s a common refrain among Jewish comedians that they are so prevalent because, in their culture, they used humor to help get through the atrocities they faced. Humor is good. Dark humor is healing.)

I laugh at racists jokes. I laugh at dead baby jokes. I laugh at “The Aristocrats” (like, a lot). Louis C.K. has called his 3-year-old daughter an asshole and I have laughed uproariously. You know what all of those items have in common? They’re jokes. If they don’t make you laugh, it almost certainly says more about you than it does about the joke or the comedian telling it.

Comedy is a hard thing to talk about intelligently (even though I’ve attempted it in the past) because perhaps more than any other art form, it really does stretch the limit of subjectivity. Laughter is so involuntary and so powerful that it’s pretty much impossible to share or explain. If you’ve ever tried to retell a joke or explain one of those “You had to be there” moments, you know what I mean.

This woman’s response to Tosh’s material was her raw emotions, and that’s just as real as laughter. She has every right to feel that way. But, while I can’t defend Tosh’s response to her (though I’d have to have been there to form a real opinion), I still find what this woman did to be annoying because her actions were pointless (if people are laughing at a joke, you saying the joke isn’t funny is clearly incorrect) and basically just a way for her to act morally superior. If she was truly offended, the best thing she could have done was stand up and leave. Lecturing the comedian, and by extension the crowd who was there to see him, is ridiculous.

But what I find most obnoxious about this whole kerfuffle is that a site like Boing Boing picked up the story and is using it to seethe with moral indignation.

Take your offense and shove it

Here’s what bothers me: Taking offense. Taking offense and expecting other people to share your offense. Taking offense and expecting other people to share your offense, and if they don’t pretty much labeling them reprobates.

I will not be offended. Not for you, not for myself, not for anyone. Offense is a meaningless reaction. It’s completely reactive, never proactive. It says nothing about the offender and everything about the offended. 

What really grinds my gears is that people who get offended rarely care about other people’s offenses. The people who are offended by Gay Pride parades cares little about who their religious protests offend. People offended by graphic anti-abortion signs have no problem with overtly sexual works of art in public. If you’re offended, it’s the end of the world, but if your ideological opponent is offended, they’re just too sensitive.

Hypocrisy, offense be thy name.

I’ve seen Boing Boing stand up on behalf of groups and belief systems that other people would find offensive. For the most part, the site tends to lean pretty liberal, which means that by the very nature of having an opinion on anything, they are going to offend someone. Do they apologize every time one of their articles ruffles feathers? I hope not. If you’re going to take a stance, don’t be a chickenshit about it. But at the same time, if you’re going to be someone who is willing to offend, don’t expect people to care when you’re offended.

This goes for religion, politics or personal beliefs as well. If you’re offended, so fucking what?*

Get over yourselves. Get over your offense.

Offensive Comedy

The best comedy offends. At least, that’s my opinion. You might not agree if you find Reader’s Digest’s “Laughter, The Best Medicine” section to be the height of comedy, but otherwise let’s just all accept that comedy is largely about making light of real life which is, for the most part, miserable. We joke to feel better, and much of the humor comes from taking a serious subject and undercutting it with humor.

It’s understandable if a rape victim doesn’t find a rape joke funny. I wouldn’t expect a 9/11 widow to guffaw at a 9/11 joke (although, maybe she would).  Individuals for personal reasons may find certain types of jokes distasteful. I get that. At the same time, there are people who face their horrific past with humor. I had a generally fucked up childhood, so what do my siblings do when we get together (other than drink and fight)?  We joke about it.

There is no one-size-fits-all for comedy, and I’m tired of self-righteous bloggers and pundits trying to make it so.

If you don’t want to hear rape jokes, don’t go to a comedy show without checking out the comedian ahead of time.  Because I hate to break it to your virgin ears, but rape jokes are pretty popular. Off-color is the new black. Perverse humor sales, and for good reason: perversity offers a unique and enlightening perspective on life. Stand-up comedians don’t tell knock knock jokes, get used to it.

There are genuinely funny comedians who do pretty safe material, but even the nicest comedian will offend someone.  Because people are pussies. You, you are a pussy.

So stop telling me what jokes are funny.

P.S. I know a lot of Tosh’s fan-base are annoying frat boys and Bros, but for all you people claiming he isn’t funny, keep in mind he has at least one pretty solid supporter:

*Only one thing offends me: Willful stupidity.

Mystery Double Feature

Every once in awhile, you need to take a night off from getting plastered and chasing poonannie and just sit home and relax with a movie.

Or two.

May I suggest a double feature with two wonderfully absurd comedies:

Mystery Team          &        Mystery Men









Other than the titles and the general concept of teams that fight crime (in one form or another) there isn’t a lot that would seem to unite these films.  One is the product of a comedy troupe in the latter half of the aughts (is that what we’re going with for the decade?  Okay, sure), and the other is a low-budget action-comedy from the 90s based on an independent comic book and peopled with a cast of smaller stars (this was before Ben Stiller blew up).

But there is a similar spirit in their comedy.  Both are about grown ups living childish dreams, both are a lot darker in their tone and humor than you might expect and both are underrated comedy gems worth your time.

What truly unites them is the comedy of wordplay.  There is a real lyricism to the way characters in each movie toss off absolute dynamite pieces of hilarious dialogue without ever winking at the audience to let them know, “Here is where you should laugh.”  These aren’t sitcoms or mind-numbing ‘parody’ movies, these are unique and funny send-ups of well-known genres (the kid detective and the superhero) for smart, attentive audiences.

It is possible you could love one movie and not the other as they are very different films, but I think a discerning comedy viewer will find both worth his or her time.

Mystery Men may seem a bit dated with its computer graphics and use of “All Star” by Smash Mouth (though, in its defense, it was the first movie to use the song), but the humor is still solid.  And how can you not love a movie that features Tom Waits as a mad genius (and Cee-Lo Green in a tiny cameo as a rapping gangster)?  (You’ll have to forgive the movie for giving Dane Cook an early break.)

Mystery Team might seem childish and stupid on the surface, but there is so much humor to be taken out of every little line and facial expression, you should not underestimate this film.  Hell, it stars Donald Glover (Troy from the best comedy on television, Community), so you know every minute that he’s on screen you’re watching gold.

Stay in one night this week, make popcorn, get comfortable and enjoy some absurdity.

Where Next?