Why Are We Laughing?

My first instinct upon watching the video of Charles Ramsey’s now-viral interview, in which he recounts his role in the rescue of three women and a child who had been held captive in his neighbor’s home for ten years, was to share it. The story itself is incredible enough–man hears unfamiliar woman screaming from neighbor’s house, goes over and helps her break the door down, only realizing she is one of Cleveland’s most famous missing persons as he is calling 911–but his enthusiastic telling of the rescue, filled with colorful details, was not only inspiring but somehow, in the face of a horrific reality, funny.

At first I didn’t feel bad about laughing. Ramsey is so at ease in front of the camera, he tells the story like he himself can’t believe it. He keeps going back to the small details: he had just been to McDonald’s and was sitting down to eat his food when he heard the screams, he never suspected the owner of the home was hiding something because he used to barbecue and salsa dance with him. And he isn’t afraid to say things that might make others nervous. “Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.” The man is a hero; he did a good thing and he seems completely unselfconscious of his own role in the extraordinary story.

But just as quickly as the memes and GIFs and inevitable AutoTune began to surface, so did a few articles suggesting we, the internet public, were laughing at, not with, Charles Ramsey, that this meme-ification of his interview and persona was racist, classist, and shamefully making light of a serious tragedy. I suddenly felt really guilty. I frantically tried to dissect my initial reactions; why did I think it was funny? Was I laughing at the expense of a real human being, one who had done a very good and even heroic thing? Could any humor in the videos, offensive or not, be separated from the gravity of the situation?

There are wrong ways to laugh–a lot of the responses are racist and classist–but the more I think about it I see things that are okay to laugh about, because these are things that remind us just how real the story is, things we laugh about because we relate to them. I know what it’s like to want to enjoy a day off, to find myself in the middle of something completely unbelievable, to be unable or unwilling to comprehend the reality I am confronted with. Ramsey is a man who found himself in the middle of some pretty extraordinary circumstances and did a good thing. It’s a thing many people, in fact, would probably not do:

One phrase in particular, from the interview, is worth dwelling on: “I figured it was a domestic-violence dispute.” In many times and places, a line like that has been offered as an excuse for walking away, not for helping a woman break down your neighbor’s door. How many women have died as a result? They didn’t yesterday.

That’s from a New Yorker piece that helped shape my thinking on the still-unfolding, increasingly insane story. It draws out the many ways in which this story diverges from the captor/captive/rescuer narrative that has typified other recent cases. People can do terrible things but they can also, in the midst of a pretty normal life, rise up to do big things. To be clear: this man is a hero, not a meme. In interviews today he deflected praise from himself, saying, “No, no, no. Bro, I’m a Christian, an American, and just like you. We bleed same blood, put our pants on the same way. It’s just that you got to put that – being a coward, and I don’t want to get in nobody’s business. You got to put that away for a minute.” He also rejected reward money for his role: “I tell you what you do, give [the reward] to them. Because if folks been following this case since last night, you been following me since last night, you know I got a job anyway. Just went picked it up, paycheck.”

I think it’s not only okay but necessary to laugh, not at the circumstances themselves but at anything funny we can find surrounding them. Louis CK defends his habit of approaching rough topics in his own comedy:

I like jokes that are brushback pitches. There’s a mix of laughter and people going, “Oh, Jesus!” But that turns into laughter. I like taking people to an area in their minds or their culture that they don’t think they should be thinking about or laughing at, and then getting them to laugh there. That’s a great thing to be able to do that. Take people to a place they’re afraid of and say there’s something funny here.

Laughter can be a recognition of hope. It reminds us of our humanness, our fallenness, and our ability to be more than our painful realities. For the record, I am not a fan of the AutoTunes or memes–these reduce a person to an object for our amusement, and I don’t think that’s right or fair. But I do think we have reason to laugh. Because life can surprise us, for bad and for good, and because no situation is without hope.

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