How to Punk Your Steam Part 7.2: Make ’em Laugh (Again)
In yesterday’s post, we took a look at what kinds of things people in the Victorian era found humorous, but many of these topics are unsavory to today’s audiences. So in Part 2 of this How to Punk Your Steam article, I want to explore the idea of “offensiveness” and ways to work around the incredibly thin skin of today’s audience.
Recently, The Atlantic Monthly ran two extremely interesting articles that I feel relate to the topic of the perils of trying to incorporate humor into your work of fiction. Both of them focused on college campuses and the repercussions of going overboard when it comes to being politically correct, both in Academics and in entertainment. The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, had some interesting insights about how our culture has swung so far towards ostensibly protecting every single minority’s rights that the very nature of going to college has been changed:
“The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness. That’s partly right, although there are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and ’90s. That movement sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.”
But, the article that applies the most to the topic of humor was called That’s Not Funny! Every year, the careers of aspiring comedians are put on the line when they attempt to get on the college circuit. There is an annual showcase for universities of all sizes to choose entertainers for the coming year. The problem is that these acts have to become so incredibly sterilized in order for the comedians to book gigs that they are no longer funny, or the funniest people don’t get jobs because something they said was perceived as maybe being possibly offensive to even a single student.
The goal of being inclusive is, of course, admirable and discrimination is bad. At the same time, comedy has the capacity to make us think, to change our perceptions and see things from different perspective. But, only if we let it.
So how does this all relate to Steampunk?
There are some people who do not like Steampunk because they feel it romanticizes an era where discrimination and inequality ran rampant. And it is true, most people were uneducated, lived in poverty and lead short, brutal lives. Things we take for granted such as germ theory and basic nutrition were still not fully understood. But, I’d say that the best Steampunk out there does not glorify these things, rather it forces readers and viewers to confront these realities in our past (or create alternative, sometimes contrary expressions of the past) and deal with them. And a great way to soften that blow can be through humor.
I think it important for readers and writers alike to remember that they do not have to like every character in a story. Frankly, universally likable people are super boring. The characters who populate a world can and should be biased by their upbringings and blind to other points of view. Like real humans they should make mistakes, have slips of the tongue and have deeply held though totally unproven beliefs. And if some of these foibles get them into trouble, which leads to character development and growth, everyone wins.
Jokes made by these unlikable characters, or a likable character in a moment of weakness or naivete, are a perfect opportunity to confront some the issues of inequality I mentioned. These are the comments that cause a sharp intake of breath or a few moments of a slack jaw in an audience. Like a little whap to the side of the head, they get our attention and make our minds reel. It also gives other characters a chance to respond, thus offering a platform for a different point of view.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Vivisection
Then again, maybe that’s not your style. I have run across several works of Steampunk that are delightfully funny, and have very little to do with social commentary, or at least not in a soapbox kind of way. Rather than getting our feathers ruffled about the way things were in the past, we can also decide to find the humor in the ridiculousness. People in the steam era used cuttlefish in their toothpaste, prescribed orgasm to treat a woman’s “wandering womb” and thought that bathing was bad for one’s health. They owned special clothes just for driving and women’s bathing suits required black woolen socks. There is a big capacity for embracing the weird and wacky world of the Victorians and hopefully your readers will be willing to go along for the ride.
Another approach could be to do a mash up of the era with our own. Applying contemporary sensibilities and situations to the past is a great opportunity to point out how ludicrous it really was. A great example of this is the film A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014). The protagonist is a sheep farmer in the old west and he absolutely hates everything about that time and place. I’ll write a proper review of that movie later this month, but in the meantime I also found this awesome sketch from the 2009 Red Nose Day charity campaign that puts Victorians on a reality show.