When You Smile 

With these books, you need a license to laugh.

Lying in the hospital dying of cancer, her father is a "bloated shell" who moans and shouts, "Help." When she was little, "he beat me with a shoe. Dragged me across the room by my hair. Came at my locked bedroom door with an axe."

Okay, laugh. Laugh, damn you.

We know Daphne Gottlieb and Diane DiMassa's graphic novel Jokes and the Unconscious (Cleis, $17.95) is supposed to be funny because it has the word "jokes" in its title. And because its back cover promises "Where comedy meets chemo, where mirth meets mortality." DiMassa's drawings feature skulls, puke, a sick man's penis exposed by a hospital gown, a woman miscarrying into an overflowing toilet.

Ha ha.

Once upon a time in America, nearly everyone laughed at the same things. It was an unspoken consensus: the spouse. The boss. Mothers-in-law. Guy walks into a bar with a duck on his head. ... It was a nation that said Knock-knock-who's-there and loved Lucy, a nation battening on shared roars. That was then. Laughter today is a code language, a litmus test, a risk. Jokes are a niche market, as identity-driven as politics and DNA, another million long tails.

Because what are jokes if not catharsis? What are jokes if not jabs at whatever makes us mad? Laughing together at anything means that we agree.

And we don't.

Or can't, or won't. Gun control means never having to say "I missed you." Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot.

Sectors assert themselves. Coulter, Colbert. Spunky irreverence — "Nigeria Chosen to Host 2008 Genocide" and "What Idiot Wrote These Ten Commandments?" — in The Onion Presents Homeland Insecurity (Three Rivers, $18.95), edited by Scott Dikkers and Carol Kolb. With Peter Hilleren, Dikkers also authored this season's Destined for Destiny (Scribner, $19.95), a faux presidential biography, featuring a George-with-Jesus photo spread and such chapters as "The Clown-Faced Zombie I Call My Wife." Meanwhile, in Conservatives Are from Mars, Liberals Are from San Francisco (WND, $18.95), longtime Los Angeles Times humor columnist Burt Prelutsky quips, "Q: What do Islam and the bubonic plague have in common? A: Just about everything."

The days are past when you would buy a book based on the clerk saying it was hilarious. Humor has been balkanized. Risa Mickenberg and Joanne Dugan's Beauty Parlor Wisdom (Chronicle, $14.95) comprises quotations from salon staffers and customers: "You never want to get on the wrong side of a tiny Japanese gay man." "Maybe you not as strong as you hair." "Good news is ... woman with moustache have bigger orgasm." It sports a shiny red padded plastic cover. Ten years ago, its authors created Taxi Driver Wisdom.

Jews control the media, have huge noses, "are certainly not known for their prowess in the bedroom," and steal office supplies to save money: Read it in Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson's Jewtopia (Warner), whose cover shows a crossed-out "$25" and "For you, $24.99." Based on the pair's stage play, illustrated with photographs of matzoh and feces, it plumbs that self-deprecating humor for which Jews are so famous. And from which they've made such fortunes. See how funny this is? You can picture the authors toiling over such lines as "Thou shall not batheth, for I am the Lord thy God and I command thee to stinketh." Jews harbor "insatiable appetites for retail," won't stop fixating on World War II, and are — guess what? — tightwads in Jonny Geller's Yes, But Is It Good for the Jews? (Bloomsbury, $15.95). Geller applies a "Judological formula" to pop-culture phenomena from QVC to Joaquin Phoenix, completing equations that deem each either good or bad for the Jews. "Guilt is GOOD FOR THE JEWS." "Happiness is NOT GOOD FOR THE JEWS." Ah. Meanwhile, Jewtopia is subtitled "The Chosen Book for the Chosen People." So the target audience is insiders, Hymie? One guy's in-joke is another's hate crime.

Because no one loves a lowest common denominator anymore, we see more and more wit refracted through an irony lens, an obtusity lens, a smarter-than-thou filter. Self-described "Parnassian man-childe" Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy presents diagrams, poems, and essays about handkerchief-folding, marble fauns, and "assessing one's man-antler" in The Affected Provincial's Companion (Bloomsbury, $14.95), which he calls a "a sweet, sticky ball of mirth." Justin Jorgensen's Obscene Interiors (Baby Tattoo, $12) comprises nude photos that guys took of themselves to accompany online dating ads, but the guys have been excised so all you see are man-shaped gray cutouts surrounded by home decor. You ask yourself: Get it?

Because you want to. You really want to get it because others might be getting it, and if you don't, what are you? Stupid? A Republican? A rube? But it is never easy anymore, and only slackjawed yokels laugh out loud.

Anyway, it could cost you. Long gone is the standard playground lexicon — spaz, retard. Teachers warned you not to laugh at anyone. They told you body shapes and foreign accents were not ipso facto funny. Fine. Across America today, colleges adopt speech codes that make joking a suspendable offense. Rutgers' code prohibits "joking comments (between friends, roommates, floormates) ... which may be racist, sexist, heterosexist (homophobic)," even when "it is believed or discovered that the perpetrator(s) has no specific or general intent to harm an individual or group." University of Maine residence-hall rules define "harassment" as punishable "even if the harassment is unintentional (e.g., an offhand comment or joke)." In 2004, University of New Hampshire sophomore Tim Garneau was expelled from his dorm after posting a flier in its elevator that read: "Nine out of ten freshman girls gain 10-15 pounds. But there is something you can do about it. If u live below the 6th floor take the stairs. Not only will you feel better about yourselves but you will also be saving us time and won't be sore on the eyes."

But you can rib crippled freaky tubsters if the crippled freaky tubster is you. Adults dissect their own adolescent diaries — "I made doodie. I wiped myself and these little white worms were on the toilet paper" — in Mortified (Simon Spotlight, $14.95), assembled by David Nadelberg and subtitled "Real Words. Real People. Real Pathetic."

Mass rape, serial murder, execution, beheading, eyes and ears slashed out with swords, an IED severing a soldier's arm — it rollicks, some of it very well drawn, in The Best American Comics 2006 (Houghton Mifflin, $22), along with hospitals and puking ("BAARRFF! ... HUACK! ... BLARG!"). The book's dozens of contributors include Express contributor Jesse Reklaw, Jaime Hernandez, Ben Katchor, Robert Crumb, Alison Bechdel, and Terisa Turner, editor of not only Oil and Class Struggle but also Arise Ye Mighty People! Gender, Class, and Race in Popular Struggles. Her comic concerns Nigerian labor unions striking against big oil. Its last panel reads: "Imagine a world where Bush has to ask ordinary folks for the gas to put in his war machines."

Okay, so this guy walks into a bar — and you'll never guess what he's got on his head.


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