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Man in Tree, Hashtag Sprees and Comedy's Amateur Hour

As a comic I view big hashtag happenings like #ManInTree the way alcoholics view St. Patrick’s Day: It’s amateur hour. When an incident captures the imaginations of thousands like the one resolved safely in downtown Seattle Wednesday morning, people jump on social media to toss their first take into the ring. Commenting on it means being in on the joke—that’s what hashtags are for—and you can learn a lot about how comedy works by watching people fumble with a novel event in real time.

When the man first climbed the tree it was hard not to get caught up in the fervor over an act that seemed both heroic and absurd. It hit the sweet spot. Dude just straight-up climbed a tree and refused to get down. The simple determination of it resonated with many, including myself. I’m a tree-climber from way back and I remember hiding in the upper branches to get away from chores, hide-and-go-seekers or my older brother. It’s peaceful up there with the wind riffling through the leaves. A man can get some thinking done.

Now take that tableau and plant it in the middle of the downtown shopping core, add in traffic jams, a fire truck ladder crew, barricades and law enforcement. The city went bonkers and the story went national, appearing in the New York Times, the Washington Post and on network news. Within an hour someone even made a Twitter account, @Man_In_Tree, that quickly garnered more followers than I’ve accrued in seven years. Even local police departments joined in:

In the ensuing 24 hours, every possible comedic take was proffered: man in tree as metaphor for rising Seattle rents, man in tree seeking respite from all the depressing presidential campaign news. Man in tree as meme, future Halloween costume, and t-shirt design. It was also used as an occasion to propagate many, many tree/apple puns. ("What’s a tree’s favorite month? Sep-Timber!")

Admittedly, Tree Man mania was manufactured, prodded by bored desk jockeys on a slow Tuesday afternoon and given wall-to-wall coverage by pandering local news outlets. Even Phoenix Jones, a spandex-clad walking hashtag himself, got in on the act:

As often happens in these situations, the initial wave of jubilation over the basic, silly facts—there’s a MAN way up in a TREE!—gave way to more serious speculation: Is the man mentally ill? Drug addicted? Homeless? Could it perhaps be wrong to joke about a man in a dire situation whose life may currently be in serious danger? Isn’t all this joking about that poor confused man…dun dun DUNNN…problematic?

Then again, just because you’re joking about him does it necessarily mean you don’t also have compassion for the man? Isn’t it possible to be both amused and concerned? After all, some of the people gawking from the barricades were also shouting “We love you! Please come down!” They were genuinely worried for his wellbeing. One woman even offered to make out with him if he’d just return to the earth and he almost took her up on it.

At the same time, many were horrified by the spectacle. I had friends on Facebook who said, “If you’re joking at all about the man in the tree, please unfriend me.” Considering that this “hilarious” event was most certainly precipitated by tragic underlying circumstances—systemic conditions that point to the sorry state of mental health care in this country—isn’t the most compassionate move to just leave the poor guy alone?

But can’t something be funny and sad at the same time? Isn’t that what comedy does best?

This process, from lighthearted laugh-a-minute free-association spree to serious ethical reflection to wider societal observation, is much like what comics sometimes go through when writing jokes—at least the comics who care about such things. Who is targeted? Is it fair? Is it funny?

Turning my attention from the Man in Tree saga, I was dicking around on the Internet when I came across something that I found hilarious. It’s a vanity music video by a concerned Christian mom in Canada in which she raps—horribly—about the need to discriminate against trans people in public school restrooms. It’s a cringe-worthy performance for an awful cause, a word salad with a malicious message. It’s the “Friday” of anti-trans bigotry.

Who could be a more clear-cut target for mockery than this privileged white woman on her pathetic soapbox? But as I went to repost the video I had a thought: What would my trans friends think of this? Would they find it funny as I did or be traumatized by gazing into the face of the enemy? Is my ability to find this video funny directly correlated to my distance from its real-world impact?

I know that trans people can joke about their persecution; recently I had Danni Askini, executive director of the Gender Justice League and candidate for Washington’s 43rd Legislative District, on my talk show to discuss what she calls “Panic! At the Bathroom.” Askini has been at the forefront of opposition to a barrage of anti-trans legislation the Republicans have been cooking up in Olympia and across the continent. We awarded her the "Medal of Valor for Bravery in the Line of Doody." She’s clearly able to find humor in the situation, and her ability to articulate the comedy inherent in Republican potty-snooping lends humanity and credence to her cause. Laughing at the genital-obsessed legislators might be the most effective way to oppose them.

But I know that being on “their side” doesn’t give me a free pass, so I asked a couple of trans friends what they thought about the demented music video I enjoyed. They obliged me.

L Henderson, a local trans comic (who I previously interviewed here) said, “It's funny, but in a ‘Why’d you even make this?’ way. I am not shocked by it, just sorta ‘ugh’ about it. Might be triggering for some folks, though.”

Andy Iwancio, another trans comic said:

“At first I found it a little funny, for sure, but it's kinda hard to not feel immediately threatened by what she's saying. These are exactly the ones who will vote on my bathroom rights should any of the current Washington initiatives make the ballot. From everything I've been dealing with, I've done my best to make it funny in my own way. I’d rather have other trans-comedians like Robin Tran, Riley Silverman and Avery Edison be [more] visible than have this hateful knock-off of a Tim & Eric sketch be any more viral.”

Knowing that the video was a downer for them took some of the mirth out of it for me. It’s hard to enjoy something when you know it’d bum out someone you care about. But isn’t this a perfect example of the way oversensitivity forces comedians to parse every little thing and placate every special interest group and protected class until nothing is allowed to be funny anymore? Did I just “PC police” myself? Has my own sense of humor been colonized by a liberal nanny state?

This has happened to me before. After a drunk driver killed my friend’s mom, I cringed at jokes that made light of drunk driving. When another friend suffered a stillbirth, I was put off dead baby jokes forever. The more I try to see things from the perspective of people I care about who are different than me—black, Latino, fat, gay, in recovery, on the autism spectrum, homeless, etc.—the more aware I become to the ways in which they’re portrayed.

Nevertheless, I still think the dopey music video is funny even as I know that not everyone agrees. I also think some of the #ManInTree jokes were funny even as I’m concerned for the man himself. I’m a thinking human with the ability, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I can handle contradictions. Something can be both funny and sad.

This zone between what makes you laugh and your empathy for those impacted by the joke is what social justice activists call “the growing edge.” Within that zone we all draw our own lines between what’s acceptable and what’s not. More than any other cultural force, comedy is how we define that line. Being a comedian—a teller of shared truths—is increasingly important in these contentious times. Which is why the job’s gotten more difficult. Laughter is easy but comedy is hard. Laugh all you want at whatever you want, but when you’re the one making the jokes, amateur hour is over.

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