When I was 13 years old, I stole a book called Brain Droppings by George Carlin.
Before I get too deep into the message I’m trying to convey here- don’t steal things.
I grabbed the book because it had George Carlin on the cover, who had been a staple of the public broadcasting hit known as Shining Time Station.
On the cover it said the book contained such elements as comedy, nonsense, and sarcasm- all things I didn’t realize were in Carlin’s wheelhouse at the time because I hadn’t been introduced to comedy writing, stand-up, satire or anything that kids who were actually allowed to watch The Simpsons would have probably had a much better grasp on. I read it in one sitting, and to my delight, it shook up some of the societal foundations that (even at the young age of 13) I had become disgruntled with. Brain Droppings was my introduction to subversion.
To subvert something is to weaken it, make it less effective, or completely overturn it. Think of “subvert” as the word that sums up what the three of you spend all weekend doing to mine and your mother’s parental resolve to be consistent, calm and fair. We’re much better people on Saturday morning than we are on Sunday night.
From the moment I finished reading that book I knew that a part of me needed to hear more from the voices of the comedically disenchanted. There was a catharsis in knowing that there were other people out there who were offended by elements of the status quo, and that the way they dealt with hypocrisy, conformity, inconsistency and torpidity was by making themselves laugh. I went from Carlin to Dennis Miller’s The Rants to George Orwell’s Animal Farm to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew to Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Instution after institution gutted from the inside out through literature, whether it be faith, lack of faith, conservative ideals, liberal ideals, capitalism, socialism, greed or romance- one by one the stone pillars of society were revealed to be nothing more than cardboard doused in grey paint- but all still made sure to advocate for better pillars rather than a flattened temple.
I identify most with subversive humor. To me, the master of the craft is Jon Stewart, outgoing host of The Daily Show– or as you know him, “the grey-haired guy who flips pens” that mom and dad watch while you eat breakfast because you’ve rendered us incapable of staying up past 9pm. Stewart mocks the media, and the government, and most of all, the intersection of media and government. The thing I’ve always liked most about Stewart is that despite exposing himself to elements of society he finds to be frustratingly backward, or infuriatingly sinister, his standard for the way things should be remains unchanged.
In life, you’ll have your expectations for a situation or circumstance, and the reality of that situation or circumstance. Any time there’s a gap between your expectations and reality, that gap fills with all sorts of terrible stuff- anger, regret, disappointment, shame, fear, doubt… the list goes on. All too often with the younger generation, the remedy for this ill has been to eliminate expectations. If you take away everything sacred, there’s nothing to put your hope in, and if there’s nothing to put your hope in, you can’t be let down. I hate that. It’s OK to belong to faulty institutions. It’s OK to be let down. It’s OK to fight to close the gap between expectations and reality, and in the times where you can’t quite bridge the divide, it’s more than OK to have a laugh about it.
I’m a Christian. I’m a sports journalist. I’m an educator. I’m a husband. I’m a father. I’m a capitalist. I’m a feminist. I’ve got a lot of sacred institutions, and if any of those links still work when you’re old enough to click on them, you’ll see that within each of those institutions is an element I currently find absurd (especially the last one… dumbest article I’ve ever read), and I’m struggling to bridge the gap between what I expect of myself and society, and what’s actually going on. It would be easy to just disassociate from the things I value and avoid the headache that comes from laughing about the problem while trying to find the solution, but there’s no honor in anarchy- and there’s no subversion without the sacred.
I need you to have things that matter to you, and to be willing to take the risk of disenfranchisement that comes with belonging to any franchise. If that seems like too big a task, start with each other. You’re brothers. You’re all incredibly different, and wonderfully strange. Nothing will be an easier target for a quick laugh than your own kin, and no sacred institution will be worth more labor to reconcile expectations with reality than your own family. When your brother’s values sway toward pretentious, pious or vain, you have my permission to break each other down to build each other back up. Of course, none of this applies to your mother. She’s perfect. Don’t go teasing her in the name of subversion and blame it on me. She cooks for us. Don’t bite the hand that feeds.