In the latest flurry of articles and media stories about self-DNA testing, we are to understand that even some of our most specific traits are answerable to our genes. A writer for the New York Times, for example, found that after receiving the results of her DNA test from 23andMe.com, she will never again boast unself-consciously about her ability to memorize long quotations. Her genes just don't support the inference.
Lately I've been wondering: Is our sense of humor inheritable?
The question occurred to me when, faced with a moment of play overload, I sat down one afternoon last week to watch a few scenes from my old beat-up VHS tape of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator with my boys, George, 3, and Cole, 2 (my seven-month-old, Adeline, was spared).
Cole stood stock still, holding his ragged pink bunny in one hand and staring at the screen without expression. George turned to me repeatedly and laughed harder than I have ever seen him when watching other TV shows or movies. The hair-raisng part was that we found the same exact moments funny.
We started in the scene where Chaplin does an imitation of Adolf Hitler (or as he is called in the film, "Adenoid Hynkel") and speaks to the assembled masses.
Chaplin famously prepared for this scene (and the exaggerated "German" he speaks) by standing in front of a projection screen showing actual newsreels of Hitler speaking. A man who witnessed the rehearsal claims that Chaplin, working himself up into a fury of gestures and squawking, shouted out spontaneously: "Oh, you bastard you!" at one point. A master of manipulation (albeit for the good) would recognize another master of manipulation for what the he is doing on a deep level, wouldn't he?
Here's the clip, which I do recommend as one of the great moments in comedy of the 20th century:
I would draw your attention to a hidden and chilling surprise in this clip. You may need to watch it again to see what I mean... Look again at Hynkel's interaction with "Herring" (a send-up of Hitler's Commander of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goerring). Who does this guy remind you of? As I was watching it with my boys, it hit me: George W. Bush's now retired Press Secretary, Scott McClellan. Do you see it?
Which drew my attention, of course, to Hynkel's other sidekick: Herr Garbitsch (based of course on Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels). I think you know where I am going: he is a dead ringer for Cheney, with his unemotive style and cool, collected self-love.
Anyway, back to the comedy.
George has been doing the "Hynkel snort" repeatedly over the past few days to emphasize points. A typical moment in our house from last night:
"George, time for dinner."
"Go and sit down now. We've got spaghetti!"
And then it comes: Snort.
Then running the opposite direction as I chase him down.
So after enjoying ourselves thoroughly with the wild circus act of Hynkel addressing the German ("Tomainan") people, we then skipped ahead to the classic "globe dance," which if you do not know it, you simply must see:
The boys particularly enjoyed the hitting-the-ballon-with-your-butt part. (Well, George did. Cole stood transfixed and speechless throughout, which as a filmmaker I would interpret as a positive response.)
Is a love for Chaplin (and not so much for Buster Keaton) inheritable? Will they also fail to see the brilliance of Ben Stiller but love Goldie Hawn?
For an uplifting grown-up message, here is the Jewish barber's speech from the end of the movie, when he is mistaken for Hynkel and thurst up onto the world stage. Expecting more of Hynkel's rage and lust for conquest, the audience gets this instead:
But notice how at the end of the speech even the Jewish barber has slipped into "us-vs.-them" rhetoric -- "machine men!" -- and the passions of ideological certitude. As has become familiar from this blog, we find ourselves thrown back into complexity and uncertainty once again. We have to stand up for our moral beliefs, yes -- but we do so knowing that we stand on treacherous ground.