The Humour of Ayn Rand


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i just read a book by shell silverstein entitled The Humour of Ayn Rand, which is reprinted below in its entirety:

short read, huh? did you like it?

someone surely has an anecdote, i hope!

cuz i'm just a tad ill hearing: 'her faults made her human to me'.

did she ever crack a joke?

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tndbay,

I moved this from Humor since it did not appear as a joke, but as a prelude to a discussion on Objectivist humor instead.

To answer your question, yes, Rand did have a sense of humor. I remember her mentioning "Faith, Hope and Charity" being the grades of spiritual gasoline at the spiritual gas station - just to mention one thing that comes to mind.

I find Rand's humor usually and exclusively mocks to some extent, so that could explain why it seems limited.

Michael

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a discussion on Objectivist humor?

they have that? i though it all had to be imported- like objectivist wigs, objectivist coffee mugs, objectivist t-shirts, etc.

i really was hoping for some examples of non-utilitarian wit, silliness, fun..

thanks for the one example - are there really so few?

after all, you have pointed out, and we have seen- it is the insecure who can not tolerate a joke without taking insult.

if rand was so insecure, then what was the fraud she was concealing?

did she know what that was, herself, or was she in denial?

was there nobody in her life up to the task of identifying it for her so she could correct it?

if there was, did she listen or merely excommunicate?

what was so vital it required such defenses?

now you got me going- misunderstandings can lead to interesting investigations!

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i got something mixed up. it was in the thread about satire, which was quite lengthy (in which the sensitive-to-ethnic-jokes NickOtani chose to take enuff insult to leave OL) where you said:

Rand was generally a sourpuss when it came to traditional humor. By projecting this into a philosophical principle to cover ALL humor, she turned one of man’s basic drives into a built-in defect that needs to be programmed out of him. This is nothing more than a variation of Original Sin. Her theory stands if applied only to mocking. If applied to other forms of humor, it is “wrong.” I prefer “incomplete,” since mocking is a form of humor.

then dragonfly later posted:

Another Rand quote (Ayn Rand Lexicon):

Quote:

To laugh at that which is good, at heroes, at values, and above all at yourself is monstrous.... The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in you own face.

I've seldom read such nonsense. Beware of people who can't laugh at themselves! The hidden premise in Rand's quote is that you are a perfect human being, without any flaws, so that if you laugh at yourself, you must automatically laugh at something noble and good. This notion is of course completely crazy, nobody is perfect, every person has some traits or does some things that may be laughed at without implying that the person must therefore be bad or evil.

none of the above contains any real refutation of what rand SAID, for instance, my parsing algorithm finds an easy way to laugh at myself that has no conflict with rand's description. when i laugh at me- it's not the identity i laugh at- it's certainly not 'the good' that is comical- but the failure to make me match up to the ideal. i laugh at the monkeyshines. :)

good things don't make me laugh; they make me cry. maybe i'm backwards?

but it was paul mawdsley, not you, who wrote:

Contrary to Rand’s statement quoted above, a sense of humour about oneself is a great value because it increases objectivity. When we can laugh at ourselves, we reduce our defensiveness against the sides of us we don’t like to own. We can be open to seeing more of ourselves clearly. When we can see all the parts of ourselves more clearly, we can bring more of ourselves under conscious scrutiny and volitional control. We can be more integrated.

Conversely, when we can’t laugh at ourselves, we can bury those parts of ourselves we don’t approve of– especially, in the case of Objectivists, those parts that don’t fit with Objectivist authority. To borrow from Pink Floyd, “All in all it’s just another brick in the [randroid] wall.”

in fact, you did not respond directly to paul mawdsley's post at all.

again, i am sorry for mixing that up. it may not affect the topic, however?

i started out looking for any funny joke by rand as a single one would constitute a proof that she had a sense of humour. then you offered a single example of a joke that wasn't really very silly or funny. i thought of the phrase: 'to damn by faint praise' just because the utter paucity of examples seems bizarre. that made me wonder just what might be beneath this lump in the smooth fabric of her philosophy.

if we assume that rand had a reason for the things she did, then what reason underlies: she turned one of man’s basic drives into a built-in defect that needs to be programmed out of him? that's something monstrous, no?

i've noticed this before many times that what a person wants most to hide is what he most rails against.

and paul mawdsley's post, of course, can be reparsed to give the meaning of the bit of my previous post re insecurity. that's the logic i use to infer that a hypersensitivity to something which can not ever produce a legitimate damage claim and can in no way violate a right MUST have some basis which, if not apparent, must be concealed.

with regard to the second part of your response, of course i never stated or implied such a thing as you say. lack of a sense of humour is not equivalent to the choice of taking insult to a joke. one means you don't get it. the other means you get it and you want to somehow censor it.

lack of a sense of humour also doesn't equate with QUOTE: "turned one of man’s basic drives into a built-in defect" by any stretch of the imagination.

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tndbay,

We're cool. Tit for tat.

(btw - I should have asked "And what on earth would makes you think insecurity means concealing a fraud?" I was just using the logical daisy chain: you stated insecure = not tolerating humor without insult, thus I assumed lack of humor = insecure, and then you implied insecurity (Rand's) = concealing a fraud, thus I connected it and assumed lack of humor = concealing a fraud).

Dayaamm! I'm sure glad that's cleared up.

So long as we're on earth-shattering issues, what is the price of orange pekoe tea in Beijing?

:D

About Rand's humor, I have a hypothesis. I use Koestler's view of intersecting planes of otherwise non-associated characteristics for humor (and scientific discovery and artistic creation). I believe that Rand was so penetrating in doing such intersecting for philosophical thinking and artistic creation that she somehow found it not dignifying to let the same process be used for humor.

Add to this a need for control (as related by Barbara Branden in PAR and others), Rand came up with that idea of programming her subconscious and literally tried to program normal healthy humor right out of her mind. She decided that the human capacity for humor must fit her philosophy, not her philosophy must encompass man's drive for humor as it exists.

As Rand was an intellectual giant, such programming probably had other compensations. (That kind of thing always has one unexpected result or other.) Still, she paid a high price for that. Look at how her outlook gradually got more and more negative over time. She didn't allow herself to laugh at normal everyday carefree silliness.

Now imagine a person who is not an intellectual giant who does such programming - like the young lady in my quote. I shudder to think of the long-term results...

Practically all of Rand's humor was mocking. Think about the costume ball in The Fountainhead where Keating and others dressed as skyscrapers bumped bellies. Or when Wynand laughed at Toohey when Toohey offered him a surprise present in order to meet Dominique (in this case the reader needed to be told the "mock" because it was not evident). Or her names of characters like "Wet Nurse" and "Mouch."

Or in nonfiction - like her outer space story at the beginning of "Philosophy: Who Needs It":

Since I am a fiction writer, let us start with a short short story. Suppose that you are an astronaut whose spaceship gets out of control and crashes on an unknown planet. When you regain consciousness and find that you are not hurt badly, the first three questions in your mind would be: Where am I? How can I discover it? What should I do?

You see unfamiliar vegetation outside, and there is air to breathe; the sunlight seems paler than you remember it and colder. You turn to look at the sky, but stop. You are struck by a sudden feeling: if you don't look, you won't have to know that you are, perhaps, too far from the earth and no return is possible; so long as you don't know it, you are free to believe what you wish—and you experience a foggy, pleasant, but somehow guilty, kind of hope.

You turn to your instruments: they may be damaged, you don't know how seriously. But you stop, struck by a sudden fear: how can you trust these instruments? How can you be sure that they won't mislead you? How can you know whether they will work in a different world? You turn away from the instruments.

Now you begin to wonder why you have no desire to do anything. It seems so much safer just to wait for something to turn up somehow; it is better, you tell yourself, not to rock the spaceship. Far in the distance, you see some sort of living creatures approaching; you don't know whether they are human, but they walk on two feet. They, you decide, will tell you what to do.

You are never heard from again.

I do not know of any example of Rand being simply zany. This kind of thing was about as close as I can find. Even her "toothbrush in the jaw" thing was mocking Gertrude Stein.

Michael

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" Rand came up with that idea of programming her subconscious and literally tried to program normal healthy humor right out of her mind. She decided that the human capacity for humor must fit her philosophy, not her philosophy must encompass man's drive for humor as it exists."

well, that's what makes a human a human, by my best definition- a creature who defines himself. i know i rehearse what i think i should get good at and extinguish habits that need it on a very regular basis.

as you have pointed out (i think i got this one right) humour isn't something you force ppl to pay for- it is an element of man's nature, for sure.

and rand really did do well if you are scrupulous about definitions. indeed, if all humor is mockery, then it's only one semantic conversion to make this correspond 1:1 with reality: if mockery is any time you point out a contradiction, then it looks like a good definition of humour, what she gave.

for indeed, satire is a wrecking bar for demolition of false monuments and other fake erections.

laughing at a kitten playing is mostly cuz it's comical to watch a little creature full of intent but short on capacity do his successive approximation- it's the failures en route that are funny, not the success.

it's hilarious to watch a kitten offer to fight a big dog, for instance, when you know there's no way his intent could be fulfilled. the ambition being contradicted by the incapacity is mirth provoking. it's not the kitten, per se.

perhaps a flaw enters when she characterises humor as 'essentially destructive' as if humor were not any kind of passive response but instead a tool only (but if nobody laughed would it be a funny?)

i think mirth is on the level of emotions- an instantaneous response to a perceived contradiction on a subverbal level. a comedian develops a skill at eliciting this response with stories or performance.

but back to topic- something screams at me it isn't right!

a consciously developed habit of objective inquiry gets you atlas shrugged. a happy person laughs at things. it's not adding up yet.

was she unhappy?

if she was unhappy, what was the fear or guilt?

(i hope the logic of that is easy!)

pete

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Pete (can I call you Pete?),

I find an ocean of difference between laughing at the chaos part of existence (we are always bumping into stuff and falling down without wanting to - and there is nothing we can do to change reality in that sense) in a good natured manner as if it were not important - not to be cried or pouted over - and considering such laughter to be only an indication of demeaning something, thus forcing yourself to limit it to evil things.

Call it making peace with Nature's whims or whatever - to me laughter can come from an almost metaphysical impulse of feeling that we are good enough to withstand the calamities of chaos. (Please understand, this is in addition to the joy of feeling efficacious, not in substitution of it.) I find such laughter comes from a good part inside me - just as I find that mocking people comes from a bitter part, so it is not happy laughter at all. (I am not very conceited - I had to give that up the hard way - so mocking to me no longer involves the self-aggrandizement I often observe in others, merely bad vibes.)

Chaos exists. So does order. I laugh when things go wrong because the order in me is stronger than the chaos and I know things will be right shortly. That's a very joyous thing to feel.

Michael

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i don't equate contradiction with evil, either.

inquiry is all about running headlong into them and resolving them.

i think i have a satisfactory understanding of humour, and even laughter.

i've met humorless people before. they were unhappy ppl. i don't recall a single instance of a happy person who was humourless.

inquiring minds want to know, is all. there is an apparent contradiction here- and, as one expects, it is funny- consulting a curmudgeon on the nature of humour is a funny idea.

i think humor is too self evidently an attribute of human beings to disregard or damn it.

well, this has to inspire a limerick, or i can't prove anything! so here goes:

-=the Humorrhoid=-

this is a story in verse

of a lady austere and perverse

she would choke on a joke

that provokes normal folk

to incontinence, sometimes, or worse!

depression began to consume her

the doctors suspected a tumor

but on x-ray was shown:

a misplaced funny-bone!

and from then on they called her Deep Humour!

pete

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Something is being very much exaggerated here. It's true that Rand objected to humor directed at oneself, and with that statement I very much disagree. But I think what she intended was to condemn the kind of humor that says, in effect, "Poor little me, I'm so stupid and helples, of course I'm fit only to be the subject of jokes.."

It's not true, however, that she had no sense of humor, although I grant that it was not highly developed. But her life was, for the most part, a harsh and difficult struggle against crushing odds, first in Soviet Russia and then in America. It was not the the sort of life that was conducive to developing much humor in oneself. Would you criticize Elie Weisel if he did not have a highly-developed sense of humor?

She especially liked political jokes, that is, jokes that poked fun at self-inflated political figures; self-inflation was a particular object of humor to her. And look at the title, ATLAS SHRUGGED - it's a cosmic and subtle joke. It was her husband's suggestion, but she certainly saw the humor in it -- and the appropriateness -- sufficiently to use it as her title. Her novels are not filled with humor -- but, then, they deal with subjects that are deeply serious. There's not much that's funny about a man setting out to stop the motor of the world, or about an entire civilization falling into decay, or about a man desperately in love with a woman who, for many years, he cannot even approach. And by the way, just how many jokes have you found in Victor Hugo's novels?

The criticism that there is little humor in Rand's work is akin to such pseudo-criticisms made against her as that she didn't present children in her novels or that she never showed her heroines using birth control methods. I have never, ever, heard such criticisms directed at other writers. Why on earth should she have introduced children? Her books were about adults, and she dealt with and introduced only what was essential to her themes. As for the birth-control criticism, it is totally off-the-wall; what significant novels can you name that, in a romantic-sexual scene, have all action stop while the heroine takes a pill or the hero uses a condom?

My point is that criticisms of Rand are very often of a wildly irrelevant kind, and that to object to the fact that one doesn't have much reason to laugh while reading her novels is one of the most irrelevant. She didn't believe in the Shakespearean concept of comic relief; it adds nothing, and breaks the mood the writer has taken great pains to create.

So criticize away if you wish, but be fair to Rand. She deserves it.

Barbara

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There is also a subtle intellectual humor in Rand. For example, recall Lois Cook's line:

Let's be gods. Let's be ugly.

I found that line terrifically wicked in its humor. Ayn Rand's scenes where contemporary intellectuals are schmoozing together are full of this sort of pointed mockery. This is what I mean in my "theory of humor" given above, when I say humor seems to be essentially the indirect presentation of truth and values.

Is the nature of joking essentially "the implying of metaphysical non-importance," as per Rand's thinking? (Actually, to me it is not clear she intended this as a full-fledged definition or her final word on the topic.) Only in the sense that humor is a kind of playfulness, which should only be indulged in when circumstances allow. But it can't be maintained that this is the basic nature of comedy.

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Barbara,

We agree. I certainly believe that Rand should be respected, not mocked.

But I think what she intended was to condemn the kind of humor that says, in effect, "Poor little me, I'm so stupid and helpless, of course I'm fit only to be the subject of jokes.."

I also agree that this self-denigrating kind of humor should be condemned. I don't know if I would call my comments about Rand "criticism," if that is to mean negating her view of condemning this kind of humor as a part of mentioning her almost blindness to other kinds.

As with all areas where I have reservations about Rand's positions, I agree with her in what she covered, but I do not believe she covered the whole thing. Her condemnation of this kind of humor (and a few other kinds) certainly cannot be applied to all humor. However, to repeat, it is correct for the kinds of humor she condemned.

I make a distinction between lampooning, which is not malicious, and mocking, which is malicious. Sometimes it is a very fine line and a lampoon can easily turn into mockery. But the underlying message can go from the extremes of "you are above your limitations and I laugh at them in salute to you" (or "salute to life") and "you are despicable enough for me to laugh at you for your limitations," with all kinds of variations of these positions in between.

This is why I do not see, at the outset, any malice in the "Humorrhoid" limericks above, for one example. They were pretty clever in a "tasteless" sort of way and I did not feel any intent to actually denigrate Rand or her ideas. Merely spoof a limitation. They brought a smile to my lips. I might be wrong, but that is my initial judgment. Time will tell as Pete writes more. (In such case, of course, my attitude would change drastically.)

Michael

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Barbara:

"The criticism that there is little humor in Rand's work is akin to such pseudo-criticisms made against her as that she didn't present children in her novels..."

It's been a long time since I've read Atlas Shrugged, but weren't there some pretty adventurous children in the novel who spent their summers exploring, taking a few exciting risks, learning about how things worked and discovering their own amazing abilities?

"My point is that criticisms of Rand are very often of a wildly irrelevant kind..."

I think some of Rand's criticism of other artists, which could be harsh, unfair, and, occasionally, rather foolish, tends to invite similar criticism of her work. That may explain part of it. I also think that the powerful philosophical content can overshadow the joy contained in her work. I've known people who have started to think deeply about the big ideas in her novels and have then pretty quickly forgotten the excitement and inspiration in the stories. They start to treat every detail of the novels as philosophical issues to be examined. I've suggested that they go back and read the books again as ~art~ to refresh their memories. When they rediscover the art, as opposed to just the philosophy, their criticisms tend to disappear.

J

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i didn't know rand was criticized for not writing comedy. but such a criticism would surely be grounds for another limerick!

-=seriously funny=-

a critic was once heard to mention

while at a rand roasting convention

"it's really fantastic

being iconoclastic

it certainly gets me attention!"

"in fact," he continued to say

"i make a fine living this way.

in comes the money

when i cry 'she's not funny'

and i ride on her coat-tails all day!

pete

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Rodney wrote: "There is also a subtle intellectual humor in Rand. For example, recall Lois Cook's line: 'Let's be gods. Let's be ugly'. I found that line terrifically wicked in its humor. Ayn Rand's scenes where contemporary intellectuals are schmoozing together are full of this sort of pointed mockery."

I agree. And you're right: her humor is almost invariably intellectual.

Michael wrote:"I do not see, at the outset, any malice in the "Humorrhoid" limericks." I don't see malice in it, either. If there was any implication in my post that I thought it malicious, I apologize; that was not my intention.

Michael also wrote: "As with all areas where I have reservations about Rand's positions, I agree with her in what she covered, but I do not believe she covered the whole thing." No, there is no way that her remarks can be applied to all types of humor. ButI don't think she was intending to give an exhaustive statement about humor, but rather to indicate her objection to one type.

Jonathan: "weren't there some pretty adventurous children in the novel who spent their summers exploring, taking a few exciting risks, learning about how things worked and discovering their own amazing abilities." There certainly were such children -- namely Dagny and Francisco. They were what one would wish all children to be. But children do not figure in her novels as characters who move the plot forward. The young Dagny and Francisco were presented to show the relationship between the two adults.

I agree with you that many people tend, focusing only on the philosophical ideas in Rand's novels, to forget the excitement and inspiration they afforded. It's doubly a pity that this should be so, because they are forgetting what probably was the reason they were motivated to think about the ideas. Too many Objectivists become arid pedants, forgetting that what draws people to Rand -- and what drew them -- is her presentation of the human potential, of the unlimited and joyous possibilities available to men -- and to them.

tndbay, I do like your last limerick. (Do we have to call you tndbay? It's a rather stuffy name for a limerick writer.)

Barbara

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A Postscript: There is more I want to say about some of the posts in this thread, but I'll have to get to them later. Assuming I live to be 90, by which time I should have responded to all the posts on Objectivist Living that I want to discuss. You people have too many interesting things to say!

Barbara

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I agree. And you're right: her humor is almost invariably intellectual.

Barbara

One of my favorites is Francisco's statement: "I never deny anything".

-- Mike Hardy

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One of my favorites is Francisco's statement: "I never deny anything."

I remember that line, and I never noticed the whole joke--the contradiction! Thanks, Mike!

Now I'm trying to think in what situation Francisco said it. Without looking it up, my guess is, knowing AR, he was speaking to an intellectual.

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One of my favorites is Francisco's statement: "I never deny anything."

I remember that line, and I never noticed the whole joke--the contradiction! Thanks, Mike!

Now I'm trying to think in what situation Francisco said it. Without looking it up, my guess is, knowing AR, he was speaking to an intellectual.

He was speaking to a journalist. The journalist said

"Do you deny that blah blah blah blah?" He could

quite truthfully have denied the proposition in question.

But he wanted to leave a false impression for secret

purposes of his own. So he said "I never deny anthing." -- Mike Hardy

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One of my favorites is Francisco's statement: "I never deny anything."

It's been a long time since I last read AS but an image of Francisco responding to someone describing his exploits as a playboy jumps into my head. You have to care what someone thinks to deny his depiction of you: a twist on Roark's, "I don't think of you."

Paul

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Barbara wrote,

"Too many Objectivists become arid pedants, forgetting that what draws people to Rand -- and what drew them -- is her presentation of the human potential, of the unlimited and joyous possibilities available to men -- and to them."

It's not just Objectivists who sometimes seem to forget what drew them to Rand. I've known a few people who first loved Rand's novels, then became interested in learning more about Objectivist philosophy and began exploring the nonfiction (and, in one case, the online communities), disliked a lot of what they saw, and then years later ended up with some pretty tainted memories of what the novels had meant to them. A couple of them took my suggestion to go back for a second reading and found themselves once again enchanted.

J

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To Mike: Oh, I remember now. (I should have remembered--I've read AS ten times!) It's not such a joke then, and I see why I did not react to it as a taunting contradiction.

un-LOL!

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Barbara,

You lived as an intimate of Rand for many years, so you have a great deal of first-hand observation on Rand's sense of humor. I believe she had a normal sense of humor to some degree as you say.

What I object to is taken from some of her writings. Here is an excerpt from The Art of Fiction (which is not her writing per se, but what she taught orally). As it was edited by Tore Boeckmann without stating where the edits took place or when - or even what, it is possible that more on humor was included in the course. Also, I have not heard the edited tapes that are sold by ARI yet.

The Art of Fiction, p. 168,]Humor is a metaphysical negation. We regard as funny that which contradicts reality: the incongruous and the grotesque.

(...)

Humor as the exclusive ingredient of a story is a dubious form of writing. While some people have acquired great skill at it, such humor is philosophically empty because it is merely destruction in the name of nothing.

In sum, humor is a destructive element. If the humor of a literary work is aimed at the evil or the inconsequential—and if the positive is included—then the humor is benevolent and the work completely proper. If the humor is aimed at the positive, at values, the work might be skillful literarily, but it is to be denounced philosophically. This is true also of satire for the sake of satire. Even if the things satirized are bad and deserve to be destroyed, a work that includes no positive, but only the satirizing of negatives, is also improper philosophically.

The idea of equating humor only with destruction is a strange one to me. I also find her idea of where it is proper to be highly incomplete.

As I mentioned before, I see one type of humor as asserting efficacy over chaos, thus it is extremely benevolent without destroying anything, much less existence (which includes chaos for living entities as part of the show).

(Note to Jonathan: Your last post is one hell of an inspiration.)

Michael

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argh! i fall from grace. now i probably have to wear clothes and stuff...

it would seriously detract from the fun of slash and burn if i had to include a philosophical treatise in a work of comedy!!

is that ok if i just footnote the work with *(see the works of Ayn Rand for the right stuff- no need to repeat her work here) ?

what a trap was set and i'm caught! you know what that means? another limerick!

-=atlas mugged me=-

with limericks potent as these

the mighty are brought to their knees

since the purpose i'm after

is infectious laughter

i'm worse than a fatal disease.

omfg, it's self deprecating too...

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