Pagliacci et al: Integrating Comedy, Illness Narrative, and the Social Power of Humor
In the graphic memoir My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s, Dunlap-Shohl approaches humor in a multifaceted manner. Once an integral aspect of his personality and career as a cartoonist, humor now grows increasingly macabre, in the face of a life-threatening degenerative disorder. Yet, this approach to humor is by no means inappropriate. Rather, in this graphic memoir, humor and hyperbole serve as a means of empowering oneself, masking fear and anxiety of the future and creating a means of engaging and ‘defeating’ Parkinson’s. Humor is something that Dunlap-Shohl is capable of creating in the midst of losing core functional abilities. Although discussing subject matter as serious as suicide (1-5), Dunlap-Shohl is able to use humor to communicate an incredulity of his condition as well as create a veneer of normalcy, and to engage with an otherwise painful memory. In the same manner, When he states “move it or lose it” (15), amid cartoonish depictions of an angel in spandex, he acknowledges that without exercise he may lose his life. Throughout the novel, Dunlap-Shohl’s approach to humor is a means of confronting and reflecting on his experience, as humor acts as a way for him to achieve a semblance of normalcy in the face of disaster.
As Dunlap-Shohl moves from anger and hopelessness and into a more positive modality of acceptance, humor shifts to become a weapon rather than a mask to hide oneself. A noteworthy example can be found as he metaphorically boxes with Parkinson’s (87), stating “We’re still on for tennis tomorrow, right?” while knocking the disorder out, he aims to use humor to engage with Parkinson’s, joking about a tennis match with the chronic disease he will face ‘tomorrow’ and for the rest of his life.
Despite the tragedy of ‘degeneration’, Dunlap-Shohl remains jocular. Initially, humor acted as a protective force, capable of keeping him grounded and communicative of his issues. Yet, with time, it became a powerful tool for engaging and combating the disorder. Compared to Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, who acknowledges that his “communication system disqualifies repartee: the keenest rapier grows dull and falls flat when it takes several minutes to thrust it home,” such that “…[He] count[s] this forced lack of humor one of the great drawbacks of [his] condition” (71), humor is a possible outlet of expression and communication for Dunlap Shohl, and he though he fears his worsening condition, he exhibits a defining part of his personality in his humor, and uses it throughout the novel to great effect.
- Dunlap-Shohl, Peter. My Degeneration: a Journey through Parkinson’s. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.
- Bauby, Jean-Dominique. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Vintage International, Random House, Inc., 1997.