Despite variables like age, gender, culture, and level of education – some form humor is a universal quality that ties groups together. In the Western world, specific forms of humor (irony, satire, parody, ridicule) serve important roles as defensive mechanisms for individuals as well as acting as social moderators in public discourse. On a macro level, these forms of humor reveal truths about widely-held social norms by twisting them into exaggerated or absurd versions of the real world ideas they are based on. These truths may either may not be apparent to the audience, or in many cases, the audience simply cannot accept the truth being revealed until it is served up into a more socially palatable humorous form (Humour). On an individual level, humor is one of Freud’s four healthy coping mechanisms which are unconsciously adopted in the face of any situation with an uncertain outcome. More commonly, coping mechanisms are adopted to deal with problems that are not rationally soluble (Embree). Among one of the most rationally unsoluble recurring ideas in the Western world are the apocalypse, the destruction of the earth, and the extermination of humanity. It is no wonder then that despite the seemingly grim subject matter apocalyptic humor is widespread. Humor about end times in books like Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series uses the destruction of the world as a starting point to gives insights into humanity’s unconscious foibles. Humor articles found on Christian Eschatology websites like Rapture Ready serve to help its readers cope with the idea of an imminent rapture. Conversely, books like Jason Boyett’s Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse serve to debunk ideas of an imminent end time, using satire, parody and ridicule to make who do believe in a coming apocalypse look absurd. Endist humor is used by authors various ways to achieve several distinct results.
The humor of the Rapture Ready website is exemplary of Freud’s idea of humor as a “defensive mechanism”. Freud described a defense mechanism as, “a means by which the unconscious mind helps a person to cope with a situation (anxiety-inducing event or trauma) which the conscious, rational part of the self is unable to resolve sufficiently on its own — due to a lack of rational coping strategies, due to weak ego strength, or simply because the problem is not rationally soluble” (Embree). Any problem without a solution or without a way for one to actively play a part in his or her fate requires a healthy (or unhealthy) defensive mechanism to cope with the lose of that power. Rapture Ready features humor articles like Brian Daley’s “Could You Come Back at a Better Time, Lord?” that sooth their target audience which consists of, according to another article, “Those of you who read this page before the rapture and those of you who read it after the rapture” (Daley). Daley asserts that Jesus warned his followers that he was coming back at a time they least expected it. He puts a humorous spin on that idea by writing a top 7 countdown list of, “oh-why-now situations to be in when Jesus returns!” The awkward apocalyptic situations he suggests include, “All-U-Can-Eat barbeque rib night”, “after a workout”, and “the bathroom”(Daley). Daley’s article serves to reinforce the narrative of an imminent rapture as well as comfort his audience with humor.
Not all endist humor concentrates directly on the physical event (the who, what, where, when and how) of humanity’s or the world’s destruction. The urgency and absurdity surrounding the idea of end of time can also create a fertile breeding ground for humor. Douglas Adams, in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, uses the end of the world as a starting point to expose the humor in human foibles and truths totally unrelated to the narrative of the ending the world. In fact, Adams spends less than half a chapter devoted to the destruction of the world before he changes the novel’s focus entirely. In his second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Adams similarly uses the ending of the universe as a starting point for his observations on humanity.
Much of the comedy in some humorously toned endist narratives rests on exaggerated descriptions of the world’s destruction because they concentrate primarily on the event itself. On the contrary, Adams makes the destruction of Earth in his first book a non-event. Arthur Dent, the main character of the series wakes up to find that his house is to be bulldozed to make way for a highway bypass. A hard-nosed Genghis Kahn-like foreman for the project explains to Dent that if he wanted to argue the matter of his home’s destruction, he should have filled out the proper paperwork with the government weeks before. Arthur explains that the government gave him no knowledge of any such paper work. Only pages later, Earth is destroyed by similarly hard-nosed aliens who need to destroy the planet in order to make room for a “hyperspace” bypass. They alert the people of earth over loud speakers that it is useless to argue the planet’s destruction because the proper complaint papers should have been filled out long ago with the “interstellar government”(Adams). These types of parallels to the real world (here satirizing government inefficiency) are what make Adams’s description of the end of humanity amusing; however, unlike most humorists who write about the end times, Adams does not dwell simply on the event of the world being destroyed and humanity being wiped out. The Earth’s destruction is deliberately made to be an anti-climax.
Arthur is shuttled away by a friend who happens to be an alien, and afterwards this the characters waste little time lamenting on the destruction of Earth and humanity. Adams uses the destruction of humanity as a springboard used to add urgency and newness of the situation Arthur is forced into (because there is no Earth to return to). At the same time, the destruction of Earth frees him to lampoon real world mores and standards safely behind a shield of allegory.
Adams also plays with another interesting millenarian concept, that may be unconsciously influenced by other endist narratives. Arthur meets an alien named Slartibartfast, a worker at the designer planet-building factory (Magrathea), responsible for designing the physical topography of Earth. He explains to Arthur that in storage is another “backup Earth” in case of the original Earth’s destruction. This backup Earth is not the Earth that Arthur knew. Instead it is an exact recreation of the prehistoric Earth that his co-workers had installed into space millions of years before (Adams). Here, Adams presents a millenarian perspective on the destruction of the Earth. The original Earth and its billions of inhabitants were all destroyed, but a new unpopulated Earth still exists ready to take its place. The point isn’t labored in the novel, nor should it be overstated in an analysis of the novel, but the idea that Adams may be introducing with the second Earth is the very millenarian idea of a new beginning for humanity that comes after a crisis that destroys the old order.
Like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams’s second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, uses a endist narrative as a background to examine social issues. Here, even more so than his first novel, Adams introduces endist ideas simply as a platform to write about his ideas. The facets of society he critiques are only tenuously related to the event of the ending of the universe he describes in the book. Once again, he uses the humor of the fantastical world he created as a lens to magnify the stupidity and childishness of people through seemingly benign allegory. One of the more inspired insights comes from how Adams humanizes the technology he introduces giving these machines both intelligence and emotion. Elevators like the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Happy Vertical People Transporters grow weary of their mundane jobs and get bored with going up and down. (Treviño)
Not unnaturally, many elevators imbued with intelligence and precognition become terribly frustrated with the mindless business of going up and down, up and down, experimented briefly with the notion of going sideways, as sort of an existential protest, demanded participation in the decision making process and finally took to squatting in basements sulking. (Restaurant, 47)
Most of the book deals with insights about the human condition with machines serving as a parallel for real life human emotions. Adams uses humor here in this book, even more than his first, to reveal truths about humanity (and humanity’s relationship with technology) that may not be palatable if introduced in a less humorous, more didactic form. He uses an allegorical presentation just like many non-humorous fictional endist narratives to mask the fact that the seemingly absurd world of the novel takes place in is, in fact, a mirror of the real world. “Robots are so smart they can’t relate to anybody. And drink dispensers, capable of providing any drink in the universe, can tie up an entire ship’s control while trying to figure out how to get just the perfect taste of Earl Grey tea… the machines can think/learn/feel, [but] in the end… it seems to hurt the characters more than it helps them” (Treviño).
After several tecnological complications, Arthur and his companions, reach The Restuarant at The End of the Universe to eat. The restaurant, which is perched at the precipice of the end of time (a great singularity can be seen out of the windows) is described as a hangout for the rich, and famous historical figures (dead or alive) from around the galaxy. Similar to the first book, Adams turns the ending of the universe and all time into a trivial non-event. The ending of all time and space at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is described simply an entertaining dinner show featuring some strange time-warp that ends the universe and restarts itself leaving the diners at the exact same point in time they were at before the show started. Time ends, restarts, and then, “The diners can then go back to their normal lives while the end of the universe continues to happen at least once an evening” (Restaurant).
At first glance, this idea that Adams introduces defies all logic, but in an narrative aside, Adams deftly attributes that to the fact that the English language is not equipped to describe the logic of time travel. He explains that main problem behind explaining the workings of The Restaurant at The End of the Universe or the end of the universe itself is, “Quite simply
It is an interesting (though tangential) point to note that, Adams’s asserts in his narrative asides that time travel can only be logically described and understood outside of the boundaries of human language (specifically English), yet Adams’s is an author obviously bound by the limitations of the English language; therefore, he is describing an idea that he deems undescribable. “A great deal of humor is a consequence of language. Language is an approximation of thoughts through symbolic manipulation, and the gap between the expectations inherent in those symbols and the breaking of those expectations [often] leads to laughter” (Humour). Adams’s unresolved problem with linguistics make the description The Restaurant at the End of the Universe a logical fallacy and the whole idea of The Restaurant becomes a humorous, meta-joke.
Not all endist humor comes in the form of twisted narratives of the end time; instead, much apocalyptic humor revolves around satirizing, parodying, and ridiculing the people who honesty believe in endist narratives in order to debunk their views or make them look absurd and illogical. Jason Boyett’s Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse: The Official Field Manual for the End of the World features a 48 page long timeline spanning from 2000 B.C. to 2005 A.D. (the present) listing the names of doomsday cults leaders, detailing their predictions, and showing how incorrect those predictions were. The cynical, sardonic tone that each entry is written in clearly attempts to mock the religious or political leader who predicted the end and by extrapolation, mock anyone “ignorant” enough to believe that leader’s prediction.
April 6, 793 A.D., Spain: Beatus, an elderly Spanish monk, gets really plucky one day and amid a crowd of people, prophesises on April 6 that the Second Coming of Christ will occur on this very day! So everyone commences freaking out and fasting and generally making panicky noises until the sun comes up on April 7. And seeing that everyone is still present, including Beatus, they all go home to eat. (Boyett 23)
This passage is exemplary of all the entries in this chapter in several ways. It’s sardonic tone of the entries is characterized by the exclamation mark after “on this very day.(Boyett 23)” The manner in which the entries mocks the soothsayer is demonstrated in the first sentence, “Beatus…gets really plucky one day.(Boyett 23)” Finally, the way the author trivializes the actions of a soothsayer’s followers in each of the entries is exemplified in the line, “They commence freaking out…making panicky noises…they all go home and eat.(Boyett 23)” As a whole, the humor in this chapter, as opposed to other styles of endist humor is used to debunk the veracity of both ancient and modern (as well as religious and secular) endist narratives.
Humor in discussions of the end times is utilized by society in various sometimes conflicting ways. The doomsday awaiting readers of the Rapture Ready website are attracted to humorous discussions the end times because they are comforted by them. Freud theorized that humor is an unconscious but healthy coping strategy used to reconcile situations in which one has no say in their own fate (like how one may feel when he or she thinks a worldwide apocalypse is imminent). Not all humor in endist narratives deals with the physical event of the end itself. Douglas Adams has written two books that allegorically explore humanity’s foibles with the end (first of the world and then of the universe) as a backdrop. Some endist humor attempts to debunk apocalyptic thought and belittle those who subscribe those thoughts rather than confort those who subscribe to those ideas. In The Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse Jason Boyett uses humor (through parody and ridicule) to make apocalyptic ideas seem absurd and illogical. Endist humor takes various forms and serves a wide range of purposes on a macro societal level as well as on an individual level.
Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Reissue edition. New York: Del Rey, September 27, 1995.
Adams, Douglas. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. 1st American ed. New York: Harmony, November 13, 1982.
Boyett, Jason. Pocket Guide To The Apocalypse: The Official Field Manual For The End
Of The World. Relevant Books, March 2005.
Daley, Brian. “Could You Come Back at a Better Time, Lord?” Rapture Ready
Embree, Marlowe Ph.D. “Defense Mechanisms and Coping Strategies.” University of Wisconsin
“Humour.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Dec 2005, 11:49. .
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Treviño, Marty. “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.” (1998)