Years back, I watched my company go from 9000 employees to 3000 over a four-year period. It was month after month of seeing shell-shocked people lose their livelihoods, including the guy who had three kids with muscular dystrophy, whose health insurance expired at midnight the day he was let go. I wrote an essay called "What To Do When You Get Laid Off." It was full of suggestions for regressive behavior to engage in as they walked you out the door. (You can see a shortened version here.) I read the essay at open mic night at the Antioch Writers' Workshop and people laughed. A lot. Waves of laughter rolling toward me.
One of the workshop teachers was also a comedy writer for the Gary Burbank show. (Burbank was a radio show host in Cincinnati famous for his comedy skits.) After the reading, she told me, "You're not funny." She said true humor comes, not while you're still angry, but after you've processed that anger.
So who's right? Her or McKee?
Rage does fuel comedy. But it's also scary and off-putting. I was never a Sam Kinnison fan--he was just too angry for me. On the other hand, Lewis Black's rants totally slay me. I suspect everyone has a fulcrum for humor--stuff on one side is funny, stuff on the other side feels too uncomfortable. The comic geniuses are the people who can get you to shift that fulcrum, who can lure you over to the dark side where you see things differently. That's why comedians have so much power for social justice.
What made Erma Bombeck funny was that her essays had this little bite of unpalatable truth to them--the truth that, as much as we love our kids, our husbands, our lives, there are times when we don't like them very much. Example: "I am one of those devoted wives who is trying to up the retirement age for men to 95. My motives are purely selfish. I don't think I could stand Mr. Fixit around the house for longer periods than my present four hours a day, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays." Not too edgy by today's standards, but she wrote that in 1966, when women were still expected to be Suzy Homemaker and like it. Erma did her bit for women's liberation.