August 23, 2008

So, What Is the Nature of Humor?

Genghis at Ace of Spades has an interesting article up on humor—in which a handful of academics attempt to dissect what is funny, and what is not, and how people react to "inappropriate" jokes.

As my Argentine-Italian boyfriend Sefaro used to say, "analyzing humor is like trying to pick up a butterfly with firetongs."*

I think the people behind this study are rather missing the point: it takes a special blend of hostility and polish for someone to become truly funny. I'm not saying that all funny people are sick mo-fo's—only that there has to be a region of the brain that's twisted in order for someone to have even developed the neurons that make them "funny."

For instance, I'm not funny; I can be witty, but mostly I just cross that line into "insane," rather than sublimating my general hostility into "jokes." (Early in life, I tossed a coin, and it landed on "heads." So sue me.)

A close friend who does comedy writing tries her best to be mentally healthy, but is also fond of recounting The Parable of John Cleese: supposedly, after he went through years of psychotherapy, he said the experience had made him "happier, but less funny."

There are nice people who do standup. Successfully. Really, there are. But to make "academic analyses" of humor in which one purports to be objective about the most subjective subject in the world—what is funny, and what is not, in any given context—is the ultimate in . . . well, hubris.

And hilarious.

* As an entomologist, Sefaro should know about how one picks up butterflies. I asked him and the other field-biology nerds on our grouplist for help a few months ago in identifying the bugs that were all over our breezeway and balcony, and he responded that they were Rosalia funebris, Banded Alder Borers, and I was "lucky." He'd wanted a one of those in his collection for years.

"Well, I responded, "I've got five of 'em on my balcony right now, and seven or eight in my breezeway—I can't tell exactly how many, since they are humping like bunnies—or, maybe, like banded alder borers. Want me to snag one for you? And, if you'll excuse the expression, do you want it dead or alive?"

"Well, dead," he told me, right in front of all my high-school-era buddies. (Men are sensitive like that.) "But don't bother. There's a special protocol to collecting specimens, and I don't think you'd get it right."

Well, I've got almost a year to learn it. At which point I can send him one perfectly preserved banded borer every fucking day for a week. All of 'em pinned to pieces of polystyrene and fixed, for good measure, "in a formulated phrase."

Sefaro, by the way, turned me on to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." And to Vivaldi. And to Borodin. He couldn't quite get me into chess, because one cannot reflect properly that game without learning notation. And somehow chess notation struck me as numeral-like. I couldn't surmount the hangup.

Also, to play a good game of chess requires that one stop drinking Canadian Club for hours at a time. Though I do remember that at one point in the 1980s, before Sefaro was married (much less a father) a bunch of us were, um, tripping, and he attempted to play a game of chess against the household Mac. He saved the history of that game in a file entitled "Hey, Man." I could have fallen in love with him all over again just for that, but it was just too late, then. We knew each other too well.

"All things must end."

Posted by Attila Girl at August 23, 2008 03:42 AM | TrackBack

it takes a special blend of hostility and polish

What? are you saying non-Poles can't be funny? are you being racist? why do you oppress us non-Poles??

Posted by: I R A Darth Aggie at August 23, 2008 03:10 PM

The three kinds of humor I know of are outrageousness, schadenfreud, and the surprise that should have been expected.

Outrageousness is a low form that consists of violating established norms, such a cursing, and physical abuse.

Shadenfreud consists of taking delight in the suffering or denigration of others. It is a favorite form among thugs and leftists.

The surprise that should have been expected is the highest form of humor. It comes in many forms, and when they didn't dip into the other two forms, Monty Python excelled at it.

Posted by: John at August 23, 2008 06:52 PM

Humor is incongruity--partially the element of surprise, partially the thing that is out of place--the pun, the little wry twist. It doesn't take hostility to be funny; far from it. Hostile humor has very little humor about it. The nastier you get, the less funny you are, except with the people who share your hostilities.

Posted by: Trish at August 25, 2008 07:20 PM

Maybe. And yet I see a corollary between people who carry a certain type of baggage around with them, and who who have the capability of being genuinely hilarious . . .

Posted by: Attila Girl at August 26, 2008 05:41 PM

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