originally published September 24, 2013
It is not the trait of which I am most proud, however it would be dishonest of me to deny the fact that I am a humor snob. Not to say I cull my giggles solely from the droll and waggish cartoons in the New Yorker – I’ll admit it, I re-watched the shit-hits-the-fan gag in Airplane! a few dozen times on my dad’s Betamax copy when I was a kid, and would do so again today. Humor shouldn’t have to be highbrow (a credo that shouldn’t surprise any regular readers of this site), but it should be funny.
So what the hell is ‘funny’? Why do people keep tuning in to shows like Two And A Half Men? Why did According To Jim endure a successful 8-season run? Why did a show like Arrested Development, which I would argue is the funniest show in the history of the medium, only last two and a half seasons?
I’ve gone on record as being one of those people who doesn’t consider himself to be a Monty Python fan, and I’ve taken some heat for that. And humor is subjective, so I’m okay with plucking my laughs from a different steam-tray of the buffet than many of my friends and family. But surely someone has looked into the nitty-gritty of why funny is funny.
Explaining the specific biological and psychological motivations behind laughter might be the least funny thing a person can do. Anyone who has had to explain a joke to someone whose hair was mussed by the whoosh of air when the punchline flew over their head knows this. Deconstruction of comedy kills the comedy.
But maybe I need to understand this a little more. My daughter often watches some of the thousands of almost identically awful shows on Nickelodeon or The Family Channel. These are all 3-camera sitcoms, with simplistic characters, scathingly obvious setup-gag dialog and a laugh track that sounds as though a room full of adults are actually finding the material to be funny. If the producers were to round up mental patients on double-doses of happy pills, they still couldn’t get a room of them to genuinely chuckle at The Suite Life. Even my daughter doesn’t laugh.
So why the hell is this considered comedy?
Relief Theory suggests that we laugh in order to reduce psychological tension. Maybe there’s something we’re afraid of, or perhaps the tension and panic of someone quivering their digits against our skin – this is why we laugh while being tickled. I guess this makes sense. Maybe a lot of people are secretly terrified that they might be as hopelessly un-funny as the characters on According To Jim, so that’s what gets them to laugh. Seems a like an excessively psychological explanation, but who knows?
Superiority Theory takes us back to Plato and Aristotle and the concept of Schadenfreude, or laughing at the misfortune of others. Aristotle suggested we laugh at ugly people because we feel superior to them. Sites like PeopleOfWalmart were built on this premise. I’m sure you could find elements of this theory in characters that I find legitimately funny, like Latka from Taxi, or Buster Bluth. But this doesn’t explain how people can watch a show in which every character is consistently stupider than the average human (ever seen an episode of That’s So Raven?). How much humor can the Superiority Theory deliver?
Incongruity is really the biggest nut in the bowl here. Things that don’t belong next to each other. This is the hearty stew of the ridiculous and the absurd, the reason a murderous talking baby makes for a funny cartoon or the fourth-wall-shattering finale sequence of Blazing Saddles made that film a classic.
Incongruity leads to parody, and in the right hands parody leads to satire. When you watch a commercial for Microsoft’s tablet line that shows Apple’s Siri voice expressing exasperation at not being able to keep up with the features of her competitor, that’s an attempt at incongruous thought to elicit a chuckle. I prefer the more direct approach taken by Volkswagen in their famous body-check shopping cart commercial, possibly because that integrates a bit of schadenfreude. It looks like it probably hurt just enough to be funny.
Comedy legend Steve Allen once remarked that comedy is tragedy plus time. Well that may be, but you heard it here first: comedy is sexy.
That’s right, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller claims that humor evolved by natural selection. Women found funny men attractive because humor is an indication of other survival instincts, like intelligence, good sense, and the skill of placing a banana peel in just the right place so that a mastodon slips on it for an easy kill.
The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t explain why, after years of sexual selection that should have weeded out the unfunny schmucks and clueless dinkuses, shows like the aforementioned garbage sitcoms have such staying power. On the other hand, it does explain how genuinely funny yet aesthetically non-traditional people like The League’s Paul Scheer were able to hook up with an attractive wife.
According to the Benign Violation Theory proposed by A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, something is funny if it threatens how our world is meant to be, yet is benign and unthreatening. As long as we realize both these factors at once, we’ll find it funny. If we don’t find it benign then we get offended, which explains the majority of hate-mail the producers of Family Guy and South Park are no doubt used to by now.
I prefer Hurley, Dennett and Adams’ theory of Detection of Mistaken Reasoning. According to this, humor has evolved because those who were swift enough to detect mistaken reasoning were similarly savvy when it came to finding the funny. It’s the same neural mechanism as practical problem solving, which has always accompanied brute strength as a key component to survival.
So there you have it. It’s all about evolution, and those of us with a more particular sense of humor are clearly more evolved than the rest of you. Or perhaps that’s the Superiority Theory fogging up my common sense. I’m usually more about the self-deprecating side of the humor fence, but I suppose a little Schadenfreude never hurt anybody.
Except that dope with the shopping cart. I love that friggin’ commercial.