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Humour’s purpose

March 7th, 2005 | 2 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

Hypothesis 1: One purpose of humour is to make palatable truths so horrible and terrible that we would otherwise ignore them entirely.

I take “humour” to mean something like the presentation of some speech or image whose intention is to cause laughter in the person reading or seeing it.

The speech or image is humourous if it actually ends up causing a laugh.

There are plenty of jokes, movies, books, pictures, comics that produce a laugh that are not doing so by the presentation of “horrible and terrible” truths. I am talking only of those that do. Why is it that the presentation of what, in one context, would be horrendous and awful, eliciting silence, reverence, and awe, in another context elicits guffaws?

For instance. I was driving along with some friends, recently, and someone asked, “Is there ever a bad time to have a conversation?” The first proposal was, “At a funeral.” Someone else rejoindered, “But isn’t a funeral the best place in the world to discuss death, life, priorities and such? Why not have a conversation?” In response to this, we all became entertained at the thought of doing uncouth things at funerals. I said, “What if I raised my hand during a funeral address and asked ‘What is death?’!” No hemlock for this Socrates; I think I would get shot.
We had a bit of a laugh about it, but the question struck me: Why is the thought of asking such a question funny while we are here in a car, not a dead person in sight, but at the funeral it would hardly be a laughing matter?

My preliminary answer is that at the funeral it would be a laughing matter, we just wouldn’t know it yet.

The underlying premise of this hypothesis is that there is no truth so horrible, so terrible, that it is not to be faced. There is nothing so bad, not even hell, that, when revealed for what it is, would not be… well, kind of funny.

Why do things seem so horrendous? Why does death, genocide, suffering, hatred, torture, seem to be the farthest thing from the object of joking? Because we do not understand it. And that is OK.

I am not saying I do not find evil sobering, or that I find wickedness humour… But I am saying that I think, eventually, I might. Humour is to make light of things too heavy for me to handle now. It is to make light of them until they become light to me indeed.

As this hypothesis is tentative, and a bit fuzzy, I welcome critique.