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.

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler

16 Comments

  1. Your example of the apparent inappropriateness of laughing at a funeral reminded me that on the show yesterday Hugh asked Lileks if he’s a wedding man or a funeral man, and Lileks said he prefers funerals because (1) weddings just turn into everybody getting drunk and making a fool of themselves, while (2) there is that wonderful moment after the funeral has been over for a while when people start visiting and enjoying each other’s company and then there is finally that first laugh as people start making jokes and telling stories like we do in real life.

    That’s just my paraphrase but also feel that laughter has a kind of clarity after a funeral: it’s more distinct from non-laughing. Nobody laughs gratuitously and it’s not as cheap as it is in everyday life.

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  2. Keith, what’s your email address (your bubbs mailbox is full or won’t receive emails)?

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  3. Keith,
    Your penchant for analyzing humor (see your Eddie Izzard comments a few months ago), reminds me of a time in high school when I tried to systematize humor and find it what made it so, well, funny. You pull it off with much more grace than I did, and come to much more useful conclusions, although I might add that humor is one thing that shrinks away from the light of interrogation.

    That aside, I would like to jump into the conversation with a word or two on “Merchant of Venice.” I saw the most recent movie version of it tonight (a magnificent production that was faithful to the play), and I think the plot is a good example of mixing humor with deadly truths. In fact, I think it’s the only dark comedy I like–although not as a comedy, exactly, but rather for the moral questions it raises. If you and your colleagues have time to discuss them, I would like to work out a few problems. One: I, like most viewers, feel instant sympathy for Shylock once he’s been thwarted. Yet previously in the same scene, he was calling mercilessly for the blood of his fellow man. Is it only because we ourselves haven’t been wronged that we’re willing to sympathize so easily with him? Two (and this one causes me greater unease): Shylock is commanded, in a nutshell, to either become a Christian or be executed as a Jew. He chooses to preserve his life and “convert” to Christianity. Now, as a Christian, I am somewhat comforted by the hope that his character would eventually accept the truth of Christianity despite his initially being coerced into it. But as a fellow believer in something higher, I cannot advocate Shylock’s surrendering of his faith merely to save his life. That would be for me to rejoice in his making a compromise that I would never feel comfortable making (God willing). Does anybody else deal with these questions, or ponder the several moral conundrums which the play presents?

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  4. “…a time in high school when I tried to systematize humor…”

    Lindsey, what kind of systems did you use?

    I personally like lists… :)

    Do you still have any of them? I’d be delighted to see them…

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  5. “although I might add that humor is one thing that shrinks away from the light of interrogation.”

    E. B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

    But I say, humor is like music… The contemplation of it, the performance of it, and the “sit back, open your mind” experience of it are three almost entirely distinct things.

    I would argue, to the chagrin of many, that the “systematic analysis” of the divine mystery that is Euterpe’s art, while different than performing it or experiencing it, has the eventual effect of making one more able to perform it and more able experience it.

    Who will cringe at musicians who “study” notes and scales and phrases? No one accuses them of dissecting a frog. Yet the two are no different.

    Think of your favorite commedian. In addition to some natural talent, I guarantee you that the reason you like them so much is that they spend a lot of their time dissecting frogs.

    I think the difference between annoying frog-killers and experts must be that no musician takes to studying their scales at a party… amateur funnymen do.

    For all my analysis (and yes, Lindsey, it is a penchant of mine) the question that has stumped me is, “In Book III of the Republic, why does Glaucon laugh?”

    I have identified some causes whose effects are laughter… but why are they thus causes? I do not (yet) know. Why does Glaucon laugh?

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  6. “I, like most viewers, feel instant sympathy for Shylock once he’s been thwarted. Yet previously in the same scene, he was calling mercilessly for the blood of his fellow man. Is it only because we ourselves haven’t been wronged that we’re willing to sympathize so easily with him?”

    Lindsey, I’m curious to hear your own answer to this question…

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  7. “Does anybody else deal with these questions, or ponder the several moral conundrums which the play presents?”

    I am thinking of Plato’s Republic (Two Republic references, I know), the end of Book II, but nothing else comes to mind… any one else?

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  8. Jonathan, Bubbs is cleared up. You can use keithebuhler@gmail.com for backup.

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  10. I concede the point that analysis of humor can be appropriate–whether comedy is a science or an art, it takes cultivation of skill and/or talent, which can require a high degree of discipline and study.

    Why does Glaucon laugh? Two reasons come to mind. One, he laughs self-defacingly in reaction to Socrates’ comments on music, or because he has to work hard (as he admits) to follow Socrates’ line of reasoning. Two, his laugh strikes me as something an amiable person would do when he is humoring a verbose friend while the friend rattles on about his own views, caring less about who’s listening than the working out of his own thought process. So Glaucon sits back in amusement and watches his friend go, interjecting only the occasional question or agreement. I can imagine the scene only too easily, since my good friends often laugh at me as I attempt to engage them in my own tortured mental debates.

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  11. Re sympathy for Shylock, I don’t know how I would answer my own question. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been so terribly wronged that forgiveness is difficult, so I can’t measure the degree to which sympathy is tied up with personal involvement. I would like to say that, as Christians, we are all too ready to forgive him, especially since we are aware of the hardships he’s suffered. But that leads to another idea, namely that no one can make you sin except yourself. No matter how much Shylock had been wronged, his lack of mercy was inexcusable by divine standards. Notice, too, the thick tension between mercy and law (Christianity and Judaism) thoughout the courtroom scene.

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  12. Keith,
    Re “what kinds of systems did you use?”
    The only thing I remember about the incident is that we were cleaning out my grandmother’s flooded basement and I made a crack about the Sorceror’s Apprentice. Nobody thought it was funny, and I didn’t understand why. So I wrote a paper for my English class on the appropriateness of humor, which received in a lukewarm manner. The whole incident was a blow to my pride and crushed my fledgling attempts to analyze humor.

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  13. There is an article by Marty Roth comparing the Merchant of Venice with the Oresteia called “‘The Blood that Fury Breathed’: The Shape of Justice in Aeschylus and Shakespeare,” in Comparative Literature Studies vol. 29, no. 2 (1992): 141–56.

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  14. Jonathan,
    Thanks for the reference. Greek influences or similarities might shed some light on the moral issues. I hadn’t thought about it before, but one theme of the play does seem to be the occasional inadequacy of justice. There’s probably all sorts of secondary literature about this. . .

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  15. Why does Glaucon laugh?
    Lindsey said, “Two reasons come to mind. One, he laughs self-defacingly in reaction to Socrates’ comments on music, or because he has to work hard (as he admits) to follow Socrates’ line of reasoning.”

    OK. Let’s examine that. In Book IV Glaucon says “I don’t understand.” Socrates explains to him. He says “I still don’t understand.” Socrates continues. Then he gets it.
    Why no laugh here? It seems Glaucon is comfortable not understaning Socrates. Is this different because it’s later and so the discomfort has changed in some way, maybe worn off?
    Or is there something peculiar about the knowledge of music which Socrates supposes him to have that is particularly uncomfortable for him not to have?

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  16. PS. To clarify, I say “is there something peculiar about the knowledge of music” because the line in Book III, the one that elicites laughter, is in regards to music.

    Pulling from the online Jowett text it is as follows (Socrates speaking, then Adeimantus):
    “Next in order will follow melody and song.”
    “That is obvious.”
    “Every one can see already what we ought to say about them, if we are to be consistent with ourselves.”
    “I fear, said Glaucon, laughing, that the words ‘every one’ hardly includes me, for I cannot at the moment say what they should be; though I may guess.”

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