Thursday, March 12, 2009

Man's Laughter

I posted on the Althouse about humor being equal to rejection, which raised some eyebrows. I then launched into a rambling explanation of what I meant, but I'm not sure I was very clear, or even that I expressed it properly.

Here are some points I was using to highlight the idea:

When children single another child out to laugh at, they're rejecting him. We instinctively know that and that's the whole basis of the "at" and "with" consolation. (I'm actually not sure that this is humor, but I think it's related to the concept of laughter and rejection.)

Q: How can you tell an elephant's been in your refrigerator?
A: From the footprints in the butter.

Humor there comes from the rejection of the notion that, of all the ways you might be able to detect an elephant, sleuthing out butter cubes is at the top. We reject that notion.

Or non-joke jokes:

Q: Why do firemen wear red suspenders?
A: To keep their pants up.

Very meta. We laugh because there's nothing there to reject. It's a perfectly sensible answer to the question. In this case, we're rejecting the joke itself, or our expectation of something clever.

Times change of course. 1940 movie house audiences were in stitches when Bugs Bunny first said, "What's up, doc?"

They rejected the notion that a rabbit would react that way to a hunter.

Nowadays, the out-of-place reaction to danger by a woodland creature is so common as to be tired. We no longer laugh uproariously at wisecracking rodentslagomorphs.

OK, let's flip to some other kinds of comedy.

Charlie Chaplin, eating his shoe: Audiences doubtless related to the hunger, but they rejected the notion (as we do, though far less profoundly) of eating one's shoe as though it were a gourmet meal.

Buster Keaton, running The General. He's fleeing for his life in the steam train. His girl is throwing wood into the engine and as she picks up the wood, she evaluates it for suitableness, in one case throwing out a large piece because it has a small hole in it. We reject that rejection. Heh.

The Marx Brothers were steeped in odd behavior that was totally inappropriate for the situation, and surrounded by people whose reactions were impossibly indulgent.

A lot of modern comic writers, especially Woody Allen, give us neurotic characters. Always, of course, a little too neurotic. We reject their exaggerated responses, and at some level probably reject the idea that neuroses are just wacky fun.

How about puns? A pun--should it make us laugh or groan--is a rejection of the use of a word.

A lot of physical comedy is based on social propriety, which may be one of the reasons that physical comedy is much harder to do effectively these days. Pie in the face? Seltzer down your pants? Hell, it's a rare day one of my co-workers doesn't come in with pie on their face and seltzer down their pants.

In fact, life in general may be less humorous because it's not polite to reject people any more.

Not all laughter is humorous, of course. One can laugh out of joy or exhilaration. Or out of meanness.

Similarly, not all rejection is humorous.

I've often thought that black humor (like, Network) is relatively unpopular because it gives very faint signals that it is to be rejected. Black humor, ultimately, is a rejection of mortality, or at least the significance of mortality, as well as other Very Serious Things.

But again, times change. One of the great Richard Brooks' last movies was the muddled Wrong Is Right. I was sort of amused and sort of befuddled right up until some people started blowing themselves up--that was my cue that this was all meant as over-the-top satire. Audiences today might interpret that signal completely differently.

But I've rambled on enough for now. I hope that clarifies.

(NOTE: I originally typed this up last June and never posted--at least I can't seem to find it on the blog anywhere. I'm not sure why I didn't post it, but here it is now.)


  1. My Shakespeare professor drilled into us this: The elements of comedy are surprise, exaggeration and reversal.

    My librarian pal tells me that all novels have two plots: someone goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. That's a little binary isn't it?

    I appreciated your thesis on humor and thanks for including puns into them. I love puns because they're a humor where no one is a victim. I also love them because my dad and I would do pun-offs with each other...much like tennis, you 'won' if the other guy couldn't return your last hit. Pun tennis...I love that game if you let me.

  2. Ruth Anne--

    There are no victimless puns!

    I had this exchange with my dad when I was 10 or 11. We were at the beach.

    Me (being fatuous): Why doesn't the sun go out when it sinks into the ocean?

    Dad: You're my son; why don't you< go out when you sink into the ocean?

    Me: Maybe I just need to go out a little father.

    (I spent three years in juvie for that one.)

    Your librarian pal is essentially correct, if overly specific: A lack of drama occurs when a group of characters reaches stasis. Therefore, all dramas have to do with the upsetting of that stasis. That's generally achieved by adding a new character into the mix (whether by having him come to town or having him leave town and enter a formerly balanced set of characters).

    But it doesn't have to be! The superhero formula, for example, begins with character transformation. So does, for that matter, American Beauty.

    Or, to take The Road, the characters are on a completely static road trip. The stasis is upset before the book begins and never re-balances.

    Or, hell, take any hard science fiction. A technology comes to down or (in the case of post-apocalyptic stories) a technology leaves town.

    It doesn't even have to be a technology, come to think of it. Poul Anderon's Brain Wave is based around the idea that intelligence on earth is a galactic fluke--that it's the only site of intelligence there is. So, in that case, the de-stabilizer is simply an idea.

    (Ooops! There goes the lit geek!)

  3. "We no longer laugh uproariously at wisecracking rodents."

    Rabbits aren't rodents, otherwise nice post.

    And besides, 'lagomorphs' is an inherently funnier word than 'rodents' in my opinion.

    Otherwise, enjoyed this post, but hate seeing poor little bunnies get lumped in with nasty little rodents.

  4. Wow! Thanks for the correction, XWL.

    I guess I thought Rodentia was a phylum or something.

    There was an extremely disappointing computer game back in the '90s called "Space Bunnies Must Die!" which featured a trailer-trash Lara Croft fighting various reanimated and mutated rabbits.

    And, in the style of games of the time, she would utter various phrases based on the situation like "Zombie juice!"

    But my favorite was "Lagomorphs!"

  5. (I'm actually not sure that this is humor, but I think it's related to the concept of laughter and rejection.)

    Yes, and also "The Four Humours."

    Which, despite all the obvious, isn't without certain merit, after all.

  6. The thing about puns is that they're transcendent, whether in the "ouch" or in the "love." They're among the most democratic & lovingly tolerant, in their own way.

    Think about it.

    You wanna bridge with your humor, or don't you?

  7. Humor is hate. Either directed at others or oneself. Most comics are pretty miserable people. Smarter than most, facile and glib. They have to work hard not to flip the mask from comedy to tragedy.

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  10. Huh. I thought I wrote a response to Trooper's "humor = hate" theory.

    I think that idea comes from studying the psyches of standup comedians which, admittedly, tend toward the twisted. (Though Bill Cosby?)

    But that's just one form of humor. I don't see hate in, e.g., ZAZ stuff (Airplane! and its ilk). I don't see hate in Lewis Carrol, and I see full range of emotions in Shakespeare's humor.

    If hate dominates humor today, that probably says more about us than it does about humor.


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