The Philosophy of Humour

In 2007, the Editor of TableAus began a thread where readers asked questions or challenges for my philosophy’s response.

Reader’s Proposition:

“To be funny you have to have a handle on the truth. Examining comedians reveals truths we may want to hide.”

Divining what makes things funny is difficult as humour is so diverse, encompassing wit, puns, jokes from one-liners to long ones, slapstick, skits, satire, ridicule and more. But if one considers examples and why they are funny, a common factor is an unexpected, surprising or absurd result that is nevertheless internally consistent or logical.

For example, puns and double-entendre rely on a surprising yet apposite double-meaning. The “innocent abroad” type of skit or joke relies on the object of humour doing things which make sense to them but the observer knows are silly. Consider this example, in an academic study voted the “world’s funniest joke:”

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”

Maybe it isn’t really the funniest joke, but you can see how it sets up a dramatic context and delivers a punchline based on the protagonist following a literal yet exactly wrong meaning of the operator’s instructions.

While this surprising yet logical aspect may be necessary for humour, clearly it is not sufficient. For example, while the ending of the movie The Sixth Sense was surprising but logical, it was tragic rather than funny. Whodunnits and mystery stories in general similarly aim for surprise endings but aren’t funny.

That leads us to an important aspect of humour: much of it belittles its object. For example, “comeuppance” jokes where someone gets what they deserve, racist and sexist jokes, and plain ridicule share this feature. Consider this Robin Williams joke:

Osama bin Laden’s hideout is finally bombed and he awakes in a misty place filled with soft light. “Ah! I have died a martyr’s death and have entered paradise!” he thinks gleefully. Out of the mist strides George Washington, who punches him to the ground. Then along comes Thomas Jefferson who starts kicking him, then Tom Payne starts hitting him with a stick, and soon he is surrounded by angry Founding Fathers punching, kicking and beating him. “But! But! Wait!” cries bin Laden, “Where are my 70 virgins???” Washington glares down at him. “It’s 70 Virginians, slimeball!”

Ayn Rand said that “Humour is the denial of metaphysical importance to that which you laugh at,” which simply means that you are laughing because you judge (or want) the object of your mirth to be without value, insignificant or unreal, whether you are laughing at pretentiousness, stupidity, a belief or person you despise, or a danger that you wish to disarm. In short, humour is floccinaucinihilipilification.*

Even puns, which at first sight don’t laugh at anything except themselves, seem to share this: they are funny because the linkage between words is surprising, fitting in a way, yet insignificant or contradictory.

This is why disasters usually generate a wave of jokes: they disarm the disaster. It is also why the butt of a joke usually doesn’t find it funny – nor should they. To laugh at yourself, or your deepest values, is to tell your subconscious mind that you or your values are worthless, which can only degrade self esteem and consequently mental health. (This is distinct from laughing at your foibles or silly mistakes, which is affirming their insignificance to your fundamental character).

Ayn Rand defined art as a selective re-creation of reality according to the artist’s value judgements, which at its best shows things as they can and ought to be. We can see that comedy is a kind of inverse (or perverse!) art: an invented reality which can highlight things that are but ought not to be and psychologically makes them insignificant or worthless. (Some comedy, e.g. most wit and puns, is analogous to decoration, bringing pleasure but without deeper significance beyond its own wittiness.) However comedy is rather simpler than art: while the range of emotions art can inspire covers the whole gamut, comedy simply aims to amuse you, so in effect you either understand and agree with the comedian and laugh, or you don’t.

So comedians are relying on a conflict between their target and reality. But as with art, comedians base their work on their view of the world, truth and values, and your response to it depends on yours.

Therefore, there is some truth in the proposition, but qualified. Comedians might have a handle on the truth: but they are relying more on their audience already agreeing with them than on proving that “truth”: the audience will only laugh if they already share the value assessment involved. However, there are things you can learn. Again like art, comedians strip away the inessential and accentuate and spotlight their target – and this can show you truths you might otherwise have missed, whether you agree with the humour or not. By placing it in stark relief, it also might make you face a truth you have been evading, and in that sense, it can “reveal truths we want to hide.” However in general humour is more about reinforcing beliefs we already have and psychologically devaluing things or people that we fear or despise, fairly or unfairly. For that reason, studying humour can reveal the fears and prejudices behind it – but laughter is more a public confirmation of those fears and prejudices than an attempt to hide them.

* Thus accomplishing the minor achievement of using the longest nontechnical word in the English language (meaning “the act of estimating something as worthless”) appropriately in normal discourse!

This site even has humour – in it’s incarnation of satire. Read all about the virtues of socialised laundry and what the Gaia Hypothesis really means.

© 2007 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.