Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It


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Most comedy is based on denied anticipation. To make world B a crash site and deny the audience's expectation of a soft landing, comedy, being contextual, must rely on an unspoken code. This is necessary because a joke can be told or explained but not both. Ingredients of surprise and suddenness are key to a successful crash. Peremptory claims look more impressive unencumbered by evidence. They're not nearly as persuasive, however, so let me try to argue my case. Grown-up humor feeds so voraciously at the trough of morality more on this complex relationship below that it is best to begin with children's jokes, if only to appreciate why humor is, fundamentally, the extinction of fantasy.

Tell a 2-year old that in your house there is a polar bear who sleeps in the fridge world A. She'll open her eyes big and wide and go "Wow! No joke! World B does not stand a chance. Now try your polar bear story on Charlotte, who's 4. No "Wow" from her. Unlike her younger sister, Charlotte will laugh out loud. Ask her and she'll say: "A polar bear is too big to sleep in the fridge. No world B victory, no laugh. Does that mean Virginia didn't perceive the same clash? She did. But, swayed by the storyteller's talents of persuasion, she decided on a different outcome: fantasy beat reality.

World A won. For Virginia, fantasy is no laughing matter. It's a little scary, in fact. Who are you to be bending the laws of physics and squeeze bears into refrigerators? Things get tricky with the grown-ups. So let's begin with the granddaddy of comic scenes. An Olympic marathon runner slips on a banana peel right at the starting line. Not so funny if he's a paralympics contestant who falls off his wheelchair at the start of the race at least not until transgressive reflexivity has taught us it's all right to laugh, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

It's still pretty cruel, though, to laugh at a runner who falls flat on his face. But with the proper emotional detachment boosted by the right narrative—say, the marathoner is an arrogant stiff—it becomes easier to loosen one's moral shackles and laugh. The banana's cult status in comedy also helps perhaps the sole exception to the rule that objects can't be funny. What are the colliding worlds?

An Olympic marathoner is possessed with uncommon ambition and determination. He dreams of gold medals, glory, and all that fantastic world A stuff. Trouble is, it all comes crashing against the dull, dreary world B ruled by Newton's law and gooey fruit waste. To laugh is to bow to gravity against human aspiration. For humor is not simply observing two clashing worlds: it's taking sides. It's making world B your home team. To laugh is to side with the natural order of things. Humor is a conservative magnet, a submission to a higher force. After all, you're not taking on the mighty Isaac Newton or the greedy Chiquita Banana, are you?

You're laughing at a poor bloke whose life dream has just been shattered. To practice your survival skills in recognition of the world-B reality that gravity kills but marathoners don't. For a more subtle take on this, try this joke from the "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes? On Planet Al, unusual for world A, logic rules.

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Of course, it's faulty logic and it is its precedence over the obvious reality that Bill is, indeed, alive that makes Al's world cartoonish and "mechanistic" to use Bergson's classic characterization of humor. The friendship, the pain, and the anxiety of a car crash make the contrast with the cold logic and prudence of Al all the more dramatic. The flawed logic hits hard because one can easily imagine Al walking away from the scene. So the pull toward common sense is amplified by the unfolding drama. At the same time, Al's fantasy world fails in an exquisitely clever way. Living liars can't be trusted, which is fine.

But Al extends that predicate to dead liars, which is creative. That's the cleverness part of the joke. But there's another way to look at it. In his world A, Al is actually showing great courtesy by extending to the dead the laws of the living: it's insane but it's generous. We laugh because we recognize that life is too serious to be left in the hands of cartoon characters: a wise, conservative reaction. Comedy can be adventurous and taboo-breaking but humor itself, to serve its evolutionary purpose, must remain risk averse.

The consensual, unexamined dominance of world B serves a normative function, typically as a social corrective. It may all seem a bit of a paradox. A humorless society would be dreary—laughably so. Comedic intentionality challenges orthodoxies, power, prejudice, and, with its attention to the unseen, sharpens one's critical sense. Humor amuses and cleanses at the same time. Not bad. But humor is merely a call to reality, a sanity check. It abhors denial. If your soul aches, humor is there to remind you lest you forget. Sure, it'll scratch you where it itches, but it'll also wake you up in the middle of the night just to wish you a good night's sleep.

Yes, it's that type. Humor is counter-rebellion against the fantastic and the illusory. The confusion has two sources: one is that fantasy can be both wonderful "I'll cure cancer" and foul "I'm the Master of the Universe" ; the other is that the "unassailable" world-B force to which humor is the handmaiden is typically consensual.

One rarely minds being enslaved to logic, realism, simplicity, common sense, humility, etc. The force has two characteristics: it is amoral and necessary ie, you don't get to choose it. This is a key point. Humor can challenge immorality only for the wrong reasons. Bad-vs-Good is never funny. Bad-vs-Right is. Remember the cossack.

We didn't laugh because of his prejudice but because of his inconsistency. The implication is unequivocal: if the cossack would just be rational, his anti-Semitism would vanish. This may appear naive. Not so.


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The rabbi was only trying to score points. In the same vein, the subliminal message of the Colbert-Stewart style of political comedy is that, if only Bush were smart, articulate, and competent, then everything would be all right when, in fact, everything would be even worse. The role of morality in humor is subtle. Jokes often double as morality tales, yet moralizing is a yawn. So morality can only be a stage-setter. But humor does not do rehab. It does retributive, not reparative, justice—just as you would expect from a conservative law enforcement vehicle. As such, it rewards your moral impulse by indulging your mean streak.

Like rewarding an alcoholic for staying away from the stuff by giving him a beer. Despite the saying that performance is what we call comedy that bombs, there is a prevalent confusion in this area that I'd rather sidestep. So I'll focus on humor, spoken or written, that transcends its delivery; in other words, I'll confine the discussion to the funny that remains so even if you can only read it.

I realize this excludes the large segment of American stand-up that relies on abjection, power reversal, metajokes, narcissism, forbidden impulses, alienation, performance therapy, and other theatrical modes of self-expression. I'll conflate jokes, wit, and humor, which is regrettable but fine nonetheless, as no theory that did not survive such conflation could be worth much, anyway. Transgressive humor lives off the very existence of the norms that it seeks to violate. It demands taboos that it can then heroically break. Hippies meant to be transgressive: they tried to change norms and they were utterly humorless about it.

But when Sarah Silverman a rare natural comic describes her "final solution" for AIDS patients, she's being merely superior:. It's double entrapment disguised as transgression. The joke is a dialogue based on sudden cognitive shifts, with one part written in invisible ink. But, hey, why not? And then we should be able to put all men with AIDS on the moon. The denied anticipation is brutal. But why the cruelty?

Because Ms Silverman wants to tell you that she, unlike you presumably, is so accepting of AIDS victims that she'll treat them like anybody else. You won't catch her babytalking seniors. That her stand may be, beyond its odious ways, honorable is entirely accidental. Her jokes work because they are clever and she delivers them well , but her role model is Michael Jordan, not Mother Teresa. Her aim is superiority, not morality. As it should be.

The only thing more amusing than the tactical positioning of a comedian on the moral chessboard is that anyone should take it seriously. Ms Silverman seeks no one's moral edification other than her own. There, she is only being true to the narcissistic essence of comedy.

Comedy's normative mode is ecologically parasitic. It feeds off society's darker compromises by making social commentary its primary vehicle , not its primary function. Of course, social commentary as an end in itself can be funny, too eg, Swift, Wilde, Twain. Humor, indeed, can be used as universal seasonings. But whether served as comedy or condiments, humor's ambition is to change facial expressions, not society. The contextual dependency can hardly be overestimated. Some humor is universal but most of it is not.

George Carlin's nightmare probably featured a New York Times announcement that the "F-word" would now be spelled "fuck. Puritanism and sexual humor are the two sides of the same coin. Get rid of one and, poof, the other's gone, too. Juvenile societies like ours, ie, sexually repressed and anatomically obsessed, fuel their comedy with bodily functions, but for bonobos I suspect the humor gets lost in translation. Mere speculation on my part, of course. OK, it wouldn't be fair to leave this statement gender-neutral since it's without a doubt the Y-chromosome that drags down the average emotional age of comedy.

It's not even cultural pace male comics —it's molecular. Satire exposes the absurd in the social and political spheres while leaving the nonabsurd hidden. Eye-opening and inspiring though it may be, it is still based on a deception: just because A is bad does not mean that not-A is better. In fact, A might be an ugly compromise that allows humans to get by, whereas world B, unexplained and unchallenged, might be hellish. A society without white lies would be unlivable—when a homely girl asks you if she's pretty, are you supposed to say no?

Uncompromising humor can be quite funny, but its pleasures are tainted. Jon Stewart's comedy is innocuous but the authoritarian temptation in Bill Maher's anti-religious rants is unmistakable. Mr Maher knows that religious belief is so world A. But then he goes on to postulate a world B of metaphysical common sense, as though there were such a thing. He forgets that the obvious is not the sole alternative to the absurd.

Why is religious belief, which he rightly calls superstition, any less world B than the myths that claim squatter's rights in his own psyche? Doesn't Mr Maher celebrate birthdays and frown upon cannibalism? What's rational about that? His selective, wholesale ridiculing of the sacred stems from a totalitarian impulse. And I say this as someone who appears to share most of Mr Maher's views on organized religion. Humor is an alarm bell, an attention-grabbing signifier with no particular signified. Bill Maher and Sacha Baron Cohen Borat make the same mistake of imparting a comedic signified where there is none.

Jon Stewart makes the opposite mistake: an unwillingness to follow through with noncomedic substance. As he readily admits, he won't let a serious thread run for more than 2 minutes without killing it with a joke. In his own words, it's "only" a comedy show. Indeed, and Paris Hilton is "only" a bimbo.

Selling short is still fashionable in some circles, I guess. Humor will not make you think: it will merely suggest that you should do so. Good comedy should be an appetizer that stimulates your appetite.

But late-night TV comedy is digestive, dessert-time humor. To go to battle, you need compassion, courage, outrage, and, preferably, a plan. And, oh yes, please bring humor along just in case you lose. M y third point is existential. Human beings are deeply ridiculous creatures.

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Ask the Mutant: 9 Steps to Keeping Your Sense of Humor in a Disaster

The ultimate joke is our very existence. The majesty of horses, seagulls, and house cats reminds me that dignity and laughter don't go together well, do they? Superiority theory tells me humor is suspicious and a guilty pleasure. Yet is there any doubt that it empowers? Humans can't fly on their own but they can be funny, which is the closest approximation. And don't forget that humor is universal: one can laugh about anything.

I've managed in these last 3 sentences to shatter my entire cosmology of humor. For example, I argued earlier that immorality couldn't be funny. At first blush, this seems plausible. How many Hitler jokes mock his height, moustache, and barking oratory rather than his unfathomable evil? Hint: evil can't be mocked.

But reflexivity changes everything: that is the self-awareness that allows us to inject ourselves into the narrative of humor, fully conscious of the embedding. It elevates humor to heights inconceivable without it. Humor is like sneezing. It's brief and hard to control. Laughing is a different matter altogether. Comedians with no recorded ability to craft a funny line have been known to keep audiences in stitches with a creepy "laugh or you die" shtick. Like a Charlie Parker solo, a lonely joke or a witty quip can pack a lot of drama. Although the punch line tends to be "atomic"—it's really a punch point—the clash behind it can be ambiguous and multi-threaded.

The buildup may contain a multitude of intertwined strands. A joke is a tiny counter revolution as well as a tiny play. I mean "play" in both senses of the word: theater and game. When Ricky Gervais pokes fun at the Book of Genesis for having us believe that God created the heaven and the earth before light, who is he mocking? The joke is that it's hard enough to build the cosmos out of nothing; now imagine doing it in the dark!

Is Gervais mocking the bible, Christian fundamentalists, himself reflexively , his audience? Where is the clash?

2. They seldom laugh at their own stories and jokes.

Is it between the fantasy of Genesis and the commonsensical difficulty of working in the dark? Yet, at the instant of laughter, it is you, the audience, not God, who's trying to build that cosmos. So maybe the clash is about the irrelevance of worrying about such a trivial matter as lighting conditions when your job assignment is to build the planets. The point is that there is a clash somewhere, or perhaps several of them, and it doesn't matter a whit if we don't know for sure.

Many "wars of the worlds" there: the falsifiability of theology; the arrogance of atheists; the superstition of believers; the incongruity of a humorous Satan; etc. Some jokes can be read in many different ways and still be funny. Reflexivity relies crucially on that attribute. But what is it? First I'll tell you what it's not. Tony Blair once said:. The statement is self-referential but the humor such as it is is not reflexive. Article writing, novel writing, copywriting, ghostwriting, songwriting, poetry writing, playwriting, handwriting, typewriting, skywriting, love-letter-writing, rewriting…and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

The best comedians poke fun at themselves to make others laugh. Humorous writers are the same:. Because readers with cricked necks become disgruntled former readers who stop enjoying our work and start plotting our downfall. So we axe the pedestal and show readers that we are just like them — relatable, fallible, silly — by making fun of ourselves.

You can do this in writing, as well as on the screen. Have I lost my marbles not to mention the entire aquarium? Am I a few poached eggs short of a Full English Breakfast? People like to read writers they can relate to. And no one can relate to Mr. And beatboxing. And rapping. Say Wha —? I mean, who actually writes articles on these topics? Probably no one. So when you are giving examples of something, and you want to be funny, a good way to do it is to to make the last thing in the list different.

As in this picture:. Aww, look! We have a lovely white penguin on the right, and another lovely white penguin in the middle, and — OMG why is there a massive chunk of overgrown wood mold photobombing this picture??? Another example of how to do this, in writing, can be found in the same article as the one from point 4 :.

Ideas come at the most inconvenient moments, sometimes:. Notice items 1 and 2 are relatively short and straightforward— everyday events, you know. Nothing to note there. One penguin, two penguins.

Quiz: What's Your Sense of Humor? -- Science of Us

I mean, we all use the toilet, shower, and sleep, but what moron would have the audacity to try to do their own high-elevation carpentry rather than hire a trained professional? Use alliteration, percussive consonants, puns, and metaphors. Like this famous knock-knock joke:. Needless to say, this joke would not work if Person 1 did not jump in and, like, interrupt. Which requires an excellent sense of comedic timing, of course. And when you go to watch a live comedy show, experienced comedians often work the crowd by using long pauses to their advantage.

Case in point:. But writing is a tad different than live performances, of course. But there is something you CAN use to manipulate timing for your reader: space. Will all the stories turn out to be cra — uh, crazy bad? And will you get to watch me fumble and fail the whole entire way? Compare that to this hideous chunky paragraph:. Is that insane? Yes, absolutely yes. If you want to. I sound like a motor mouth in this one.

As the wise Dr. You just have to know where and how to look. You need to train your funny bone. Exercise it!

Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It
Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It
Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It
Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It
Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It
Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It Your Sense of Humor: Don’t Leave Home Without It

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