Comedy and Lies

Comedy and Lies

Two cannibals are eating a clown, and one turns to the other and asks, “Does this taste funny to you?
——-Tommy Cooper

The concept “funny” is ambiguous in the English language. We say, “You should go see that comedian. He’s so funny!” We also say, “Stay away from the tuna salad; it smells funny.” And when we say a $20 bill is “funny money,” we don’t mean either that it makes us laugh or that it’s spoiled; we mean it’s counterfeit. Is there a connection?
Even when we say, “It’s funny because it’s true,” we generally imply some sort of connection between comedy and falsehood. After all, if all true statements were funny or no factually false ones were, there would be no reason to say such a thing. When we say something’s funny because it is true, we mean it is true but in an unexpected way. Will Rogers said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” The Democratic Party is an organized, recognized political party, so his statement seems self-contradictory; but when we recognize the ambiguity in the word “organized,” and compare it to some other “organized political parties,” we see it can also be true. The momentary confusion gives way to a realization of a truth; but if he’d simply said, “The Democratic Party is disorganized,” it wouldn’t be funny at all. There had to be a way that the statement was false before it had the possibility of humor.
So how is the “funny” of humor related to these others? The tuna smells “funny” because it isn’t what it seems to be; it looks edible and supposedly is healthy, but the smell suggests the appearances are deceptive. The money is “funny” because it looks like legal currency when it isn’t. Comedy too is not straight-up truthfulness, even if it is not straight-up lying either. Comedy is always a little “off.” It has a certain falseness, at least in being false to our expectations. “Stay away from the tuna, it smells funny tonight” is not humorous; but sung to the tune of “The Eye of the Tiger” it’s hilarious (Weird Al Yankovich, “The Rye or the Kaiser,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGJd8FLAqRA; “The Rye or the Kaiser (Theme From Rocky XIII)” lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC). The statement may be true, false or simply fiction; but it is false to the context, it doesn’t fit, and thus it’s funny.
Sometimes a straight-up lie is funny. The classic example in American culture is the “big fish that got away” story. If the story is a straightforward “I hooked a bass that looked to be ten pounds but he got away,” it’s not funny even if it’s a lie. If the story is “I caught a huge fish but sharks ate it,” it’s not funny, it’s Hemingway. But if the story is colorful and wildly exaggerated, listeners will pay rapt attention and laugh even though they’re pretty sure the “fish” was half that size if it existed at all. There’s nothing funny about murder, or about accusing someone of murder; but when it’s done in a way that is so exaggerated as to be unbelievable, and we’re told it’s not true but the claim is repeated so often that it’s certain to be remembered, it is (if you’re into NSFW roasts (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2x1bwa) for instance). The humor is the obvious falseness, which negates any pain that would exist if it were true.
The difference between a good lie and a good joke or schtick is that a good lie hides its deception, while humor revels in obvious falseness. Even if the story is true, what makes it funny is generally a falseness. I used to tell the story of my efforts to take my wife to the beach on the last day of our honeymoon, 24 hours with an average of one misadventure every two hours. The story was true, but what made it work for the audience was the falseness in the telling. An account that actually conveyed the frustration and anger would have left people not laughing, but merely uncomfortable. Comedy can be complete fiction or absolutely factual, so long as there is enough dishonesty to take away the sting of “real life” and leave the pleasure of sifting the true from the false.
Part of the joy of the humor, then, seems to be the discovery. The lies are exposed, or at least the lying is exposed since it isn’t funny if seems completely true. I once told a person that at the last meeting of the American Academy of Religion I had attended a panel discussion sponsored by the Society of Dyslexic Agnostics debating whether or not there is a Dog. She just nodded along. That line usually works because people notice the incongruous canine. Maybe she thought SAD is a real group. But if the audience sees through the confusion too quickly, it’s not much of a joke either. The principles of a good joke and a good detective story seem to be the same: enough confusion that the audience is temporarily perplexed, but a retrospective clarity so that they can look back to see how you got from the set-up to the finish.

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2 Responses to “Comedy and Lies”

  1. lila1jpw Says:

    Two place you might explore–“myth” is that “truth” or “fiction?” My deceased husband worked on a novel based on world-wide myths about the Trickster, the Joker. He entitled the book, “Who Would Destroy the Gods.” Of course that in itself is a joke on more than one level. The current reach for immortality or godhood can be defeated by…The Joker!
    Our daughter inherited the manuscript but she got bogged down on the global approach to mythology that her Dad had encompassed. He had placed the scenario on the Canadian Prairies where the coyote is the Trickster and where the Cree syllabics were used to write/right the w(W)ord. But our daughter lives on the western coast where the trickster is the whiskey jack, the grey jay or it’s the crow/raven.Further bogging down in the swamp (but not the Swampy Cree,heh, heh)

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      A Jungian might say “myth” is a metaphor of universal psychological truths. For an accessible example (in case someone sees this who lacks your expertise) I would recommend Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” or the Bill Moyers interview series, “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.”

      A religious/theological reading would say that myth is a factually false or neutral story that expresses a deeper truth. For a very accessible presentation of this, see Reinhold Niebuhr’s discussion of myth as presented in James Comey’s undergraduate honors thesis. Discussions and a link to that are elsewhere in this blog.

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