Archive for the ‘A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter”’ Category

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 3)

August 19, 2020

III. Conclusions

 

The derivative nature of aggressive humor: Bergson’s theory is that laughter is intended as a social sanction. We mock the person who has fallen into habit and “mechanical” behavior, particularly when that has reached the point of impairing the person’s functioning as a living and social being. Self-deprecating humor is derivative of this; for example, I might tell a joke about my absentmindedness as a way of chiding absentmindedness itself, and thus all others who fall into my habitual failing.

Toddlers show us humor that is neither self-deprecating nor aggressive; it is simply without a strong sense of self-consciousness at all. There seems to be an innate desire to provoke laughter in others, and the young child will do whatever gets a laugh. It is only later, when we develop a sense of shame and thus an immediate tendency to try to hide our flaws, that we can consciously choose to violate normal standards by intentionally calling attention to our faults in deliberately “self”-deprecating humor. Humor is one of the ways we bond with one another. We share a laugh the same way we share a hug, or a compliment, or a snack, or our ancestors shared a session of grooming: social actions giving pleasure to another and thus strengthening social bonds. Aggressive humor, using humor not just to strengthen some bonds but to break others and to exclude some person from our fun, is what is derivative.

Because of course, as Bergson shows, some humor does chide or punish the socially deviant or harmful person, either to pressure that one back into society or to utterly exile. But the fact that something can be used aggressively does not mean that is its primary use, or even a worthy use. Children laugh together, but at some point they learn to laugh at another, most usually without regard to whether that causes pain. And as we mature and begin struggling for dominance among ourselves, humor becomes another weapon, first to tease and bully an individual and then to bully a group, or even a race. The ability to communicate gives us the ability to lie; likewise the ability to laugh gives us the ability to mock.

Sex, Death and More: “Oh Death, where is thy sting?” asks the prophet and the apostle; and while it may be faith that promises full victory, it is laughter that provides the first defense for many.[1] We often laugh at things that are the most important to us, because they are so frightening and/or tempting. The internet search to find the funniest joke in the world found a death joke; and here it is:

 

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”. The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guys says “OK, now what?”[2]

 

One of the oldest jokes I know, from the Vikings, is also a death joke, or more accurately a joke told at a death. Several men planned to kill a famous warrior and sent one of their group to scout ahead and see if their quarry was home. When the scout came back they asked, “Well, is Bjorn home?” He replied, “I don’t know if Bjorn is home, but his ax certainly is,” and fell over dead. I’ve read that a lot of Viking humor was like that: dark and violent. Death was a constant threat, and they dealt with it not only with the promise of Valhalla but also by making light of it. If you can laugh, it isn’t as terrifying.

Maybe that’s why there are so many jokes about sex. Sex is a prime motivator for much human activity, to say the least. Our nation spent the last several decades spilling more sweat and treasure to research impotence cures than preparing for the next pandemic. The TV show “Ally McBeal” used to refer to the penis as “the dumbstick.” This reflects several things about sex, most obviously that it’s funny. Much of the show’s humor revolved around the ridiculous situations characters got into because of sex, or the ridiculous sex they got into because they were such characters. Second, men and women seem to both agree that men are particularly controlled by the dumbstick. And for men, this seems to be psychologically problematic; they want sex and they are fascinated by it, but also somewhat afraid of the lengths they will go to and the risks they will take for it and in particular afraid that they are being manipulated by the women around them. The sex drive is powerful, and that power makes it frightening. Sex itself is also powerful. If God is that which creates ex nihilo, then sex is the closest thing we humans have to divine power: the ability to literally create life, so that two become three or more. The genders generally find each other mysterious and at times bizarre, but also indispensable and attractive; and this in itself generates tension. And often we relieve this tension with humor, sometimes good-natured and sometimes seemingly barbed.

There are also a lot of jokes about poop, something that is quite the opposite: repulsive rather than attractive, something we seek to be rid of rather than pursue, and which is the very opposite of creation, the waste products of life. It is not “important” in the way either sex or death is, but no one who has seen the beans scene in “Blazing Saddles” can be ignorant of the comic potential there. I’m not a big fan of scatological humor myself but I find it fascinating that it even exists.

All three of these are generally somewhat “taboo” in adult “polite” conversation. In different ways, all are psychologically powerful. And often, when something is “unmentionable” but also unavoidable, we use humor to discuss it more obliquely, taking the sting out. Bergson might say that each of these brings something “mechanical” to a human life, something controlling rather than controllable by the individual, and it is that tension between the lively expression of the individual and the universalizing and irrational aspects of life that provokes laughter. My hypothesis is again to look at the child. We learn to speak before we learn what things are supposed to be unspeakable. Children blurt out whatever strikes them in the moment, often in ways that would be judged wildly inappropriate for an adult. Sometimes this is because of the child’s ignorance. One story goes like this: Sally wouldn’t stop eating acorns, so her parents told her that if she didn’t stop she’d become very fat. One day in the park Sally saw a pregnant woman and said, “I know what you’ve been doing!” The humor relies on the fact that the child does not know; what would be merely gross if spoken by an adult is funny when said by a child who does not understand. My grandson finds farts hilarious, particularly if they come from an adult. When he loudly said “Uh oh!” when someone broke wind, it was funny because he understood what had happened but not that we don’t usually talk about it; “polite” conversation just tries to ignore it. At some point, a child is going to unconsciously voice some double-entendre, or announce some fact with a directness unforgivable for a serious adult, and the adults around will laugh. The child may have no idea what is funny but will still want to be part of the fun, and will want to repeat it. We thus learn what topics those around us regard as funny, and also (a little or a lot later) learn which topics we are not generally supposed to just discuss directly when making “small talk” or “polite conversation.” Some of us learn to discuss this topics more indirectly with humor, simultaneously raising the tension by presenting these taboo topics and releasing it through laughter. Others may memorize jokes to share about these topics, so as to be able to share laughter with each other even if one lacks the creative wit to create humor oneself.

I suspect (though I know no way to test this) that comedians are allowed more leeway in society precisely because there is something childish in humor. Whether a professional comedian or “the life of the party,” some people are particularly good at raising serious or even taboo topics in a way that evokes laughter, and we react in a way analogous to the way we react to a child saying something otherwise inappropriate: “Well, the tyke didn’t really mean it, so it’s okay.” The child can’t really mean it, since the child lacks the discernment; the comedian likewise doesn’t mean it, because he or she is only a comedian and therefore not “serious.” But sometimes the comedian “crosses the line” and says something the audience finds so repulsive that no humor can excuse it.[3] Gilbert Gottfried notoriously derailed his career with a tweet comparing the Fukashima nuclear disaster to a Godzilla attack. At that point it didn’t really even matter if the joke was funny; it was “too soon,” too painful, and no amount of humor was able to deflect attention from the human suffering. But generally Gottfried is able to say what would otherwise be terrible things in a way that provokes laughter rather than outrage. The successful comedian may say something that is taboo, or insulting, or otherwise generally not what we’re supposed to say, but does it in a way that evokes laughter; and that laughter seems to cause us to take it as “only a joke” even if we simultaneously see real truth in what is said. It is similar to the way we can “laugh it off” if a child says something true but also unmentionable; we sort of treat the comedian as not really “serious” even when we say, “Still, you know, she’s got a point.”

Maybe we allow comic discussion of topics that we avoid seriously discussing because in some way we take the adult comedian as in some sense a child, and give the comedian a similar leeway to speak the unspeakable—so long as it is accompanied by laughter. Without laughter, we remember that we are listening to an adult and judge by adult standards.

Humor and humility: Bergson claims that art aims to capture the individual reality or liveliness of its object. Too often our “utilitarian” concerns cause us to see everything as a tool, raw material, or obstacle to fulfilling our own desires, instead of seeing things and people as realities independent of ourselves. Art aims to break the dominance of utilitarian thinking by presenting its object apart from all functionality. The goal of a still life is not to sell apples or to stimulate the appetite; it is simply to present the viewer with the beauty to be found in a simple bowl of apples, existing for its own sake. Bergson says that comedy, by contrast, does not depict individual unique realities but instead depicts stereotypes and generalities. A good drama can be named after a particular person, such as Othello or Hamlet, and the drama’s quality will largely depend on how well the playwright presents the particulars of the protagonist’s personality. We want the dramatic protagonist to be “believable,” to seem like a real person. A comedy by contrast can be named for a type or generality: “The Jealous One” in Bergson’s example, or perhaps “The Jerk” to cite a more recent example. The comedic protagonist does not have to be “realistic;” in fact, that can get in the way of the comedy, particularly if it leads us to have too much sympathy for the character. It is more than enough if the comedic character is sketched in broad strokes, so we can recognize the type and the “mechanism” that is being lampooned.

But this claim that comedy is rooted in social structures depends on Bergson’s prior claim that humans are the only animal that laughs, or is laughed at; and scientific evidence indicates that this claim is wrong. Other animals have humor, small children have humor, and the essence of humor is much more basic and fuzzy than Bergson suggests. Laughter is a reaction to something that gives joy, and often what gives joy by virtue of being funny. We say “it’s funny because it’s true,” meaning that something seems funny because it expresses or reveals a truth in a surprising and generally oblique way. No one laughs if you simply state that men and women often do things differently; but entire comic careers have been based on comically stating specific different reactions of men and women, or the comedian and his or her spouse. But we philosophers don’t need to visit the comedy clubs to see this saying illustrated; we have our great hero, Socrates, the world’s first stand-up philosopher, who went down in history for his use of irony to reveal the absurdities of the social assumptions of his day and the presumptions of its leaders. Chuang Tzu also used humor to raise epistemological or metaphysical points.

Just as humor can be self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing, friendly or aggressive, so too it can be revelatory, falsifying or neither. Racist humor is aggressive and relies on false stereotypes, intending to dehumanize its target. Python’s “Banker Sketch” is closer to Bergson’s ideal; it relies on stereotypes not merely to dehumanize the target but also to rehumanize. One can see that sketch and laugh at those rich snobs, or see oneself in the Banker and resolve not to be like that. The joke that makes us laugh at ourselves, or at one of our idols, can be supremely revelatory. If art is supposed to reveal truth by presenting its object outside our usual framework of desires and tools, then humor can do so by presenting to us ourselves. We immediately perceive the world in orbit around ourselves, with everything either a tool or an obstacle. We can step away from that solipsistic perspective when we are caught up in our appreciation of beauty or harmony, in art or music; but we can also do so through learning to laugh at ourselves, and thus learning humility.

Why do authoritarians hate humor? As The Doctor said, “the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t change their beliefs to fit the facts, they change the facts to fit their beliefs.”[4] Authoritarians want authority over everything, including—-especially—-true and false. They want to be able to control others, by forcing them to accept the despot’s version of reality or, failing that, to at least force them to act as if they do. And they don’t want to be challenged, and any independent truth-claim represents a challenge to their power.

Despots can use humor to reinforce falsehoods or to undermine truth, and often do. They use racist and ethnic humor to dehumanize The Other and give their followers an inflated sense of self-worth which derives entirely from being on the good side of the despot. This is not essentially different than the actions of the schoolyard bully who humiliates one kid to put fear into the others that if they don’t laugh at the victim, they could be next. It is more dangerous, and more wicked since an adult should have a moral sense, but the social mechanics are identical. But humor can turn against the despot too. Humor exposes our pretensions.   As Bergson points out, the gap between empty ceremony and human life is particularly funny. President Ford fell down once due to a knee he injured playing football, and Chevy Chase made an industry out of his “Gerald Ford impression” pratfalls. The physical humor itself was funny because Chase could do the seemingly unnatural without injury and then shout, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” but the idea that the President of the United States is a mere human being subject to gravity and fleshly weakness like the rest of us added another layer of comedy. That was part of the social function of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Roasts, which used be a major yearly event. The President of the United States, and other powerful leaders, would allow himself to be laughed at, and would even join in the laughter. The President would respond with humor at the end, but only when he had shown he could take a joke and make a joke at his own expense could he make one at another’s. An authoritarian cannot stand to be laughed at, because an authoritarian does not want to be merely human; he or she must seem like a mortal god. Someone made a comment about President Xi being round and chubby like Pooh Bear, and now pictures of Winnie the Pooh are illegal in China. The authoritarian doesn’t mind being hated, but cannot stand to be laughed at, because when we laugh at anything we cease to fear it,—at least for a moment,

Humor also, as we saw, is a mechanism for social bonding. Authoritarians want to be the only center of social groups. Just as romantic love becomes a rebellion unless it is yoked to the authoritarian in a State-sanctioned marriage, so too when a group begins to laugh together they become a potential center of power. There is nothing so infuriating to an oppressor as the sound of the oppressed laughing among themselves; it means they’ve found joy that the oppressor did not control. If they can feed their own spirits and find joy in life without the permission of the authoritarian, what other rebellion might they find possible? Authoritarians always attempt to control anything that feeds the spirit, that brings joy to the lives of the people, whether it be art, or religion, or knowledge, or sex, or humor.

Epilogue

There is no virtue more beneficial than a sense of humor, and no divine gift more blessed than laughter. When we are overtaken by the goodness of life, and our whole being overflows with joy, we laugh. When the terrors and griefs of life threaten to overwhelm us, we laugh at our fears and cut them down to size. When our own egos threaten to outrun our capacities, we laugh at ourselves and again learn humility. When self-important leaders seek to humiliate and subdue us, we laugh at them and remember that they are mortal, the same as us. Gratitude and contentment, courage and endurance, humility and confidence, are all boosted by a proper sense of humor. And, it makes you laugh! What other virtue can say all that?

[1] Hosea 13:14; 1 Corinthians 15:55

[2] Alva Noë, “What is the Funniest Joke in the World?” NPR March 7, 2014 (https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2014/03/07/287250640/what-is-the-funniest-joke-in-the-world)

[3] Sometimes the joke simply falls flat and the audience doesn’t think the comedian is funny or even trying to be. One notorious example of this comes from the 2016 presidential campaign, during the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner .[3] Traditionally part of the event has long been a roast, presenting opposing candidates the chance to trade some good-natured barbs with one another. It is not surprising that sometimes this gets a little close to the bone, but Trump took his routine to such an extreme of negative directness that the audience of polite Manhattan society began to boo and even heckle him. He didn’t so much make a joke that Hillary was corrupt as simply say, “She’s so corrupt you should vote for me; and she hates Catholics too.” At one point Trump said to Clinton, “I don’t know if they’re booing you or me,” and someone in the audience shouted back, “You!” Years later commentators pointed to this as one example of Trump’s lack of a sense of humor. He may say things that some find funny, but he is said to fundamentally lack two elements of genuine comedy: the ability to take a joke about himself, and the ability to tell a joke about another in a way that even the target has to admit is funny.

[4] “The Face of Evil,” Doctor Who

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 2)

May 23, 2020
  1. Objections to Bergson’s Theory

But what if Bergson’s initial claim, that humans alone are “the animal which laughs,” is completely wrong? Studies indicate that apes, and perhaps all mammals “laugh” in some form.[1] Several species of mammals have been observed making distinctive “happy noises” when play-fighting, and have been observed tickling and enjoying being tickled. Scientific studies of non mammalian humor are rarer, but I am aware of several apparent incidents of humor among parrots. My wife’s black capped conure enjoys peek-a-boo, and even says something that sounds a little like “Peekaboo” when popping out from hiding. Another pet owner says her parrot calls the cat using their owner’s voice, then barks like a dog when the cat appears. Another friend told us one day her parrot requested to be sprayed with a mist bottle: “Showie? Showie?” When she got the bottle to give her a shower, the bird hid. As soon as she put it down, the bird again asked for a shower. It seemed to be a variation of the game humans play when they offer something and then pull it back. But the most elaborate story I heard was from my late father, about his African Grey named Smokey. As he told it:

 

 

When Smokey got lonely he’d call for me using (his wife) Debbie’s voice, or he’d call me using her voice. We would call down and ask, “Is that you?” and if we didn’t get an answer we’d know it was the bird. One day I was upstairs and I heard my wife calling, “Waite! Waite!” I called down, “Honey, is that you?” After a few seconds, I heard more insistently, “Waite! Waite!” So I rushed downstairs, Debbie was no where to be found, and that bird laughed at me——-IN MY VOICE!

 

 

The most human-like humor probably has come from Koko, the sign-language using gorilla, who engaged in puns and who once tied her human companion’s shoelaces together and then gave the sign for “chase.” One common element of all of these is some degree of social awareness. This is particularly seen in the parrots and Koko, who engaged in some sort of linguistic or communication-based humor. These relied on physical or audible signs which the animal knew would give a predictable response; sometimes the animal seemed to enjoy frustrating the response, while at other times the invited response was part of the payoff for the animal, but always there was some social reasoning involved. In the tickling or rough-housing behaviors, the “laughter” seems to be a signal that everyone is enjoying it and it’s not serious. For example, among rats there’s a certain sound made when rats of roughly equal sizes play-fight, but when one is much larger it apparently becomes a lot less fun and the rat-laughter ceases.[2]

I personally don’t think of tickling as “humor,” but more as one of a range of laughter-producing stimuli. Some people laugh due to some neurological condition, and scientists can evoke “laughter” from rats by electrical brain stimulation as well as by tickling their tummies. Among animals, we would say it seems more like “humor” when it is playful, “all in good fun.” Laughter is an expression of pleasure, and humor the art of provoking laughter in others. Humor would seem to require empathy, in that either knowing when the other is trying to be funny rather than threatening or knowing what the other will find funny requires some sense of how the other is likely to perceive things. A sense of humor may be a subcategory of the sense of the other as other. If Bergson is wrong about his view that humans are the only animal that laughs or is laughed at, that would in turn suggest that humor may be part of intelligence. Any animal can perceive when its needs are met and find some sort of pleasure in that; as Beethoven’s 9th symphony states, “even the worm can feel contentment.” The more sophisticated the brain, the more joy and more varieties of joy the animal can feel; and at some point this becomes what we would recognize as “humor.”

If Bergson is wrong about humor being the property of humans alone, then it seems likely that he is mistaken about his claim that it is purely intellectual and opposed to feeling, since his claim about the intellectuality of humor derives from his belief that it is strictly human. The claim that humor is social is less obviously dependent on either of the other two principles; but I think we have already seen good reason to try again and see if we can develop a theory of humor from a different starting point.

The humor of nonhumans is an interesting area of study for scientists, and they can derive truths that fit all reasonable definitions of objective truth; but the experience of nonhuman animals is so alien to us that it is of limited philosophical use. Children, on the other hand, are a much better source of data: in many ways more animal than person, or animal moving towards full rationality and personhood, and much easier to observe and to interrogate. Bergson’s considerations are based almost exclusively on the experiences of adults; where he does consider children at all it is in reference to the theory he has developed in reference to adults.[3] But if we are looking for the source of humor among adults, where better to start than with the source of adults themselves—that is, children?

Babies laugh. It is true that we begin able to cry from birth, but must discover how to laugh; and perhaps this says something about our condition in the world. But still, babies laugh; and they do not so much “learn” to laugh as they do discover the ability. They don’t learn to laugh by imitating adults, as they learn so much else; if they did, they would first laugh when the adults were laughing and would try to laugh at those things. Rather, the laughter of a baby seems to be a spontaneous expression of joy. Something makes the baby happy, and the baby laughs. If tears are the instinctive response to deprivation, then laughter seems to be the expression of something even greater than the contentment when all needs have been met, and satisfaction overflows. Is this social? Babies seem to smile trying to imitate the smiling faces around them; perhaps they laugh because they are happy to have those around them. But I don’t think so. I’ve seen my two-year-old grandson laugh like a mad hatter at something which was funny only to him: the picture on his watering can. For the first several days that he had this new toy, he would stop, look at the picture with its bright colors and smiling sun, and laugh. Why? I don’t know. But I doubt it was because, as Bergson might say, it made him think of a human who was behaving mechanically. Children generally don’t distinguish sharply between what is living versus inanimate. Piaget tells a story about a child who picked up a rock and put it with the others because it looked lonely. His sadness and subsequent desire to help the lonely rock was no different than my grandson’s laughter at his watering-can; and neither was moved by “ANY ARRANGEMENT OF ACTS AND EVENTS … WHICH GIVES US, IN A SINGLE COMBINATION, THE ILLUSION OF LIFE AND THE DISTINCT IMPRESSION OF A MECHANICAL ARRANGEMENT.” (caps Bergson’s)

Pain is reflexive. You hurt; you grab your knee, roll around, scream obscenities and loudly proclaim that you’ve broken the fornicating joint. A baby is hungry, or in pain, or has some other need; the baby cries. There is no thought; it is purely animal. Any creature that cares for its young has an instinctive way for those young to signal they are in need, and some sort of instinct of adults to respond; though parenting is also leaned, so knowing how to respond effectively is something that is taught or modeled for many animals, particularly us. This begins to point towards Wittgenstein’s observations about pain-behavior.[4] We do things reflexively, instinctively, in reaction to pain, At some point in our lives, though, we develop a social sense, and begin to realize that others act as we act and assume they, too, feel pain, based on their actions. Unless we are psychologically damaged, psychopaths or narcissists or whatever, we care; as Hume said, the instinct for sympathy seems to be as primordial as the instinct for competition. Even the person who doesn’t “feel another’s pain” still finds use for knowing what hurts others and in signaling his or her own pain as well, even if only to deceive and manipulate them. Pain-behavior and pain-language has uses in society; so we learn to interpret one another’s pain-behavior and to respond more effectively, we learn to signal more effectively so we receive useful help (or perhaps to hide our pain from real or supposed enemies), and so on.

Laughter can be understood as joy-behavior. Babies laugh and, according to some scientists, some animals laugh; so it seems to be an instinctive response to something more than mere contentment. But laughter is social in a way pain is not. We like to see others happy. The instinctive response to a smile is to smile back; behaviorists say the smile evolves initially out of the primate fear-signal of baring the teeth, becoming a signal of “I am not a threat to you” and then evolving to a more positive “I like you; I am a help to you, and I hope you feel the same.” It causes a feeling of joy to see another smile or hear another laugh. My father loved to tell the story of when I was an infant in one of those bouncy-chairs they hang from door frames. So, picture the baby, too young to walk but aware of his environment and the people. He’s bouncing up and down on the spring when, suddenly, he stops and pulls his ears. It’s such an absurd thing to do that his parents laugh. The baby sees that they laugh, and he likes that, so he does it again. And again. And now it’s not unexpected so it’s a lot less funny to the adults, but the child knows only that everybody laughed and was happy and that felt good.

We are hard-wired to want others to smile at us. Thus, laughter is even more social than tears. We feel sad when others are sad, as a rule, but we don’t want to feel sad so we either try to help or try to avoid them. And we feel happy when others are happy, we get a little shot of dopamine when someone smiles at us or laughs, and we are thus encouraged to try again. Babies and toddlers do what seems to get them smiles and laughter and approval from adults. As we get older and come to value peers more than the opinions of elders, we want to get them to smile and laugh. And thus comedy is born, from the joy-behavior of the baby and the toddler up through the class clown, the life-of-the-party, the raconteur, and all the other varieties of amateur comedian (it is worth remembering at this point that the word “amateur” is derived from “love;” the amateur comedian is one who strives to be funny for the love of the laughter). As we get older and the society we engage in becomes more sophisticated, we need to learn what is funny to those around us, and thus humor becomes increasingly rooted in the shared cultural values and meanings of the comedian and the audience.

Bergson treats the adult as the type, adult humor as the defining standard of the comic, and examines childhood humor (such as toys) under those categories. I wish to start with the child and the child’s experience with laughter, and see what we can discover about the adult’s humor. But still, I must face the question: why does the adult laugh at the child? When asked, adults often have no more answer than “it was so absurd.” The baby bounces, grabs his ears for no reason, and the adult laughs. Other times we laugh because the child says or does something that is quite appropriate, though the child has no idea why. My grandson had been experimenting with a new phrase: “Not yet.” When asked if he had done something, rather than saying “yes” or “no,” he would sometimes answer “Not yet.” Last week he was sitting between my daughter and me on her sofa and she asked, “Did you pee-pee your pants?” He answered, “Not yet.” Everybody laughed, and then he laughed too though his laughter seemed a little forced. It seemed to me that he had no real idea why everyone was laughing but wanted to join in; the adults were laughing because it sounded as if he were planning to wet the sofa, but didn’t really. If they had really thought he intended to soil the furniture they wouldn’t have laughed; they would have rushed to get a diaper on him. What he said was funny because it wasn’t true, but could have been; it wasn’t a non sequitur. Sometimes the child is apparently trying to be funny, and succeeds. When my daughter was verbal but still in diapers, I got up with her one night to change her and thought she felt warm. I got the thermometer and found she had a fever. I said, “Congratulations! You are one sick puppy.” She said, “Arf!” In short, when we laugh at babies, it seems to be for a variety of reasons: sometimes because they say or do something that seems very “adult,” other times when they do something that seems like it was an attempt to be “adult,” other times when it is just absurd but struck us as funny.

Perhaps there really is nothing more to it. The baby laughs because he or she is happy; why must the adult have any other reason? I haven’t done a survey, but I suspect most widely-spoken languages have different words for “funny” versus “pleasant” or “makes me joyful.” It does appear that there is an intellectual component to “funny.” For example, people who are particularly good at mental tasks like estimation also prefer more complex jokes.[5] We often use similar language about humor and play; for example, people who disapprove of humor may say it is “frivolous,” or say “quit clowning around,” while those who approve may say the joker is “fun” and “playful.” We even refer to “word-play” for a particular sort of humor. Perhaps, just as some sorts of play are fun because they provide a physical challenge and the pleasure of using one’s muscles, other sorts of “play” are pleasurable because they challenge and stimulate brain cells and neurons that needed a little exercise. Most humor requires seeing something from two or more angles simultaneously; even the pratfall has to both appear to be a fall but also appear to not actually cause harm (unless the laugher is a real jerk, which is another issue).

I know of no culture that does not have some concept of physical play, such as racing or jumping competitions or other “non-serious” physical activities. While there are cultural variations (“Waddya mean I can’t use my hands?”) the concept itself is pretty universal. Humor seems to have more cultural variations. A 2002 study surveyed 1.5 million people from 70 different countries, asking them to submit jokes they thought were funny and then to evaluate what jokes they thought were funny. In total, 40,000 jokes were graded, and some cultural differences did emerge. Americans (and Canadians) seemed more drawn to jokes that implied a certain aggression or put-down than were other cultures; for example:

 

Texan: “Where are you from?”

Harvard Graduate: “I come from a place where we do not end sentences with prepositions.”

Texan: “Okay— where are you from, jackass?”

 

Europeans were said to be more likely to enjoy surreal humor:

 

A German Shepherd went to the telegram office, took out a blank form, and wrote: “Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.”

The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another ‘Woof’ for the same price.”

“But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.”[6]

 

They were also said to like jokes about death, like this one from Scotland: “I just want to die quickly and peacefully like my grandfather, and not screaming in terror like his passengers.” And it makes sense that humor would be strongly affected by culture. Humor is social, and anything social is at least partly learned. The capacity for humor and the instinct to want to make others laugh may be universal and innate, but every comedian knows you have to “read the room.” Any group is going to have learned patterns of behavior, standards of what is acceptable, utterly serious, titillating and so on. The lead researcher, Dr. Richard Wiseman, also noted that, in addition to cultural differences, there were simply different reasons for something to seem funny, saying, “Also, we find jokes funny for lots of different reasons. They sometimes make us feel superior to others, reduce the emotional impact of anxiety-provoking situations or surprise us because of some kind of incongruity.”[7] And how humor is used or appreciated varies between cultures and particularly between East and West, despite physiological and psychological factors that appear universal.[8] This affects even how adults will perceive a child’s humor, which in turn would affect what the child learns and become a self-reinforcing cultural trait. A Westerner is likely to consider a humorous child to be clever, creative and social, so the child’s early attempts to provoke laughter are likely to be rewarded; but a Chinese is more likely to see such behavior as disruptive and unsocial, so the child will get less positive reinforcement.

At a minimum, then, this sort of pragmatic, genealogical approach to understanding humor has several advantages over Bergson’s approach based more on the structures of society. It accounts for children’s humor and for nonhuman humor, areas Bergson neglected in the first case and didn’t recognize in the second. It is able to accommodate the well-known cultural variations in humor as instances of generational transmission, while still also accounting for the universality of humor as a phenomenon. This approach does not rule out the validity of Bergson’s theory entirely, but it does contradict it at some points and expand the range of humor it is able to discuss. One thing it does not do, which Bergson does, is attempt to define what is “funny.” Many things are “funny” to one person and not to another. This is not that unusual; taste would seem to be a biological reality and important to the survival of the individual, yet one person or culture may enjoy a taste that another finds bland or even repulsive. Perhaps too “funny” is one of those fuzzy concepts, with multiple related meanings, so that philosophy will never be able to find a universal theory of the comic. That does not mean, however, that philosophy need remain mute on the subject; there is still much philosophy can learn from examining humor and much to discover about its implications.

[1] Joseph Castro, “Do Animals Have Humor?” LiveScience Nov. 6, 2017 (https://www.livescience.com/60864-do-animals-have-humor.html) see also Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, “Do Animals Have a Sense of Humor? New Evidence Suggests All Mammals Have a Funny Bone;” Slate March 26, 2014 (https://slate.com/culture/2014/03/do-animals-have-a-sense-of-humor-new-evidence-suggests-that-all-mammals-have-a-funny-bone.html)

[2] McGraw/Warner

[3] Laughter, chapter II, sect. I

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, third edition, 286-312

[5] John von Radowitz, “Revealed: The Funniest Joke in the World;” The Guardian October 3, 2002 (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/oct/03/3)

[6] Alva Noë, “What is the Funniest Joke in the World?” NPR March 7, 2014 (https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2014/03/07/287250640/what-is-the-funniest-joke-in-the-world)

[7] “Revealed”

[8] Tonglin Jiang, Hao Li, Yubo Ho, “Cultural Differences in Humor Perception, Usage and Implications;” Frontiers in Psychology January 29, 2019 (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00123/full)