Posts Tagged ‘Comedy’

Comedy: Notes on Bergson’s “Laughter”

January 17, 2020

I’ve been busy reading Bergson and haven’t posted in awhile.  In the interest of providing some content and maybe getting feedback, I’m offering a portion of the notes I took.

 

NOTES ON BERGSON’S “LAUGHTER”

 

 

 

The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN.

—–Henri Bergson[1]

 

This appears to be wrong. Studies indicate that apes, and perhaps all mammals “laugh” in some form.[2] 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. Another pet owner says her parrot calls the cat using their owner’s voice, then barks like a dog when the cat appears. A 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 verbals 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.[3]

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.”

[1] Henri Bergson, Laugher: an essay on the meaning of the comic posted July 26, 2009 (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm)

[2] 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)

[3] McGraw/Warner

Comedy and Lies

January 9, 2020

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.

Comedy: The Basics

January 6, 2020

Comedy: The Basics

The last time I went flying I started a game of Peek-a-Boo with a toddler in the seat in front of me. After the fifth time I had to grab him by the throat and say, “Look, no matter how many times you try this, it’s always going to be me.
——Rita Rudner

We are born crying; we must learn to laugh. I’m not sure what that says about life. Still, while we must learn how to laugh, we are not taught how to laugh; it seems to be one of those inborn traits of humanity, that unfolds naturally in the fulness of time. Babies are not generally known for having a “sense of humor,” even if they laugh readily. A baby who laughs a lot is said to be “happy,” not “joking.” I’ve been trying to pay attention to my grandson, and I tried to pay attention to my children before; and it seems that children first laugh spontaneously, from joy. When we took my grandson to Dinosaur World, he was so excited to see the full-sized models that he laughed and danced. This isn’t to say they were funny to him, but rather that they gave him joy. He also, like every child I’ve known, laughs in anticipation, like when he’s expecting a tickle. After all, what is so funny about peek-a-boo? It’s tremendously predictable and repetitive, the very opposite of humor for adults. But for a child, this seems to be the point. Young babies seem to be startled the first few times when the familiar face suddenly reappears, and then delighted. Later, as object permanence firms up, they take joy in anticipating the return of the missing face. So laughter is an expression of present or anticipated happiness.
Babies seem to laugh at funny faces, pratfalls and so on pretty early, particularly when an adult seems to show silliness or clumsiness. I’ve never seen a toddler laugh at another who fell down, but adults who pretend to fall but then pop up again smiling seem to be hysterically funny. Some young children may laugh even at a genuine fall where someone was hurt; but research today shows that an instinct for altruism also appears in toddlers at about (or shortly after) they begin to appreciate silly physical comedy. This leads me to think laughing at another’s pain is due to a lack of empathy, which is also to say a lack of maturity, or else perhaps a simple mistake where one does not realize the other is really hurt.
It is often said that children do not have a sense of humor, or have a terrible sense of humor, and have to learn what is funny. However, I saw an interview with a comedian years ago who made his living entertaining children, who said this isn’t true. Rather, small children are amused by different things, and in particular by the role-reversal of an adult who knows less than the child. The obvious example of this is the “Mr. Noodle” routines in Sesame Street’s “Elmo’s World” segments (such as here: Mr. Noodle). When the adult does something so silly that the child has to come in and become the teacher, that is funny to children. The physical humor of Mr. Noodle is part of the appeal, but clearly the role-reversal is part as well. Perhaps this is part of the well-known quality of humor to remove the pain of painful situations. The life of a small child is to be surrounded by giants, who are generally benevolent but can also be frightening and confusing. The child constantly tries to imitate these giants, and feels satisfaction when able to do it well. When an adult takes on the role of the child, pretending clumsiness and ignorance which need rescue by the superior understanding of the child, it is particularly funny to the kid. This is also the fun of later games of peek-a-boo where the child “hides” from the adult and pops up, and the adult feigns the surprise and delight which the infant once genuinely felt.
For the child, laughter is a natural expression of joy. For the adult, this sort of laughter becomes rarer. Comedy is the art of intentionally producing laughter, not through physical means like tickling and not spontaneously by simply giving joy. What distinguishes comedy from these other sorts of laughter is that something is done that is “funny,” which generally involves some sort of swerving from the “normal” or “expected” way things usually go in a way that gives pleasure.

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

January 2, 2020

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

——-H. Frankfurt

Aside from Bergson’s essay, there has been relatively little philosophical discussion of comedy or the comic. There has been even less serious discussion of bullshit; in fact, there has been only one book on the subject, which itself was based on an essay by the same author. What is “bullshit,” and why should we care? Our initial thought is that we should not; one calls something “bullshit” to say it does not deserve our attention. Harry Frankfurt’s argument is that it is valuable to consider the concept of “bullshit” even if bullshit itself is not worth considering. ( Harry G. Franfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)) My humble opinion is that the concepts of bullshit and the comic have several connections, and understanding these helps clarify the meaning and significance of both.

Bullshit is not lying, though it is related and they can be confused. Sometimes we say, “That’s bull!” when what we mean is, “You’re lying!” But as Dr. Frankfurt points out, the two seem to be something different. The liar is deceptive about the facts. The liar wants you to believe something about the world is one way when in fact it is another. The liar knows what reality is; as they say, it isn’t a lie if you actually believe it (or more accurately, you’re not a liar if you believe it). The bullshitter is aiming at something else. The bullshitter wants to deceive about his or her self, motives and character. Let me suggest a relatively uncontroversial example. Suppose you heard your father loudly proclaim how wonderful your mother is, how smart, how funny, how she did a wonderful job raising you, how lovely she is and so on. And (for the sake of argument at least) suppose you agreed with everything he said. You wouldn’t say “It’s al lies;” it’s true. But suppose you know that she cries herself to sleep because of his numerous affairs, how he stays with her because the property is in her name, and how he privately shows little appreciation for her at all. Then you may say “It’s all bullshit!”——not that what he said was false, but that he was false in saying it, as if he cared. It’s not that he wants to deceive anyone about what his wife is like; he only cares that he deceive them about what he is like, so that they believe he’s a good, loving, loyal, appreciative husband.
The liar cares about the truth. The liar knows what the truth is and is engaged with it, specifically to avoid it. The concept of “lie” depends upon the concept of “truth;” you cannot have have a lie without there being a truth, and the lie can’t exist unless it is mistaken for a truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth at all. (Bullshit, pp. 33-34) The bullshitter just wants to project an image, and says whatever suits that purpose. The actual content is irrelevant; the bullshitter need not even know what the truth is. If the lie is deliberate miscommunication or false communication, then bullshit isn’t communication at all. ( pp. 42-43) It is “false communication” in a second sense: not the communication of counterfeit truth, but a counterfeit of communication itself. (pp. 54-55) It suits the bullshitter just fine if we all give up on the idea of distinguishing between truth and falsehood completely; the bullshitter simply says whatever is useful to serve the purpose of the moment. Bullshit attacks the very existence of truth itself, and the relevance of truth to discussion. In this regard, Frankfurt says, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than is lying.  ( pp. 60-61)

Comedy has elements in common with both lying and bullshit. One thing on which the philosophers and psychologists seem to agree is that comedy is based on contradiction. Something happens which is surprising and false, but in a way that gives pleasure. Roman occupiers executing a hundred people at a time is horrible. Those hundred people singing  “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is hilarious.  The contradiction between the painful situation, the total painlessness of the people, the cheerfulness of the song, and the nihilistic lyrics presents something that has truth in it (“life is quite absurd, and death’s the final word”) in a way that takes the pain away. This bouncy tune, those words, and that situation just don’t go together. Kierkegaard might have said they mutually annihilate each other, as the different elements of irony do ( Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony: with continual reference to Socrates; edited ad translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989] p. 248). Much comedy comes from pain, presented in a way that renders it painless by rendering it absurd, thus meaningless and insignificant, unworthy of consideration. So lying, bullshit and comedy all rely on contradiction: lying on the contradiction between truth and what is claimed, bullshit on the contradiction between the real and purported attitude of the bullshitter to what is said, and comedy between what is said and how it is said.

     The liar and the comedian both rely on the truth. The liar wishes to avoid the truth, and produces a falsity which can be presented as truth. The comedian wishes, in many cases, to present truth but in a way that is not entirely true. The comedian may produce something outrageous in a way that evokes laughter rather than outrage; but still, as John Oliver said, “Any joke is worthless if it’s built upon a lie.” (David Folkenflik, “John Oliver on Facts, Donald Trump and The Supreme Court for Dogs;” Morning Edition (NPR, February 10, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/02/10/514152562/john-oliver-on-facts-donald-trump-and-the-supreme-court-for-dogs) ) Even in cases where the comedian is telling a story, what makes it funny is if it is relatable, that is, true to the human experience of the audience. And in the case of political humor in particular, that also means it needs to be factually true. A Hegelian might suggest that both lies and comedy are antitheses of some truth, and thus presentations (perhaps mirror images) of the truth. The difference is that the comedian intends to present the truth, though perhaps in a false way; the liar intends to hide the truth. But both differ from the bullshitter in that bullshit does not intend either to reveal or avoid the truth at all.

     Comedy also has elements in common with bullshit, so much that sometimes the two are confused as here. In both cases the performer is more concerned with the reaction of the audience than with the truth of the statement. There is a contradiction between what the performer says (or writes) versus the actual intentions. If you believe Huckleberry Finn or Blazing Saddles seriously mean the racist statements they contain, you find them horrifying (or, if you’re racist, perhaps not) but if you understand the joke and see the disconnection between the comedian’s words versus intentions, you see them as a satire on the racism of the characters and find it funny—-though, as they say, “funny because it’s true” as a true(ish) presentation of racists. The difference is that the bullshitter wants to be perceived as serious, while the comedian wants to be perceived as “just joking” even when he or she may in fact care a great deal about the message hidden in the joke.
Comedy can often “call out” real evils or real problems when a straightforward denunciation might be mistaken for bullshit. The bullshitter, after all, wants to be taken seriously even when he or she is in fact not serious; the comedian says, “Don’t take me seriously” even when saying very serious things. The parallels with Socrates are obvious even without the character of Comicus. Charlie Chaplain’s work is particularly striking in this regard; even without the spoken word, films such as Modern Times pointed out the dehumanizing aspects of early 20th century capitalism, while The Great Dictator called out Fascism at a time when many of America’s political and cultural leaders were praising Hitler.

     This is the real difference between comedy versus bullshit, and the real power of comedy. Bullshit relies on the covert contradiction. It appears to be communication, but it is not; it is just “hot air,” empty exhalation. The bullshitter wants to be taken as sincere, as caring about the words he or she is expressing. If it is seen to be what it is, it loses its power. Comedy, by contrast, relies on the explicit contradiction. This is true even of physical comedy, which appears for a moment to be painful or fatal but then is revealed to be harmless. Verbal comedy in its most frivolous forms (such as puns) depends on the hearer hearing one thing and then realizing that what was actually said and meant was something else. The pleasure comes from the realization of the contradiction. If the contradiction isn’t recognized by the audience, they are said to “miss the joke.”

     The lie gets its power from the concealed contradiction, in presenting a false claim as true. Bullshit gets its power from the concealed contradiction that the bullshitter doesn’t care and may not even know what the truth is, but wishes to seem sincere. Comedy gets its power from the revealed contradiction. This is why it is inherently comic to expose bullshit. When, in the classic fairy tale, the Emperor is tricked into walking down the street naked, what is hilarious is not the nudity. If it had been an act of religious humility, his society would have honored it; if he’d barely escaped from a fire, it might have been embarrassing but also fortunate. What makes it funny is that he was conned by a liar who saw he was vacuous, pretentious, or in short, bullshitting the people. The “tailor” was a straight-up liar, spinning not cloth but only tales of magical clothes that cannot be seen by fools. The Emperor, being a bullshitter, wanted to be seen as wise and was thus too ashamed to admit he could not see the clothes. The courtiers too were not trying to deceive the Emperor about the clothes; unlike the “tailor,” they believed the magical clothes existed, though they could not see them. They only wished to deceive others about what they themselves actually knew. When an ignorant, unpretentious child came along, and blurted out what everyone knew but was afraid to admit, the Emperor was exposed in more ways than one. It is the shame of being shown to have been a fool pretending to be so superior that he could see this magical suit, when actually there was nothing to see, that made the situation so hilarious.  Likewise, there’s nothing terribly funny about the Bible’s anti-gay statements, about a cleric denouncing homosexuality, or about a person living in the closet for fear of being rejected by family and friends, and possibly fired or otherwise harmed if his or her homosexuality became public knowledge. But when a stridently anti-gay preacher is outed by being caught up in a police raid on gay sex in a public bathroom, it becomes the fodder for countless jokes. What makes it funny is the revelation, showing that all that preaching and fulminating was nothing but bullshit.

     Bullshit is an essential tool of dictators and would-be dictators of all stripes. Whether their policies are in fact wise or stupid, they depend primarily on the people believing that the Dear Leader actually gives a damn about anyone else, or about the nation as a whole. That is why authoritarians hate real comedy; the bullshitter is a joke waiting to be made, and knows it, and thus fears being laughed at more than anything else.  Maybe that is part of why we seem to judge comedians more harshly than we judge our so-called “role models” and “pillars of society.” Today even the most conservative, subservient, obedient and reverent citizen these days has decided that the legal, political and religious leaders of society are just bullshit artists, and that even if the policies they advocate and carry out are good, they themselves are phonies. But the comedian is the one who is supposed to expose the frauds; to find out that the comedian is possibly also bullshitting is just too much. If that is the reason, then the real question should not be why we judge comedians so strictly, but why we don’t judge the others at all.

 

What’s Up With Comedy? Preliminary Expectoration

December 20, 2019

What’s Up With Comedy? Preliminary Expectoration

 

This is part of the confusion that manifests itself in so many ways in our day; something is sought where one should not seek it; and what is worse, it is found where one should not find it. One wishes to be edified in the theater, to be esthetically stimulated in church; one wishes to be converted by novels, to be entertained by devotional books; one wishes to have philosophy in the pulpit and a preacher on the lecture platform.[1]

—– S. Kierkegaard

 

 

Does anyone else think it strange that we demand higher moral standards from our comedians than we do from our nation’s political leaders? A comedian’s career can be derailed by a careless tweet. An actor’s career can be derailed by a charge of sexual impropriety. A singer can be called to account for performing at a party hosted by a dictator, or sometimes even just for performing in a country with an unsavory government. But if the President suggests that someone should be beaten or killed, or confesses to a crime, it’s said he was “just joking;” if a dozen or more women testify he raped or assaulted them, they’re all dismissed as liars; if he praises and is praised by murderous, corrupt dictators and even claimed by them as “one of our agents”, it has no noticeable impact on the love of his fans or the respect of his party.[2] Our age accepts any buffoonery from its leaders, so long as they make the crowds laugh; but actual comedians are expected to act like leaders.

In Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the fictitious anonymous author argues that such confusions reflect a society in disarray. “Our age has lost all the substantial categories of family, state, kindred; it must turn the single individual over to himself completely in such a way that, strictly speaking, he becomes his own creator.” Our lives lack context; there is no essential connection between one and another. There is no passion; nothing has significance in itself, and we are left only with the frivolities that capture our interest for a moment. Our age, even more than Kierkegaard’s, seems fundamentally confused and disoriented. We want big, glitzy megachurches with a good show; we analyze the moral messages implicit in the latest blockbuster movie. Leaders are “just joking” or just using “locker-room talk,” while entertainers are expected to be role-models. We look for things where any serious, thoughtful person would not; and what is worse, we find what we’re looking for, because the age itself is careless and thoughtless.

Such thoughts as these suggest that it is time to think about humor, and about what it means in this age. What is comedy? Why do we take comedy so seriously? Why do we look, not to the saints or the scientists or the journalists or the leaders for truth, but to comedians and to politicians who caper and jape more than any real comedian? I want to think about these questions. Maybe, when I’m done, I’ll find the joke was on me; it wouldn’t be the first time.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Either Or, v. 1; edited translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hont, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 149

[2] Melissa Lemieux, “Russian Media Calls Trump a Moscow ‘Agent,” Jokingly Suggests He’ll Need to Flee to their Country After Leaving Office;” Newsweek 12/16/19 (https://www.newsweek.com/russian-state-media-calls-trump-moscow-agent-jokingly-suggests-hell-need-flee-their-country-1477554)