Posts Tagged ‘Humor and Humility’

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.


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 (

[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