Posts Tagged ‘the comic’

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 1)

May 21, 2020

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter”

 

 

  1. Bergson’s Theory of the Comic

There has been relatively little written by philosophers about humor. We have Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy in the Poetics, and we have discussions of beauty, but not much sustained discussion of humor. Wittgenstein said it was possible to write an entire philosophy text consisting of nothing but jokes, but he never wrote such a book. And there have been many forays of philosophy into humor. I heard Steven Wright tell a joke about burglars breaking into his house and stealing all his stuff and replacing everything with exact duplicates. Police were baffled. A few years later, my professor told me that Wittgenstein had asked once what it would mean if someone thought people were stealing his stuff and replacing everything with duplicates, and I concluded that Wright must have gotten the idea from Wittgenstein. Steve Martin majored in philosophy, famously saying, “I studied just enough philosophy to fuck me up for the rest of my life.” Woody Allen’s comedic writings were littered with references to Kierkegaard, among others, and Craig Ferguson frequently mentioned Kierkegaard on his television show. Most recently and notably would be NBC’s “The Good Place,” a series that featured four deeased souls trying to avoid everlasting damnation by posthumously learning to be “good,” largely by taking classes on moral philosophy. But while comedians talk humorously about philosophy a lot, philosophers more rarely philosophically analyze the concept of humor.   The most famous sustained philosophical treatment of humor is Henri Bergson’s Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic.[1] I would like to use this as a starting-point to philosophically discuss comedy, to see if more recent studies and other perspectives might lead us to additional insights.

Bergson writes, “The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN.”[2] He claims that only humans laugh, and that when we laugh, we laugh at other humans or things that in some way remind us of humans. A landscape can strike us funny because it looks human in some way: “the brook sounds like it’s laughing; but the old tree looks sad.” Or, he says, a hat may seem funny, but only because we know some person chose to make it look that silly, intentionally or not. Thus, Bergson says, humans are not only animals that laugh, but also animals that are laughed at.

He further writes, “Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the ABSENCE OF FEELING which usually accompanies laughter.”[3] To feel strongly about something is to take it “seriously;” to laugh at something or someone is to step away emotionally and find the comic; “for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.” Bergson thus sees laughter as a rational phenomenon; a society of purely intellectual beings would have no tears, but might still laugh, whereas a society of very sentimental and emotional beings would have no concept of laughter or the comic. To be able to laugh is to stop feeling strongly about the object of one’s laughter. I recall an incident on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, the day naturalist Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin was tragically killed while diving with stingrays. He was a beloved personality worldwide, and even Stewart seemed to be grieving. His interview for that show was fellow comedian Norm MacDonald, and they began talking about the death of Mr. Irwin. MacDonald began musing about two crocs sharing the news: “You remember that guy who used to poke us all the time?” asks the first croc.

“What about him?” asks the second.

“He died. He was killed!”

“Really! Who got him?”

“Man, you don’t wanna know. Some fruity fish!” (At this point the audience, including Stewart, were laughing uncontrollably.)

“Please don’t make me laugh at this,” said Stewart, unable to stop.

For a few moments, the sadness that everyone was feeling, the sense of loss, was annihilated as they laughed about the absurdity that a man who had brought joy and knowledge to millions by his capturing and training of enormous saltwater crocodiles (some of the most massive and dangerous predators alive) should have been killed by a fish that is generally so harmless that tourists dive with them regularly.

Bergson’s third preliminary observation is that while the comic is a realm of intelligence rather than emotion, “This intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other intelligences.” The comic has a social dimension. This is why, he says, a group of travelers may laugh among themselves as someone tells a story which an outsider finds either incomprehensible or merely unfunny; the third party lacks the frame of reference. Even when we laugh to ourselves, it is as if someone else were telling us the joke, or we imagine telling it to another. Bergson concludes, “The comic will come into being, it appears, whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one of their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into play nothing but their intelligence. “ Comedy must be human, it must be aimed at the mind rather than the emotions, and it must be social. Having established these elements, Bergson moves on to ask what it is, more precisely, that catches our attention, that “strikes the funny bone,” and makes us laugh.

Bergson argues that the comic element emerges when humans behave “mechanically” rather than in a human, rational fashion. He paradigm is absentmindedness. The absentminded person acts on habit even when it is inappropriate to the circumstances, or forgets what he or she was doing or saying, or forgets where something is or confuses two things. One of my professors said he resolved to quit smoking the day he suddenly realized he had a cigarette in his right hand, a cigarette in his left hand, and was struggling to light a cigarette. He also regularly walked around with shirts with holes in the pocket because he had put a lit cigarette in his shirt pocket again. If we saw that in a movie, it would be hilarious; and Bergson says the reason is that it is so funny is that in that moment what was most human about this absent-minded professor was that he lost the intelligence that defines the human and became a sort of zombie or automaton. His reason failed him precisely because of that other human trait, his character, as if his mind was undermining itself; and we are amused by the fact because we observers are employing our intelligences to spot the incongruity and to note its failure.[4] Likewise, Bergson claims the comedy of the pratfall is when the body betrays the person; his intellect sought to walk down the street, but he stepped on a banana peel or got splashed by passing car. Or, when we see a character in a play put acting absurdly because he or she is overwhelmed with jealousy or some other emotion, we again see the rational person ceasing to act rationally and instead being pushed along by outside forces, like a leaf in the wind, except that the leaf and wind are both elements of the jealous one’s own personality. Similarly, we treat society as a person, and may laugh when we see the entire collective society engaged in absurd and “mechanical” activity, Bergson says. Social ceremonies are important to social cohesion and as expressions of collective values, but when divorced from that context and just seen as actions they can quickly become comic, Bergson says, “from an ordinary prize-distribution to the solemn sitting of a court of justice.” During the waning days of the Cold War my father went with a group of doctors to visit Russia and learn about their achievements in eye surgery. While there, he was given a medal in a public men’s room by the attendant, apparently for “marksmanship.” To the Soviets, any expression of approval by the Party was meaningful, both because of the power the State had to do one good or ill, but also because it was an expression of one’s social worth as a productive member of society. Russians were frequently given these rather cheap medals for minor achievements, and someone must have thought them meaningful. To an American, however, getting a medal for not pissing on the floor seemed like a joke, and if it wasn’t an intentional joke then it was a joke on Soviet society as a whole.

In much the same way, it is humorous when a person is swallowed up by his or her official status and seems unable to respond humanly. Bergson tells the story of custom-house officials rescuing survivors from a shipwreck, and then asking them out of habit, “Do you have anything to declare?” Or sometimes humor arises when someone filling a social post doesn’t quite succeed in hiding his or her all-too-humanness. There’s nothing very funny about an American not being able to sing our national anthem; it is notoriously difficult. But when Donald Trump, standing as the Head of State at a public event, seems to not know the words or has to be reminded by his immigrant wife to put his hand over his heart, it becomes funny because while it is one thing for an ordinary person not to know the words or to neglect to cover his heart, it’s quite another when the nation’s leader is standing publicly as the representative of the national spirit and seems to be, in fact, only a rather mediocre citizen.

Another source of comic contradiction, says Bergson, is when the body betrays the mind.[5] This can happen when the body lacks the proper human suppleness, and seems too rigid and mechanical—or, I suspect, when it seems too supple. Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch is a good example of both physical and social humor. There is a great deal of comedy that comes from John Cleese, who is particularly convincing when playing a stuffy judge, businessman or government bureaucrat, meets with someone who is trying to invent a new silly walk, and the two of them talk as seriously as if a would-be engineer were applying to patent a new car engine; but when you add his physical gyrations and contortions that seem to go beyond what a human body should do or be capable of doing, it becomes hilarious.[6] As Bergson says, sometimes it is funny simply to be reminded that a person has a body, particularly when the body is not supposed to be relevant. This is likely why everyone thought it was so funny when, during the very first telephone hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court, we distinctly hear a toilet flush.[7] In the 1960s society was so squeamish about reminders of physicality that All in the Family could regularly get big laughs by simply having an off-screen toilet flush. But when this reminder of our universal physicality occurs during one of the most solemn of our social rituals, a meeting of the Supreme Court, the juxtaposition of the almost otherworldliness of the situation with the very earthy event is humorous.

Chapter II of Bergson’s essay largely develops this line of thought and extends it to verbal humor. Just as he has said that contradictions between a subject’s humanity—that is, his or her autonomy and rationality—versus physicality or mechanical behavior, so in verbal humor there is a conflict between the human, the rational and/or the moral versus some other, more physical or automatic implication. I think one example would be confusing “greatness” as in a great man or Great White Shark. As Bergson writes, “The rigid, the ready—made, the mechanical, in contrast with the supple, the ever-changing and the living, absentmindedness in contrast with attention, in a word, automatism in contrast with free activity, such are the defects that laughter singles out and would fain correct.”[8] Bergson sees this same sort of automatism at the root of both physical and verbal humor, from the pratfall to the pun to the most witty social satire.

The essay’s third chapter deals with the comic element expressed in character. Since, Bergson says, we started with the comic as a human and social phenomenon, we were already pretty close to character to begin; we need now only return to the original source of humor, which is humanity. After all, as he said earlier, humans are the only animal that laughs and, essentially, the only animal which is laughed at, since whatever we laugh at is only funny insofar as it reminds us of the human. Furthermore, we laugh as what does not essentially move our emotions, since emotions such as love or pity are undermined by humor. So, what sorts of character or person would we laugh at, and under what circumstances would we laugh at another?

Drawing on his earlier discussion, Bergson claims that we can laugh at another only when we do not feel any emotion towards the other. To some extent, we have to depersonalize the other in order to laugh at him or her. Furthermore, what makes the neighbor funny is some behavior reminiscent of a machine: behavior that is unnaturally rigid, inflexible, seemingly preprogrammed, unresponsive or out of sync with the actual circumstances. Thus, the most comic character is one that is not a real person, but more of a type. We have to feel as if we know this person, or know them well enough, but not to sympathize with them. Thus, the more depth with which the character is depicted, or the more backstory, the less comic he or she is likely to be. The knowledge we need of the character must be superficial. Thus, neither great monologues nor bold actions are comic, but rather gestures. A gesture can flow naturally from the character and reveal what sort of character lies at its root, but for all that is relatively meaningless. The NBC series The Good Place illustrates this idea quite well. The series is about four people who have died and find themselves in the afterlife, which turns out to be a planned community resembling a crossbreeding of Beverly Hills and Disneyland Main Street. Our first introductions to the characters are through gestures rather than statements or conscious acts. When Eleanor can’t remember the name of anyone she’s talking to or anything that person is saying, or when she steals shrimp at a party so she can take them home and scarf them later, we can see she is a completely selfish person. When Tahani compulsively drops names with sentences like “This is as upsetting as the time when my friend Kanye got in a fight with my good friend Taylor over my best friend Beyoncé,” we instantly know that she is obsessed with everyone knowing how important she is. The comedy of the show is largely driven by the flawed, shallow characters of these people, and their reflexive behavior. And as a result, they are also fairly unlikeable; and this is not good for a television series that wants repeat viewers. Thus, sometimes the writers give us flashbacks showing how someone’s horrible parents or toxic friends led them to become the sort of silly, incapable person they are now. This gives the viewers reason to sympathize with the protagonists and to want to see them struggle and overcome their obstacles and hopefully become better people; but these moments are rarely funny. Bergson would say this is exactly as it should be and as his theory predicts: we can sympathize with the protagonists or we can laugh, but we can’t do both at the same time. At best, we can alternate between the two. The funny moments are where we see them as The Social Peacock, The Antisocial Egoist, and so on, and see them saying and doing things quite mindlessly which reflect and flow from these types.

From what we have seen to this point, it is not surprising that Bergson sees something aggressive in comedy.[9] Bergson says that there is always a social element to comedy; we laugh at others, and among ourselves, so laughing defines the group of laughers versus those who are laughed at. We laugh at some sort of rigidity which marks the other as eccentric and not naturally fitting into society. Bergson likens it to a kind of hazing or “ragging,” which at its best is meant to gently chide the object of the laughter into coming to his or her senses, seeing that he or she has become laughable by becoming unnatural and mechanical, and thus perhaps waking up to the need for a more spontaneous, natural and aware life. This can happen when we mock the other as falling into a type, allowing some character trait, usually a vice but possibly a virtue, to cut one off from social life. [10] It is the unsociability of another that provokes our laughter, rather than the fault per se, so that even a virtue can become laughable or a vice, if it provokes violent emotion such as anger, is not. Sometimes the “type” is not a character stereotype at all, but a social one.[11] Every profession has its own standards, patterns of speech and thought, values and in short is a subculture within the wider society. Mocking these different groups can be a way to call them to account when some member of the profession begins to think his or her group is superior or self-sufficient. One example that seems to particularly reflect this sort of humor is Monty Python’s “Merchant Banker Sketch.” The Merchant Banker, busy extorting fees and concessions from a “Mr. Victim” seeking a loan, is approached in his office by a Mr. Ford who is collecting money for charity. Try as he might, The Banker cannot grasp this concept:

 

 

 

Banker: No, no, no, I don’t follow this at all, I mean, I don’t want to seem stupid but it looks to me as though I’m a pound down on the whole deal.

Mr Ford: Well, yes you are.

Banker: I am! Well, what is my incentive to give you the pound?

Mr Ford: Well the incentive is to make the orphans happy.

Banker: (genuinely puzzled) Happy? You quite sure you’ve got this right?[12]

 

 

Any normal person understands the idea of charity, but the Merchant Banker is not “normal;” he describes himself as “very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very rich,” while introducing himself with “Er… I forget my name for the moment but I am a merchant banker. “ He is literally so caught up in his job and his wealth that he cannot understand anything else. Bergson would be pleased by this satire. At the same time, this is only funny because the Banker is unsympathetic but also nonthreatening; his exaggerated miserliness and abuse of others renders him unrealistic, so while his type is recognizable and seen as deserving a good drubbing, he is not personal enough to evoke genuine fear or anger.

To summarize, Bergson sees comedy as uniquely human and thus rational, aimed at the head rather than the heart, and primarily as serving a social function of (usually) gently punishing unsociability which results from an undue rigidity or mechanical behavior in another.

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

[2] Laughter, chapter 1, sect. I

[3] Laughter

[4] Laughter, chapter 1, sect. II

[5] Laughter, chapter I, sect. III

[6] Monty Python’s Flying Circus, BBC1, season 2, episode 1 (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2hwqki)

[7] “Listen: Toilet Flushes as Supreme Court Holds Oral Arguments by Teleconference;” NBC News NOW May 6, 2020 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xB0bUtTvdCU)

[8] Laughter, chapter II, sect. II

[9] Laughter, chapter III sect. I

[10] For example, in The Good Place there is a character, Chidi, who is a moral philosopher and terribly indecisive. The audience is shown that he was unnaturally indecisive even as a child, but now his anxiety has been exacerbated by his morality itself. Faced with a simple question like whether to have a blueberry muffin for breakfast, he worries about the treatment of farm workers, what various schools of philosophy would judge to be better or worse, and becomes paralyzed. As a result, he makes everyone who cares about him miserable, not through any malice or immorality but by an excess of virtue: he is too thoughtful, too afraid of causing offense or violating his duty, and thus constantly offends and annoys and fails to do his duty or anything else.

[11] Laughter chapter III, sect. III

[12] “The Merchant Banker,” 2014 MontyPython.net (http://www.montypython.net/scripts/merchant.php) video here: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2u4ggn