Section 6


Chapter 1

Is humor just nastiness with a smile?

I don't intend to say a great deal about humor, but it should be treated to see how it fits in to a scheme of knowledge. I mentioned my basic idea in passing in the treatment of apparently contradictory situations in Chapter1 of Section 2 of the first part 1.2.1, where I said that it was the acceptance of apparently contradictory situations, and distinguished "funny-ha-ha" from "funny-peculiar."

For centuries people have recognized that what is funny can sometimes be really horrible; and yet up until quite recently people have regarded the ability to laugh and to see the humor in things as a sign of a "healthy mind." It has also been held to be a sign of a rather high intelligence. Perhaps this could sum up the feeling about humor that everyone has: "If you laugh when I don't laugh, you're silly; if you don't laugh when I laugh, you have no sense of humor; if you laugh when I laugh, you're brainy and an all-round nice guy."

Recently, however, with Freud's view of humor and its offshoots, there has been a rather sinister cast put on laughing at things. It is regarded in these views as a kind of reinforcing of our superiority over what we are laughing at, and is supposed to be pleasing because we bolster our self-esteem by putting ourselves on a higher plane than what is ridiculous.

To me, this makes no sense. In the first place, why would anyone then tell jokes about himself--or for that matter, why would any comedian get up in front of an audience and sweat and toil to make the people out there despise him? I think of someone with the ego of Lou Costello or Jackie Gleason, the latter obviously (from some of his later films) capable of superb performances in serious roles, making clowns of themselves to get a laugh. It doesn't wash.

And then, what about puns? They're clearly funny, even though the accepted response is to groan at them; and what is it that I feel superior to when I laugh at encountering an unexpected word? Or why do we want someone to share our laughter if it is a sign of how much better we are than the rest of the world? No, that view of humor would itself be ludicrous if it weren't taken so seriously.