Chapter 2

What is humor?

Then what is it that makes us see things as funny? What I hinted at above can be expressed by the following definition:

Humor is the understanding that some fact about the world doesn't make sense, together with a refusal either to treat it as a problem or to evaluate it.

That is, if you confront something that contradicts your expectations, you have three possible attitudes to it: you can consider it an effect, and try to find a solution for the problem (in which case you are basically in the scientific mode of thinking), or you can consider it as bad and either complain about it or set about correcting it (in which case you are in the evaluative mode of thinking)--or, finally, you can simply accept it as a fact, in which case you laugh at it.

And this, of course, is why comedians want to be laughed at. They see that the way the world really is is contrary to the way we expect the world to be; but they also see that there is a great deal of this that doesn't threaten us, and they want to show people the way the world is in such a way that it is still somewhere you could want to live. In a sense, it is the comedians who perform the "catharsis" of bad situations, rather than the tragedians. Tragedy shows that evil can make sense in one way or another; comedy shows that it doesn't have to make sense.

Why is this a "healthy" attitude of mind? As far as I can see, only my philosophical position on values can make sense of it. Whenever we see something as bad, we are, as I said earlier and am going to spell out in more detail in the next section, comparing it to our preconceived ideal of the way the world "ought" to be. Humor, however, tells us to accept the world as it is, rather than either trying to make it over into what we would like it to be or complaining that we weren't allowed to be its creator. Humor even acts as a check on the scientific attitude, which greets everything contrary to expectations as a puzzle to be solved. It shows that, however puzzling the fact may be, it is still a fact, and a fact is a fact; there is no ontological demand that we find a way to satisfy our reason before we will accept it.

This is not to say that humor is the "only real" attitude to take to the world, that what we should do is practice a passive kind of "conformity to the will of God," and simply accept everything and laugh at it without ever trying to improve situations.

In fact, it can be immoral to take this attitude in certain situations. If someone is injured and you can do something about it and all you do is sit back and notice how ridiculous he looks running around carrying his severed arm, this is hardly the sign of a "healthy mind." In refusing to prevent the act (supposing that you could have done so), you have cooperated with it, and morally speaking this is the same as committing it yourself. Even if the act was not preventable by you (it happened in an accident with some machine he was using), then by sitting back and enjoying his situation (certain aspects of which are incongruous), you are refusing help and at the very least the sympathy which he deserves in his dehumanized condition; you have by laughing at him proclaimed yourself superior to the rest of mankind, which is a lie--not to mention the fact that you are killing your ability to sympathize with others, which is the most noble aspect of yourself.