Chapter 3

Types of humor; satire

And of course, this attitude is what makes "sick" humor sick, and inhuman. Interestingly, it is what some moderns think is the basis of all humor. Humor supposes a detached attitude toward the situation; but there are situations where deliberate detachment is immoral by omission; and so not all funny situations are such that the humor in them can be morally recognized.

--Except, of course, by the person to whom the harm happens himself. Last week I went to my locker after my workout and found no lock on the door. Thinking, "I'm really getting to be the absent-minded professor; I didn't even lock my locker," I opened it and--just in case--felt in my pants pocket for the wallet that was no longer there; and then noticed that the lock was not where it would have been if I hadn't locked the locker. If I had had a sense of humor, I could have thought of what the expression on my face was like; as it was, I cursed myself for being an idiot and bringing my wallet to the gym, knowing that there had been break-ins.

The point I am making is that there would have been nothing wrong in my laughing at how stupid I was; but the other people in the gym couldn't have done so morally. The line between where humor "at the expense of someone else" is permitted and where it is immoral is more or less at the same place as I will talk about in the next section when I make the distinction between values and necessities: when damage, either physical or mental, is done to the person (so that he cannot do what he could normally do, especially what he could be expected because of his genetic potential to do). In that case, you would be enjoying the dehumanization of another human being, which is inconsistent with your being human yourself. This is particularly true, of course, if, as I said above, you are by your inaction refusing to prevent or cure this dehumanization; your laughing at the incongruous aspect of it adds insult to the injury.

Most practical jokes, therefore, should not be regarded as funny, because most are at least humiliating to the person on whom they are played, and no one ever has a right to humiliate anyone but himself. Being a "good sport" simply means allowing one's rights to be violated and not complaining about it because everyone around you is laughing. This goes for laughing at the "cute" antics of children and filling them with embarrassment. Incongruous cruelty is still cruelty, and no human being should enjoy it.(1)

As far as practical jokes are concerned, however, there is one type that is legitimate: the kind that Jesus was fond of playing, where what is unexpected is a benefit. For instance, he came up behind Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb and asked (as if he didn't know her) what she was crying about; at which she replied, thinking he was the caretaker, "Oh, sir, if you've taken him from here, tell me where you've put him and let me have him!" at which he said "Mary," undoubtedly amid gales of laughter. Shortly afterward, he walked seven miles with two of his students, talking earnestly about himself without letting them know it was he until the end of the journey. And so on.

In certain contexts, laughing at harm to others can be legitimate. When such things are presented on the stage, then as I said in the preceding chapter, we know that no real injury is being done, and we can focus simply on the irrationality of what is going on. A woman in a velvet gown comes into a room, puts her hand on the grand piano, says in a soulful voice, "John," and gets a pie in the face--and stands there, with a surprised look, letting the whipped cream drip all over her clothes. We laugh (at least I did), because we know we don't have to consider the insult, not to mention the damage to what she is wearing. If she had said, "Now what did you do that for? You've ruined a thousand-dollar dress!" and began to cry, it wouldn't have been funny, because then we would be empathizing with her.

It is the fact of not being able to empathize that makes overdone tragedy funny. This is what is sometimes called "camp": a film that was intended seriously, but which overstates its case. King Kong is one of these: the story of the two-story-high gorilla that fell in love with a woman he could hold in the palm of his hand and got killed climbing the Empire State Building to find her. I kept wondering how he expected to express his affection to this ant-sized female; and I can't imagine anyone over five years old being frightened or taking the last line, "Well, it looks like beauty killed the beast" with anything but guffaws--but apparently the original audience did it.

Even more, we feel no qualms at all about laughing at total mayhem committed on cartoon characters. Since they can fall from twenty stories and have a safe fall on top of them and then get up and walk around as flat versions of themselves and in the next frame be back to normal, there is no hint of damage's actually being done, and we don't have to concern ourselves with anything but with the poetic justice of how the ingenious attempt to murder the other character backfires. Violence in these films is not violence, because it isn't perceived as such, but just as incongruity. I once saw a film called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which wasn't a cartoon but had actors dressed up as the turtles going around with staffs and chucka sticks and perpetrating law and order on gangs of outlaws in what would be the most gruesome fashion if it were not so unreal. It is being decried by some as too violent; but it is hard to consider something serious where the turtles call to each other for "high five" handclasps as "Gimme three!" since they only have three fingers. It had the same flavor as a cartoon, and was a lot of fun with, I must say, beautifully choreographed fights.

Puns are funny because the substitution of the inappropriate word changes the meaning of the sentence it is used in; and they are funniest when the meaning is also unexpectedly true. A person, for instance, getting up after a restless night is described as "bed-raggled." They can also be funny because they bring in allusions: "As one monkey said to another, 'Am I my keeper's brother?'" brings in the episode of Cain from the Bible together with the theory of evolution, and--depending on the tone of voice you say it in, or the context--it can also indicate a reversal of the anti-evolutionists' attitude toward being related to monkeys.

Sometimes the humor is just in the sound, as in certain spoonerisms. "Mardon me, Padam, but you're occupewing my pie," allegedly said the Reverend Spooner himself--and the humor is enhanced by the fact that it almost seems to mean something in its transmogrified form, as does the sentence which is said to have followed it, "Can I sew you to another sheet?"

Sexual jokes are funny because they treat lightly something we instinctively know is very serious; and the same sort of thing goes for religious or political humor, when it is just humor and not satire. Sexual jokes in mixed company are apt not to be funny precisely because the other sex is there, and the overtones of exploitation or cruelty become apparent in addition to the incongruity. But I am inclined to think that certain sexual jokes (that is, those that aren't "sick" and aren't a cover for enjoying cruelty) are good, because they put into perspective something that is apt, because of the strength of the urge, to put itself forward as the only real reason for living. So the fact that men tell sexual jokes among themselves is really no indication that all men are at heart rapists; it is a way of defusing the bomb that the sexual urge in the male can be.

Religious jokes do, as I said, the same thing, as do ethnic jokes. But in these two categories they are only funny when they are told between believers or between members of the same ethnic group. Jewish jokes told by Jews to Jews are funny; Jewish jokes told by Gentiles aren't, because they involve put-downs of Jews because they are Jews. Similarly, facetious remarks about the Catholic liturgy among Catholics are funny, because even that most solemn of all acts has its incongruous modes, and these are facts. But when non-Catholics point them out, then Catholics--often rightly--suspect that they don't see the basic seriousness, truth, and value of the liturgy as a whole, and they resent someone saying something that appears to make the whole enterprise stupid.

What is called "wit" is the ability to see the incongruous in something and point it out so that the person is surprised into a new realization. It has the danger, since what is incongruous is also what is bad, of being clever nastiness. I remember one time a student of mine was remarking between classes about a jump suit she was wearing that everyone thought was pajamas. I mentioned during the class that followed that my daughter, who at that time was supported by me, could spend all the money she earned in her job at Saks Fifth Avenue in buying clothes. "Just like mine!" the woman remarked, and I said, with a smile on my face, "Oh, no! She has better taste than that!" She said nothing until everyone was filing out of the room, and then in tears accused me of making slighting remarks--and by that time, I had forgotten what I said, and had to worm it out of her, after which I apologized both to her and publicly to the class. I have no concept of what is "in good taste" in women's clothes, and was simply trying to be clever. I am only in training to be a wit, and have not got more than halfway there.

The reason, of course, why jokes are not funny the second time you hear them is that you already know the fact that they are pointing out; you have no expectations that the reality of the world dashes. But the reason why it is enjoyable to tell the same joke over and over again is that you know something about the world that you want to share with others.

People can even share a joke and keep telling it to each other, relishing the fact that the two of them know about how crazy the world is. In this, humor shared creates a sense of solidarity, like that of the appreciation of the same type of art; we know that we like the kind of person who can see humor in the type of situation we see humor in, because he is like us; just as the type of person who appreciates the music we like is like us too.

But just as with esthetics, what is underneath humor is that we recognize that what it is saying is true. The world is in fact insane in the way the joke or the humorist shows it to be. If we don't believe this, we don't find the jokes funny, but just silly. This is one reason why ethnic jokes told by someone outside the group are not funny; because they are seen as reflecting on the group as a whole, and the "truth" conveyed is not that the group is no worse than other groups, but that it belongs on a lower level than "real" human beings, which is of course false. But when told by one within the group, the simple inconsistency of behavior, say, is what is asserted.

Finally, a remark about satire, which is to humor as rhetoric is to esthetics. Satire starts out with humor, making the person laugh at some situation that is contrary to expectations; but then it shifts the ground and makes the reasonable situation appear to be the one that ought to exist, in which case the unreasonable facts then seem evil, and something that must be corrected or done away with.

Jonathan Swift is the quintessential satirist. In his "Modest Proposal," he starts out by suggesting as a solution to the hunger in Ireland that the Irish cook their infants for dinner, thus feeding the family and solving the population problem. He treats this in a matter-of-fact way, and his treatment of it is funny after the manner of religious jokes (that is, it is an outrage taken as a kind of matter of course, and so you don't think he is serious)--until the end of the essay, in which he says how much more reasonable his proposal is than the unthinkable abolition of absentee landlordism. It is a superb piece of rhetoric, because the reader has been going along with the gruesome proposal to see how horrible it can get, and yet realizing how much sense it makes in a perverted sort of way, and then is confronted with the real solution to the problem of starvation in Ireland, as the only other alternative, and one which costs no suffering at all. And then there is Gulliver's Travels, in which all the rather vulgar humor culminates in the rather shocking realization that horses are far superior in moral qualities to men.

Dickens's novels, among other things, are satires. His comic characters, like Mr Pecksniff, Mrs Gamp, even Fagin, are not simply funny; he quite clearly wants the world rid of such people--and he did as much as Marx, I think, in alleviating the problems of industrial England, because he enlisted the emotions in his satire, and Marx enlisted the British Museum.

There is nothing wrong with satire, any more than there is anything wrong with rhetoric. But just as rhetoric is not art, because its purpose is action, not information, so satire is not humor, because its purpose is also action, or at least condemnation of evil practices. Humor as such does not take a stand on what it laughs at; satire does; and that is why humor is good-natured and can be enjoyed even by the people who are the subject of the madness pointed out, while satire is resented, because it supposes that the world is to conform to the satirist's view of what it ought to be.

For instance, I don't happen to share the political views of Gary Trudeau, the artist of the comic strip Doonesbury, which is left-wing satire of everything in government. I happen to think that much of what goes on in government is the very opposite of what the people in government say is going on; but to appreciate Doonesbury, you have to agree with his idea of what the solutions are; otherwise, he is simply sneering. On the other hand, Berkeley Breathed, in the strip Bloom County, often poked fun at the same things; but he poked fun at everything, and though it seemed to me his orientation was probably close to Trudeau's, his humor didn't rankle because it was humor, and he didn't give the impression of being a crusader.

I personally think that artists and humorists have to be very solid in their grasp of reality before they pass over into being rhetoricians and satirists. From what I have seen of both, their views on things are very often simplistic and emotional, with very little in the way of hard facts to back them up; and their solutions often are such that they would only make the problem they are trying to solve worse. Solving problems taking an esthetic approach is probably impossible; because the world doesn't want to behave the way our emotions would like it to behave, and we have to get cold and hard-headed to see how we can take the small steps toward betterment that the world is ready for, not impose the ideal on a recalcitrant earth. Very few satirists are of the caliber of Swift and Dickens; and when the humorists get serious with their humor, they very often just turn out to be nasty people with smiles on their faces.

And with that, I end this unfunny discussion of what is funny.



1. This goes for tickling also. Even though laughter is the response to being tickled, it is not the laughter involved in enjoyment, but a nervous reaction to the invasion of the body by another. I temper this comment by my experience with my six-year-old grandson, who seems to enjoy and asks to be tickled. I don't understand it, but evidently there is at least one thing in heaven or on earth that is not dreamed of in my philosophy.