Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What's So Funny?

Humor is the result of something happening to you or someone else who is taking a moral high ground as though it were a military objective in a John Wayne movie. Humor is the product of you or someone consciously or unconsciously attempting a promotion in status or importance. Humor is someone's ox being gored, a literal or figurative slip, a gift from some high-flying bird that immediately reduces status and stature. Humor is the result of two persons thinking they've reached an agreement only to discover later on that they were agreeing to two different things.

Humor is literally and figuratively being thrown from a high horse; it is the deflation of pomposity, the lowering of status, the fall from grace of an individual or organization attempting to maintain dignity by overreach. Splendid targets for humor are moral superiority, exaggerated virtue or wisdom, pretentiousness.

In other words, humor always has a victim. Without a victim there can be no humor, thus the notion that humor, of all the literary and rhetorical devices, is the heat-seeking missile that can bring down pretentiousness and absurdity with the most immediate effect. We enjoy being laughed with, which is to say, we enjoy sharing a joke; we do not, however, enjoy being laughed at, for this is a sign that we are not what we pretended to be.

Humor is dramatic by nature, which is to say it comes as the result of interactions between individuals and organizations; involves persons doing things or not doing other things; it is the result of situation, dramatic reversal, possibly even surprise. If it is a well-placed barb or rejoinder, a clever pun or play on words, sorry; it doesn't make the grade as humor even though it may produce one or both responses associated with humor, the laugh or the groan. Such events are wit and perhaps even witty; as Mark Twain said of the difference between lightning and the lightning bug, there is a world of difference.

Humor is often found sharing the same living quarters with tragedy or some form of pathos. In a memorable Charlie Chaplin film, Chaplin, as the Tramp, becomes helplessly and hopelessly in love with a blind girl at a flower stand, often pausing in his daily routine to stare wistfully at her as she arranges flowers, sets up vases and plants, goes about her work of tending her stall. One day as he watches the girl, he gets too close and she, unaware of his presence, throws out a vase of water--right in his face.

Although you will hear different opinions about its appropriateness, humor may appear anywhere because it is volatile and because it is a constant reminder that the more serious we become, the more likely we are to provoke some element, perhaps several elements of humor.

The three things we are enjoined from injecting humor into are sex, religion, and politics. It is easy to see why this injunction is sometimes broadcast; with the possible exception of death and funerary matters, there are few things funnier than sex, religion, and politics, either our own or someone else's.

Where to look for humor? Everywhere. Start with groups of individuals involved in institutions: families, schools, churches, clubs, professions. Think of it this way, Humor is the street people of society, reminding us in sharp, memorable jabs that our best intentions and best laws and best inventions and compositions are all vulnerable. Humor looms like Magwich in the graveyard scene in Great Expectations, the unthinkable come to pass, the unthinkable come to laugh at us and our serious.

That's not funny, they will tell you, as though that could stop anything.


Anonymous said...

Oh, Shelly -- I must have been channeling you when I started today's blog post: last night, at pretty much 6pm Eastern time. Truly scary.

I fell in love with James Thurber when I was a kid: The Night the Bed Fell, The Night the Ghost Got In, Mitty... just about all of it (not least the cartoons and illustrated poems and "fables for our time"). When I got older and read about his life and his personality off the page, instead of ruining the humor, the new information made it sparkle all the more.

Loved this post. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Great post! I love reading about humor, hearing humor, ect. Lately I've been enthrealled with Kathy Griffin...she's hilarious!
I found another post this morning about the history of humor...thought I'd share: