Thursday, May 4, 2017

Humour, and the Lack Thereof

I have finally reached my breaking point and felt the need to get something down about this. What broke me? A video of John Cleese, yes that John Cleese, saying how political correctness has gone from being a good idea, that we shouldn't bully people, to being a bad idea. It is a bad idea, he suggests, because the free and frank exchange of ideas, including comedy, is impeded if you sit around worry about offending people, or sit around being offended. He suggests, additionally, that all comedy is essentially critical. He's wrong.

Howard Taylor banned me from his shitty webcomic site some years ago for disagreeing with him about the nature of humour, which he decided was essentially defensive. In his defence, it was his site and he was under no obligation to give me a soapbox to explain why his shitty idea was complete and utter shit. Apparently it's a not uncommon opinion. I have had no opportunity to discuss anything with Mr. Cleese, but given how I made fun of him on Twitter for his habit of getting screwed by divorce, I don't expect him to engage with me either. Because, of course, I was not being politically correct, which is to be obsequious and agreeable to one's hosts and idols, in the hope that with the appropriate fawning and ego-stroking I might earn some ego-grooming in return, in good-monkey style.

So why are both of these successful comedians (I suppose Taylor is technical a comedy writer, which may be slightly different) wrong about something that they are both presumably more expert at than I? For one thing, they are experts at comedy, but I think considerably less expert at philosophy, or considering the elements constituting their excellence. Indeed, it is virtually a fact that thinking about one's expertise during its execution is frequently a cause for failure in that execution. I am not an excellent philosopher either, but where my education required me to identify and critique the failures of great philosophers and their ideas, I don't think it takes a great philosopher to identify what is wrong about this notion of comedy as combat, as attack or defence.

I believe that the essential elements of comedy, and hence humour, is not whether comedy is critical of its subject or humour defends us against the unexpected, but whether an audience can understand the distance between the logical structure of a joke's set-up, and the logical structures that might produce its punchline. Comedy can be critical, particularly if the distance between the logic of the punchline and the logic of the set-up is a negative value, so that the juxtaposition suggests that punch-line is always absurd when it is not. Which is to say a punchline is absurd when it does not follow from the logic of the set-up. Not all jokes are absurd, after all.

Some punch-lines are funny because they follow from their set-up, and the absurdity is that punchline is a logical conclusion of that train of thought. Which is typically when comedians and humorists fall into the trap of supposing that social commentary is funny. Because they have missed the meta-joke, which is the absurdity in the contrast of the acceptability of the logic with the unacceptability of its conclusion with that audience. For some reason people tend to forget that humour can be highly local, which seems odd to me considering how a good stand-up comic is one who can read their audience and adapt their delivery, if not their set, to win over the audience. I think the fact that there will be, in a great comic's routine, a moment where the audience groans rather than laughs because they know that their complicity in the absurdity of the joke is part of the joke, and that great comic will use that moment to create a contrast with the laughter at the next joke which will make it seem funnier. Sometimes I wonder if people remember that there's a wealth of a-political humour out there.

There's nothing inherently critical or defensive about humour. Jokes do not necessarily offer criticism of people, states, or institutions. Likewise one does not laugh in order to defend oneself against the humiliation of being 'tricked' by the punchline of a joke. One laughs because one recognises the logics of the joke, and for that moment get to vicariously experience the feeling of novelty and enjoyment that one derives from feeling clever. It's a fantastic rhetorical device for winning support, because it comes sweetened with that in-group sweetness of understanding, which satirists have used for centuries to make their criticisms palatable to the peanut gallery. While one can use comedy-as-intellectual-exercise to attack others, or to defend oneself against social damage, one can also use it to express novel ideas, to comfort and amuse, and even to be politically correct.

I believe there is a reason why so many philosophers and comedians consider each other to be somewhat interchangeable, despite that philosophers should use their comedic skills to enrich us with wisdom, and comedians should use their reasoning skills to enrich us with jokes. And maybe change hats if they feel like exchanging their roles after they clock out at the end of a hard day of drinking. If either feel like their freedom of speech is somehow being challenged by a requirement to avoid bullying, perhaps they can consider using comedy to address the difference between not being a shit to people who get shit on all day, all week, all month, and all year, and trying to speak truth to power. I have no doubt that comedians like Mr. Cleese can figure out how to show the absurdity of threading such a needle.

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