Earlier this year, I sat in the Castro Theater in SF and soberly witnessed a man in a robot costume jack off to a paraplegic on stage. It was a part of an unauthorized book release party for the Tales of Cacophony Society anthology. I didn't get it. But there were more than a few scattered bellowing laughs in that theater during the show.
Humor is a strange thing.
I was lucky enough to take a lecture hall class at university a couple of years ago called “The Art of Comedy.” After a semester of sitting in on those lectures, I still don’t feel like I know shit about comedy. Looking back at my notes, the class itself provided several historical genres from vaudeville to slapstick, as well as theories regarding the psychology of why humor exists and what it does for us.
|How to Dissect a Joke - Ed|
For a moment, let’s talk briefly about what tuition can buy in regards to understanding humor. The first page of my class notes discusses relief theory.
Relief theory is exactly how it sounds, and precisely what Mike addressed in his article. The idea behind the theory is that laughter is a reactionary, homeostatic mechanism derived from relief. Comedy pays off in laughter following the reduction or acknowledgement of psychological tension. Humor is a device used to remove that psychological tension. An example might be the relief of historical tensions following WWII by writing the character of Franz Leibkind into the Producers, as Mike pointed out.
Now let’s move on to the Benign Violation Theory of comedy. In an attempt to predict humor, two researchers named Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren instigated control groups and published a set of three potential conditions that may determine what is universally funny. (Note the word theory here.) These conditions were that (1) an observation threatens the notion of how something in the world “ought to be,” (2) this threat is seen as benign, and (3) a person is capable of seeing both interpretations at the same time. Now several factors can affect what makes this threat benign, the most powerfully considered one to be a distance from that threat. The distance of time, as an example. South Park approached this idea in their episode “Jared Has AIDS,” with the proposed theory that anything can be funny 22.3 years following an event.
Now, personally, I've always looked at comedy like music. There are hundreds of genres, varying styles and approaches. Music plays a part in everyone’s life, just like humor. it’s integral to our experience. There are those who casually listen, those who can't leave the house without their headphones, those who produce it, and those who can read into the technicalities of it. Anyone can sing or listen to a song, the passion or understanding of the necessary timing, appreciation of the tone, the rhythm, and all elements at work varies from person to person. Same thing with humor. With comedy, some people hate puns. Some people love fart jokes. Some can only appreciate up to a certain level of obscenity. With music, Some people hate rap. Some people don’t care for Stravinsky. Some people don’t care for Amanda Palmer.
On that note, I will always find an excuse to mention Amanda Palmer, the punk cabaret rockstar and feminist icon who you might know as Neil Gaiman’s wife. When she produced her first solo album after The Dresden Dolls split up, she received notice that a song off the track list would not be played on the radio. Or on MTV. Or VH1. Or anywhere else, for that matter. The song, “Oasis,” revolves around the frank narrative of the date rape and subsequent abortion of a teenage girl. It contains a highly catchy pop audio track and the back up lyrics “ba ba ba,” in some sort of twisted recurrence of a Beach Boys single gone wrong. It came out when I was in high school, and I still find it absolutely hilarious. Maybe it was the part of the music video when the character of Melissa Mahone fist-bumps the abortion nurse. Maybe it was the out-to-lunch attitude of the narrator as she sings, “I’ve had better days, but I don’t caaaare.” Maybe it was the fact that Amanda Palmer was singing about date rape in a humorous way after openly admitting she had been date raped.
Here’s the video:
Amanda Palmer, in defense of her work, stated the following: “WHEN YOU CANNOT JOKE ABOUT THE DARKNESS OF LIFE, THAT’S WHEN THE DARKNESS TAKES OVER…. the minute you discount humor, you give evil things POWER. you fuel them. you let them rule you.”
I absolutely encourage you to go and read her full blog at the following url, because I find everything said there to be spot on in regards to the topic at hand: here
Did you read it? No. That’s cool. I’ll wait.
What gives us the right to determine what is okay to laugh at and what is not? Now I understand the fear that rape jokes are a perpetuation of rape culture. Or that the Zimmerman/Martin halloween costume that showed up all over the news is the glorification of a murderer. However, looking back at the Benign violation theory, it is possible for an individual to be incapable of personally seeing a joke as harmless at the same time as seeing its potential threat. But that is an opinion, and not a universal experience. Someone can see relief and humor in a joke that another person is incapable of seeing. Some people hear something in a song that makes them feel comforted, while someone else might just hear a whiny 80’s boy singing about being abandoned again.
Like music, a joke can fall flat.
A song can utterly fail to appeal to a person.
A joke can be too sharp or too raw. A saxophone can squeak at just the wrong moment. There is music that is just plain bad. (I defy you to find someone who likes Boney M’s “Brown Girl In the Ring.”) And of course there are jokes that are just plain bad.
But to eliminate the freedom to express, to stifle the human need to process through creation of humor, to discredit a human as a bully or an indecent human for attempting to approach and cope with tragedy in their own messed up human way is is so much more dangerous than any joke could ever be.
Besides, if a joke isn't resonating with you, you absolutely have the right to tune it out.
Now I say "let's talk about this," and I mean it. I encourage a debate in the comments of this post because my ultimate rainbows and puppies dream is to be able to discuss taboo things communally so an understanding can be reached. If you disagree with me, please voice your opinion below.