Friday, November 22, 2013

What is Worse than Finding a Worm in your Apple? - By Jarys


  The answer is, of course, "the Holocaust". 
     Weren't expecting that? But did you find it funny? If you did, I am guessing you either expected to hear a far more traditional punchline or you are a connoisseur of "anti-jokes". Anti-jokes purposefully hijack old and tired jokes, and present unexpected (and often straight faced) punchlines instead. I became a big fan of these jokes in college and when I discovered the Pattern Recognition theory of humor, I finally figured out why. This theory, produced by Alastair Clarke, suggests that we find different phenomena funny (like the word "phenomena", it reminds me of the Mah Nà Mah Nà song performed by Muppets) because the "Ha Ha" action in our brain is another version of the "Aha!" action. The brain, it is theorized, is mostly a pattern creating and recognizing organ, and we are evolutionarily predisposed to feel pleasure when a pattern is recognized. Humor, the theory states, works when our minds make the connection proffered by the joke, or identify the pattern the joke purposefully breaks. 

     Example: A traditional joke asks "What is black and white and red all over?" to which eight year old Jarys would have answered "A newspaper". The joke here cements the homophonic connection of "red" and "read". Once our brains realize that this connection is being called upon, the pattern is complete and we feel the humor. Conversely, look at the joke with which I opened my part in this dialogue "What's worse than finding a worm in your apple?" Tradition dictates that discovering a mere portion of a worm ( alluded to be bitten through) to be the obvious answer. Instead the joke becomes quite serious, offering the extremely and decidedly worse (one hopes, but know your audience) "the Holocaust". This break in the assumed pattern not only points out the pattern to the listener, but offers a new pattern: by worse, the joker meant.....MUCH worse. 

Muppet break!

     I like this theory because it is so married with cognitive theory and because it offers a very simple and unemotional answer as to why we find things funny. Humor is mechanical, an unconscious but important process that can be trained by stressing or de-stressing certain patterns.People who do not think in pattern A will not find jokes that rely on pattern A funny. People who do not wish to see pattern A perpetuated in public will not respond well to jokes that highlight that pattern. The theory separates theory from "should be funny" to recognizing that what "is funny" to be highly personal, with the best performing jokes supposedly ones that rely on the most universal patterns.  This theory doesn't tell us why certain jokes are funny to some people and offensive to others, it leaves that question to psychology. Some people's experience have ingrained certain patterns as threatening, while others see them as benign. 

     This is addressed in the article published by Alexis George for this blog last week. In that article she criticized Mike Fatum's article on humor for depicting funny as a value judgment. In that article, Mike asserted that some subjects were funny and some were not. He distinguished offensive material or offensive jokes as "not funny", when the audience has a legitimate reason for being offended. He called upon comedians to make that distinction. Alexis responded by arguing humor as a personal and subjective experience, which society could neither legitimately police nor criticize. Alexis argues against criticizing humor as too offensive, or comedians as bullies thusly: 

"      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.." Let's talk about Humor - Alexis George

I know I F-ed that up. Not sure how.
     Mike began a dialogue, an important one, I would say, and Alexis continued it. I'll attempt to continue it further, but I must take issue with both my fellow bloggers' articles. Both made important points, Mike did when he pointed out that some jokes have destructive potential and can harm their audiences. Alexis dissected two essential theories of humor that reflected on Mike's views while pointing out what Mike had missed. Chief among these is that humor is personal.

     Alexis is right, humor, in that what we react to by finding it humorous, is personal. So personal that society has no legitimate reason to shame us for what we find funny. On that, Alexis and I agree. But I think that Mike's point can be clarified to where both writers share some truth: Mike says "funny" in his criticism of offensive humor, when he could have said "unacceptable." Did he mean "unacceptable"? Look, we're close, but I am not a Mike whisperer, he may say that wasn't his intention at all.  But if he had put his criticism in those terms (objectionably, repugnant, unsuitable), I would have agreed with him. These terms are just as subjective as humor is, acknowledging in an audience their own personal reactions to a joke, but they deal with a far less subjective matter: the social context in which jokes are made. 

     What you find funny is between you and your super ego, but what you do and say in public (such as anywhere on the internet) are just that: public. What is public is not a subjective experience, but a communal one, a construct created by the input of all involved. The things we joke about in public have consequences beyond our own personal enjoyment and these jokes often have consequences beyond the  reactions of our audience, depending on how word of mouth goes. Certain subjects hurt certain people, certain destructive patterns propagated through speech (such as bigoted conceits) strengthen that pattern. I wish Mike had distinguished between "Punching Up" and "Punching down", comedic terms that refer to using jokes to attack groups more powerful than you and using jokes to attack those less powerful than you. This dynamic may have made his point more clear (if only to me). By way of example, when the comedian Tosh suggested it would be funny if the woman in his audience (who had heckled his rape jokes as inappropriate) were raped right then and there, he was punching DOWN. It's perfectly fine to find that joke funny. Go ahead and laugh to yourself, I'll support you in your private right to find whatever you find funny, funny.  But laughing out loud or repeating the joke is not private. There you have an audience.

I'm sorry, am I making it hard to laugh at the fox joke?
     If I agree with Mike on anything, comedians should be aware of their audience, and I would further that by saying comedians should be aware of as much of the social context of their joke that they can be. Comedians ignorant of these factors are not the only ones who will fall subject to critique. They will, and I find nothing objectionable about that.

     This is because EVERYONE, or at least everyone in a social setting, is subject to critique. I have seen a lot of critique of critique (ironic, I know) in which critique is depicted as the enemy of free speech and almost every such critic fails to recognize that critique is also form of speech. Critique is a social means through which we point out what views we find unacceptable to air in different public arenas. Critique is how we point out that an argument is objectionable and not to be wholly accepted without consideration. Critique may be used to show our disgust of "bad" art. Most importantly, critique is how we, the ever democratic mob, slowly evolve and adapt our ideas of what is suitable and unsuitable, when and where and with whom. Critique is many things, but what critique is NOT is censorship. 

     I disagree with Alexis on her critique of Mike's critique and the subject of critiquing jokes as unacceptable, unsuitable, or even bullying. Voicing objection does not silence speech (despite  24 hour news' fun with microphones to adjust who is being heard in yelling matches...I mean panels), critique adds a differing view. There are ways that critique can be enhanced through legislation, authority, coercive enforcement, or social pressure that are stifling, but critique by itself does not have that power. When a joke offends someone, they need not tune it out. They can speak up, and have every right to. During a comedy show is not usually the place to do that (though Michael Richard's racist rant in a comedy show absolutely deserved the counter voices the audience gave, I believe) as the people on stage are performing. Such a show is a situation in which critics, noting their "audience" and social context, might wait and post something nasty online later. 

      What I like about the Pattern Recognition theory of humor is that it doesn't say what is funny or what is not funny, the theory just describes how we come to experience "funny". That "aha" from "haha" is a moment of realization, and with all such enlightenment, a punchline can bring catharsis. Here comedians and artists can bring healing to a situation, by allowing us to conquer our fear, master the trauma, and see the pattern that haunts us for what it really is: a mental construct held in the mind and reflected through social interaction. But one person's panacea is a another person's poison, comedians who are not aware of their audience and how that audience processes the pattern they want to light upon may find themselves doing more harm than good.

And the audience may respond in kind, utilizing the same freedoms to speak that the comedian did. 

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