February 8, 2013 § 4 Comments
As an addendum to our ongoing discussion of the dichotomy between wit and composed jokes, I want to take this week out to discuss racist, homophobic, and sexist humor. Last post, in linking wit to liberalism and jokes to conservatism, I used hate humor as evidence, pointing out that our culture’s vast catalogue of such jokes serve to conserve prestige and privilege for the group telling them.
Proofreading right before posting, though, I realized I had missed a possible contradiction to my argument: racist wit. If the divide between wit and jokes is really like a road that humor crosses back and forth over, it makes sense that there would be a sort of wit that would correspond to jokes that rely on hate speech. Does such a wit exist, and if so, would it mean that wit isn’t actual the liberal side of the street?
Irresponsible, I know, but I posted anyway and decided to figure out if what I had written was right or wrong later. And after a week of consideration, I think I was right all along: there is no such thing as hateful wit. I might just be trying to make the world into what I want it to be with this line of reasoning, but I truly believe that wit is by definition open and searching, and as a result, closed-minded comments can never really be witty.
What ultimately convinced me of this was considering examples from life. Most of the hate humor I’ve come across has, thankfully, not been from my friends and family but at work, where we don’t have as much power choosing our conversation partners. For example, for a while I was forced to work closely with a particularly miserable guy we’ll call K; whenever the rest of us at work would get a nice, convivial, and witty conversation going, he’d have to interject his a racist, sexist, or homophobic comment to get in on the fun. But it never came across as witty, just another instance of K trying to force his agenda on our otherwise free-ranging conversation.
(Looking back, I don’t think K’s agenda was propagating a misogynist worldview as much as satiating his need to control the conversation, making everyone feel uncomfortable so he could feel power. I think there was a bit of jealousy in it, as well; unwilling or unable to open himself up to the creativity of wit, he was often left behind in our conversations and probably wanted to ruin what he couldn’t participate in.)
All hate humor has an agenda; even it’s most spontaneous expression is built on preconceived notions for the purpose further propagating those notions—and as such, it is never pure wit. Finding the opportune moment to say what you’ve been wanting to say is a different thing than finding the novel words this fresh moment demands. As such, hate humor is also the enemy of conversation; a moment of such forced “wit” will always end a conversation uncomfortably if the audience doesn’t agree (as with K) or tighten it into something less than a conversation, as all the participants talk only to reinforce their shared opinions instead of exchanging foreign ideas.
January 18, 2013 § 4 Comments
Continuing our discussion on the differences between spontaneous wit and prepared jokes, this week I want to explore the different mindsets they are connected with. I got at this a bit in our last post on the subject, “Who’s lines are these, anyway?“, which concluded:
If a prepared joke is like a speech, then wit is like a conversation. Wit’s natural habitat, in fact, seems to be the conversation, and those that stand out as witty are the sorts of people who are good enough listeners to incorporate what others have said into a fresh comment, the ultimate example being that serendipitous remark that brings a conversation “full-circle” and makes everyone involved feel included—and lucky to have been.
With it’s openness to—and hunger for—new material, wit is the liberal side of the dichotomy. Wit requires that sort of searching faith that is ready to go wherever the truth leads and eager to incorporate whatever it finds into it’s conception of the truth. Ultimately, nothing is off limits to wit; to be witty is to be in a state of creativity—to be “submissive to everything, open, listening” as Kerouac asserts in his “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose“.
This goes not only for the witty, but their audience as well; to be truly receptive to wit, you have to let go of your expectations about what is funny and your biases about what isn’t so you’ll be ready to follow whatever fresh connections are being made. Since wit is essentially conversational, this is usually a given anyhow, as one flips back and forth between joker and audience, staying receptive the whole time. Similarly, if you’re engaged in a battle of wits, you have to be ready to laugh at yourself then redouble that laughter at your opponent—not cross your arms, pout, and decry, “Untrue! No fair!”
Conversely, prepared jokes represent the conservative impulse, a codification of what we think is funny to protect and propagate for future benefit. At its worst, we can see the the dangers inherent in our conservative impulses playing out in racist, sexist, and homophobic humor, as in-groups spread jokes to reinforce their position of prestige and power. Mostly, though, I feel it is fruitful to preserve our jokes; they sustain us in times when our wits are failing and serve as templates for its expression when it is properly firing.
This relationship between the two sides has become clearer to me since trying to compose my own prepared jokes for our jokealongs. I usually start by cataloging as many existing jokes on the subject as I can in order to open myself up to as many possible directions. I’ll usually come up with a few dead ends that night, sleep on it, and think about it at work the next day. When the joke finally comes from out of nowhere, it always hits me with the force of wit; if it doesn’t at least make me chuckle to myself, it isn’t the joke. But once I have it, I have to find a way to communicate that chuckle to someone else, and following a common joke formula often feels like not just the easiest and safest means of expression, but the most effective. We conserve our joke formulas because we know they work, and we use them over and over again because we know our audience will know how they work, allowing more sophistication in our expression as we play to and off of these expectations. As a result, the process of writing a joke often involves trying to shoehorn that moment of mind-expanding insight into a knock-knock script. Whenever I read my jokealong jokes again after posting them, that sense of joyous revelation is almost completely missing, but I have to believe there is more of it communicated to the reader than if I had just kept my laughter to myself.
It is fun and illustrative to think about this process in reverse. Take, for instance, one of our culture’s most ubiquitous and enduring jokes:
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: To get to the other side.
Ever since I was a child, I thought this joke was banal, but now that I’ve tried to imagine its composition, I’m starting to appreciate it for the masterpiece it is. I mean, who wrote this one? Who laughed at it and then passed it on? In my imagination, there is a bong in a dorm room—but since print references to the joke apparently date back to 1847, I’m probably wrong. I suppose all that ultimately matters is someone spat it out once, and it seemed to so perfectly capture the irreverent uselessness of our wit that it has been passed on ever since. I recognize now that even when I was adamant it wasn’t funny, it was communicating an important lesson about what was funny to me and every other kid who has ever heard it: humor searches without aim, crossing boundaries just because it can.
We obviously need both sides of humor just as our larger culture needs both conservative and liberal impulses: we need wit to find and generate more humor, and jokes to preserve the humor we have found so that we can further build upon it—and there is much to be gained by crossing back and forth, getting from one side to the other.
May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
This fourth big post marks a month’s worth of blogging for me, but I still wonder each week what the hell I am trying to do here, writing seriously about humor. So while reading through the Britannica article by GK Chesterton that I posted last week, it occurred to me that I am guilty of one of the conceits he pokes fun at. Humor, he writes,
…is thus a term which not only refuses to be defined, but in a sense boasts of being indefinable; and it would commonly be regarded as a deficiency in humour to search for a definition of humour.
During the composition of each post, I’ve had at least two distinct moments of panic: first I weep, “Oh, fucking woe: this blog is supposed to be about humor but these paragraphs are all dry and academic,” and then, after I’ve shoehorned in a few puns or self-deprecating references, I sigh, “Darn-it-all: now that it’s marginally funny, the points I was trying to make are obscured and undercut.” Then I edit back and forth between seriousness and humor for a while until I find the balance I am least disappointed with.
It was disheartening at first to realize I was the dunce GK was writing about, the humorless idiot trying to define humor. But as I read on, through his distinction between wit, wielded to make a judgment against others, and humor, which always implicates it’s wielder as well, I realized Chesterton was, as always, being humorous while he made his points; he started off his definition of humor by deriding those who would seek to define it.
Now, I’m taking this definition as a model for my future blogging instead of a warning against continuing. While it is impossible to write seriously about humor and a waste of time to try to use it to build an argument, it is a human necessity to exist somewhere in the space between. The comedy in the Britanica article comes from Chesterton’s exploration of the futility of our attempts to catalogue the infinite details and abstractions of out lives into a few hundred encyclopedia articles. But while Chesterton is as capable as anyone of using wit to cut down stupidity, here he uses humor to humble himself, seeming to say for all it’s foolishness, attempting to define and understand is a worthwhile pursuit—as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously while doing it. Though the article uses 2,500 words to say nothing definite about humor, it does a great job of describing centuries worth of what it means to be human.
The definition is nowhere closer to being definite than when it says humor boasts of being indefinable; not only is a joke not funny if you have to explain it, it is not funny once it has been explained (unless, of course, it is a joke about unfunny jokes (or one of those jokes where the joke is actually the set-up and the convoluted, wandering, needlessly-long, and hyphenated (and parenthesized) explanation is the punchline)).
I feared when starting this blog, that I might rob humor of its joys if I gave it too much discerning thought. But after a month’s worth of posts that amount to little more that a catalogue of questions, I no longer think finding the full definition of humor is anything the human intellect has to worry about.
May 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
For our fun this weekend, I’m providing a link to an Encyclopedia Britannica entry on humor from 1928, written by our very own patron saint, GK Chesterton. Tracing the history of the word and the phenomenon itself, the article is chock full of insightful details and little witties in the piece. I’m intrigued by this idea of celebrity authored encyclopedia entires, and while it is cruel to compare anyone’s prose to GK’s, the wikipedia entry’s prose-by-commitee pales in comparison. I admire the democratic nature of wikipedia, but am saddened they’d have to take down insights like this to keep it up.
Humour, like wit, is related however indirectly, to truth and the eternal virtues; as it is the greatest incongruity of all to be serious about humour, so it is the worst sort of pomposity to be monotonously proud of humour; for it is itself the chief antidote to pride; and has been, ever since the time of the Book of Proverbs, the hammer of fools.
I guess these days we just have to leave this sort of editorializing to the blogs.