Is That Funny?

For many years I have wondered what makes the comical funny. The best analysis I have ever read is found in the book The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler. In that book, the author suggests that the comical is essentially like the act of creation in the sciences or in art: it is a bisociation between two “matrices” that suddenly intersect in the surprising “eureka” moment. The musicologist Leonard Meyer suggested that this bisociation, this element of surprise, is what makes great music great and separates it from the ordinary. In any event, regarding the “eureka” moment, as Wikipedia tells us:

“While taking a bath, [Archimedes] noticed that the level of the water in the tub rose as he got in, and realized that this effect could be used to determine the  volume of the crown [he was asked to value]. For practical purposes water is incompressible, so the submerged crown would displace an amount of water equal to its own volume. By dividing the mass of the crown by the volume of water displaced, the density of the crown could be obtained. This density would be lower than that of gold if cheaper and less dense metals had been added. Archimedes then took to the streets naked, so excited by his discovery that he had forgotten to dress, crying “Eureka!”

Got that? In any event, Koestler insists that, like discoveries in art and science, comedy involves two different matrices that surprisingly meet in the”punch line” or the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated events or actions and emotion is released as laughter.  As he put it in his somewhat technical language:

“The humorist [solves] a problem by joining two incompatible matrices together in a paradoxical synthesis. . . . instead of a fusion, there is a collision; and in the mental disarray which ensues, emotion, deserted by reason, is flushed out in laughter.”

We call this “getting the joke.” Freud insisted this release of emotion was in fact a release of the sadistic impulses that society demands we repress until an “acceptable” way of releasing them is found — in comedy, for example. We also release the same impulses by witnessing  a violent act that we feel sure involves no real pain — such as a football game or a prize-fight (though the latter raises some interesting tangential questions). When we realize there is pain sympathy interrupts the flush of repressed emotion that would otherwise be released as laughter. There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy, between laughter and tears, though they both involve the release of some sort of emotion.

I recently came across an example of this in one of my favorite sit-coms in which the main character demands that his roommate wear a wool sweater (with no shirt underneath) until he is able to rectify a situation he brought about seven years before. He had forgotten to return a DVD to the video store and his roommate demands that until he returns the DVD he must wear the sweater. It takes many days of visible suffering on the part of the roommate before he admits that he cannot find the owner of the store that rented the DVD — or any of the man’s descendants. The main character than reveals that he knew about the failure to return the DVD seven years before and had paid for the DVD at the time. He was using the sweater as a “teaching moment” to teach his roommate how much he himself suffered when things do not go as he had planned.

Some may have found the suffering of the young man funny, but I did not. It crossed the line between humor and outright sadism, I thought, a clear example of the close proximity between humor and those sadistic impulses Freud talks about. Instead of releasing those emotions, however, it fostered them.  There was no bisociation of which Koestler speaks and no subsequent flush of  pent-up emotion. Just anger at the main character for the way he was treating his roommate and presumed best friend. To be sure, there is a subjective element in humor, and in this case I simply found it unfunny.

It seems to me that the comic genius of someone like, say, Jerry Seinfeld, arises from the fact that he sees in the ordinary certain features that when brought together in a sudden “fusion” releases emotion in the form of laughter in the majority of his audience. His genius also resides in the fact that he knows just where to draw the line so that the emotion will be somehow “appropriate” in releasing our baser impulses. The humorist must be careful not to allow his comedy to become mean or nasty. The clown knows that if he throws a pie in the face of an innocent victim we will laugh — unless we suddenly become aware that the man was actually hurt. We don’t laugh at another’s pain — unless we are outright sadists — but only if we are sure that real pain is not involved. If the chair is removed from under a person about to sit down we laugh only if we are sure the person was not hurt. This is the civilizing effect that demands that we repress the sadistic emotions and release them only if we are assured that no real pain is involved. But those impulses are there beneath the surface and if we were uncivilized we would doubtless express them by inflicting real pain on one another.

Thus when folks like me worry that we seem to be becoming increasingly uncivilized, even barbaric, that our urge to live with others (which is the heart and soul of civilization) has been lost in our determination to become isolated from one another — lost in our electronic toys perhaps — there is the real danger that we will stop laughing at the staged discomfort and pain of others and openly relish it and demand the real thing.






Critical Thinking

According to Arthur Koestler, who should know, there exists in the Grand Scheme of Things a hierarchy of truths. At the top there is mathematics and theoretical physics whose claims are easily corroborated and verified by mathematicians and physicists around the world, regardless of race, creed, or color. At the bottom (and here I interpolate) there are the headlines of the latest National Enquirer that scream at us from the checkout lanes of our local grocery store: “Hillary is a racist, bigot, and criminal!” We need to know how to differentiate among the types of claims — for they are all claims, some of them well-founded and others outrageous.

The sciences range downwards from physics to the biological sciences, geology, anthropology, the social sciences that rely on probability theory and therefore pass themselves off as exact sciences, to philosophy, history, and the like. Again, we need to know where we are on the hierarchy because each of these disciplines requires a different approach and different types of corroboration. History, for example, relies on first-hand testimony, written documents and independent corroboration from different sources, all regarded as reliable. The key is “corroboration.” The sciences and social sciences, even philosophy, require independent corroboration by others in the field to check on the accuracy of the claims being made. Did Caesar cross the Rubicon? Who says? What evidence is there to corroborate this claim? Thus the historian proceeds to provide us with an accurate picture of what has occurred in the past. The expert seeks to show that the claim is false. If it cannot be shown to be false after thorough study, we can accept it as true. Then he asks his fellow experts to duplicate his efforts and test the claim for himself or herself.

When the National Enquirer makes its outrageous claims we should (but seldom do) ask the same sorts of question: how can those claims be corroborated? Who makes the claims? Are those sources reliable? Can they even be tested? If so, how? These are the types of questions the lawyer asks in a trial when a person is facing possible felony charges and perhaps time in prison. We should all be so circumspect, equally suspicious and demanding of the truth and not satisfied with what are merely empty claims or accusations.

This is the job of critical thinking and it should be taught in all our schools and certainly in all our colleges and universities. We all tend to accept as true those claims that fit in nicely with our closely held beliefs, our belief-set as I call it. But the critical thinker will allow the possibility that a claim that does not fit in nicely with his belief-set might still be true. Those who lack critical thinking skills (whose numbers grow daily from the look of things) will believe whatever they are told on Fox News or read in the Enquirer. The problem is that those who believe whatever they hear or read without subjecting those claims to the tests of corroboration and verification are most likely to be lead astray by someone who, say, might want to steal their vote in an upcoming election, or sell them farmland in the Everglades. They fail to realize that something is not true simply because they want it to be true (it fits in nicely with their belief-set) or because the guy up there with the funny hair and the small hands says it is true. The fact that he said the opposite yesterday is lost on these people because they lack the critical filters that would weed out the falsehoods and lies and recognize the inconsistencies.

Critical thinking teaches us to have a healthy suspicion. Not that we will doubt all claims, but that we will suspect that those that seem outrageous might well be so. We will accept as true only those clams that can be corroborated and verified, like the scientist. We will also recognize among those claims that are scientific but outside our small field of knowledge that claims made by experts in the field, say scientists who have studied such things as climate change or the evolution for species over the millennia, are making claims that we ought to accept as true until or unless they are later shown to be false. We ought not to simply reject those claims because they don’t fit into our belief-set or because they make us feel uncomfortable.

In the long run, it pays to be critical and suspect that many, if not all, claims that are designed to sell us something (or someone) are probably not true, or at least that they demand further investigation and thought. They should not be accepted simply because we read them in our favorite newspaper or heard them on the News. That suspicion is healthy and it is what critical thinking is all about: making sure that we will not be mislead into accepting as true what is blatantly false — or electing a fool as our president.

Funny Or Comical?

One of the things that has always intrigued me is the nature of comedy. Yes, I am strange. But the thing I find most interesting is that the word “comedy” was originally attached to events that are not necessarily funny. For example, in drama it applies simply to plays that end happily. Comedy is a broader term and can be funny — or not.

Freud has discussed comedy as has Henri Bergson. But the best discussion I have ever read about the subject was written by Arthur Koestler, author of the haunting novel Darkness at Noon. He was also a journalist and an exceptionally deep thinker. His book The Act of Creation is one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. He analyses the act of creation and ties it into such diverse things as music and …. comedy. He takes as his point of departure the “Eureka!” moment when Archimedes discovered how to determine whether Hiero’s crown was solid gold or a mix of gold and silver without destroying the crown itself. He was, as you may remember, stepping into the bath when he realized that in doing so he displaced a certain amount of water whose volume could be measured accurately; by analogy he could now determine the density of the crown. It was a “Eureka!” moment and he reportedly ran down the streets of Syracuse naked shouting with glee. Now, that’s funny!

Koestler thinks such creative moments result from what he calls “bisociation,” the sudden and unexpected intersection of two independent planes of thought which he calls “matrices”:

“The essential point is that at the critical moment both matrices were simultaneously present in Archimedes’ mind — though presumably on different levels of awareness. The creative stress resulting from the blocked situation [Archimedes’ inability to solve his problem] kept the problem on the agenda even while the beam of consciousness was drifting along quite another plane.”

When the two planes intersected at the moment he stepped into the bath, he had solved the problem. Eureka! That was the “creative” moment. But what has this to do with comedy, you might ask? Everything. Take the following joke.

A. I hear there was a fire at the local university yesterday.

B. Seriously?

A. Yes, it totalled the library, destroying both books.

B. Ha!

A. And only one had been colored in!!

B. Again, Ha!

So it goes. B doesn’t expect A’s response: there is the sudden intersection of two independent matrices — one telling the story of the sad fate of the library at the local college, which tends to evoke sympathy in the listener and which is suddenly intersected by another matrix that cuts across the first and results in a laugh, a sudden release of emotion that was built up by B worrying, even for a moment, that the library had been burned down. Koestler calls this an “explosion.” This particular joke has two such moments — one when A says that both books were destroyed and another when he say that only one had been colored in. Neither is expected and both evoke a sudden release of emotion, mild though it may be (a small explosion?). This is not a thigh-slapper, and if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone, perhaps Freud’s joke recounted in his essay on the comic will:

Chamfort tells the story of a Marquis at the court of Louis XIV who, on entering his wife’s boudoir and finding her in the arms of a Bishop, walked calmly to the window and went through the motions of blessing the people in the street.

‘What are you doing?’ cried the anguished wife.

‘Monseigneur is performing my functions,’ replied the Marquis, ‘so I am performing his,’

Or, if you prefer the slightly sacrilegious, there is always the priceless New Yorker cartoon where Joseph and Mary are looking heaven-ward and the caption reads: “But we wanted a girl!”

All in good fun. I leave it to the reader to find the elements of bisociation that Koestler speaks about.

All comedy, according to Koestler, has that essential creative moment. It happens when two completely independent matrices intersect and the surprise we experience results, as a rule, in a laugh.  Sometimes, folks just “don’t get it.” They weren’t paying attention, or don’t see the intersection of the two matrices. Humor is subjective (comedy is not) and, while it does involve emotion, it is surprisingly cerebral. Indeed, the emotions involved in comedy, such as they are, tend to be assertive, aggressive emotions (even sadistic, according to Freud). If the emotions become stronger and change color, as when we laugh at the chair being pulled from beneath the would-be sitter only to realize from the expression on his face that he has hurt himself, then laughter immediately stops and a rush of sympathy or empathy takes its place. But the bisociation between two independent matrices remains essentially the same, though intros case, comedy becomes tragedy. Cervantes was able to exploit this basic relationship by making Don Quixote both comical and tragic — depending on how we feel about him at the moment. In other words, precisely the same bisociations can be comic or terribly sad, according to which emotions are involved and how strong they are. The very same bisociation of independent matrices occurs, according to Koestler, when the artist suddenly realizes how to “solve” the problem of the painting she has been struggling with, picks up the piece of driftwood lying on the sand because she suddenly sees several possibilities that no one else sees, or the scientist suddenly discovers, as did Archimedes, the solution to the problem he was pondering. Creativity occurs by bisociation, Koestler insists, in both science and the fine arts. And in comedy as well.

Some things can be comical without being funny and some things like exaggeration, jokes, and caricature are both comical and funny.  But all are essentially creative. Now I find that interesting.

A Moral Dilemma

I am convinced by such minds as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky that when people are simply handed things they become dependent upon the handout and consequently lose their freedom. David Hume thought that giving alms to beggars was a mistake for the same reason. Dostoevsky’s grand inquisitor puts it in theological terms, but the point is well stated that humans want bread and miracles and they want things handed to them even at the cost of their freedom. But that is a price many think worth paying. Freedom, after all, is accompanied with responsibility and that is a terrible burden. Dostoevsky thought socialism was the offspring of the devil precisely because he thought humans become dependent upon the state; they must be free or they cease to be humans, they become “denizens of an ant heap.”

On the other hand, I am aware, as were these men, that there are those in our society in genuine need, people who are born into poverty and need and simply cannot work their way out. There are cynics who say these people get what they deserve, the social Darwinists who insist that the fittest should survive and the rest be damned. But I note that those who say this are almost always among the survivors — and in many cases they prosper precisely because have had things go their way and have never known need, much less dire poverty.

So the dilemma is clear: we deprive humans of their freedom by giving them a handout and running the risk that they become dependent upon that handout and thus become less than human. On the other hand, we ignore those in need and turn our backs on them so they will retain their freedom, even if they should starve to death.

The solution seems almost too simple: we err on the side of charity which, as the New Testament reminds us, is the “greatest” of the Christian virtues — a virtue that is missing in many Eastern religions that embrace “a tolerance devoid of charity,”  as Arthur Koestler reminds us. Those who are charitable are rewarded in helping others by becoming more human themselves. Socialism is not a viable economic system, in my view, because it undermines initiative and rewards laziness — both serious character flaws. But it is more charitable than capitalism with its stress on greed and the attendant corruption. Socialism’s appeal is moral, not economic. And as such it is the preferable alternative. But in between the two economic systems one would hope to discover a system in which those with talent and ability can accomplish much and acquire wealth proportionately while at the same time those less fortunate than themselves are encouraged but not ignored. In this dream world, all remain free and fully human. Whether or not we could ever realize such a system is doubtful, of course. But we make a mistake to embrace one or the other of the economic poles while ignoring the possibility that there might be a compromise in which all win out. The problem is to find the middle ground, where people and governments are charitable and help others without those who are helped becoming “denizens of an ant heap.”