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.






The Master Negotiator

A recent article, parts of which I will attach below, tells us all we need to know about what sort of president this man would make — if we didn’t know already. He is beyond ignorant, because he has no idea how ignorant he is.

Donald Trump gave an interview this week [on CNN] all of his potential supporters should watch. In his own words, Trump lays bare the very reasons why he would be such a disastrous choice for president. . . .

Trump proclaims his familiar boast that he is the best deal-maker ever and the best negotiator ever, and that the Obama administration completely botched the negotiation with Iran. And then Trump graced us with an inside account of how he, as a master deal-maker, would have negotiated the agreement with Iran and obtained a much better outcome for America.

Primarily, Trump would have spared America from having to pay $150 billion to Iran. (I won’t quibble with the dollar amount even though it is likely inaccurate).

As Trump explained, he would have said to the Iranians:

“Fellas, we [as America] owe $19 trillion [in debt]. We’re a country that has no money. We can’t give you the $150 [billion dollars].” The Iranians would have said, “But we want it!” And Trump would have responded, “We can’t give it! We don’t have it! We don’t have it!”

Trump would have stood his ground and absolutely refused to pay the $150 billion. At that point, the meeting would have broken-up with no agreement. But then, two days later, the Iranians would have folded by calling Trump and saying, “Let’s make a deal.” Iran would then have agreed that America would not be required to pay the $150 billion.

Wow. Now there’s a genius negotiator for you. What an amazing display of virtuosity.

Unfortunately, however, there is one little problem with Trump’s entire analysis. And this problem is that the $150 billion was, in fact, readily available. The reason it was readily available is because all of this money actually belonged to Iran, not to America. This was Iran’s own money. This was Iranian money that America had seized and frozen. It was never American money. Not one penny. American money was never at stake. Rather, America was simply returning Iran’s own money that America had seized and was holding in frozen accounts pending the resolution of the sanctions against Iran. [Italics added]

Trump obviously had no clue that this money belonged to Iran. Trump was utterly ignorant about the facts of the deal. Yet this did not prevent Trump from spouting off and denouncing the deal to the American public. This is classic Trump. Even though he may appear to some to be authoritative, the truth is that his demeanor is superficial and he actually has no idea what he is talking about in substance.

One gets the idea that “all of his potential supporters” would agree with him, unfortunately. That’s a huge part of the problem.

In any event, when this man opens his mouth I have the notion that we are all watching a Saturday Night Live sketch. Surely, it’s funny. No? If not it borders on the insane. The man is from Wonderland. He reminds me of Humpty Dumpty except that he isn’t that funny. I fear he is not funny at all and we are not watching a comedic sketch. This is the Trumpet’s reality show. It’s time he took a bow and left the stage. Enough is enough.

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.

Gentle Humor

My wife and I have started watching re-runs of “As Time Goes By” on PBS. They are many years old, but we find them delightful. The humor is generated by clever dialogue and complexities arising from the fact that two people who were in love as young people have come together after years with other spouses and other lives and discovered that they are still soul mates. It is beautifully done and the writing is not only superb, the acting is top drawer as well with Judi Dench as the leading female character and Geoffrey Palmer as the leading male character. The relationship between the two is believable and very touching.

Contrast this with what I take to be “typical” American sit-coms (though I have not viewed that many and have not compiled a catalogue). But the ones I have seen draw their humor from cutting and hurtful remarks between the main characters. It may have started with Archie Bunker’s constant cuts at his son-in-law “Meathead” who could do nothing right. Though they were not “sit-coms” I don’t recall that the sketches on “I Love Lucy” or “The Carol Burnett Show” relied on cutting remarks and humor designed to put people down.  But my list of shows that do this includes “Friends” where such characters as Phoebe repeatedly cuts those close to her, especially Ross, the guy who seems a bit out of step with the other pleasure-seekers around him as his interests are so much broader than theirs. And I can also recall Raymond’s parents who were always downright mean to their daughter-in-law Deborah, the constant brunt of nasty and at times cruel remarks — all designed to be laughed at, judging by the annoying laugh-track that prompts the audience at home when to laugh.

But there is also the group of nerds, especially Sheldon Cooper, who make fun of Howard Wolowitz who “only” has a Master’s degree (from M/I.T. of all places). And there is always Charlie Harper who was relentless in his cutting remarks to his brother Alan who moved into Charlie’s house after his wife “threw him out.” Alan was down on his luck and the brunt of countless remarks not only from his brother but also from his brother’s housekeeper who joins in “all in fun.” And Alan’s son, Jake, is the brunt of countless jokes at his expense as the “dumb” son. Apparently the message is you can hurt someone if you call it teasing: this sort of thing is regarded as funny and, again, our laughter is prompted by the constant intrusion of the damned laugh-track.

I confess that this sort of cutting humor leaves me cold and eventually forces me to look elsewhere. But I wonder what to make of this? The British comedies are not always as gentle as “As Time Goes By,” to be sure. Doc Martin certainly became a bit nasty after the first season.  But I can think of no American comedies since Lucy and Carol left TV that draws on that sort of gentle humor in which no one is hurt. I hesitate to generalize because I have not seen that many American or British comedies lately. But I can certainly take note of the differences I am aware of. Again, what to make of those differences?

Freud tells us that humor is a displacement of sadistic impulses — a release of “cathexis” that allows us to experience the sadistic impulses we all have without actually harming anyone else. (And he insists that we all have them, whether we admit it or not.) The prototype of this sort of thing is the pie in the face of the clown, or the chair pulled from beneath the sitting person at the dinner table. As long as no one gets actually hurt, we laugh and the laughter releases the sadistic impulses. The hurtful sit-coms I mentioned all have this element present — some in large measure. If this is so then ironically the American TV shows I mentioned may be psychologically healthy. It is certainly better to laugh at someone on the TV who is not really hurt by the verbal cuts and bruises than to load up the shotgun and take out our neighbor’s dog whose barking annoys us. I do wonder, however.

It is interesting that people we call “insane” and institutionalize don’t seem to laugh at all. I recall seeing “Titicut Follies” years ago which took place inside a mental institution in Massachusetts and the thing that jumps out is the complete absence of laughter of any sort. So perhaps even the mean and nasty humor of the American sit-coms has its use in a nation stressed out from a frantic pace of life, a weak economy, and almost constant war. It helps us release pent-up frustration and animus toward our fellows. But I would prefer if the humor were derived from the clever words and complex situations the protagonists find themselves in rather than the verbal lacerations that seem so constant. I don’t know about you, but would prefer that our humor were not so nasty.