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.






Lies, Lies, Lies

In one of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld” George is giving advice to Jerry who has been asked to take a lie detector test to determine whether he does or does not watch a soap opera every day. He is seeking to impress a cute policewoman and is afraid the truth will put her off. George is giving him advice because George is so good at lying; it has become a habit with him. He tells Jerry, “it’s not a lie, Jerry, if you really believe it.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work, because Jerry simply cannot keep up the ruse. But it seems to be working in today’s political scene as the Republican candidate (who shall remain nameless if not blameless) seems to be very good at lying. I suspect he has had a great deal of practice — after all he claims to be a successful business person when, in fact, his businesses have a habit of failing. But I also suspect that he really believes what he says. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t know what he says because he doesn’t listen to himself. His mouth seems to open when his brain is engaged elsewhere — heaven only knows where.

The problem is that his mindless minions who hang on his every word and grammatically incorrect sentence seem to believe whatever he says. One thinks of a cult where the followers blindly follow where the leader leads — or points. And this is a problem because when the lie becomes the norm, then facts are useless, even meaningless. Truth becomes merely a word that is used by critics to shame their leader who can do no wrong. Those “Fact-checkers” who claim to be neutral and only interested in setting the record straight are dismissed as biased and perhaps even in the pocket of the opposition.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that operates as one grows older, separating fact from fiction, truth from myth. This principle is central to maturity in the human animal. Without it, he or she remains a child living in a make-believe world in which everything goes as planned and there is no pain or suffering. This, of course, is the world of those who continue to insist that there is no Truth (except what comes from one man’s mouth) and where lies are otherwise the norm. Reality is displaced by myth and the leader standing before you is larger than life and beyond reckoning. What others say about him are all lies. Everything he says is solid gold.

What happens in this case — and it is this case which is of major interest since so many seem to be living in this mythical world where one man has all the truth there is and everyone else is an inveterate liar — is that ears are closed to the truth as it relates to the real world: the real world has ceased to exist. The only world is the world in which the man standing before you says whatever comes into his head and it is taken for the truth, the only truth there is. Everything else is a lie, the only lies there are.

Philosophers will tell you that truth is attached to statements that correspond with facts in the real world. Thus, if I say the cat is on the mat, this is true if, and only if, the cat is, in fact, lying on the mat. But when the successful businessman standing before us tells us that the truth is what he says, and what he says alone, then the cat disappears and the only reality is the reality created by this man’s words — such as they are. We hear what he wants us to hear and nothing else. Our minds become closed to the fact-checkers because we are told they are biased. The word “lies” attaches only to those things said by those who oppose this man. The paradox is that he lies when he says that others lie. But we are no longer able to distinguish between the lies and the truth — except when it is pointed out to us by our infallible Leader.

Protecting Feelings

Philosophers are fond of making distinctions. For example, I am careful to point out the difference between “need” and “want” in explaining that many of the things we insist we need are simply things we want. Such distinctions can go a long way toward clarifying our thinking and helping us to see our way through a tangle of words, show the fly the way out of the milk bottle in Wittgenstein’s delightful image. Many years ago Bertrand Russell wrote an essay in which he made a distinction between “use” and “mention.” He noted the vast difference between using a word, say an offensive word, and simply mentioning that same word. Thus if I say “Judy is fat” I am using a word that many people find offensive, especially Judy. If I say “Fred said that Judy is fat” I am merely mentioning the offensive term and the difference is important and fundamental. But we have lost sight of this distinction, especially in academia where political correctness demands that we neither use nor mention offensive terms — words that might possibly be found offensive to someone else.

Some years ago I wrote an article for a professional journal in which I defended Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness against the libel of the novelist and critic Chinua Achebe who insisted that people avoid Conrad’s novella altogether because it and its author are both “racist.”  He made that claim on the grounds that in the novella Conrad plays fast and loose with the word “nigger,” which is almost certainly one of the most offensive terms in our language. My defense was based on the point that when a novelist like Conrad used the term he put it in the mouth of a seaman at the turn of the last century who would most assuredly use the term without giving it a second thought. The novel is not “racist” because Conrad is simply telling a story in which the term is used by his narrator. Conrad himself is simply mentioning that fact. Again, the distinction Russell made is key here. Conrad is not a racist, nor is his novella. His narrator may have been, but the charge cannot be laid at the feet of the novelist.

But, as I have said, this distinction is lost on those who would protect victims from words they might find offensive. And while I respect the motivation that has led us to this point — to protect sensitive people and avoid hurting their feelings — it is clear that the situation has become extreme and is now putting a cramp on communication at so many levels. In addition, of course, everyone now claims to be a victim. It is especially problematic in our colleges and universities where this sensitivity to others’ feelings has become excessive.  As a result, according to a recent (9/15) essay in The Atlantic, “the new political correctness is ruining education.” In addition to ignoring the distinction between use and mention and insisting that any and all uses (or mentions) of certain words must desist (or else!), officials and students themselves in a great many institutions of higher education also wave the red flag at what are called “trigger warnings.”

“For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism and domestic violence can choose to avoid those works which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.”

Now, clearly the motivation of those who call for this sort of avoidance cannot be called into question. But this concern is clearly out of control. Those who would teach are denied the opportunity to free young minds and open them up to the world around them which, unfortunately, is a source of a great deal of discomfort. Clearly, the use of  offensive language is different from the mention of those words that might possibly offend. We need to recall that distinction and move past this sort of censorship, remaining sensitive to others’ feelings, but not so concerned that we cannot say or write what needs to be said and written. However, the Atlantic article notes that concern over political correctness and trigger warnings has created a bleak atmosphere on college campuses across the nation.

“The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [concern over political correctness], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe places’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make them uncomfortable. And more than [P.C.], this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness.”

And this despite the fact that making young adults “uncomfortable” is precisely what they need in order to become educated persons. As Jerry Seinfeld has noted in refusing to perform on college campuses because of the atmosphere of “vindictive protectiveness,” we need to keep our sense of humor. And we also need to keep our sense of balance before we fall off the edge of an increasingly small platform of politically correct terms that doesn’t allow us to say what needs to be said or read what needs to be read in order to provide students with the education they so desperately require in an increasingly confusing world.


The recent revelations about Milwaukee Brewers baseball star Ryan Braun — that he did, in fact, take performance enhancing drugs — ends the charade surrounding this particular player and shifts attention elsewhere. But ESPN loves to drag the saga on as long as possible and they are fond of showing interviews with Braun from earlier this season in which he faces the camera squarely and with a sincere expression on his face swears “on my life” that “this substance never entered my body at any point.” It is superb acting in light of his subsequent admission and his suspension from baseball until next year. And apparently he had many people fooled, including his pal Aaron Rogers who bet a year’s salary before Braun’s admission that Braun was innocent of the charges. Someone apparently stands to come out $4.5 million dollars richer — if Rogers pays up.

In any event, the stench that surrounds professional sports, reeking of narcissism,  pretense, and dishonesty amid the drugs and performance-enhancers, has been written about and talked to death. What interests me more is the apparent fact that the men who face the cameras (and Congress) and swear on their lives they have never taken performance enhancing drugs actually seem to believe it when they are saying it. In a word, they seem to be living in a postmodern world in which narratives have replaced the truth. Say something often enough and it actually becomes the truth. What is the case is what we want to be the case in such a world. There is no objective truth — until the evidence becomes so heavy that even the most inveterate liar can no longer shift it aside. This is, indeed, a sign of our times and it may have started with Nixon leaving office to the tune of “I am NOT a crook!” I dare say he believed it.

Much of postmodern literary criticism hovers around the notion that literature — and history for that matter — is simply whatever we want it to be. Critics look for hidden messages and insist that all interpretations of the written word are possible and nothing is as it seems, and, as far as history in concerned, as the postmodernists would have it, “events always have to be reinterpreted to allow for current prejudices.” In the fog that surrounds much of this criticism, the notion that there are printed words on the page, that  there is an objective world “out there” and there are stubborn “facts” that simply will not go away, disappears. That is, it is forgotten or ignored. It seems to be a game academics play in order to keep their well-paying positions in prestigious universities while their students, who go deep into debt to pay for their classes, scratch their heads wondering what all the fuss is about — and plan the next party.

But when we leave the world of fiction, and even history (which many now insist is simply another form of fiction) and return to the real world we discover people who have fallen for the notion that reality is a construct and fiction is truth. If we say something often enough we come to believe it, if we hear it often enough it becomes a “fact,” and if we want something hard enough we will get it. One is reminded of the episode of Jerry Seinfeld in which Jerry wants to date a police woman who believes he watches “Melrose Place.” In order to persuade her he does not (though he does, in fact) he agrees to a lie-detector test. In order to figure out how to “beat” the lie-detector he asks his friend George how it can be done and George says, “It’s not a lie, Jerry, if you believe it.” That line of thought seems to have become gospel among the worldly-wise these days.

It’s all about will-power, and the subject’s perception of his or her world.  Morality has been lost in this world, reduced to mere feelings, and the world itself has been reduced to a kaleidoscope of personal perspectives none of which is to be preferred –until we run headlong into the brick wall of an objective reality that simply does not allow of reconstruction or revision. This finally happened to Ryan Braun. And it will happen to a number of other baseball players as well, as a row of dominoes is about to fall in order, we are told. Hopefully, it will also happen to athletes in other sports. And in the end, perhaps, we will all come to realize that truth is not a fiction, we cannot just make the world into what we want it to be, and there are things that really matter, and other people and serious problems that deserve our love and attention.

The European Purse

[An earlier version of this blog was supposed to be saved in draft form and went out by mistake previously: my bad!  It may or may not be worth reading again. I leave that up to you!]

In one of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld,” Jerry has been convinced by Elaine that he should put all his stuff in a European carry-all that Peterman sells. After he does so his friends all accuse him of carrying a purse, to which he responds repeatedly: “It’s not a purse, it’s European!” Fun stuff. But it’s also what logicians call a “false dichotomy,” as though the object couldn’t be both a purse and come from Europe.

Not a big thing in this case, but it’s one of those fallacies we commit on a fairly regular basis and it can have painful repercussions — as when one says in an angry voice “America, love it or leave it,” as though one can not both love America and leave it. Or one can love America and stay, which seems to be ruled out by the angry remark. The implication is that one cannot love one’s country and criticize it at the same time. This is absurd. Many people think uncritical acceptance of the status quo is the heart and soul of patriotism, but in fact it is jingoism, which is an altogether different thing. The true patriot loves his or her country and also sees the mistakes it makes and wants to try to eradicate those mistakes, or correct them somehow. The jingoist is blind to faults and follows blindly wherever his leaders take him. You can usually spot the latter by the flag waving in his front yard or the decal pasted to his car window.

Another common example of this mistake, as I mentioned in a recent blog, is the notion that we either save jobs or we save the environment, we cannot do both. Of course we can: we can both create and save jobs and save the environment at the same time by investing in clean energy.

Time for a brief lesson in logic. The above mistake derives from our ignorance of what a dichotomy, or a disjunction, happens to be. Disjunctions take the form of either/or and they can be exclusive or inclusive. The mistake we often make comes from confusing the two, thinking that an inclusive disjunction is exclusive, that we must have either toast or tea when we can have both; we either save the environment or we save jobs when we can do both.  Very few disjunctions are exclusive — even the disjunction between life and death (either you’re alive or you’re dead) can be confusing when a patient lies deep in a coma and the families are discussing whether or not to “pull the plug.”

There are almost always grey areas when people shout either/or. But it’s how demagogues like Rush Limbaugh make a living: they ignore the shades of grey; they reduce complex issues to simple black and white making their listeners think things are much simpler than they are (and the speaker much smarter than he is). Paul Harvey used to do the same thing. To many, it’s a breath of fresh air, leading them out of the confusing maze of complex issues where there appear to be no obvious paths into the light of day where they can see clearly what was confused before. But that leads us into a false sense of security and it glosses over many a tough problem by deluding us into thinking an issue is clear-cut when it is not. We need to be wary of the false dichotomy: the purse can be both a purse and European, Jerry!

Bizarro World!

I always loved Jerry Seinfeld’s humor and my wife and I watched the re-runs of his sit-com until we could say the lines with the actors. One episode developed the notion of a “bizarro world” where everything is backwards. The idea is stolen from Lewis Carroll, of course, but many a good idea was stolen from someone else. In any event, I sometimes think we live in such a world — especially when I listen to or read some of the comments made by politicians. A case in point is a series of remarks by Mitt Romney quoted in today’s Yahoo News in which he made comments about tax cuts that John Sununu felt necessary to defend. (If we judge people by the company they keep we must be at least mildly concerned by Mitt’s new friends.)  In any event, Romney’s comments, in part, are as follows:

“He [President Obama] wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin?” Romney said, referring to the failed recall effort of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker. “The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Of course, we can expect the Republicans to play the Wisconsin card at every opportunity. Indeed, if Walker had been recalled the Democrats would have played the same card. But in any event, the notion that “America” has spoken is absurd: the voters in Wisconsin spoke on one issue that makes clear their desire to hang on to their money until their eyeballs pop out. It is, as I am fond of pointing out, a case of short-term thinking that plagues us all. We can’t see the forest for the trees. We think that by saving a few tax dollars we will benefit. We may in the short term, but certainly not in the long run: the cost will be irremediable.

There is simply no way reducing the numbers of firemen, police, and teachers can benefit this country. To say, as Romney apparently did, that “it’s time to cut back on government to help the American people” is oxymoronic, to coin a term. How is it going to help the American people to have a few more dollars in their pocket if there are not enough policemen to keep thieves from stealing them? Or if their house is burning and the remaining firemen are putting out a fire somewhere else? Or if their children grow up and keep electing the same damned fools their parents voted in?

I am aware that government has grown huge. But much of that growth has resulted from individual and, especially, corporate irresponsibility. Many of the government agencies that have sprung up are a direct result of the damage large corporations have done to the environment. Many more are the result of the fact that we all seem to lack foresight. But many, if not all, of these agencies are indeed essential to life as we have come to know it.  Making drastic cuts in essential services, especially at a time when the very rich do not pay their fair share of the taxes, is borderline crazy.

The idea that, as Sununu says (defending Romney), “there are too many teachers” is arrant nonsense. It is on the order of Romney’s notion that small classes don’t benefit the students — which I have discussed previously. Moreover, Sununu’s notion that teaching can be done on the internet is an idea that is catching on and I have also discussed that notion. It, too, is absurd.  Real teaching and learning cannot be accomplished on the internet. The suggestion that we need to reduce the number of teachers in this country is all part of the move to eliminate public schools altogether; it would leave more of our citizens uneducated than is already the case. We not only need more teachers, we need better teachers, and smaller classes.

But as long as we remain focused on reducing taxes by eliminating critical elements within this society such as teachers, firemen, and policemen [what are these men thinking?!], then we deserve the consequences that are sure to follow. Our society will become considerably more dangerous and its citizens even more stupid than they are now — judging by the remarks by these two politicians and by the recent vote in Wisconsin. Bizarro world, indeed: black is white, up is down, and we can make our kids smarter by reducing the pittance we now spend on education and our citizens safer by reducing the number of police and firemen.