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.