Philosophy of Humour

I would like to think that it is almost an entirely universal experience to relay to a friend a favourite joke of yours (whether that is a live, animated retelling or merely, in my case, mandatory viewing of a James Acaster compilation), and be met with the ever-disappointing faked mumble of a laugh followed by a pause and… ‘I just don’t get it’. Infuriating. The intelligent subversion of expectation, the wittily crafted wordplay, the slapstick physicality ingeniously paired with the situation to maximise comedy, all so clear in your mind as guaranteed for success and yet, the one who experiences the very same as you, can barely manage a laugh or grasp why it might be just so funny.

Upon this inevitable disappointment, it is tempting to explain how the joke works, where it plays on our expectations or manipulates the audience into believing it is going one way, and suddenly changes direction. It is tempting to think that if a person understands how the joke works, they too will burst out in uncontrollable laughter. Yet, following such analysis, one is rarely met with the spontaneous production of laughter one so desires. Rather, if you’re lucky, merely an ‘Oh I get it now. Yeah that is funny’. Or, if you’re less lucky, you’re met with a resigned mumble and this oft-quoted quip:

‘Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.’

Explanation which causes simultaneous destruction and illumination is not only analogous to biology; it has a philosophical counterpart too. Heidegger’s aesthetics relies on the material which composes an artwork, which he terms ‘earth’, being fundamentally inexplicable. That is to say, he claims part of artwork’s artistry resides in its impermeability; one can attempt to explain how an artwork functions but in doing so, the effect is destroyed.

Consider Heidegger’s example of a colour: a physicist might be able to tell you exactly how a colour is produced, the frequency of its oscillations, the exact shade etc. etc., but none of this technical analysis can capture what it feels like to see the burning red of a sunset, or the pale blue of a clear sky. Something crucial is lost in our attempt to understand.

The same can be said of comedy: as quoted above, it appears to be widely recognised that explanations of comedy are futile, as the fragility of a joke makes it subject to the same risk of destruction upon analysis. Articulating the components which give rise to humour is simply not the same as having an intuitive reaction to it, for seeing why something ‘might be’ funny more often than not just does not produce the spontaneous reaction of laughter. Whilst we might be able to point out retrospectively how the joke functions, it would be absurd to suggest that the hearer consciously processes this and thus voluntarily laughs or does not. Artwork relies on elusiveness and causing spontaneous, almost irrational responses: comedy, here, is much the same.

Yet, despite this connection between artwork and comedy, traditionally philosophers have had vastly different reactions to the two. Whilst artwork which is deemed beautiful has been praised, comedy is often looked down on. Ancient thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle, saw laughter as a weakness, claiming it ‘provokes a violent reaction’ and is enjoyed by the people ‘more than they should’. Later theories also treated humour with much the same negativity: the ‘Superiority Theory’ of Hobbes and Descartes supported the vicious portrayal of humour, claiming that laughter is an expression of ‘derision or scorn’, whereby we laugh when we feel superior over another. Comedy was hardly seen as an art but rather a vice to be avoided.

Despite this, aesthetics and a philosophy of humour appear greatly intertwined; not only do artwork and comedy share the elusiveness of how they are composed, the experiences which they give rise to share great similarities. Both appear to engage in the suspension of practical concerns and goals to allow room for play and expansive imagination: that is to say, the contents of the two, whilst both based on reality, succeed on account of their distance from reality. They are feelings which arise not on account of any vested interest in the contents, nor any moral concerns, but freely, as a product of entertainment. Both comedy and artwork intend to represent reality in such a way that differs from the straightforward norm, playing with various imagery, situations and themes in order to present something simultaneously recognisable and unfamiliar.

A theory of humour growing in popularity is that of the ‘incongruity theory’, claiming laughter is achieved on account, primarily, of subversion. Jokes are achieved through statements or physicality which differ from our expectations. They tease the mind, leading it one way, then suddenly taking it another direction. Is this similar to the experience of beauty? Perhaps instinctively it appears not, as beautiful artwork is not always subversive in this sense. Yet the experience of beauty relies on some qualities in the artwork to produce this experience: is it not the case that these qualities must in some way divulge from the norm in order to produce this different reaction? Otherwise, how else can artwork represent something dull, but through its artistic quality render it beautiful? This technique is certainly elusive, but then so is that of humour: artistry is found in the unexpected. It is the role of the artist to present the world in an unexpected way so that this might give rise to pleasure and imagination, akin to the comedian’s role to do the same through comedy.

Consider what I would argue is one of the finest examples of comedy: James Acaster’s four part Netflix special. In it, he includes a sketch dismantling the hypocrisy and political, cultural issues of the British Museum. Eloquently translating the horrors of empirical raiding into a lighthearted moment of ‘story time’, Acaster skillfully satirises a historically significant and damaging event, whilst never losing the gravity of his material. However, the paramount of subversion occurs at the end of this sketch. He moves his attention to the well-known eraser found in Museum gift shops. What appears to be a moment of light relief in discussion of an otherwise serious matter, lending itself to physical comedy as Acaster demonstrates the pain of a seemingly glass eraser pinning a piece of paper and refusing to move, resolves itself as a witty commentary on the issues of the British Museum: ‘we at the British Museum don’t believe in erasing the mistakes of the past’. Acaster follows up: ‘can I at least return it’, to which the punchline is ‘yeah we don’t really believe in giving stuff back either’. For me, this highlights Acaster at his most ingenious and truly artistic: combining satire with physical comedy, all resolving in a witty, politically biting, summative comment. The layering of comedic techniques, the playwright type craftsmanship of the joke, the physical aspect all point to a composition deserving of the title of art. I have seen this skit many a time: knowing the punchline which is coming does little to hinder my laughter.

Perhaps then, comedy cannot be so easily reduced as an inevitability upon subversion: there remains an intangible element for which explanation cannot provide the clarity we so desire. Just like a description of a painting or a review of a ballet cannot do justice to firsthand experience, so too is a summary and brief analysis of a joke significantly inferior to the experience of hearing it told in a performance context. The joke described above was produced by one of Britain’s most popular and sought-after comedians; yet my summarising it and provision of context could never capture the feeling of the audience, a true marker of artistic experience. Perhaps, therefore, aesthetics is the approach best suited to understanding just what makes comedy tick: even if that answer is simply accepting that it cannot be understood.

By Lucy Bergin

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