Humor: It’s a Serious Business
I like to consider myself a student of humor, always striving to improve my own technique. I carefully craft each joke—a dash of absurdity here, a bit of strained repetition there, brush the margins of acceptability over here, thinly and evenly distribute irony across the top, and glaze with good timing. Because my face is usually morose and somewhat funereal, I stick with deadpan delivery. The fact that people often cannot tell whether I am joking magnifies the impact of the joke: by the time they realize that I am being funny, they find themselves assaulted on every side with bone-dry wit.
I take humor very seriously, and I want to be good. While I am not likely to become a rich standup comedian, I like to liven things up wherever I go, and because my humor is not really for my own consumption, I have to consider my audience’s tastes and preferences while I craft my own style. A joke’s purpose and calculated effect derive from the joker’s knowledge of the audience: jokes lighten tense moments, connect strangers, diffuse grief, express anger, unify insiders, isolate outsiders, mock foolishness, and indirectly highlight wisdom.
In its many uses, humor penetrates every area of life: it filters into religion, infiltrates solemn remembrance, subverts threats and intimidation, crushes gloom, dominates politics, and ultimately bungs up the big picture of things. Sometimes the bunging stops the main flow, and sometimes it bungs a leak to strengthen the main flow. All in all, we are never “only joking,” and a joke is never just a joke.
Jokes are tools, they are weapons, they are the party platter’s conversational equivalent. Whatever they are, I believe that objective standards apply in classifying humor as good or bad, as well fashioned or ill made. Such standards include proportion; thorough assessment of the audience; deliberateness of form, style and composition; timeliness of the subject matter; freshness and originality; and sufficient adherence to broader norms to strengthen the joke’s inherent irony or absurdity. Much of what is labeled bad humor today is just poor humor: it involves disproportionate, careless focus on threadbare objects of absurdity—e.g. hours and hours of fart jokes and sex jokes on television. Be that as it may, simply banning bawdy or off-color humor does not cultivate appreciation for well-made humor, and cultivating higher forms of humor does not lead clever people into automatic agreement about life.
I once heard Richard Dawkins give or quote a rendition of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to illustrate his aversion to researching the differing varieties of religion, Christianity in particular. As my college roommate was listening to a podcast, I heard Dawkins cleverly compare theological differences between Christians to the leather in the emperor’s boots or the velvet in his hat or the silk in his shirt: no matter how fine the qualities ascribed to the suit, the distinctions are meaningless because the whole suit does not exist. I cannot source the material, but this does illustrate that people who I systematically disagree with can masterfully execute a humorous repudiation of my own beliefs.
For now, I have to leave you with this: good humor takes a lot of effort over a long time, but it is better for your soul than endless fart jokes.
I think I will take this matter up again in future posts. Stay tuned.