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.

    • Staples
    • June 13th, 2011

    In the States, humor is the main social lubricant; as you write, “jokes lighten tense moments, connect strangers, diffuse grief, … unify insiders…” Americans, and perhaps most of the West, seem to delight in subversion and in striving not to take anything too seriously. One of the first lessons I learned when I moved to the States from Japan was that, in order to survive, I needed to “lighten up.” Humor isn’t the social lubricant in Japan that it is in the US, and, being a high-context culture with a long, long history, frown on subversion and flaunting rules much, much more than the US does.

    That’s not to say that Japanese don’t have a sense of humor, nor even that humor isn’t *a* social lubricant in Japan (*the* social lubricant in Japan, though, is apology). Humor *is* different from that in the US, though, in Japan, as well as all over the rest of the world. I’m curious as to what you’ve observed about humor in China; is humor the social lubricant that it is in the US? What is funny in China that Americans don’t find funny, and what do Americans find funny that the Chinese don’t?

  1. You know, that’s a good reminder. I did not think about cultural norms of humor, and I was primarily addressing the American audience in my head. One of the snatches that I know about Japan is that they tend to have a highly developed sense of “cute,” and businessmen have a penchant for getting sloshed and going out to do karaoke (or is that Korea?). They are really formal in one area, but they let it all hang out in another.

    As far as things go in China, I have found biting political humor (though you have to dig a little to find it), racial humor, jokes about relationships, and more. Although the program I work for insulates me from “pure” Chinese culture, I believe that humor is a human universal, although people use it differently. I might be going to Korea soon, so I might get a sample of humor in a different culture. Korean culture may be similar to Japanese in its preservation of social status and proper behavior out in society, but I am not going to highlight their similarities around any Koreans.

    Regarding subversion of the rules, humor . . . ha . . . dang . . . I think this will warrant mention in a future post. I think humor could take a few posts, with guest posts specifically invited . . .

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