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thoughts on humor

(The following post was made possible in part by this.)

A passage from Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land:

"I've found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts... because it's the only thin that'll make it stop hurting.

... The things that do happen on Mars which we laugh at here on Earth aren't funny because there is no wrongness about them. Death, for example."

"Death isn't funny."

"Then why are there so many jokes about death? Jill, with us - us humans - death is so sad that we must laugh at it. All those religions - they contradict each other on every other point but each one is filled with ways to help people be brave enough to laugh even though they knew they are dying."


There's a lot of truth to this. Certainly all slapstick humor is based on this principle. Every pie in the face, every social gaffe, everything with a laugh track, is based on someone getting fooled, hurt, embarrassed, or humiliated. Laughter distances us from empathizing with a situation that would otherwise be unbearable. (As an aside, I have a violent dislike for most slapstick humor. "As Good As It Gets" had me seriously fucked in the head. I walked out of "The Waterboy" and flat out refused to see "There's Something About Mary".)

But Heinlein (in the voice of Valentine Michael Smith) maintains that *all* humor is based on pain. He is careful to make the distinction between humor and joy - the laughter brought on by a beautiful spring day, or by rolling down sand dunes, is not what he's talking about. "A belly laugh, not a smile," he says.

As eloquently as he puts this, I don't agree. What about the laughter that comes from things like Anguish Languish? Or from seeing silly shapes in the clouds? Or the chance juxtaposition of movie titles on a theater marquee ("What A Girl Wants: Anger Management")? The first time I heard "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut" I was rolling on the floor. Where's the pain there?

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
suibhne_geilt
Apr. 14th, 2003 11:04 am (UTC)
You left out the part, for your faithful readers who haven't also read Heinlein, about Smith watching the monkeys, and having his first laugh ever, and why he found it so funny.

As another way to put it, and I can't remember who said it first, but someone once tried explaining humor by saying "When I slip on a banana peel, it's a tragedy. When you slip on a banana peel, it's comedy."

- Eric
geekosaur
Apr. 14th, 2003 11:05 am (UTC)
Niven, among others, puts it a little differently: somewhere earlyish in Ringworld (can't look it up, as the book is at home and I'm not) Nessus describes humor to Louis Wu as "an interrupted defense reflex". That's somewhat closer to it.

BTW, the person being "hurt" in most of your examples is oneself. Not so much "hurt" as "tricked", though. Likewise the humor in puns.
bzarcher
Apr. 14th, 2003 03:03 pm (UTC)
*grumbles at the LJ which ate his original reply*

One of the major parts of Mike's perceptions, and his thesis, comes out of the fact that his real grasp of humor does come from observing the suffering of others. Plus, he has to consider the fact that his followers will take everything that comes and reflect on it, and his laughter will almost certainly be misjudged. "Christ did not laugh, because he knew how Christians would react," as Umberto Eco puts it.

However, I think what you're seeing as 'painless' humor is more surprises, and our own bemusement at How The Hell Did This Happen? I suppose in some ways it is at our own expense, but even more it's about the unpredictable world.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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