It’s Funny ‘Cuz it’s True (or) Why the New Yorker Should Know Better
I love comedy. I probably think about it too much, because I am really interested in why things are funny. For example, this is one of my favorite clips from Futurama:
If you can’t watch it, the clip shows starship pilot Leela, who is temporarily blind, preparing for takeoff. When questioned about her ability to fly blind, she replies, “a real pilot can fly by feel alone.” Immediately afterward, she blasts through the roof of the hangar, destroying it. Cut to inside as Hermes, (the manager), and Dr. Zoidberg (the dirt-poor perennial loser) are watching the destruction. Without a beat, Hermes turns to Zoidberg and states, “That’s coming out of your pay!” Zoidberg immediately collapses into bereft tears.
Probably not everyone finds that as hilarious as I do. But I was mystified as to why I laughed out loud every time I saw that scene. It’s kind of tragic, really. The show goes to great lengths to illustrate Zoidberg’s unfair treatment and his abject poverty. Hermes’ irrational hatred of him is nothing but spite and meanness. And yet, somehow, it’s comedy gold! Eventually, I figured out why.
First of all, both Hermes and Zoidberg are sitting there, drinking coffee, side by side, watching exactly what happened. There is simply no chance whatsoever that Hermes could possibly believe that Zoidberg had anything to do with the accident. The humor is that Hermes’ first reaction to the destruction of the hangar is not shock or even surprise. No, his first reaction is to treat it as one more opportunity to beat down Zoidberg. The level of galactic, pointless spite this implies is, in a word, completely absurd– and therefore hilarious.
No to mention that Zoidberg, so used to being blamed for everything, doesn’t respond with surprise or defensiveness. He knows there is no point in argument. He descends immediately into resigned sobs (and don’t miss Hermes’ satisfied observation of this).
I read once (in a commentary about the Simpsons, which I also love) that all comedy is based on cruelty. I can live with that. But just like with every other art form, comedy only works when the viewer isn’t aware of the mechanics of it. Horror, for instance, stops being scary when you see the sweaty midget behind the rubber mask. Tension vanishes the moment we recognize the machinery of tension cranking away, forcing it to happen. And comedy is really about tension– about that suspension between the reality we expect and the ludicrous thing that seems to be happening.
Comedy stops being funny when the manufacture of that tension becomes obvious.
Having said that– and not that I mind asking this– am I just too smart for some modern comedy? Do most people find it funny because, unlike the glittering jewel of intellect that is glorious me, they just don’t see the painfully obvious setup?
It can’t be that I don’t have a sense of humor, can it? I’m a funny guy, right? I once owned a fish tie! It had a rhinestone for an eye! I had the rhinestone put on for an extra two-fifty! I think we can all agree that that proves I am, indeed, a funny, funny guy.
I wore it with suspenders! I mean, come on.
But back to the point. I’m not even talking about comedy that a lot of people would consider offensive or ridiculous. I don’t love Family Guy, but I’ll admit that some of it is hilarious. No, I’m talking about the fact that so much comedy these days seems to rely on two things: snarkiness and stupidity.
The snark is easy to understand. Everyone wants to feel better than somebody else. It’s not particularly admirable, but it’s human nature, and it’s bankable.
It’s the stupidity that I don’t get. And I don’t mean that the joke itself is stupid. I mean that it depends on the stupidity of the audience. This could be because the audience is literally stupid or, perhaps even more likely, because the audience deliberately detaches their intellect for the sake of the joke (for the benefit of the aforementioned sense of snarky superiority).
Take this New Yorker cover, for example:
Let’s take a moment to consider the “humor” in this cartoon.
Why, it’s simplicity in itself, isn’t it? Just look at all those saps behind the glass, churning pointlessly away on their treadmills and stationary bikes, whilst a load of freely available Citi-bikes sits out front. And there, one lone woman– the voice of modernity and sanity (as shown by her natty collar and sensible bike helmet)– stops to glance momentarily through the window. She is not laughing meanly at the dopes behind the glass (we are, of course). No, she is sincerely mystified as she pauses, curiously, before happily biking to her next destination (probably an organic farmer’s market).
Why’s it funny? Obviously because the saps inside are missing out on the healthy and productive choice of obviously riding real bikes, going to real places, which is obviously the obvious, sane, healthy choice that all of us, the viewers of this cartoon, would obviously make. Because we’re so rational and sensible and healthy and enlightened, right? Not like those silly dopes on the other side of the glass.
Makes you feel pretty good about yourself, right? Ahh, the heady thrill of being smarter than someone else.
I mean… but… doesn’t this only work if we completely shut down nearly every intellectual circuit in our analytical brain?
Sure, it’s always possible to overthink a joke. It’s funny so long as the overthinking doesn’t happen immediately. But how long does it take to see the flaws in the “logic” of this cartoon? Flaws like:
Maybe the people behind the glass don’t live a bikeable distance from work and have nowhere local to go?
Or maybe they have to go fifteen miles down a freeway or there are no Citibike docks near their apartment?
Or maybe they just don’t trust other drivers to watch out for them on the road?
Or maybe they simply prefer riding in air-conditioning with a TV in front of them for entertainment?
I mean, I’m a bicyclist myself, but I respect that, for some people, the idea of biking a dozen miles on the road, constantly watching for traffic, navigating the occasional sketchy part of town, whilst carrying their groceries and briefcase, possibly in the rain and snow, isn’t their idea of a great time. But, amazingly, they still want to work out their bodies and stay healthy.
Is it really fair to laugh snarkily at people just because they prefer to exercise in a way different than us? Does the joke still work once we realize that their choice is just as valid as ours? Or are we just that committed to the notion that if people are different than us then they are deserving of smug ridicule?
My point here is not really to defend people who prefer biking indoors. It’s to say “come on, joke, try a little harder. It’s not funny if we have to pretend to be stupider than we are.”
Although, in the interests of full disclosure, my wife thinks that New Yorker cartoon is hilarious. We’re still debating it.
Douglas Adams, the (unfortunately deceased) author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a comedy genius, observed something similar to this in an article about falling out of love with comedy. Here’s the bit that I remember most:
For me it was hearing a stand-up comedian make the following observation: “These scientists, eh? They’re so stupid! You know those black-box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? And you know they’re meant to be indestructible? It’s always the thing that doesn’t get smashed? So why don’t they make the planes out of the same stuff?”
The audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag, but I sat feeling uncomfortable. Was I just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn’t really work because flight recorders are made out of titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium, they’d be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place? I began to pick away at the joke… There was no way of deconstructing the joke (if you think this is obsessive behaviour, you should try living with it) that didn’t rely on the teller and the audience complacently conspiring together to jeer at someone who knew more than they did.
Adams knew that jokes only stay funny so long as they don’t rely on willful (or literal) stupidity. Jokes shouldn’t be less amusing the smarter we are. They should be even funnier, revealing new layers of understanding of human nature.
It’s one thing to make fun of people (even scientists). If comedy is based on cruelty, then it’s pretty unavoidable. But the mockery only really works when it’s based on a true (albeit exaggerated) characteristic of the person or group. For example, another Futurama clip:
Here, Leela and the Planet Express crew are confronted by some militant vegetarians. Leela calls down to them, “animals eat other animals. It’s nature.” The vegetarian below rises to this, proclaiming, “No it isn’t! We taught a lion to eat tofu!” The camera pans to a pale, sickly lion (wearing a leash). The lion coughs weakly, twice.
I laugh absolutely every time I see this, because it’s making fun (affectionately, I submit) of militant vegetarianism in a way that rings sincere to the militant vegetarians we’ve all met. I’d like to think that even vegetarians could look at this and laugh a bit uncomfortably (the way Christians might laugh at Ned Flanders on the Simpsons).
Bad jokes are the ones where the mockery is not based on our personal experience, but on a carefully constructed straw man. A straw man, as all of us who ever attended fifteen minutes of a college logic course know, is a willful misrepresentation of a person, viewpoint or ideology. Straw man jokes only work if one does not know the person or ideology the joke is mocking.
Here’s an example from family guy:
If you couldn’t watch that, or if it got taken down (not a great loss), it shows Peter and Lois Griffin being chased down Mount Rushmore by Mel Gibson. Gibson corners them, wielding a pistol, and demands some MacGuffin. Peter points out at thin air and says “It’s right over there.” Gibson blithely steps off into empty space and falls to his death. Lois, relieved, marvels, “he walked right over the edge!” Peter smugly replies, “Of course he did. Christians don’t believe in gravity.”
This is only funny to people who 1) don’t know any Christians at all, ever, and 2) seamlessly believe the straw man misrepresentation of Christians as entirely anti-science, utterly stupid dunderheads. In short, the joke is not meant to be funny so much as it is meant to enforce an almost entirely invented stereotype. This is what is known under other circumstances as propaganda. I don’t mind propaganda as such. I just don’t find it generally funny, no matter which side does it.
On the other hand, this:
That is hilarious because we all know Christians that believe that. Non-Christians can laugh a little meanly at that and Christians can tug their collar and giggle a little self-consciously because it jives with our personal experience of some actual people. The comedy is based on reality, not an invented fiction, and is therefore funnier the smarter and more balanced we are.
Of course, the obvious question is why is any of this important? Isn’t it just totally overthinking a bunch of dumb jokes?
I submit that it isn’t, and here’s why. Jokes are the currency of opinion. As hard as it may be to believe, loads of people (you and me included) have had our opinions shaped by pop culture humor. And it’s easy to understand why. Our brains perceive fictional encounters as if they are real in a way that non-fiction cannot equal. When we see an amusing caricature of some person or ideology in a comedy program, it sneaks right past the analytical part of our brains and plugs directly into our perception center. The caricature becomes our reality.
If you doubt this, ask yourself why you think Scientologists are weirdos. Or why you believe Anne Coulter is stupid. Or why you know that country people are all racist hicks. Chances are your first thought is of some joke or caricature, right? A few of you may know some real Scientologists, or might have invested the time to learn about emeters and thetans. I doubt any of you that hate Anne Coulter as a stupid conservative have ever read anything by her (other than an out-of-context quote). And I am pretty sure that most people who think country people are all racist hicks are the same people whose experience with the country amounted to a gas station stop in the suburbs.
The power of comedy is that it substantially defines our worldview while passing itself off as “dumb jokes”. In fact, that’s the first thing people will say when you critique it: “It’s just a dumb joke! It doesn’t mean anything! Get a sense of humor!”
What I’ve noticed, though, is that the people who proclaim that the loudest are the ones most offended if the joke is on them or on something they believe in. Deep down, we all know the power of comedy, otherwise we’d just blow it off when the joke’s on us. Comedy defines our perception of the word a lot more than we’d ever like to admit.
That’s why this matters.
It isn’t that we should never joke about certain things. It’s that those jokes need to be rooted in reality, in our personal experience of the world. The joke shouldn’t define our perception, it should reinforce a perception we’ve already experienced. That’s when it’s truly funny, and when it serves as a tool for understanding the world better and perhaps even for bettering ourselves.
Mock us sincerely, and (hopefully) we will laugh and perhaps learn how to be better people. Mock us insincerely, with invented straw man caricatures, and it only fosters hate, division and pettiness.
I’m not expecting much. Propagandists will continue to hide their propaganda in bad comedy, and small people will continue to laugh meanly at it and use it to define their worldview.
But you’re smarter than that.