The world’s great philosophers don’t fully understand funny. I discovered this in my second year of grad school. I was taking a class on the Canterbury Tales. As the semester wore on, I was more and more fascinated by Chaucer’s humor. Stop and think for the moment. If you name the top ten most influential authors in the English Language, Chaucer will almost always be on that list. Usually in the top three. Now consider the fact that Chaucer is one of the only ones on that list who writes about characters that fart. Even Shakespeare, who delights young and old alike with his earthy, sexy humor. Even Dickens who famously wrote about the things polite people don’t mention, like child labor. Not only do Chaucer’s characters fart, but entire plots hinge on the fact that they do so.
Chaucer’s Earthy Humor
There is a famous moment in the Miller’s Tale (usually placed second in the Canterbury set) where a lady’s admirer stands beneath her window. This is typical love-story stuff. It’s like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. What’s not typical is that the lady already has a lover with her in the room and is not interested in this new guy. Nevertheless, he begs that she lean out over the window and give him a kiss. In a joke made possible by the extreme darkness of medieval streets, she leans her ass out of the window instead, and farts in his face. The jig is up when the man realizes, not only that the woman’s breath smells, but that women don’t commonly have beards.
Okay yes I found it funny. I still do. But that’s not why I wrote about it. I wrote about it because of what I just said. Imagine you attended a party and saw that every guest but one was just some person wearing black tie, but that last guest was an ostrich. Then you went home and a roommate or family-member asked: “How was the party?” You’d lead with the ostrich, right? I mean… right?
Reading Chaucer, I encountered a writer who is excellent in a variety of ways (his satirical wit, his insight into politics and psychology and so on) but unique in exactly one way (he weaves fart-jokes into the stuff of high art). But it was more than that. Humor actually seemed integral to his philosophy. If you read it in its proper context, The Canterbury Tales is a highly moral, even religious, work. And humor, especially bodily humor, is central to that work. The philosophers of the last 400 or so years aren’t particularly funny (most of them). So the idea of a great writer–a great thinker, even–who had not just added in the humor as an afterthought was appealing to me.
Anyway, that’s how it came to pass that I was checking all of the books on humor out of the Stony Brook library. What I discovered shocked me. Major philosophers don’t understand humor.
Consider the evidence:
Freud on Funny
Freud had several theories of humor. All of them quite clearly relate to his neurological model of id-ego-superego. One theory was that humor is the release of bottled-up tension. For example, a student in a classroom makes a bodily noise–a belch or a fart–puncturing the balloon of classroom discipline and letting all of the tension out; tension caused by upcoming tests, harsh parental expectations, etc. Another of Freud’s theories differentiated between types of humor that pacified different parts of the mind: the id revels in bitterness and sarcasm, while the superego enjoys lighter and more comforting types of humor. Puppies and babies doing cute things, perhaps.
Freud’s theory most typically falls under what is called Release Theory, which states that we laugh to release pent-up tension or anxiety. Imagine that. The guy who thinks everything centers on the desire to release pent-up anxiety thinks that humor is an instrument for releasing pent-up anxiety.
Bergson on Funny
Henri Bergson, the great thinker on the relationship between the natural world and the mechanical world, describes humor as a mechanical process grafted onto a natural process. An obvious example of this would be a coyote using jet-powered roller skates to prey upon a roadrunner.
A less obvious example of this would be an oafish man going to meet a proud lady for the first time. As he goes to meet her, he practices saying “your gown brings out the color of your eyes.” When he meets her, she is wearing pants and he just stands there mute as a scarecrow. The natural process is seeing a person and complimenting that person on what they’re wearing. The mechanical process is the pressure, caused by class-differences and other issues, to say something complimentary but generic. So nervous does the situation make our oaf that he can’t actually compliment the lady. He can only recite a rehearsed line. And that line is not current if the lady is not wearing a gown. When these two issues collide, the result is a moment of farcical humor.
Bergson’s explanation falls under the category of “incongruity theory” which essentially states that we laugh at the unexpected.
Niebuhr on Funny
A particularly favorite explanation of mine was that of Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th century Christian philosopher. He explained his notion of humor with a beautiful image:
Laughter must be heard in the outer courts of religion, and the echoes of it should resound in the sanctuary; but there is no laughter in the holy of holies, laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humour fulfilled by faith.
So part of Niebuhr’s explanation of laughter is to say that both laughter and religion are responses to the failings of the world, but that religion is the better response. Therefore, a moment of pure religious experience can fulfill the same role as laughter, but in a more satisfying way. I love essays like this because they often say what they mean without meaning to. Niebuhr, despite being a person of unimpeachable religious convictions, offers an excellent explanation as to why true believers in most any cause are such insufferable dullards. I suspect that’s not how he meant me to take his argument but here we are all the same.
No but seriously. Fiction often makes the distinction between religious people who are able to laugh at their own foibles (Boccaccio, Chaucer, Rabelais, Isaac Bashevis Singer) and those who are not. The latter are almost always the villains of fiction, and, indeed, of history.
Humor as Part of a Larger Theory of Psychology… Doesn’t Work
At any rate, I hope my point is being made clear. Freud offers an explanation based on three divisions of the human brain . Bergson offers an explanation based on the idea of antagonism between natural and mechanical. Niebuhr offers a religious explanation. So each of these philosophers offers an explanation of humor that fits neatly inside their existing philosophy. Each of their explanations of humor overlaps with the other. But each is incomplete. Moreover, each seems to be describing humor in terms of an already-established philosophy. That didn’t seem right to me. It made humor seem like an afterthought. Humor should not be an afterthought. Laughter of all kinds is as necessary a part of the human experience as food or sex. If laughter is not integral to your philosophy then your philosophy is too serious. And probably too narrow.
It was situations like this that made me start to distrust philosophy. Each of these philosophers is seeing part of the picture. Each of them is offering an interpretation of the world that is correct, i.e., an interpretation of the world that seems to be based on the evidence. So what’s the issue? Why are we in this murky territory where each philosopher seems to overlap with the other, but only part-way?
I think the answer is that each describes part of what humor does. The “incongruity theory” describes how to make a joke: you set up an expectation and then defy it. Here’s Niebuhr again:
Slipping on the ice is funny only if it happens to one whose dignity is upset… We laugh at the proud man slipping on the ice, not merely because the contrast between his dignity and his undignified plight strikes us as funny, but because we feel that his discomfiture is a poetically just rebuke of his dignity.
Niebuhr’s explanations are beautiful. But that doesn’t mean they’re right. Not all-the-way right, anyway. Does George Carlin’s humor lead people into the sanctuary of religion? No, but it does lead people to contemplate a philosophy of a different kind: a sort of ethical nihilism.
A Unified Theory of Laughter: Let Go of your Theories and Just Laugh
Humor is one of the basic tools we have in life. As such, it’s varied and vast. I’m not convinced a single theory could account for all of its facets. But I still think that reading essays one humor can be useful. At the very least, it has helped me to focus my own thinking on the subject.
It’s also interesting to look at the ways in which priorities have changed. Once upon a time, the intellectuals of the world were interested in where humor came from and how it was crafted. Now, you are more likely to read discussions about punching up versus punching down.
I imagine that if philosophers like Freud, Bergson, and Niebuhr had to try to explain a broad concept like humor in terms that didn’t arise from their respective philosophies, they would have to come to terms with the fact that their philosophies aren’t universal metrics for explaining human psychology. They’re just models; outlines; points of view.