The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
"Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Humor." "Humor who?" "Humor me while I think of a better joke."
Many people feel that anything which inspires laughter cannot be important enough to merit mention in the Great Conversation. These people are safely and properly ignored, for the simple reason that important and unfunny are different ideas. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out in Heretics, “Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else. … Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German.” It is no accident that, among the surviving plays of classical Athens, the comic works of Aristophanes are as old as those of the three great tragedians.
The word humor originates in ancient medicine, and was used of the notorious “four humors,” or bodily fluids. Keeping these four humors balanced, or tempered, kept the body and mind alike healthy (and the characteristic balance of an individual was thus his or her temperament). A few fossils of this theory survive in our speech: when we read of someone being “in a bad humor,” the meaning remains clear even now. However, the chief relic is the meaning humor eventually picked up (probably from the sanguine) of “what makes us laugh.”
Curiously to us, in the history of thought, laughter receives mostly negative commentary. The Bible, although containing a great deal of humor, rarely speaks explicitly of it; when it does, it tends to associate it with hostility, even judgment: “He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn: / The Lord shall have them in derision.” From the strictures on drama discussed in Plato’s Republic to St. Benedict’s maxim that “The tenth degree of humility is that the monk be not ready nor easily inclined to laugh,” the ancient world made its view of comedy clear—even if they did still allow it as an occasional indulgence. One might be tempted to put this attitude down to wounded ego: the sort of young person who is apt to grow up into a philosopher is, perhaps, also the sort of person specially prone to being laughed at by their peers for a long time first. The fact that laughter tended to be censured for being arrogant, while certainly not proof, does match the hypothesis. On the other hand, they have a point: it is true that an awful lot of laughing is at someone. It is not uncommon even today for people to advance the claim that every joke needs a “target,” never mind the fact that plenty of humor (such as wordplay) needs nothing of the kind.
A subtler view is articulated by the devil—that is, by the fictional devil and narrating voice of C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. In Letter XI, His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape instructs his nephew as follows:
I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but … they are not the real cause. What the real cause is we do not know. Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven … Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell.
Fun is closely related to Joy—a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us … it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.
The Joke Proper, which turns on a sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field. I am not thinking primarily of indecent or bawdy humor … A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man’s damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. …
But Flippancy is the best of all. … Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made.
From the thorny issue of morals in humor, we may turn to the thorny issue of irony. Nowadays this word is famous principally for being nigh-undefinable, even by most gifted wordsmiths.* All irony involves a contrast between one mindset and another. In some cases, the contrast is between the perspective of a character in a narrative who lacks some important piece of information, and the audience, who have it. This can be played for laughs, though is also the profile of most suspense, and of what is formally called tragic irony (as in Oedipus, where the ironic contrast is between the audience, who know what is coming, and the characters, who mostly do not).
Alternately, the mindsets whose contrast creates irony can be those of text and subtext, as in Socratic irony. In many of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates obviously knows or suspects that the person he is talking to is a fool; but, by treating them as if their pretensions to wisdom were genuine, he leads them to expose their own folly. A third major form of irony is situational irony, probably the form we think of most often. Here the contrast is between facts as they are and what people would desire or expect: for example, a fire station burning down. On a more micro-level, irony is also the principle of all antilogies, or statements that are in some way in tension with the speaker’s meaning: sarcasm, exaggeration, understatement, and oxymoron are salient examples.
All these forms of irony—indeed, most if not all forms of humor—illustrate Screwtape’s defining phrase, “a sudden perception of incongruity.” This often aligns with some remarks by Bill Watterson, creator of the celebrated comic strip Calvin and Hobbes:
To attract and keep an audience, art must entertain, but the significance of any art lies in its ability to express truths … The best comics expose human nature and help us laugh at our own stupidity and hypocrisy. They indulge in exaggeration and absurdity, helping us see the world with fresh eyes … [They] are fun house mirrors that distort appearances only to help us recognize, and laugh at, our essential characteristics. —The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
Recognizing humor as a means of finding or seeing truth may be one of the few distinctively modern contributions to the Great Conversation. Of course, courts have always had jesters as well as counselors; nonetheless, very few of them have made the jester a counselor.
Humor is also an important element in rhetoric, and we may round out our too-brief overview of this topic with a glance at some of the techniques of humor. In some respects, comedy is the most subtle of all types of creativity, because what’s funny is one of the most context-sensitive things in all human interaction. A remark might inspire outrage or compassion or curiosity in one setting, and then, with no change to the remark, might provoke uproarious laughter in another setting. The interplay of culture, history, and personal taste makes being humorous hard work.
Part of this immense variety comes from the diversity of comedic genres. Slapstick is an especially “obvious” genre, and regarded by some people as vulgar and valueless. Yet, to take another cue from Chesterton, humor is when a man falls down, because he ought to stand up. Then there are parody and satire, which are in some sense ironies extended out into a whole plot. These are exceedingly old forms of humor; Aristophanes’ play The Frogs features a debate in Hades between the souls of Æschylus and Euripides, in which the styles of both are mercilessly lampooned. Stupidity, absurdity, and misunderstanding are frequently put to humorous uses, of course; when this becomes a whole plot, a comedy of errors results. Several of Shakespeare’s comedies revolve around an increasingly compounded misunderstanding that is cleared up in the end—or at least, partly cleared up. The more convenient effects are let be in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing.
Comedic devices at the dialogue level are no doubt innumerable. Insofar as humor depends on incongruity, a few broad categories do enjoy “stock humor” status. Metatextual humor is common favorite, in which the reality within the work and our reality as the audience are deliberately mixed together. The most ostentatious form of this is “breaking the fourth wall,” i.e. having a character directly address the audience. However, subtler forms exist too; strictly speaking, alluding to other works (of any kind) is metatextual. Classic cartoons like those of Bugs Bunny are often heavily metatextual, from having characters face or address the “camera” to making up silly lyrics for classical music.
Then there is wordplay, such a great favorite among humorists that the term “wit” often means nothing else. Virtually all riddles are word games, typically relying on rare senses of words or strange metaphors. In a comparable vein, the double meaning of Oscar Wilde’s title The Importance of Being Earnest actually drives the play’s plot. In other instances (as in “Modern Major General“), a mere cataract of correctly-pronounced patter is wordplay enough to prompt laughter.
But probably the most familiar form of wordplay is the pun, in which two unrelated senses of a word are brought suddenly together in a single use. Many puns are exceedingly bad, but at their best, they can truly sparkle. One of the present author’s favorites comes from a collection called Anguished English, which relates the story of a teacher confronted with this sentence written by a student: “She fell down the stairs and lay prostitute at the bottom.” Rather than merely cross out the incorrect word and put “prostrate” in the margin, the teacher took the opportunity to write, You must learn to distinguish between a fallen woman and one who has merely slipped.
*Some people are inclined to blame a popular song by one Miss Morissette for this difficulty; but, in mere justice, as the song in question debuted close to thirty years ago, we can hardly ask her to shoulder a majority of the guilt at this time of day.
Gabriel Blanchard has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like our related Great Conversation posts on beauty, the emotions, games, language, logic, rhetoric, and our series on signs and symbols. Thank you for reading the Journal, and happy New Year!
Published on 4th January, 2023.