December 8, 2006


All Comedy is Conservative Book Proposal

Given its centrality to human nature and to daily life, there is something downright funny about comedy: no one has ever really explained its utility or purposes adequately. Indeed, the attempt generally leads philosophers, scientists, psychologists, theologians, pundits and even comedians themselves in directions that they do not particularly wish to follow, so all these disciplines have been quite content to abandon the pursuit of a comprehensive theory of humor. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy concedes in its entry on Humor:

Almost every major figure in the history of philosophy has proposed a theory, but after 2500 years of discussion there has been little consensus about what constitutes humor. Despite the number of thinkers who have participated in the debate, the topic of humor is currently understudied in the discipline of philosophy. There are only a few philosophers currently focused on humor related research, which is most likely due to two factors: the problems in the field have proved incredibly difficult, inviting repeated failures, and the subject is erroneously dismissed as an insignificant concern.

It will be the argument of this book that it is not that the problems surrounding a theory are especially difficult, but that they all lead one to the conclusion that comedy is inherently conservative that has prevented “thinkers” from fully developing even their own insights about comedy into a full-blown theory. It is because the things they intuit about humor tend to contradict their philosophical and political worldviews that the theorists tend to drop the subject with all the alacrity of David Letterman heaving a watermelon off a roof.

One of the few philosophers who has focused on humor is John Morreall and he has made a revealing admission about why it would be that his colleagues have been so eager to avoid the topic:

Most Western thinkers have not written much about humor, and their comments on it are often found in writings on other topics. But despite their often sketchy statements, two main lines of thought about the nature of humor have emerged. Both of them treat the experience of humorous amusement as a kind of enjoyment or pleasure. The earlier view, often called the Superiority Theory, is that amusement is our enjoyment of feeling superior to other people. This view, which began in ancient times and received its classic expression in Hobbes, gives rise to the ethical objection that humor is hostile. The second line of thought, usually called the Incongruity Theory, locates the essence of amusement in our enjoyment of experiencing something which clashes with our conceptual systems, our understanding of "how things are supposed to be." While this theory was hinted at in an offhand remark of Aristotle's, it was not presented in any detail until Kant and Schopenhauer. It is more comprehensive than the Superiority Theory, as I intend to show, but its portrayal of humor as the enjoyment of incongruity opens humor to a new objection: that it is irrational.

Note that both of these objections are peculiar to the Age of Reason. The first, that we laugh at other because we feel superior to them, flies in the face of the Rousseauvian conceit that Man is essentially good and that we are all equal to, if not basically the same as, one another. As we will see, the superiority theory is particularly appalling to those who adhere to notions of Political-Correctness and Multi-Culturalism, because it suggests that, by our very natures, we are predisposed against both these liberal nostrums. The second, merely by presupposing that there is a foreordained order to things and that we can all recognize when said order is put out of kilter, strikes at the secular humanist faith that the world around us is a product of mere material forces and coincidence and that by the function of our reason we can more or less reorder it as we will. Here, already, we can see that it is the identification of elements contrary to liberal/rationalist cant that makes even the most widely accepted theories of humor objectionable to precisely those who we would expect to study it dispassionately. If, as seems fair to say, it is the case that Political-Correctness holds particular sway in academia, the media, and other such fields, it is little wonder that the discovery that humor is most un-PC has led to its banishment to the margins of study. After all, we should not expect folks to subvert the very institutions and causes that they dominate.

Meanwhile, in the popular press in recent years, there has been a spate of stories pondering the question of why the left is bereft of a sense of humor and why the Right seems to have all the fun. Thus there was the grudging admission by John Powers in LA Weekly: “[I] feel kind of churlish in pointing out what most on the left are unwilling to say: The Nation is a profoundly dreary magazine.” And you had Jack Shafer in Slate asking: “Right-Wing Envy : Do you have it?,” while a maudlin Frank Rich felt compelled to explain to readers of the New York Times, “Why Liberals Are No Fun,” and Michael Wolff, in Vanity Fair, pulled no punches in a piece entitled: “No Jokes, Please, We're Liberal: … While the right enjoys a laugh, media liberals have become the new conservatives: a stodgy, humorless Ivy League elite.” Now, as good liberal soldiers each offered his reasons why this phenomena has become so noticeable and arguments why it need not be the case. After all, it would be intolerable for the Left itself to have to acknowledge that it is utterly humorless and that humor is the nearly exclusive province of the Right. However, on reading such pieces you will often find that the very same limitations that prevent philosophers from reckoning with comedy honestly tend to stunt the analyses of the punditocracy. No matter how stout the defense of the Left, the essayists can not reconcile the things that we all find funny with the rules that liberals have imposed on public discourse. Sure, you can attack the Right for being mean-spirited, but you must be brought up short when you realize that one of the most durable theories of comedy – Superiority Theory – proceeds from the understanding that there’s something inevitably mean in our laughing at others. Of what use dig at conservatism when it cedes the point you were trying to deny? So we will not find any better explanations of humor in the political realm than we do in the philosophical.

In the pages that follow though, as we approach the topic of humor as simple armchair philosophers and amateur intellectuals, we can perhaps examine the matter without those same ideological blinders in place and can follow where the theories take us, without worrying overmuch about whose ox we end up goring. As we do so we will move beyond the two previously stated theories of humor – Superiority and Incongruity – to consider others like the Relief Theory, Darwin’s and Freud’s opinions, and how religious thinkers have tried to reconcile humor with God’s plan. In an attempt to keep the discussion from being to dry and formal, we’ll draw upon myriad examples from popular culture and look at the consistent themes that characterize the films, books, broadcasts, etc. that we find funny. And we’ll see if we can’t draw together the various strands of thought that we explore into a single coherent braid, such that we can speak of humor in a rational fashion, even if we conclude, in the long run, that it’s a deuced
irrational thing

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 8, 2006 4:58 PM

I'd buy that book. Er, or at least try to weasle a review copy, or try to win one in a Bros Judds contest.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 9, 2006 2:08 AM


Do you have a post that takes people through a process by which you proove your thesis? (or at least puts them on the path.

Though I agree with you, the fact is that to convince others, you have to quickly provide them with the basis to see where you are coming from.

Great book idea, BTW. I would hope that it would lead to a "Best Comedy" Academy Award, of which of course Airplane would be the first "Honorary Winner."

Posted by: Bruno at December 9, 2006 9:54 AM

Couldn't resist:

There once was a man named Hobbes,
Who in politics, not comedy, wrote gobs,
His friends were all thinkers,
Some really big drinkers,
Like Ben Jonson who was the king of the snobs.

Aristotle’s writings are dear to me,
Though he rarely spoke of comedy,
Using his brain for a reason,
Regardless of the season,
He always ignored what was PC.

And this brings me to Orrin Judd,
Whose writings expend sweat, tears, and blood,
His comedy is conservative,
Its his own preservative,
Let’s hope his new book’s not a dud.

Posted by: Bartman at December 9, 2006 10:01 AM

Posted by: oj at December 9, 2006 10:12 AM

Whether or not all humor is Conservative, I've had a lot of fun watching Liberals work themselves into a red-faced rage over it.

Posted by: Bryan at December 9, 2006 11:38 AM

Keep smiling. It drives the b*st*rds crazy.

Posted by: erp at December 9, 2006 1:15 PM

Anyone interested in humor should track down a copy of Enjoyment of Laughter by Max Eastman. It's the best analysis I've read.

Posted by: PapayaSF at December 9, 2006 1:48 PM