July 21, 2008


We’re Not Laughing at You, or With You (LEE SIEGEL, 7/21/08, NY Times)

When The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, defended the incendiary illustration in a statement invoking the spirit of satire as something “meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to the absurd,” he was, it could be argued, mischaracterizing his subject. For satire has always taken as its target conventions, sentiments and injustices that are universally recognizable and complacently accepted, and not at all hidden phenomena that have to be roughly revealed.

From within the deranged Left the notion that Obama is being subjected to a campaign of racial and religious hatred may be gospel, but from without it's a gnostic one.

Now, at first blush, we might say to ourselves: "Big deal, it's just an in-joke and the rest of us -- non-New Yorker readers -- weren't supposed to get it." But there are a number of problems, as hinted at here, The good humor man: Who invented jokes, and why do we laugh at them? Jim Holt discusses the history of funny. (James Hannaham, Jul. 21, 2008, Salon)

Which theory of the evolution of humor do you find most convincing?

Well, there are these three theories of humor. The Superiority Theory -- that you laugh when you realize that you're better than someone else, so nasty jokes, racist jokes, jokes about gays and cuckolds and drunkards and henpecked husbands conform to that theory. Then there's Freud's Release Theory, which says that jokes are about ventilating forbidden impulses. The setup gets the forbidden material past the censor, and the punch line liberates your forbidden impulses for a moment. All of the psychic energy you used to repress them gets released and you laugh, expressed in chest-heaving, spasmodic laughter.

But then there's the one that makes the most sense to me, the Incongruity Theory, that jokes are about the pure intellectual pleasure we take in yanking together things that seem utterly dissimilar and perceiving similarities. In the 17th century, "wit" simply meant intelligence. As the meaning evolved, it came to mean the ability to see resemblances between apparently dissimilar things. Today it means the ability to see, to perceive or to take pleasure in absurdities or incongruities. That's the highest form of humor. As jokes get funnier, they rely more on incongruity and less on hostility and superiority or on sex and naughtiness. [...]

I have a special fondness for those jokes that are jokes only in terms of form, where the setup makes you expect something clever, and instead the punch line is shockingly mundane, or crude. For instance, Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?

I don't know.

Because it was dead. Why can't Marilyn Monroe eat M&M's?


Because she's dead.

That conforms to the classic joke paradigm, though. You think there's a semi-serious query in the setup, and it dissolves into nothing, and there's that sort of tension -- even after you told me the one about the monkey being dead, I still tried to solve the Marilyn Monroe one, and laughed partly to cover up my own obtuseness.

That's another terrible thing about jokes, they function as a test for social inclusion. If you're among friends and someone tells a joke and you're the one who doesn't get it, you're doubly excluded -- first of all, you miss out on the fun of it, then everyone looks at you.

Not only does the cover's dependence on exclusion violate all kinds of liberal taboos--as well as unintentionally revealing how distant American intellectuals are from the mainstream of the country--but, since most are excluded and because the humor is--putatively, at least--supposed to be satirical, it appears to rely on the sort of Superiority and Release that are anathema to liberalism. They tried to poke fun at racism by indulging in overblown racist tropes, but since this is the first racist art we've seen as regards Senator Obama they come of as the racists themselves.

And you wonder why we say the Left exists to amuse us?

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 21, 2008 3:23 PM
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