what is humor?

The potential  for  comedy is one of humankind’s underexplored capabilities. As far as I know, other animals cannot laugh or be humorous, which to me establishes the connection of humor with the ability to reason or at least think about situations beyond their experiential or practical import.

Humor is also interesting to me because it’s hard to say what exactly it is. The category of “being funny” is it’s own category, and there’s no other way to put it. You can’t explain what red is in terms of other objects or words (maybe you could try to get someone to imagine the opposite of green, but think how hard this would be if you had never seen green). The category of the humorous is sui generis.

So, given this question, I think humor is something like the ability to express our capability of seeing through our social conventions. As many philosophers have pointed  out, there are social categories and conventions that we navigate and manipulate without even thinking. We stop at stop signs and put on the clothe s in the morning, and we celebrate national, religious, and culturally specific events and holidays. We speak a particular language in  our various countries, and we speak an even more specific language of inside jokes and obscure references with our close friends and family. And these things all have real value and can impose real barriers to action but can also provide real opportunities for happiness and fulfillment.

Think of how social identities can be both constraining and liberating. The businessman in American culture is given privileges and prestige to a degree not shared by other cultures. The same goes for family relations in more traditional culture, and of course this is a double edged sword. Family relations can be exploitative or totalitarian if taken to the extreme, particularly when female sexuality is involved.

Comedy for me then is just a way in which we sneak around our cultural blindspots. Now of course, I’m coming at comedy from a very overly-intellectualized perspective, and so it makes sense that I would think this way, but stay with me. I think the best comedy is sarcastic and even mocking at times, but it does it in a smart way. I don’t mean  smart in terms of IQ, but smart in the possibilities that it opens up. Comedy I think is most effective when pointed at social dogmatism, whether it be dating, authority figures, personality types, or institutions. It’s no surprise that we joke about the pretentious wanna-be socialite or the meathead football player or the erudite professor who thinks people care about what he has to say. These are stereotypes, but they represent the silly excesses of our society and reveal to us our essentially arbitrary and limited characters. Some people are boring and some are sycophantic and others are just plain mean, but we can’t help but have limitations and so humor is our way of showcasing the inescapable inadequacy of our characters and institutions.

The great and inimitable quality of humor though is that it attacks without destroying and stings without wounding. It’s not that jokes don’t hurt, because of course  cruel jokes can be painful, but the point is that most of the time we’re free to rib our friends and tear up our institutions without casting doubt on everything we hold dear. After all, skepticism about human life can run deep, and taken too seriously, it can undermine faith in all sorts of values and commitments, but that’s the whole point of joking about something. You don’t take it too seriously even as you pay homage to the brute facts about social relationships.


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