Humor has always mystified me. What, exactly, makes something humourous? What makes a person laugh? Not only that, why is humour so good and healthy to have? I’m sure there have been all sorts of thoughts on it. But, while discussing this issue with someone they other day, I said some interesting things.
First of all I said that humour is based in placing things ‘out of context’. That is to say, it’s saying black when you mean red. It shows a strong dissociation theme within it. This is part of its secret and its power. It removes the theme from its source. When it does this it often catches you ‘off guard’ as you’re thinking in one direction but it suddenly turns in another direction.
It seems to me that there are three main themes that can be removed ‘out of context’ by humour:
- The person who acts or appears humours. This refers to an individual you observe.
- The situation that is humourous. This refers to a situation you observe or hear about that is humourous.
- The story that is humourous. This is a story that is told to you.
As you can see, humour can entail anything from observations of life, to everyday events, to fictional stories. Humour can entail the whole breadth of life. This gives it quite a spectrum.
There are a number of techniques seen in humour which include:
- The ‘leading on’. I remember seeing a Laurel and Hardy movie once where Laurel had string tied around all his fingers. Many years ago, apparently, people used to tie strings on their fingers to remind themselves of something. Hardy asks him what one string is for. “To remind me of the string on this finger.” “What is that string for?” “To remind me of the string on this finger”, and so on til they get to the last finger. “What is that string for?” Laurel replies, “I don’t know. I can’t remember.” He does all this effort to remind himself but only forgets in the end. Here is a good example of the ‘leading on’ of humour. It leads us on to believe one thing then turns us immediately in another direction, usually at the end. In so doing our whole thoughts, expectations, and inclinations are as if ‘thrown off balance’. This creates a lot of the humour. In many ways, we are laughing out how we got fooled. Another example of this is seen in the 1980 show called “Airplane”. There it talks about Strikers ‘drinking problem’. Naturally, we think this is alcoholism. But, what we find out is that when he drinks he keeps missing his mouth. Another ‘leading on’.
- Being caught ‘off guard’. There is a wonderful show called “The Life of Brian” by Monty Python that has a lot of comedic elements in it. One of the most famous is in the beginning. We can see Jesus doing the sermon on the mount in the distance. There is quite a few people standing at quite a distance and can’t hear very well. One of the guys repeats what he believed Jesus had said: “blessed are the cheesemakers”. We all know that he means “blessed are the peacemakers” but we laugh at how he misinterpreted it. Again, we are caught ‘off guard’ as it is a statement that is said ‘out of context’ of what it really means.
- The ‘undercutting tendency’. The ‘Life of Brian’ also has a funny theme song. On hearing it the song sounds very dramatic and professional, like its going to be about something important. On listening to the words, though, something else is heard. A segment goes something like this: “There was a boy called Brian. He grew. He grew and grew, grew up to be, a man called Brian. He had arms and legs and feet . . . ” It’s stating such a simple and obvious thing. Here is a good example of the ‘undercutting tendency’ that is so common in humour. They make something out as big or of something of importance but, in the end, it’s a minor thing or nothing of importance. This is commonly used in humour. In the 1978 film ‘Revenge of the Pink Panther’ Inspector Clouseau tells his man-servant Cato to get the ‘silver hornet’ ready. Then we see a scene where the garage door opens and a batman-like superhero car comes out and drives down the road and then promptly falls apart. Here we are led to believe this is going to be some special superhero car but its ‘undercut’ by falling apart. Something supposedly great cut down to nothing! It’s funny.
- ‘Exaggeration’. Many comedians use this act. Here they exaggerate an emotion or behavior of a person or an act. This exaggeration puts the person or act ‘out of context’ of what it would normally be, making it funny. Inspector Clouseau is a good example of an exaggeration of a ‘fool’ and its this exaggeration that makes him so funny. Even in everyday life, behavior of people that is ‘out of context’ to the situation often makes it appear ‘comical’ or funny.
Because humour puts things ‘out of context’ it takes us ‘out of ourselves’. That is, it removes us from our self and reality. I’ve always felt the this is the power of humour. This is also its main beneficial effect as when we are too much of ourselves we are burdened by our own reality. In many ways, we enslave ourselves in our reality, much like a prison. The burden of life, work, responsibilities, various worries, and our ‘reality’ takes quite a toll on us. This is normal to the human condition though. If a person lives there is no escaping the burden of our reality. Humour, by taking us ‘out of ourselves’, can take us out of that prison (at least for a few moments) because it removes us from our ‘reality’ and everything that goes with it.
Taking us ‘out of ourselves’ tends to create a ‘release of tension’. This tension is the tension we created for ourselves by the reality we’ve created and imposed upon ourselves. It’s something like an escape from ourselves, in a way.
But, because of the close association between tension (which is a type of ‘pain’, really) and humour there seems a close relationship between laughter and crying. Many times have I seen people cry over something painful and then begin to laugh and vice versa. Because of this ‘release of tension’ quality it has a soothing and calming quality oftentimes. Humour, at the right time, can have dramatic effects. It can be better than any drug. In that sense, it can almost be said to be ‘medicinal’.
It’s for this reason that I have always felt that it is good to see humour in everyday life and to have a humourous attitude. Though this may be easy for some people, for some of us we need to teach ourselves it. A good start is to try to be open to humour when it comes . . . and when it comes, to go with it.
Another thing, I think, that is needed with a humourous attitude is a cheerful attitude. In many respects, humour is reflective of a cheerful perspective on life. Laughing or chuckling at humour reveals a joy in life. In some sense, it’s a celebration of life. Because of this, a humourous attitude requires these qualities to be effective.
A person needs to have a humourous attitude to see humour, I’ve found. If one does not have this, then the greatest joke or comedy will do nothing. This means that a person must predispose themselves to humour to find humour. You can’t expect it to ‘just happen’.
We must remember that there is a time and a place for humour. A person cannot laugh at everything. Humour must be balanced with a mature, serious, and healthy attitude about life. In fact, without these qualities humour has little effects. The power of humour is when it stands next to the soberness of life.
Because humour involves taking things ‘out of their context’ and being ‘out of our selves’ humour can develop other traits. This is because we are taken out of our normal ‘concious self’. When it takes us ‘out of our selves’ it as if weakens the ‘concious self’ and which can allow our ‘unconcious self’ to come through more easily. Since the ‘unconcious self’ is hidden it can hide interior motives we are not aware of. These hidden motives are often brought out and integrated with humour giving humour a ‘double’ meaning. That is to say, humour is often a medium for other motives.
Some of these other motives can be very insightful. Oftentimes, great truth can appear in a humourous remark, or even a comedy, that you would not find anywhere else. Sometimes humour can bring the true stance a person should have in life or what a person should do in a situation. Years ago many Kings of Europe had court jesters. It was not uncommon that they would show some of the greatest insight toward a political situation . . . and this portrayed through a joke or comedy. Some jesters were prized for this quality. This is not surprising.
But, still, other motives can be sinister and sarcastic as well. I’ve seen humour used to degrade people or issues many times. This type of humour is not good to practice. It has a quality, I think, that it will start eating a way at a person. Soon, the humour will just be a display of contempt. It’s not uncommon that it will become a form of ‘spitting on the world’, which is not a healthy attitude to have.
The purpose of humour, in my opinion, is that it reflects a joy in life, not ‘spitting on the world’ or a laughing at the world. The power of humour is that it reinforces and celebrates life.