Humor Is No Laughing Matter

By John "Birdman" Bryant


Humor has a dark as well as a light side; for when it comes to humor, to have fun is often (if not principally) to make fun of. Unfortunately, however, those philosophers of humor who besplatter us with such anodyne phrases as "A laugh a day keeps the doctor away" and "Humor is the shortest distance between two people" seem unaware of humor's dark side, and appear to not recognize that the primary wellspring of humor is anger, hatred and other negative emotions. Of course, such philosophers are quite right to say that humor possesses a roborant effect; for besides the physical stimulation and the anti- phlegmatic effect upon the alveoli which laughter produces, humor is clearly a way of creating a silk purse of enjoyment out of a sow's ear of rage against the stupidity and irrationality of the world. But it is nevertheless absurd for such goody-to-laugh philosophers to peddle the notion that humor is nothing more than a friendly wink and smile, an upbeat outlook, and a harmless nostrum which can be used like chewing gum or Tums. Humor is like a powder keg -- used carefully and appropriately, it can be welcome indeed; but used any other way it can blow up in one's face. Perhaps that is why it is said that only about a third of the population has a sense of humor -- it is they who have successfully made fun of the other two-thirds, and those other two-thirds are not amused.

The above discussion raises another matter, however: Should the dark side of humor -- much like the Prince of Darkness -- be suppressed? To listen to the goody-to-laugh philosophers, it would be hard not to draw that conclusion: All their up-beatness would seem to entail that the down-beatness of negative humor should be verboten. Actually, however, such philosophers are not really against using negative humor -- it is just that they are careful to make sure that no significant part of their audience happens to be an object of their verbal lampoons. This is all very well, of course, when audiences maintain a certain uniform quality, since this makes it easy for joke-tellers to make the we-they distinction in their jokes so as to insure that few if any of the audience falls into the "they" category. But when it comes to really funny jokes -- which are inevitably on forbidden subjects (such as women, racial or ethnic groups) that often overlap the "we" category -- the joke-teller must enter this territory at considerable personal risk: The reactions are likely to be ones such as "reprehensible", "immoral", "sexist" and "racist", which were just a few of the terms that were used to describe the first Mortal Words. What people say by such remarks, however, is, It's OK to make fun of some things, but I or my friends can't take a joke. Needless to say, this is blatant inequality, which is particularly ironic when coming from those who make an avocation out of yelling "sexism" or "racism". But in reality the joke is on them, not only because they think humor should be divided along racial and ethnic lines, but also -- and most importantly -- because they have an inability to laugh at what is really funny, especially themselves. Should this be called banal retentiveness?

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