Reviews & Writing

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whatcha Laughin’ at?

A brief, mostly pointless analysis of humour.

Jerry: Osgood, I'm gonna level with you. We can't get married at all.

Osgood: Why not?

Jerry: Well, in the first place, I'm not a natural blonde.

Osgood: Doesn't matter.

Jerry: I smoke! I smoke all the time!

Osgood: I don't care.

Jerry: Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I've been living with a saxophone player.

Osgood: I forgive you.

Jerry: I can never have children!

Osgood: We can adopt some.

Jerry: But you don't understand, Osgood!

[Pulls off wig]

Jerry: I'm a man!

Osgood: Well, nobody's perfect!
In the search for funny exchanges in the movies, the one at the end of “Some Like it Hot” is one of the first to come to mind. An ideal manifestation of humour, this back-and-forth between Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown was the punch line to the two-hour setup before it. Of course, taken out of context and translated to the page the joke will not nearly have the same effect, especially for those who didn’t find it funny to begin with (a small and cold-hearted demographic indeed). But this only further proves an important point about the paradoxical nature of humour: it’s both elusive and definitive.

Let me explain.

The Model 

To illustrate, imagine a bungling comedian telling an unfortunate joke in an overcrowded comedy club. Some people laugh but most sit unmoved. The former attest to the humour’s elusiveness; the latter prove its definitude.

Ever die of laughter?
The Explanation

The people who laugh must have discovered a hint of an amusing quality in the comedian’s words (unless they are kind souls providing pity laughs). Like beauty, humour is in the eye of the beholder, and also in the ears. Therefore, in its occupation of another sense, humour can be as sensual as beauty at the very least. No wonder girls like funny guys; or maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

The other part of the audience, the ones silently annoyed at the comedian’s reference to airline peanuts, are, unbeknownst to them, demonstrating the second component of humour duality. After all, the comedy club, one of many, is busy for a reason. Those who do not laugh at this joke will have many opportunities later on; furthermore, they still comprise an audience with a collective fascination for observational stand-up. This is a tried-and-true, age-old style of comedy with similar and recurring themes. The implication here is that there must be something universally right about certain forms and deliveries of humour regardless of how it is individually received.

Yes, apparently, there are levels of difficulty.
The Definition

Humour is an ingredient in art, a component of expression, an essence of life. It is also somewhat difficult to define, at least by the traditional, unspoken Rules of Definitions, which are as follow: a definition must not employ the defined word in any of its forms to avoid circularity; it may not consist solely of a synonym or a near-synonym of the defined word; it must neither be too broad nor too narrow; and it may not use words more complex than the word to be defined. Together with the duality of humour, this complicates the quest for a definition, but it’s worth a shot.

Let’s try dissecting humour not based on what it is but by what it results in. If successful, humour usually elicits laughter. Frequently, laughter is called the best medicine; would that make humour, then, a medicinal source? On the other hand, physically, laughter is the audible constriction of the larynx by the epiglottis. This sounds more like a disease, which contradicts laughter’s pathological benefits. Perhaps the humour pill has side effects.

Does this still qualify as a smiley?
In all seriousness, there are some fundamental issues with defining humour through laughter. What if not everyone reacts the same way to a joke, as is rather common, like in the comedy club illustration? Or what if the reaction - nervous laughter, for instance - is not to something inherently funny? Furthermore, not all forms of humour require laughter; some simply require acknowledgment, especially jokes of the wry or dry variety.

Defining humour on its own merits is even more problematic, as it only results in larger metaphysical questions surrounding what is funny, and who is that judge of that, and usually ensues in a heated arguments that culminate with the line “Who are you to say otherwise?” Therefore, I’m going to take the easy way out (leave the water dry, so to speak), and say that humour is, simply, whatever one makes of it.

Oh well. It was worth a shot.

Or perhaps you’d like Rowan “Mr. Bean” Atkinson’s idea of how to elicit laughter? In the documentary “Funny Business,” he claimed that one can be funny by behaving in an unusual way, by being in an unusual place, or by being the wrong size.

If we're being scientific, this tells all the jokes.
The Summary

In some instances, humour is misplaced; in others, it’s complementary. Sometimes it’s desired and sometimes it’s required. What would we be without some relief from the general seriousness of day-to-day life? A sense of humour and an opportunity to experience it is one of the few things some people have left. At its best, humour pleases us; at its worst it offends us. Some may criticize comedies or jokes about taboo or sombre subjects like war. Then what subjects should be acceptable and what should be off-limits? What are you laughing at? Answers will vary. After all, humour is in the eye and the ear and the mind of the beholder.

And nobody’s perfect. 

This scares me.


  1. Hi,
    A happy new year to you.
    Liked this analysis. I'd endorse the view that humour is in the eye, ear and!1 of the beholder. Nothing can be farther from truth. An instinct to appreciate humour -- seen from the eye of the humorist - is, I believe, a rare trait....just as it is said, 'genuine humour is a rare commodity.'
    Look forward to reading you more.

  2. Hello,

    Happy New Year! Thanks for your response. I agree that genuine humour is a rare commodity; it is also a commodious rarity. Though I'll never be one to say that my humour is genuine and yours isn't... unless there's a profit in it.


  3. Loved your article - look forward to reading more of your writing - will forward to my sister and daughter, currently at a writing workshop! Just tweeted about your post! ;) Cheers, Pam