Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What's in a Joke

What makes you laugh? It seems like a silly question, but if you think about it, the answer is rather strange. Is it not precisely imperfection that we find funny? Does not all humor imply some form of criticism? Whether it’s a blond joke, a political cartoon, or your half-crazy uncle, it’s what’s wrong with the situation that is funny. Think of your own funniest memories, are they not in fact your most painful and embarrassing moments? Perfection is not humorous; the gap between ideal and reality is the realm of comedy.

Yet why should this be; why should what’s wrong with the world give us pleasure? Is comedy just a coping mechanism? Do we merely laugh at what we cannot fix? No, because humor is also an agent for change. Ridicule is a powerful weapon for those otherwise weak, and many enemies who could not be defeated by direct attack have fallen to a well-placed insult. Humor does not just mask evil behind a laugh (though it can be abused that way); it can also unmask it, by forcing its contradictions into the open.

For if humor depends on recognizing the imperfection of a situation, does it not also depend on an audience who knows better? When we laugh at someone like Homer Simpson it’s because we think we are better than him in some way, or know we should be. In either case, it is not just the imperfections that makes us laugh, but also our awareness of what the situation should be, but isn’t. In order to “get” the joke, you need knowledge – ignorance is only funny to those who are not ignorant.

This suggests that the closer one gets to the ideal, the better a position they are in to find comedy in even the worst tragedy. If that is true, then is God himself the ultimate humorist, the one who can truly bring good out of evil? Perhaps part of the joy of eternity will be to finally hear the punch-line to this whole cosmic joke?

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