Thursday, August 20, 2015

Is it funny because it’s true?


In a recent article in National Review, Ian Tuttle tells us that “standup comedy is colliding with progressivism.”  He notes that comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Gilbert Gottfried have complained of a new political correctness they perceive in college audiences and in comedy clubs, and he cites feminists and others who routinely protest against allegedly “sexist,” “racist,” and/or “homophobic” jokes told by prominent comedians like Louis C. K.  In Tuttle’s view, the “pious aspirations” of left-wing “moral busybodies” have led them to “[object] to humor that does not bolster their ideology” and “to conflate what is funny with what is acceptable to laugh at.”
 
No doubt he’s right about that.  But what does Tuttle think is the correct attitude to take to humor?  Comedy, he says, is about “speaking truth to power,” and “the comedian[‘s]… jokes are never without a bit of truth.”  Indeed, he writes:

 “Only the truth is funny,” comedian Rick Reynolds observed in the 1990s.  The comedian, in his role as fool, can never stray beyond what is true, or he will have trouble making it funny.

In his May 2014 GQ feature about Louis C.K., Andrew Corsello identified a willingness to tell the truth about what people do and think as part of C.K.’s brilliance: “He’s always striking through the mask, Louis C.K.  It’s not just a matter of braying aloud what the rest of us only dare to think; he says things we aren’t even aware we’re thinking until we hear them from C.K.  That’s his genius.”

End quote.  Tuttle is, of course, hardly the first to assert that comedy is essentially about telling uncomfortable truths.  That Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, et al. were all in the business of “speaking truth to power” has become a cliché.  But (with no disrespect to Tuttle intended) it’s also a pious falsehood.  Indeed, it is exactly the same pious falsehood Tuttle rightly condemns when he sees it in progressives. 

After all, the humorless progressives Tuttle criticizes don’t think the jokes they condemn really do contain any uncomfortable truths.  Rather, they think these jokes promote what the critics sincerely take to be falsehoods.  They think that the jokes in question do not “speak truth to power,” but rather aid and abet the powerful by facilitating lies about those who are less powerful.  This is all overheated and humorless, of course, but that is what they think.  In other words, they are applying Tuttle’s own criterion for evaluating humor.   And if Tuttle were to respond: “OK, but these left-wingers are just wrong about where the truth lies,” then he would be guilty of taking exactly the same ideological approach humor that the left-wingers do.  For of course, they would say that he is the one who is wrong about where the truth lies.

The problem is not that the progressives in question look at humor through the wrong political lens.  The problem is that looking at humor through any political lens, including the right one, is simply to misunderstand the nature of humor.  The fact is that there does not seem to be any essential connection at all between something’s being funny and it’s conveying some truth, uncomfortable or otherwise.  The uncomfortable truth is rather that lots of things really are funny even though they rest on falsehoods, and lots of things are unfunny even though they are uncomfortable truths.

It’s hardly difficult to come up with examples.  To learn you have terminal cancer is to learn an uncomfortable truth.  But it isn’t funny, even if you are one of the “powerful” to whom this truth is being “spoken.”  Probably even your enemies won’t find it at all funny, but will feel sorry for you.  And even if they are very hard-hearted and don’t feel sorry for you, it probably won’t be because they think it’s funny, but rather because they think you somehow deserve it.

Perhaps someone who thinks that there is an important link between truth and humor would respond that there are at least imaginable contexts in which this sort of truth would be funny.  And that is correct -- there is such a thing as dark comedy, after all, and I’ll say more about it in a moment.  But in these cases it is precisely the additional context that generates the comedy, and not the uncomfortable truth itself.

Nor is it difficult to think of examples of things that are funny even though they don’t convey truths of any sort.  What truth is conveyed by a slap fight between the Three Stooges?  Or lines like “Don’t call me Shirley” or “Roger, Roger.  What's our vector, Victor?” in the movie Airplane?  Even jokes motivated by views one takes to be false or offensive can be funny.  For example, even the most ardent admirer of John Foster Dulles would have to admit that “Dull, duller, Dulles” is a pretty funny insult.  In his book Comic Relief, John Morreall suggests, quite rightly in my view, that the reason “Polish jokes” were popular in the U.S. in the 1970s was not because people really thought Poles were unintelligent.  George Carlin was usually pretty funny even though his views about politics and religion were usually pretty sophomoric.  (In my view, anyway; of course, some readers will disagree.  But even those who disagree have no doubt heard some comedian or other tell a joke that prompted them to think: “I don’t agree with the view underlying it, but I have to admit it’s still funny.”)

Philosophers have over the centuries debated various theories about what makes something funny, and the “It’s funny because it’s true” theory is not among them.  Probably the most widely accepted theory -- and, I think, the most plausible one -- is the incongruity theory, according to which we find something funny when it involves some kind of anomalous juxtaposition or combination of incompatible elements.  Think of Kramer’s ridiculous antics on Seinfeld -- ineptly attempting to masquerade as a doctor, shaving with butter, preparing a meal in the shower, trying to pay for a calzone with a big sack of pennies, etc. -- or Larry David’s over-the-top reactions to minor inconveniences and offenses on Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Or consider the way that the punch line of a joke typically involves some sort of reversal of what one would have expected given the setup. 

To be sure, the incongruity thesis needs to be qualified in various ways.  There is, for example, nothing funny about a rattlesnake you find slithering up next to you after you slip into your sleeping bag while out camping, even though there is an obvious incongruity between settling down to sleep and finding a rattlesnake next to you.  However, if you “detach” yourself from such a scenario -- imagine seeing this happen onscreen in a movie, or even happening to someone else -- it certainly can seem funny.  Similarly, no one who seriously embarrasses himself in public -- by giving a horrible speech or telling a joke that falls flat, by having some personal foible revealed in front of a crowd, by losing control of his bowels, or whatever -- finds it funny at the time.  But such scenarios are nevertheless very common in comedy movies, and even someone to whom such a misfortune occurs often laughs about it later, as do those to whom he relates the story.   It is incongruity detached from any immediate danger that is funny.  (Noël Carroll suggests some other ways the incongruity theory might be refined and qualified in Humour: A Very Short Introduction.) 

It seems to me that people often overestimate the significance of certain kinds of jokes because they fail to see that it is incongruity that is key to their effectiveness.  They wrongly identify some other prominent element as key, and then overreact in either a negative or positive way.  For example, some people find “dark comedy” or “black humor” offensive, because they think it reflects insensitivity to human suffering or that it is motivated by a desire to shock decent sensibilities.  But that is not the case.  Of course, someone who tells such a joke could be insensitive or motivated by ill-will, but the point is that he need not be.  Rather, dark humor is funny precisely because of how extreme the incongruity involved typically is.  (Consider, if you have the taste for this kind of humor, this example, or this one, or the work of cartoonist John Callahan.) 

Similarly, the reason people find ethnic jokes or “dumb blonde” jokes funny need not be because they harbor “racist” or “sexist” attitudes.  Nor need religious jokes be motivated by sacrilegious or blasphemous intent.  For example, the famous Last Supper scene in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I is effective because of the extremeness of the incongruity it portrays -- the preposterous juxtaposition of Christ solemnly teaching while some annoying waiter is trying to push soup and mulled wine on the disciples.  (Note that I am not addressing here the question of what sorts of jokes are appropriate from a moral point of view -- that’s another matter.  I’m talking about why people in fact find certain things funny.)

At the other extreme, people can react in too positive a way to comedy when they fail to see that it is incongruity rather than some other prominent element that “does the work” in humor.  And that is, I think, exactly what is happening when people suggest (quite absurdly, in my view) that standup comedy has some profound mission of “speaking truth to power” etc.  The sober, mundane truth is rather merely that comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, or Louis C. K. say things that you are “not supposed” to say -- things that violate the rules of etiquette or decorum, or conflict with the conventional wisdom, or are odd or unusual.  In other words, there is an incongruity between what they say and what people usually feel comfortable saying.  Sometimes what they say captures some “uncomfortable truth,” but sometimes it’s just crackpot bloviating or rudeness.  And when it is true, it isn’t the truth per se that makes it funny, but rather the incongruity. 

Hence, just as critics of some forms of humor overreact because they misidentify the source and motivation of the joke (“That’s insensitive!”  “That’s racist!”  “That’s blasphemous!”), so too do the boosters of certain comedians ridiculously overstate the significance of what they do.  “He’s a genius, a diagnostician of our social ills, an exposer of hypocrisy, he’s speaking truuuuth to powwwwer!”

Nah, he’s just some guy telling jokes.  That’s all.

97 comments:

Thursday said...

"It's funny because it's true" does not mean that a statement is funny just by virtue of being true.

But that's too easy.

Airplane and such are merely mildly amusing, so they make poor examples.

People, in fact, very rarely think “I don’t agree with the view underlying it, but I have to admit it’s still funny.” A comedian with many views I don't like may make what I think is a funny joke, but it's usually in some area where we happen to agree.

So, what is the truth here: the funniest things tend to convey extremely incongruous truths. Mere truth isn't enough, and mere incongruity isn't enough.

I suppose if you had to pick one over the other, incongruity would be preferred, as with out it you can't have anything even mildly funny.

Edward Isaacs said...

It seems that any fool can comment here, so I will as well.

Incongruity may be essential to humor, but perhaps not. I tend to think of humor as an extremely condensed form of storytelling. It has a tension and then a resolution, but they happen much more quickly than in (say) a novel. I think that this element of time may be inescapable and also essential to humor.

I wonder what the difference is between the incongruity in a novel and that in a joke. Novels written for entertainment often keep the reader guessing right up until the end, but they make sense in hindsight. It seems that the same is the case for a standard groan-worthy pun. Further, some incongruity is dramatic rather than humorous. Perhaps one could say that the "danger" is simulated in those cases because of the sympathy the viewer has for the characters.

I think you are right, that truth has very little relationship to humor per se. Jokes that "ring true", though they may be more emotionally moving and impactful, are not funnier for their truth, but since those jokes evoke more than one emotion at a time, the higher level of total stimulation they provide can be easily mistaken for greater humor.

Kirill Nielson said...

Kramer was a creepy weirdo. I forced myself to watch Seinfeld on multiple occasions, and never once did he make me crack a smile. Random =/= funny.

Bharat said...

Thursday said:
People, in fact, very rarely think “I don’t agree with the view underlying it, but I have to admit it’s still funny.”

While my personal experience is not representative of everyone's (it's not as if you posted a survey yourself, of course), I actually very often make this statement. There are many jokes Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have made that I have disagreed with but laughed at.

So, what is the truth here: the funniest things tend to convey extremely incongruous truths. Mere truth isn't enough, and mere incongruity isn't enough.

I think all that believed truth does is create an ease of acceptance of the joke to the believer. People who are very emotional or passionate about an issue will have trouble accepting a joke that tells what they consider a lie, while those who are not "up-tight" about the topic will be able to laugh at it anyway. But even the former group will likely be able to recognize the humor if they are able to get past their emotions.

Greg said...

@ Kirill

Random =/= funny.

Quite right. What The Onion frequently does is take a mundane topic and switch the roles of the things in it, generating incongruity. For example, this one. In other cases, the incongruity is generated by redescription. (There's probably an added incongruity here, in that The Onion is a satirical news site and such articles attempt to make you laugh at something you're not supposed to laugh at.)

I think I do sometimes find jokes premised upon something I disagree with funny. But it's hard to bring out a general rule. Take the latter form of generating incongruity by way of redescription. I think you can find a lot of that in political satire (redescribing something the other party did as something much less favorable), and in such cases, I generally don't want to laugh when I disagree with the aim of the joke. To take an example where I do want to laugh, see this Eye of the Tiber article. It uses a coextensive description to make a joke about a claim, but I imagine that many who support abortion would feel more annoyed by it.

Crude said...

Comedy, he says, is about “speaking truth to power,” and “the comedian[‘s]… jokes are never without a bit of truth.”

Yeah, I'm with Ed. This is too grandiose - get people to laugh. If you manage, you're doing your job. Truth, except in the most broad sense of basic familiarity, isn't required. In fact, warping the truth can help make something funnier.

David Bolin said...

People find different things funny. But I know some people who say things like, "That potato doesn't like you." If they said that when I was having a hard time with the potato, then maybe I would find it funny. But they say it in a context where it has no relationship with the facts whatsoever, and I find it very irritating instead.

So in my experience being related to something true is in fact relevant to something's being funny. Other people may feel differently.

Ian said...

Great post. I've always thought that the idea that "comedy is essentially about telling uncomfortable truths" is buncombe.

I'm interested in something Prof. Feser said in passing:

Note that I am not addressing here the question of what sorts of jokes are appropriate from a moral point of view -- that’s another matter.

How do we evaluate whether a joke is appropriate from a moral point of view? I often am uncomfortable with 'blasphemous' jokes (or at least feel I ought to be). Am I just being uptight? Something can still be objectively blasphemous even if that's not the jokester's motivation or intent, correct?

Craig Payne said...

Dear Ian: Here is one criterion, certainly not the only one. Whether or not a joke is "true," it can be immoral by being false or by presenting a false view of something highly important. This is where, I think, blasphemous jokes could fall. If they cause the hearer to think about reality in an incorrect or misleading way--even the ultimate realities--then they would be immoral for the same reasons a lie would be immoral.

In his collection "Single Issues," Joseph Sobran had an interesting essay revolving around the contemporary "old fuddy-duddy" supposition: that is, the supposition that OF COURSE you would think this is funny if you weren't such an "old fuddy-duddy." Sobran points out that these "jokes" aren't really designed to be objectively funny, but rather to change people's attitudes toward what is acceptable and what is not.

I think that objective in and of itself could make a "joke" immoral. It is a form of manipulation and deception.

Thursday said...

There are many jokes Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have made that I have disagreed with but laughed at.

In those kinds of cases, I tend to recognize that the joke conforms formally to what a good joke should be, but they tend to get chuckle out of me at best, as the joke just doesn't really connect. It's like watching a really great home run hitter strike out: there's a certain recognition of their power and technique, but it's still swinging at air.

EJTV said...

Tig Notaro reveals on this short clip of her longer stand-up act a few years back that she was just diagnosed with breast cancer...

http://youtu.be/9Kz-lV4t-3w

She says "tragedy plus times equals comedy but that I'm in the tragedy part of the equation right now" ...and "don't worry, everything's going to be OK....well, maybe not, I'm just saying that"....both funny and tragic at the same time.

Tyrrell McAllister said...

Humor might not be about "speaking truth to power". And yet, humor is particularly well suited to attacking people, to pulling them down. Getting a group of people all to laugh together at someone is a great way to weaken that person's social standing. Humor might not be essentially a social weapon, but somehow it is a peculiarly effective social weapon nonetheless. Humor can hurt in a way that merely pointing out an incongruity doesn't.

A good account of humor should explain this feature.

Crude said...

Humor might not be about "speaking truth to power". And yet, humor is particularly well suited to attacking people, to pulling them down. Getting a group of people all to laugh together at someone is a great way to weaken that person's social standing.

I think what you're talking about rarely involves actual laughter. Pulling off mockery that can actually draw laughs, rather than some pleasant but sinister emotion, is a real trick.

Thursday said...

Pulling off mockery that can actually draw laughs, rather than some pleasant but sinister emotion, is a real trick.

Ever watch a Bill Burr show. Or read some Jonathan Swift.

Crude said...

Ever watch a Bill Burr show. Or read some Jonathan Swift.

Nope, but I have plenty of opportunities to watch people play the mockery game. And comedians would probably admit that their profession in general is rough. I remember Norm Macdonald saying something along the lines of - if you're watching a play and the acting is bad, it's actually kind of funny. Watch a singer who's bad, and you feel sorry for them. But for whatever reason, if someone is bad at comedy, the reaction is a lot more negative.

That's coming from a guy who wrangled 3/4ths of a star on Star Search, so he apparently knows a thing or two about bombing at comedy.

Shane Scott said...

I think that the connection between the incongruity theory and the truth-telling function of comedy is that life itself is full of incongruities, and comedy helps us to deal with that. Victor Borge once said that humor is the space between man's aspirations and limitations. Drama helps us to aspire beyond our limitations, but comedy helps us to accept the truth about our limitations. This of course can take many directions. It might encourage us to realize that if even the imbecilic Inspector Clouseau can bumble his way through life, maybe we can deal with out own limitations. Or, in the case of the Three Stooges poking fun at Hitler in You Natzy Spy, it might expose the limitations of alleged supermen and hold them up to scorn. Or when they start a pie fight in Hoi Polloi (a fine philosophical title if there ever was one!), only to have the wealthy, upper class, intellectuals who demeaned them the entire episode join in and prove they are fundamentally no different than the mere commoners. But there is a truth being told in each case.

One of my hobbies is singing in a barbershop quartet that does (or at least attempts) a lot of comedy stuff, and one of our songs is about Old MacDonalds Farm - except all of the animals have deformities (lisping snake, lactose intolerant cow, hyperactive sloth, etc). One of the first times we sang it, a large group of special needs kids came in the hall and sat in the front row. We were a little nervous as to how they would respond, but they laughed louder than anyone. They enjoyed the cartoonish nature of what we did with the animals. But their teacher enjoyed even more the message we conveyed in the song. After all, on a real farm, animals with deformities would not last long. But in our very incongruous farm, everyone is celebrated and has a place to feel loved and accepted for who they are, in spite of their limitations.

So I do think there is a serious aspect of truth-telling to comedy. But I don't think it is what most of the pretentious progressives have in mind. Good comedy, like good drama, should evoke the true, the good, and the beautiful. Comedy speaks truth about the many absurdities or incongruities in life in a way that - when done virtuously - helps us to deal with those realities.

Anonymous said...

All humor revolves around causality.

When the cause of something which is only commonly known as a consequence or fact of social experience is unveiled through its ground and that ground is absurd then this is generally humorous. For example, there is sometimes a type of comedic display wherein an interior monologue is unveiled alongside the normal exterior effect. A general formula for comedy might be something like this: (1) Incongruity between cause and effect (2) wherein the effect is commonly known (3) but the cause is neither known nor even inquired about (4) and the comedic routine operates upon this 'unveiled' cause. The cause can be either close to truth, extremely exaggerated or even completely absurd so long as there is incongruity between cause and effect and so long as the effect can be easily grasped by the audience as a familiar fact.

Causes can be even reduced to total non-sequiturs in a given routine such that the particular facts which proceed from such causes will appear very well-ordered in themselves, but highly contrary to such an impression given the causes eventually portrayed in the routine. Thus the normal order of facts is disrupted not by the introduction of other facts but through absurd grounds. For example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCQCBmcPl2U

The true comedian is essentially operating in a shamanic capacity and must be in touch with the invisible world. The false comedian can only pile appearances upon appearances and has no deep sense of irony unlike, for example, that great master Socrates who was truly What the Greeks called an 'ironical man'. However, Socrates function was not specifically that of the humor-man, but it could very well have been.

Anonymous said...

This gag is also a very straightforward illustration of the general principles I'm trying to indicate:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icq2KvONMPA

Anonymous said...

There is, if you can see it, a certain sense in which having a crisis at work could look quite like that on the side of the effects received by 'Mr. Whitmore', but it is especially funny when we see that it is Mr. Marx summoning certain spirits in his peculiar way. And then there is the obvious incongruity of the whole operation soon brought to a climax on the side of the victim who dwells in the land of appearances.

George LeSauvage said...

Please forgive if I ramble; it's early.

Obviously incongruity works better than "truth to power" as an explanation. (I had just recently considered commenting here that "No one expects the Sale of Indulgences" doesn't work, but dropped it.) Who in the world thinks pet shop owners are particularly powerful?

But there are several kinds of incongruity. One the juxtaposition of, say, Ralph Kramden's confidence vast schemes of success, and the failure which always follows. Then there's the humor of misdirected conversation, as in the prison cell scene of My Cousin Vinnie, or anything involving Gracie Allen.

The line (in Bullwinkle's Barbara Freitchie) "Is Stonewall Boris, hi, you all." is funny in its context; the more so if you know Boris. (Even when I was a kid, I thought Badenov a funny name, it was only years later I found out the real joke embedded in it. Is that a kind of incongruity? Unclear.) Another: "Quickly then I grabbed a poker. 'OK now you feathered joker/I'll teach you to interrupt a verse by Edgar Allan Poe'"

(Lots more great stuff here. I particularly like Tommy Tucker)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abZZ38xJnyM

Another is sheer incongruity of scale, extravagance. For instance, this:

Mr. Praline: 'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

After a bit, the thing carries on independent of the set up. The same is true of the commercial Ralph and Ed make - at first the sudden terror of Kramden is the joke, after a bit the jokes seem to pile up with an energy of their own. The finale of Animal House is like that. And tons of Buster Keaton.

But here's a question. The incongruity in the lumberjack song is obvious enough, no doubt about that. But what has always been, to me, the best thing is the way the Mounties rallies in the penultimate chorus. How does that fit? (And how long before this is banned from the net?)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZa26_esLBE

On disagreement, I have to agree with Ed. When I was young, the left was just as left as it is now, but a lot funnier. There was Firesign Theater ("The accursed will be informed of the absence of his rights under the Uniform Code of Military Toughness"), and lots of underground comics. Most of the latter were bad, but some were a hoot. And of course, there was Lampoon, in which everything was leftist, except O'Rourke. We righties still thought them funny.

Jeffrey S. said...

"It's funny because it's true"
https://m.youtube.com/?reload=2&rdm=1o7pg815k#/watch?v=hYBMbGPAqsU

The Masked Chicken said...

"It seems that any fool can comment here, so I will as well."

I wrote a long comment, yesterday, that I split up into four sections and not one of them appeared in the comments. I don't know why. Having spent over twenty-five years doing research in humor, having published in peer-reviewed journals, written encyclopedia articles, been an article reviewer, presented over twenty conference papers, assisted in university courses in the psychology of humor, and been a consultant in media articles, I hoped I had some relevant things to say. I have spent years thinking and presenting about both truth valuation in humor and incongruity. I've spent the last 15 years trying to rigorously define incongruity, mathematically, so that we could specify exactly how incongruity functions in humor.

Have I done something wrong?

The Chicken

John West said...

No, Mr. Chicken. Sometimes the spam filter acts up. I'm sure Ed will dig them out for you as soon as he sees this.

Glenn said...

Have I done something wrong?

I was hoping you'd show up [1], and you have, just not as quickly as I had thought you might. When your earlier comments show up, and they will [2], you too can say, "I was hoping they'd show up, and they have, just not as quickly as I had thought they might."

- - - - -

[1] Given the topic.

[2] Comments sometimes languish in blogger limbo for reasons unknown. Then suddenly, boom, there they are... hours later, maybe even days later. No one knows why. (Well, okay, sometimes it just takes hours or days for the moderator to release the comments from limbo. But why they got lost in limbo in the first place... that's the mystery.)

Edward Feser said...

Sometimes it takes me a while -- even a couple of days if I'm even busier than I usually am -- to check the moderation box and spam filter.

Anyway, Chicken, though I just did so, I'm afraid I don't see your comment in either place. I have no idea why it didn't appear, but certainly it had nothing to do with me. If you've still got it, feel free to re-post it.

Step2 said...

Have I done something wrong?

Because you are an expert and not a fool, Blogger's irony filter has decreed "No comments for you!"

lynch-patrick said...

Hey Masked Chicken,


So a few months ago I stopped reading blogs on the internet, because I couldn't take it anymore - busy dad, mental fatigue, etc. However, my phone remembers my reading habits, and suggested this blog, and this article to me today. While I always ignore these suggestions, I noticed the topic was humor, and thought to myself, "That Masked Chicken guy always posts something incredibly interesting on humor, music... What if he writes a reply? Can I really stand the thought of not reading what he thinks on the subject?"

So, simply on the chance that you might see this site and post something, I decided to read the article and the comments.

I'm not typically an internet 'fan' of anything, but a 5 part post from you about humor sounds like a great reason to cancel other plans.

Thanks for writing!

Mr. Green said...

Sometimes it is funny because it’s true — but not because of any deep political reason. If you tell your friend Joe Dulles the plumber, “Hey, your name sounds like the word ‘dullest’, get it?”… that’s not funny. The gag works only when applied to someone who is (at least potentially) dull, such as a long-winded writer. The fictional man who walks into a bar may be funny, but despite not being true — unless, of course, the reason he walked into the bar was because he was busy looking at his fancy computer-phone instead of watching where he was going. Again, in that case, the humour depends on the fact that people really do walk around obliviously fiddling with their telephones; if you had to make up some contrived reason why someone would be looking at a little box in his hands for no good reason, it would undermine the joke. Of course, some political humour does work in this vein, because sometimes the joke is that a person thinks something absurd that would seem contrived if it weren’t an actual known political position. But dropping an anvil on someone’s head can still be more humorously profound.

Wash212 said...

I think a good title for a dissertation on the philosophy of humor would be, "Why it Will Still Be Funny Even Though I'm About to Explain it to You."

Scott said...

Hey, did you hear what happened to the guy who was busy looking at his fancy computer-phone instead of watching where he was going?

He walked into a bar!

[chirp chirp chirp]

Hmm, I guess even in that case the humor depends on how you tell it.

Glenn said...

Hmm, I guess even in that case the humor depends on how you tell it.

That's true. For example, a better way to tell the joke might be like this:

Hey, did you hear what happened to the guy who was busy looking at his fancy computer-phone instead of watching where he was going?

He walked into -- get this -- a bar!

If that works, and you want to cement your rapport with the audience, you can retell the joke as follows:

Hey, did you hear what happened to the guy who was busy looking at his fancy computer-phone instead of watching where he was going?

He walked into -- get this -- a rebar!

DC Daddy's Wine Time said...

Truth to power, inconvenient truths, incongruity principles, etc. However something is funny, Feser makes a good point about society delving for too much meaning in comedy. And, viewing comedy through any lens, save for the one we use to suspend reality when we read a Lord of the Rings or watch Avengers, for example, is misguided. Even when comedy does highlight something real or tragic or offensive, we are wrong to ascribe some sort of Truth to it.

In this sense, we shouldn't pigeon hole comedians, even brilliant social commentators (like Carlin, sorry Dr. Feser), solely as Truth (or truth) dispensers that serve this vital role of calling all of society's bs. Truth be told, for our entertainment, they're on stage orating something that's not always rooted firmly in reality. They're writers without the book, and, like writers, they create a suspended reality within which you can exist for a short time.

That being said, one of the first things you learn in literary criticism is to not assume that the narrator and author are the same person. The author is transformed, via the medium of literature, into whatever the story requires the author to become. The same can be said of poets and musicians. Both types of artists (may) take on a "role" to create their art. Why should we always assume that the comedian is directly related to the narrator he/she becomes on stage? Maybe it would be more useful to view a comedian's onstage routine through a more literary lens before we try to see them any other way.

Crude said...

In this sense, we shouldn't pigeon hole comedians, even brilliant social commentators (like Carlin, sorry Dr. Feser)

Now, calling Carlin a brilliant social commentator is comedy of a sort, I've gotta say. And I say this as a long-time Carlin fan. The man was a comedian, 95% of the time. 5%, he stopped the comedy and tried to engage in social commentary - and when he did, he was mediocre and shallow. Pretty much by necessity, because it was all he could ever get away with and still have a desirable act.

And I don't think it's just society delving for too much meaning in comedy, but comedians delving for too much meaning in comedy. A while ago someone figured out that you could advance your sociopolitical aims by skewing comedy, music or art in general in favor or against one view or another. Back to the 95-5% split. The problem now being that the people for whom sociopolitical considerations are their religion aren't satisfied with the 5% scraps - they want more, and even the remainder had better be properly fumigated of anything even potentially blasphemous. If the result is an unfunny product, that's actually not a problem - they're not there for the laughs anyway.

DC Daddy said...

@Crude

"Now, calling Carlin a brilliant social commentator is comedy of a sort, I've gotta say."

I suppose you're right, here, and I've unintentionally dug myself into a bit of a hyper "bole". Ha ha. Oh, boy... However, being fair to Carlin's material, I don't think you can categorically deny that he made some very good points that were both brilliant comedy and spot on social commentary.

"And I don't think it's just society delving for too much meaning in comedy, but comedians delving for too much meaning in comedy."

I think you're partially right, here, that there are comedians who reach too far with their comedy and attempt to ascribe greater purpose where there probably isn't so much. A lot of people, conservative and liberal, intellectual and lay, who didn't like Stewart or Colbert, for example, accused them of this. This was certainly Fox News's complaint. However, as you stated, comedians, especially those two, aren't always doing comedy, they were often times trying to make a point. Now, depending on your socio/political leaning, you may have found their assessments both astute and cutting or completely off the mark.

I digress.

To get back to your original point, there are certainly a lot of comedians out there who have to remind their audiences that they are doing comedy, not reality. This seems to be the problem, recently highlighted by several conservative media outlets, in liberal media and on college campuses. With the hypersensitivity to "trigger words" and "micro-aggressions" in today's society, you can't even be funny anymore. So, as Feser pointed out, some people have been defending comedy for the wrong reasons. Certain societal factions are either drawing too much negative meaning from comedy by being offended by it, or putting too much purpose in it by claiming its necessary role as the proverbial mirror to society. Ironically, many comedians would say, "Wtf, man, we're just telling jokes up here. You guys are looking into this way too much."

This is why I said comedy would be better served as being viewed through a literary lens, first. I mean, you might not have to look through this lens long before you discern that this comedian is doing more or less than comedy. Yet, I need to clarify that you can't even put comedians in one category or another. As with anything, it's a spectrum and sometimes they move around. Some comedians do sociopolitical stuff, some just want you to remember that they're just comedians.

Anonymous said...

(off topic)

A blogger takes Dr. Feser and Thomism to task!

http://theskepticzone.blogspot.com/2015/08/the-big-problem-with-thomism-edward.html

Crude said...

A blogger takes Dr. Feser and Thomism to task!

Skep's an imbecile and a nobody besides, so it's less 'Takes them to task!' than 'Makes it clear that he has no idea about Thomism, yet is still desperate for attention'.

By the way, ha ha "anon", cute move. How's it feel to lift a page from Cowboy Hat? ;)

Crude said...

DC Daddy,

However, being fair to Carlin's material, I don't think you can categorically deny that he made some very good points that were both brilliant comedy and spot on social commentary.

As a guy who may well have listened to absolutely every standup bit Carlin did short of a decade ago - seriously, back from when he still talked somewhat fondly of Catholicism - I can give the brilliant comedy remark credit, but 'spot on social commentary'? Even when I agreed with him, there wasn't much meat there. There can't be - it's a format which is not friendly to depth or even reason.

The only way around this is if the bar for 'spot on social commentary' is set so low that a bird relieving itself on a picture of Obama in the newspaper is considered an insightful critique. And again, I say this as a Carlin fan. He had a lot going for him, but deep social commentary wasn't one of those things. Not in his comedy.

However, as you stated, comedians, especially those two, aren't always doing comedy, they were often times trying to make a point.

See, I think that gives them too much credit. 'Trying to make a point' makes it sound as if they were delivering something intellectually valuable, but that's not. I think what Colbert and Stewart deliver tends to be closer to 'the Stormfront artist making the jew he's drawing look -extra- malicious'. Something's being communicated there, but 'a point' seems too generous.

This is why I said comedy would be better served as being viewed through a literary lens, first.

Alright, but my own view is that all entertainment - any communication, in fact - is seen by some (perhaps rightly) to have the potential to influence others, encourage ideas, or question just about anything. And when politics is religion, that means there's no such thing as saying 'This is supposed to be comedy'. They don't care what it's called, because it may promote an idea they find hostile or wrong, and thus is a breeding ground for wickedness, sin and perversion.

Good God, some people may even vote against the Democrats.

Some of the comedians themselves helped encourage this, so it's hard to feel too sympathetic for them. Sam Kinison also did funny bits, but Goldthwait used to run around saying he was the Klan's favorite comedian. Hell, the one common complaint from comedians I hear isn't a complain that comedy is being policed but that -they- are being policed despite 'being on the same side' as the people policing them. This, by the way, is also wrapped up in the comedians typically squealing 'I'm a comedian, you're making it sound like I'm pushing politics!' previously as a defense when the -other- side complained that they were getting into and promoting politics, not sticking to comedy.

So the short of it is - comedy can influence, or so the belief goes. And when someone's entire religion is based on politics, all influence must be controlled - so it's no surprise comedians no longer get away with the 'but my job is to be funny' excuse, since they and others always knew that was an insincere defense.

Apparently they thought that they could support policing of content without eventually risking having their own content policed. Now that is funny.

Philip Alawonde said...

As far as we know, humour is exclusively a human experience, usually expressed as laughter (more so, it seems that this is a reaction that cannot be helped). And of course, it is obvious to the sufficiently reflexive person that it’s some sort of irreconcilability between some expected thing (be it a form, a substance, an action, an event, etc.) and an apparent *similar* thing (for there has to be an apparent way in which the known expected is being aped) that provokes hilarious expressions. It is this *incomplete semblance* that we perceive between the aping thing and the aped thing—that is, how imperfectly the aping thing apes the aped thing—that actually provokes the hilarious reaction.

Thus it is clear that humour will not be experienced (of course, like other behaviours, we need to be cautious about humour, for merely that its sign is *expressed* is insufficient to tell us whether it is actually *felt*; people usually try to suppress laughter in order not to seem rude or incontinent after all) by someone who, for example, is not aware of the appearance of the aping thing, or if he is, does not know about *an* appropriate aped thing to consummate the asymmetry in aping. That is, there are two elements necessary and sufficient for a comic experience: first there must be the known aped entity—usually in mind—, and then there must be the known aping entity—usually not doing the aping properly. This explains one thing I think Feser does not get right here when he says there’s an exception to the incongruity rule. There’s no exception whatsoever. Indeed, I believe nature has made us like that, deliberately, but I run ahead of myself (will come to this anon). This also explains the apparent relativity in amusement that many, no doubt, can vouch for experientially. What amuses me may not genuinely you, even when presented with the same situation, because you may not know of a parallel situation which is considered the norm; you’ll just be indifferent in such a case.

So, Feser says the comic is always there when there’s an incongruity except in scenes of personal danger. But methinks not, for it is not so much the danger than the fact that one of the elements necessary & sufficient for humour to be felt is missing that makes it appear as if there’s no comicality in the situation. In the example he gave about sleeping with a snake, the humour is there (as is evidenced by others’ reaction) but it’s just that its strength is overridden by another natural human mechanism—the instinct to escape danger. Because of the knowledge of what the snake can do, and the undesirability of that end, the need to prevent that end *overrides* being aware of the expected thing, or the aped thing, in mind. We know that fear, or an instant preoccupation to escape danger, usually drives other things out of the mind at that moment until the danger is past. Thus, only one goal (to escape) dominates the mind then; and things are not helped by adrenaline effects and so on. But immediately the danger passes and as soon as one begins to regain normal composure, the mind will enter its normal state and become capable once more of recalling to mind the aped case and also remembering the immediately past event, discern the dissimilarity and most probably burst out laughing. So, it is a deprivation of the first element of humour, rather than the danger per se, which makes it appear as if the situation is not hilarious; as we have seen, that’s not the case. Of course the danger is the major *cause* of the deprivation, but my point is that that does not mean the situation is not inherently hilarious.

Philip Alawonde said...

But what quite bothers one about such things is that it is always very difficult to prevent an outburst of laughter (depending on the scale of the incongruity—and satirists, pun-makers, innuendo-builders, comedians, cartoonists and so on often know how to ‘help’ exaggerate molehill incongruities into mountainous fun). Indeed, it’s *impossible* to prevent a humorous reaction to a sufficiently perceived incongruity, although of course it’s to some extent possible to prevent its expression. That’s why the only thing we can hope to control, for example, is giving off that we’re amused—by trying to keep a stony face and refusing to laugh, difficult as that may also be. This falls within other areas of behavioural self-control: Not that in such cases one does not experience the strong urge to do some things, but just that one refrains (for some reason). The question then is, if nature has made it impossible for us to *not feel* amused when all the necessary & sufficient elements are present and known, and believing that nature does nothing in vain (that is, is not gratuitous), questions of natural law come to mind immediately. It’s surely for some end, the faculty—shall we call it—for humour. What’s its use? How is it to be used?

Concerning the relation of ridicule to truth: Since a humorous feeling comes from an asymmetry between something we believe to be the case and something else that appears to be mimicking that thing we apprehend in a similar, but not completely perfect, way, there’s no necessary connection between humour and truth except that thing that is believed is true. But to bring it more home, since Feser is concerned with the comical (i.e., wittingly caused by some agent, like a comedian) here, we’re talking about humorous feelings evoked by an intentional presentation of a mimicry by an external agent. Here, as I pointed out before, it’s similar to satire or ridicule. Well, the relationship of such acts to the truth depends on how they present their mimicries. Usually, they do this by unduly exaggerating the defects in mimicry (or incongruity) and presenting it in a surprising manner to provoke laughter (which of course has a level of pleasure associated with it). So, if what they’re exaggerating is a fact—to take a crude example, some cartoonist might be exaggerating a person’s unusual body feature to shame him publicly—there’s an obvious relationship with truth here, but this depends upon the degree of exaggeration too. When, however, it’s not obvious what the cartoon, e.g., is trying to mimic, it would in fact no longer be funny, so the question of lying does not even come in. (It’s just like the mild joke which, if prolonged unduly, becomes a lie.) On the other hand, if the cartoonist was exaggerating something perfectly normal about the person and not something unusual, then there’s sheer malice and obvious falsehood there, and that’s no longer a relationship to reality.

The general idea is clear, but the detailed outworking will depend upon the particular situation one wishes to analyse. But again, to summarise, the key is the two elements: the aped thing, and the imperfectly aping thing.

Greg said...

@ Anon

A blogger takes Dr. Feser and Thomism to task!

Except the blog post just repeats the same narrative that Ed has actually argued against. It doesn't look at his arguments and say, "These are inadequate because of this, this, and this." Instead we are left with several blank checks:

- "But he seems to be unaware of any alternative metaphysical view that would be consistent with a modern scientific understanding, or he simply rejects such views out of hand because they don't support his theistic beliefs."
- "I believe that Thomistic philosophy is riddled with logical inconsistencies, and is based on assumptions that are epistemologically unjustified."
- "And indeed, he may be correct in some cases, that modern scientists and philosophers are ignorant or don't understand Thomistic philosophy. But there are certainly many who do. And for the most part, they don't reject Thomism out of irrationality. Rather, they reject it precisely because they are rational, and unlike Feser, they are far more objective in their acceptance of empirical knowledge. Their goal is not to justify and sustain theistic belief, but to gain a realistic, objectively-based understanding of nature and reality."

Whoever these cool and dispassionate modern scientists and philosophers are, I'm sure I'm not reading any one of them.

Greg said...

@ Anon

Since I think Crude is probably right and you are 'im-skeptical', let me make a suggestion. Don't bother with hip shot philosophy; don't try to read a professional philosopher and jot down whatever thoughts come to your mind. Instead, go buy, say, half a dozen books by philosophers of religion, a few theists and a few atheists, and take a month to read them before you write another blog post. I would recommend J.L. Mackie, Graham Oppy, maybe William Lane Craig, Ed's Aquinas and Scholastic Metaphysics. John Haldane and J.J.C. Smart's Atheism and Theism is a nice exchange.

You'll be better for it.

Crude said...

Instead, go buy, say, half a dozen books by philosophers of religion, a few theists and a few atheists, and take a month to read them before you write another blog post.

Hahaha oh God you're suggesting he read. This guy can't even do google scholarship correctly. Seriously, he tries and he ends up quoting Mystery Babylon conspiracy theory sites because he doesn't check his sources.

Trust me, folks tried the 'Man, you have no idea what you're talking about, you should read before you discuss this' line of reasoning with him for years. It's not merely that he won't - it's that he's actually incapable.

Greg said...

That's unfortunate. It's really clear that he has no idea what he's talking about, but the part that makes the post really tragic and embarrassing is that he doesn't realize that.

dover_beach said...

If only so-called skeptics were skeptical of their own so-called skepticism (and of Science™).

DC Daddy said...

@Crude

"As a guy who may well have listened to absolutely every standup bit... ...can't be - it's a format which is not friendly to depth or even reason."

Not to belabor the Carlin point much further because I think you and I may soon reach a point where we actually agree on some things, even if we differ on degrees. Other areas I feel we may reach that "fundamental disagreement chasm", which would never get us anywhere. In any case, his whole commentary on the dangers of euphemistic language was pertinent and spot on. So, too, was his breakdown of the Ten Commandments. Well, I suppose that last bit is only "weighty" if you agree with some of his premises, which I'm pretty sure you don't.

Poor Obama... Getting shat on by a bird? Maybe an elephant would've been better.

"See, I think that gives them too much credit... Something's being communicated there, but 'a point' seems too generous."

This is where we would probably disagree, not over what factually is or isn't but because our fundamental worldviews are probably different. Part of what made Stewart, for example, so successful was that he did get a lot of things right, AND he was able to wrap his social commentary in well written/ timed comedy (I was never a big fan of Colbert). However, for the record, I don't think either Colbert's or Stewart's comedy/ commentary was always on point. There were many things they got wrong.

DC Daddy said...

"Alright, but my own view is that all entertainment - any communication, in fact... ...and thus is a breeding ground for wickedness, sin and perversion."

Hmm, I feel this could veer off into the trickier and more technical realm of freewill v determinism and state thought control.. However, given most rational adults and my assumptions that we both agree that some level of freewill exists, I don't understand how entertainment, like comedy, is a breeding ground for wickedness, sin and perversion. Granted there are (many) people who's psychological/ emotional development is such that certain kinds of entertainment may push them into a negative direction, but that is not the case for the majority of people (at least in this country). Furthermore, a good case could be made that entertainment is never enough to push these individuals over the edge- they were going to fall off anyways.

Lastly, are you telling me that if you watched/ listened to a comedian spout off on his personal views of polyamory, while also making good arguments for it as well, you'd be more inclined to cheat on your spouse? Maybe I'm misunderstanding your point.. I apologize.

"Some of the comedians themselves helped encourage this... ... that they were getting into and promoting politics, not sticking to comedy."

Hey, I've never really had any problem with any type of comedy, but I think what you're getting at, here, is that today's polarized landscape seems less able to handle... Uh, well, comedy. People feel the need to either be incredibly insulted by a comic's routine, or they feel the need to stand up and support the comedian's "message" to society. Bam! Now you have comedian's getting sucked into defending their routines and claiming that they're what's good, everyone else is wrong! Good lord, almighty! Can't you people see that? When really, they shouldn't be doing this. This isn't a debate. They're doing standup and you don't have to listen to it. You are quite literally free to walk away from it.

"So the short of it is - comedy can influence, or so the belief goes... Now that is funny."

Well, despite our possibly diverging personal beliefs, I think we'd both agree that there is climate of intolerance when it comes to free speech these days, and certain groups seem to get a pass where others don't. We seem to have forgotten that the practice of free speech is much more difficult than the idea of it. I'm intolerant to that!

Yet, I should point out that calling someone (a politician, maybe) on their racist, sexist, bigoted bs is different from a comedian talking about it in a routine. But, there is no universal law, here, about the separation of the comedian from his/her role as a narrator. Sometimes they do go too far. Sometimes they don't know what the hell they're talking about, even if you piss yourself laughing.

Thanks for responding, Crude.

Crude said...

DC,

In any case, his whole commentary on the dangers of euphemistic language was pertinent and spot on. So, too, was his breakdown of the Ten Commandments.

It's well-written if it's treated as a comedic bit. As social commentary, it was shallow and lacking. I think the real issue gets zeroed in on here:

Well, I suppose that last bit is only "weighty" if you agree with some of his premises, which I'm pretty sure you don't.

That's pretty much the only standard, isn't it? It's insightful, depthful social commentary... if someone agrees with it. If they don't, it's not. I think that's some transparent bullshit, and the whole 'insightful social commentary' compliment doesn't signal anything about said content beyond 'I agree with it'.

Part of what made Stewart, for example, so successful was that he did get a lot of things right, AND he was able to wrap his social commentary in well written/ timed comedy (I was never a big fan of Colbert)

Once again - there's nothing really being signaled here other than 'He attacked people I dislike! YEAH!' There's no depth or insight, there's no argument or observation, there's no development. All that work is assumed to be done elsewhere.

And that, by the way, runs against Stewart's own claims. 'I'm just a comedian! Don't take me seriously!' was his big defense. But it was dishonest - he expected to be, and wanted to be, taken seriously.

However, given most rational adults and my assumptions that we both agree that some level of freewill exists, I don't understand how entertainment, like comedy, is a breeding ground for wickedness, sin and perversion.

Before we go on, we're braking here - because your mashup quote by me is completely off-base. Let's give it in full: "Alright, but my own view is that all entertainment - any communication, in fact - is seen by some (perhaps rightly) to have the potential to influence others, encourage ideas, or question just about anything. And when politics is religion, that means there's no such thing as saying 'This is supposed to be comedy'. They don't care what it's called, because it may promote an idea they find hostile or wrong, and thus is a breeding ground for wickedness, sin and perversion."

The people who don't care about comedy, who want to police it, are the people for whom politics is religion. They are the ones who regard it as the breeding ground for wickedness, sin and perversion. My view is different, even while realizing the potentials of communication. I would prefer not to police comedians, I prefer to value comedy as comedy. I tolerate it, and always did - once again, see my being a Carlin fan.

However, you've taken an odd stance. You say at once that this or that comedian gives brilliant social commentary - but then you seem baffled at the idea that comedy can ever influence an opinion. Is brilliant social commentary then, by your own standards, just another term for 'mental masturbation'?

The Masked Chicken said...

I did not save my comments from last Friday, but I can try, again. Just to start, the humor community is aware of the politicization of humor. We had a special session on it in, 2009, I think, at the International Society of a Humor Studies conference. The general name for this phenomenon is, "humor killers." A humor killer is a topic of a joke or within a joke that stops the humor from being processed by a group. As in-groups become more balkanized, more and more topics become eliminated from the overall socially-accepted humor repertoire. This trend, which has been getting worse, especially since the early 2000's, is probably reflective of the dramatic increase in the ability of Mass Media to create focal group behavior. There is a bit more to it, however, because one has to factor in how wounded any given group might feel in the presence of a taboo subject. As a matter of my observation, only, but it seems that conservatives have, in general, thicker skins than liberal (in the modern sense of the term) to being wounded by the broaching of a taboo subject. That, however, is a conjecture for political science to prove or disprove, not humor studies.

I am going to break my comments into small chunks, because on Friday I ran into the 4096 word limit. The next question is whether or not humor contains truth - in fact, the answer to this settled one of the more pressing question in humor theory in the last fifty years.

The Chicken

The Masked Chicken said...

The problem of truth valuation in humor is a subtle thing to deal with, because one has to specify what kind of truth one is referring to. Linguists don't refer to the truth content of a joke as much as the idea of bona fide modes of communication. Victor Raskin, probably the most influential linguist in humor theory, these days (his students are among the most prolific second-generation linguistic scholars of humor), has a paper available (it was an early paper - he is, now, on a third generation theory derived from his, original, Semantic Theory of Humor - SSTH), online about the subject:

https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/DLLS/article/viewFile/31270/29729

Early in the 1960's and lasting until the 1980's many humor theorists, from psychologists (William Fry, Sweet Madness) to mathematicians (John Allen Paulos, Mathematics and Humor) tried to use the idea that humor was derived from paradox. Paradoxes contain antimonies, and, as such, contain two (or more) pairs of contradictory assertions, which, on the face of it, seems to fit humor perfectly. Naturally, since Incongruity Theory had come onto the scene by this time, the two notions contained within the supposed paradox of the joke were ascribed to be the incongruities. It was a brilliant first-generation theory.

When I came on the scene in the late 1980's, there was an academic food fight between Incongruity Theory, Discharge Theory (humor discharges pent-up neural energy), and Superiority Theory. At that time, psychologists held sway in the theory domain, so Discharge and Superiority Theories were given a lot of publication space. Starting with Raskin's script-switching idea, which he borrowed from early Artificial Intelligence research and continuing with the development of computational linguistics, as well as my work on the logic and neural processing of jokes, the tide has shifted quite dramatically towards Incongruity Theory.

Of course, the problem with Incongruity Theory is that no one knew how to rigorously define the notion of incongruity. Looking at that has clarified exactly where truth lies in humor and provided a one sentence proof that, while humor involves something I call weak incongruity, the strong incongruity associated with paradox is forbidden. So, what is the proof and how does that relate to notions of truth and incongruity in humor? More, later.

The Chicken

DC D said...

Crude,

"That's pretty much the only standard, isn't it? It's insightful, depthful social commentary... if someone agrees with it. If they don't, it's not. I think that's some transparent bullshit, and the whole 'insightful social commentary' compliment doesn't signal anything about said content beyond 'I agree with it'."

I apologize for not being more explicit, here. I'm not claiming that person X's social commentary is only insightful and deep if you agree with it, because that is indeed transparent bullshit. I'm saying that from your subjective POV you may not think that about X's social commentary, but objectively speaking there may be value in X's social commentary independent of our agreement with it. Yet, our own bias may prevent us from seeing that.

"Once again - there's nothing really being signaled here other than 'He attacked people I dislike! YEAH!' There's no depth or insight, there's no argument or observation, there's no development. All that work is assumed to be done elsewhere."

No. Personally, I liked a lot of the things Stewart said because there was objective value to his arguments. I'll let the rest of social justice warriors run around, gleefully backing this comedian or that because, for the moment, they seem to be attacking one hated group or another. That sort of mob mentality services the greater good not one iota.

"And that, by the way, runs against Stewart's own claims. 'I'm just a comedian! Don't take me seriously!' was his big defense. But it was dishonest - he expected to be, and wanted to be, taken seriously."

I think you misunderstood that statement. This was false modesty on Stewart's part and he was fully aware that people were taking him seriously, even though his primary objective was comedy. It was reminder of where his comedy show stood in relationship to the real news and the job at which they were failing. This conceit was well utilized by Stewart in poking fun at all the mainstream media for being so poor at their jobs, while he, the comedian, was actually doing news. I believe Stewart has been quoted many times explaining how the nature of the show changed over the years. He simply used comedy to get his point across.

The Masked Chicken said...

So, is humor, "Truth speaking to power?" No, of course not. Does humor contain truth? Well, that is complicated. Consider the following prototypical joke:

Did you hear about the guy who fell into a vat of gum at work...the boss chewed him out.

Did some guy in the real world actually fall into a vat of gum at work? Has any person actually ever fallen into a vat of gum at work? Who knows? In that sense, the truth valuation of the global story is uncertain, at best. In that sense, the overall sense of the joke, jokes do not have to contain truth. Indeed, some jokes, as Ed points out, are based on falsehoods.

This does not, however, mean that jokes do not all contain truth valuations that can be made. In the above joke, one can definitively answer such questions as: "Did a guy fall into a vat of gum," "Did the boss yell at him," etc. If humor were based on paradox, as the early theories postulated, one would not be able to answer these sorts of questions because in paradox, truth valuation is blocked at all levels. Humor has two levels of discourse - the local level, indigenous to the joke world(s) and the global level, which is the joke's connection to outside reality beyond the joke text. The best of humor contains truth on both levels, but for humor to occur, it is sufficient that truth be able to be judged only within the joke work world(s). In other words, there must be bona fide communication within the joke, but not, necessarily, outside of the joke. Thus, a joke might speak truth to power from within the joke, but not outside of the joke, in the real world (although, in some cases, it might). The education specialist, Abner Ziv calls this type of truth valuation, "local logic." Humor must have a local logic, but not, necessarily, a global logic, a local truth, but not, necessarily, a global truth.

If that is the case, how can humor have both a truth component and incongruity? That gets to the heart of the process of humor.

The Chicken

DC D said...

Crude,

'Before we go on, we're braking here - because your mashup quote by me is completely off-base. Let's give it in full: "Alright, but my own view is that all entertainment - any communication, in fact - is seen by some (perhaps rightly) to have the potential to influence others, encourage ideas, or question just about anything. And when politics is religion, that means there's no such thing as saying 'This is supposed to be comedy'. They don't care what it's called, because it may promote an idea they find hostile or wrong, and thus is a breeding ground for wickedness, sin and perversion."

I missed the word "potential". That was my fault.

Not sure I really understand the "politics is religion". Do you mean to say when comedy is politics?

"The people who don't care about comedy, who want to police it, are the people for whom politics is religion. They are the ones who regard it as the breeding ground for wickedness, sin and perversion. My view is different, even while realizing the potentials of communication. I would prefer not to police comedians, I prefer to value comedy as comedy. I tolerate it, and always did - once again, see my being a Carlin fan."

I'm still missing something, here, but as I stated I think we're in agreement about the final point you make. Are you saying that for the people to whom politics is their religion comedy is X, Y and Z?

"However, you've taken an odd stance. You say at once that this or that comedian gives brilliant social commentary - but then you seem baffled at the idea that comedy can ever influence an opinion. Is brilliant social commentary then, by your own standards, just another term for 'mental masturbation'?"

Maybe I wasn't careful in my previous sentence structure, but it's too late to go back and fix it. I'll just attempt to clarify what I meant, here. Some comedians do just comedy. Some comedians mix in social commentary. Often times they veer back and forth. Sometimes that social commentary is built on real world facts and figures, other times it's built on more fictional premises. Sometimes a joke or a whole bit highlights something in reality in such a way it's brilliant social commentary. Other times it gets the social commentary part completely wrong but wins at the comedy. All it can potentially influence our thoughts (and our opinions) but not necessarily our actions. How is this an odd stance?

And, yes, if comedy is done well, then I usually ejaculate ecstatic thoughts all over the inside of my brain.

Once again, thanks for your time, Crude.

The Masked Chicken said...

By the way, there was a large contingent of philosophers at the ISHS conference in Oakland, California, in July - the largest I have ever seen and the award for best paper by a student went to a Ph.d philosophy student. There have been almost no papers on the logic of humor - I know of only one (and I can't locate it!). It is difficult to even know what kind of logic to use. I have been working in modal logic, since there seems to be interesting problems in how the brain processes probabilities as it hears the joke text which can be expressed in some variants of modal logic, not to mention that there seems to be time-splitting that goes on in joke processing (which is not the same thing as joke timing). One of the philosophy student's professors was a colleague of Graham Priest, so he was trying to make a suggestion that paraconsistent logic might be used, but I have my doubts because of the way it handles the Principle of Explosion. Anyways, that gets into research issues.

I just wanted to point out that there were very few philosophers involved in humor scholarship beyond John Moreall for a while (excepting, of course, Kant, who, basically, started the Discharge Theory). John Moreall is retiring, so he was not at the last ISHS conference. Now, is a great time for philosophers to get involved.


The Chicken

The Masked Chicken said...

My battery is running low, so i will get into the interesting question of incongruities, later.

The Chicken

Glenn said...

The Masked Chicken,

Humor must have a local logic, but not, necessarily, a global logic, a local truth, but not, necessarily, a global truth.

If that is the case, how can humor have both a truth component and incongruity?


The truth component is local, and the incongruity is global, as in this image of a woman standing in front of a fun house mirror.

'Locally' there really is a woman: a) standing at a right angle to the mirror; b) with her head turned towards the mirror; c) with arms akimbo; and, d) wearing a blouse, skirt and shoes.

'Globally' there is incongruity: for it isn't true -- or, at least, most of us (seem to) have an ingrained tendency to believe that it is not true -- that the distance from the top of a woman's head to the bottom of her chin is greater than the distance from the bottom of her chin to her waist.

Or sumthin' like that...

(I'm likely way off the mark, and the above thus likely is a distortion of the reality of the matter. We shall see. If the above is way off the mark, and a distortion of the reality of the matter, then the reality of the matter as later revealed will stand out more clearly.)

Crude said...

DC,

Not sure I really understand the "politics is religion". Do you mean to say when comedy is politics?

No, I mean when politics is religion. When it's the highest goal, the thing that frames a person's whole life, gives them purpose, and more often than not makes them a pain in the ass (or now and then, existential threat) to everyone else around them.

Are you saying that for the people to whom politics is their religion comedy is X, Y and Z?

I'm saying that for those people, their politics is the primary concern, and often the only concern, when it comes to entertainment. Actually being entertaining is a distant second concern, if it registers at all.

I think many comedians were more than happy to go along for the ride politically, so long as their politics were favored. It's just that they thought they were recipients of favoritism - 'Hey, we're on your political side, we just want to also try to be /funny/ too, and sometimes that means getting a little edgy. Surely that's allowed, right?' And the answer for a lot of the secular religious is, no actually, it isn't. Not anymore.

All it can potentially influence our thoughts (and our opinions) but not necessarily our actions. How is this an odd stance?

I'll just go back to what I said about 'brilliant social commentary'. There's nothing there - at least with comedians, definitely the ones under discussion - really other than "I agree" or, worse, "Yeah, I hate them too!"

Now, maybe you mean brilliant in terms of -effective-. Back to Stormfront: I have no doubt that there are guys who can draw a jew in a particular way that really gets that 'Oh fuck I am CUMMING' part of the brain lit up for some people, such that they're all charged up and willing to offer time and money to make life hell for der juden, at least for a while. I likewise have no doubt that some of them can craft a joke that stirs that derision and hatred into just the right way to achieve or reinforce the same. And this is distinct from comedy, even if it uses some.

But brilliant? Not in any intellectual sense, no. Pretty much the opposite. And that's going to hold even if the example shifts. And it's not going to become brilliant social commentary just by picking a source I agree with - I'm willing to admit that comedy usually offers up distortions, exaggerations and misrepresentations at times. Maybe people are ashamed to think they're laughing at a distortion? Maybe they think it's too important to always think the worst of the people they dislike that admitting something is a distortion is disturbing? Who knows.

Also - 'It can potentially influence our thoughts and our opinions but not necessarily our actions'. Okay - so it can potentially influence our thoughts, and not necessarily our actions. What's the difference between that and 'it can potentially, but not necessarily, influence our thoughts, opinions and actions.'?

Glenn said...

(Btw, I appreciate your taking the time, and expending the energy, to reconstruct your earlier comments. As lynch-patrick (why? what'd he do?) said earlier, you always have something interesting to say.)

Step2 said...

The incongruity of this thread is pretty wild.
1. A comedian’s incongruity creates and relieves tension, playfully tickles, and often exposes uncomfortable truths.
2. That's what she said.

Jeffrey S. said...

Someone told me my previous link was not working. Try this one for a chuckle:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYBMbGPAqsU

DC D said...

"No, I mean when politics is religion. When it's the highest goal, the thing that frames a person's whole life, gives them purpose, and more often than not makes them a pain in the ass (or now and then, existential threat) to everyone else around them."

Indeed. But, politics aren't the only thing that can become one's proverbial religion.

"I'll just go back to what I said about 'brilliant social commentary'. There's nothing there - at least with comedians, definitely the ones under discussion - really other than "I agree" or, worse, "Yeah, I hate them too!""

I think you've latched onto my use of the word brilliant, here, and are having a difficult time letting it go, which I guess is my fault for using so colloquially. However, you seem to think that it's only my opinion of Jon Stewart, for example, that's inspiring me to think that, at least, some of his commentary brilliant. Not true, I think, at least, some of his commentary has been exceptionally astute, whether you agree with him or not. Furthermore, I also think that he's done a fairly good job of navigating the minefield of inherent subjective bias that other media falls prey to. Other times, he does seem to go with the flow of the liberal media.

Yet, according to you his being a comedian and delving into social commentary, politics or whatever is somehow a problem and creates red flags all over the place. Maybe some of his material can't be objectively brilliant because you're of the opinion that it's not. Ostensibly, just like me.

"Now, maybe you mean brilliant in terms of -effective-."

No, I mean brilliant (or at least exceptionally astute). He's also been effective.

"Back to Stormfront: I have no doubt that there are guys who can draw a jew in a particular... ... And this is distinct from comedy, even if it uses some."

I'm at loss, here... I don't understand your reference to jews. Are you saying that there's some sort of "jew" conspiracy involving Jon Stewart or are you being unintentionally bigoted? Maybe this is just intellectually way over my head...

"Also - 'It can potentially influence our thoughts and our opinions but not necessarily our actions'. Okay - so it can potentially influence our thoughts, and not necessarily our actions. What's the difference between that and 'it can potentially, but not necessarily, influence our thoughts, opinions and actions.'?"

I think you think I don't know the difference in the semantics are trying to catch me. Or course X could influence our thoughts, opinions and actions (not necessarily though), but the influence of the former two doesn't actualize influence on our actions. I thought this was pretty clear.

Crude said...

DC,

Indeed. But, politics aren't the only thing that can become one's proverbial religion.

Not really proverbial, but sure, that's true. It's just the most prominent form.

However, you seem to think that it's only my opinion of Jon Stewart, for example, that's inspiring me to think that, at least, some of his commentary brilliant. Not true, I think, at least, some of his commentary has been exceptionally astute, whether you agree with him or not.

Alright, I'm game. Like what? In particular: show me where you disagree with him fundamentally, yet believe his commentary is exceptionally astute.

Furthermore, I also think that he's done a fairly good job of navigating the minefield of inherent subjective bias that other media falls prey to.

Navigating in what sense? It can't be 'avoiding it', because he's tremendously biased. Always has been.

Yet, according to you his being a comedian and delving into social commentary, politics or whatever is somehow a problem and creates red flags all over the place.

I'm saying that his being a comedian pretty well by necessity makes his 'social commentary' shallow intellectually. The one area a comedian can excel in - especially with the sort of format Stewart worked in - isn't in 'brilliant social comedy' but baser things. It takes a lot of work, research and explanation to deliver some good, depthful social commentary. It takes something far shallower to get people cheering and nodding their heads in agreement.

I'm at loss, here... I don't understand your reference to jews. Are you saying that there's some sort of "jew" conspiracy involving Jon Stewart or are you being unintentionally bigoted?

I'm saying that Stormfront's style of communication is a good example of politicized comedy. It's not keen, depthful insight or intellectual strength that's pulling the sled. It's appealing to biases, slander and tribalism. Which is only a problem once people start to take it too seriously - and unfortunately, that's what people tend to do.

So in reply to your either-or, the answer is 'neither'. They're a good example here, precisely because most people are going to agree that Stormfront is repugnant. How they approach topics and communicate is terrible, even if effective with a certain class. The main different with Stewart is he's got a different class targeted.

I think you think I don't know the difference in the semantics are trying to catch me. Or course X could influence our thoughts, opinions and actions (not necessarily though), but the influence of the former two doesn't actualize influence on our actions.

I'm just trying to properly frame what you said. If you mean that influencing the former two doesn't result in a lawlike, universal result of action, sure - who said otherwise? But if you're saying that influencing thoughts and opinions has -no- influence on action - notice the 'if' there - that's indefensible.

Mr. Green said...

Scott: He walked into a bar!

Ouch! I hope he had insurance.

[chirp chirp chirp]
Hmm, I guess even in that case the humor depends on how you tell it.


Indeed. I was quite amused by the tweeting birds you added!


Glenn: If that works, and you want to cement your rapport with the audience, you can retell the joke as follows:

That guy shoulda learned by now to rerun in the opposite direction.

He walked into -- get this -- a rebar!

Ouch. I hope he had reinsurance.

DC Daddy said...

"Not really proverbial, but sure, that's true. It's just the most prominent form."

Since the word 'religion' has popped up several times in our discussion, specifically when describing how causes can become like a religion, religion certainly has become something common to our discussion. In other words, proverbial.

"Alright, I'm game. Like what? In particular: show me where you disagree with him fundamentally, yet believe his commentary is exceptionally astute."

Clearly this would be hard to do with someone like Stewart since it's obvious that I agree with a lot of what he's said about politics, media, race, sexual orientation, religion, the economy, etc and my opinion of him differs greatly from yours. Truth is, the 'you' in my original statement was not the general you.

In any case...

His interview with Timothy Geithner on the economic bailout was both harsh and intelligent. I'm not so sure I agree with (or completely understand) how the bailout was supposed to work for the American people (because it didn't), but Geithner made a very good case for the gov't's actions during the bailout and changed how I saw the whole scenario (I suppose it didn't hurt that I've researched the bailout more than the layperson). Stewart, who assumed the role of the common man, expertly laid out the anger and frustration of pretty much the entire middle and lower class (basically calling the bailout an orchestrated con job), but that doesn't mean he was right in his assessments. We are generally better off today than we were then and the case that the bailout money was used effectively can be made.

However, disagreeing with someone doesn't necessarily bar you from thinking their arguments are well-made or even brilliant. There are plenty of philosophical arguments I don't agree with but find elegant and challenging to argue against.

"Navigating in what sense? It can't be 'avoiding it', because he's tremendously biased. Always has been."

This is a matter of your opinion, isn't it? Stewart is admittedly left leaning but he's never been one to dole out the proverbial (there's that word again!) reach-a-round to liberal guests or media. He's been critical where he's felt that political leaders, news agencies or even movements have failed the American republic. He's even been harsh on Obama (his human rights record, for example, is one of those things he's accurately criticized more than once).

"I'm saying that his being a comedian pretty well by necessity makes his 'social commentary' shallow intellectually... ... It takes something far shallower to get people cheering and nodding their heads in agreement."

Are you saying that being a comedian bars one from making good (occasionally brilliant) social commentary? That's a bit extreme. Plenty of comedian's social commentary has gone well beyond the realm of base observations and fucking fart jokes (to quote Carlin) to say something valuable and thought provoking about life or society. It ain't the rule but it's not uncommon.

DC Daddy said...

Crude,

(here and above)

"I'm saying that Stormfront's style of communication is a good example of politicized comedy. It's not keen, depthful insight or intellectual strength that's pulling the sled. It's appealing to biases, slander and tribalism... ... But if you're saying that influencing thoughts and opinions has -no- influence on action - notice the 'if' there - that's indefensible."

Stormfront? The white supremacist group? You keep bringing this up as if it's somehow related to Jon Stewart. You must mean his whole style of comedy/ entertainment/ communication, right? If so, I think you're way off the mark and this is a clear demarcation from an objective assessment of not only Stewart but also comedy, in general. Once again, we've hit opinion not an objective standard.

I'm certainly not saying that influencing thoughts and opinions has no influence on action (thanks for the benefit of the doubt w/ that if). That is most definitely an indefensible opinion.

Glenn said...

Mr. Green: Ouch. I hope he had reinsurance.

Let me reassure you that he did.

(Alas, he no longer does. (Dear Sir, We are in receipt of two insurance claims filed by you for separate incidents on August 23, 2015. According to the claims, you walked into a bar in one post, and less than two hours later walked into a rebar in another post. Whatever in the world is the matter with you? Not only are you a hazard to your physical health, you are a hazard to the company's financial health. Herewith and henceforth your policy is cancelled.))

The Masked Chicken said...

So, how can humor have both truth valuation and incongruity? Hold onto your beanies.

Let me ask some uncomfortable questions to get you to think through some things. Let's take Raskin's prototypical joke, The Doctor's Wife Joke:

"Is the doctor at home?” the patient asked in his bronchial whisper. “No,” the doctor’s young and pretty wife whispered in reply. “Come right in."

Okay. We have two competing scripts going on: 1) doctor visit and 2)adultery. Raskin proposed that the two scripts partially overlap - the house is the same in both - and they partially oppose each other - the wife is virtuous in the first script, but adulterous in the second. The basis for humor comes from what Raskin calls, "script-switching," where one switches back and forth between the two scripts after the punchline. Before the punchline, only one script (virtue) is apparent, but the punchline unfolds the second script. Part of the two scripts can be reconciled and part cannot, so one keeps cycling back and forth between the incongruity of two scripts, both of which must be accepted because of the script overlaps.

Now, the interesting question is: is the wife the same in both scripts? Before the punchline, we assume the wife is virtuous; after the punchline, she is not. If she is not the same in both scripts, then what has happened to the narrative? Has it split up into two different possible worlds, one where she is virtuous and one where she is not? What about the house? Is it the same across the two possible worlds? Is this splitting a necessary condition for humor? A sufficient condition. Both?

This gets into the interesting question of transworld identity which has been debated in modal logic for fifty years. Lewis proposed his Counterpart theory, others have proposed other solutions. The question is, how radically does the punchline alter the events before the punchline? We don't know the general answer, but in a conference paper I gave in July at the ISHS conference, I proposed that these sorts of changes are symmetry-breaking transformations. In other words, there are a limited number of such transformations which can be classified. Raskin, who is doing computational linguistics on humorous texts, was in the audience and this seems to solve a problem he has been having for many years in trying to understand the, so-called, logical mechanism of humor which his former graduate student, now collaborator, Salvatore Attardo proposed. Raskin never agreed with Attardo's definition of the logical mechanism and it could not be validated in psychological testing. My idea is based on mathematical transformations - for instance, the transformation in the Doctor joke is simply x ----> -x, where x = chastity.

To be continued.

The Masked Chicken said...

Here is a classic example of a translation transformation: x -----> x + dx contained in the first episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, where x = sequential order:

"Lou: How old are you?
Mary: Thirty.
Lou: No hedging! No 'how old do I look'?
Mary: (smiles and shrugs her shoulders) Why hedge?
Lou: Yeah.
Mary: How old do I look?
Lou: (pauses) Thirty. (opens booze bottle in his desk drawer) What religion are you?
Mary: Uh, Mr. Grant, I don't quite know how to say this, but, uh, you're not allowed to ask that when someone's applying for a job. It's against the law.
Lou: Wanna call a cop?
Mary: (sweetly) No.
Lou: Good! Would you think I was violating your civil rights if I asked if you're married?
Mary: Presbyterian. (Lou stares at her.) Uh, well I, I, I decided I would answer your religion question.
Lou: Divorced?
Mary: No.
Lou: Never married!
Mary: No.
Lou: Why?
Mary: Why?
Lou: Do you type?
Mary: Mr. Grant, there's no simple answer to that question!
Lou: Yes there is! How 'bout 'no I can't type' or 'yes I can'?
Mary: There's no simple answer to why a person isn't married.
Lou: How many reasons can there be?
Mary: (nervously) 65.
Lou: (exasperated) Words per minute. My typing question!!
Mary: Yes.
Lou: Look, miss! Would you try answering the questions as I ask them?"

Other types of transformations include scaling, rotation, etc. It is an open question in mathematics, I think, whether or not we have defined all possible types of symmetry-breaking transformations. This gets into the area of the classification of groups. Finite groups have been classified, but not extended groups. Of course, humor, in order to be easily understood, probably only uses a few types of simple transformations.

Basically, transformations involve actions on attributes and it is at the level of attributes where one can define, rigorously, what an incongruity is. Since things are only incongruous within a context, the next thing we need to do is define the notion of context. Again, this is not as simple as it seems. Once that can be done, then Incongruity Theory begins to have some rigor. It turns out one can define a context, rigorously, at least in the abstract. In principle, one can define it well enough for use, but not exactly. For this we need the tools of Formal Concept Analysis.

The Chicken

Crude said...

DC,

In other words, proverbial.

Proverbial implies difference from actuality.

His interview with Timothy Geithner

Where's the brilliant insight and social commentary? All you've given me is the assurance Geithner was smart, and Jon Stewart took on a role as some common man mockup to play off him. David Spade also took on a role as an underclass unappreciated man in Joe Dirt - that doesn't mean it was brilliant.

However, disagreeing with someone doesn't necessarily bar you from thinking their arguments are well-made or even brilliant.

I agree and I've said as much. But I'm waiting for the brilliance here. In particular, I'm waiting for intelligence and deep insight, and something other than 'Well, you know, I just agree with what he said', especially while engaging in comedy.

This is a matter of your opinion, isn't it? Stewart is admittedly left leaning but he's never been one to dole out the proverbial (there's that word again!) reach-a-round to liberal guests or media.

No, I'm pretty sure bias isn't just a matter of opinion. It's the sort of thing you can illustrate - and yes, he's doled out the handjobs plenty of times. His criticisms of the left are piecemeal at best. The bias comes in who he talks about, what he covers, how sides are represented and more. Which is fine, insofar as he's a comedian. Stewart himself used to offer up the defense of 'For God's sake, don't take me seriously, I'm an entertainer'. But Stewart himself knew that would be ignored, even though it was one of the best bits of advice he gave.

Are you saying that being a comedian bars one from making good (occasionally brilliant) social commentary? That's a bit extreme.

I'm saying that the act of doing comedy - particularly standup - practically mandates shallow, inaccurate treatment of topics, and that people mistake agreement for brilliance. Just as they mistake 'good public speaking' for intelligence, and 'people wearing suits' for experts.

You must mean his whole style of comedy/ entertainment/ communication, right?

I use them as an example because it packs punch, and it illustrates what's going on when humor, mockery, derision and misrepresentation is treated as a deep and meaningful font of truth, as opposed to what it really is. Stewart's primary vehicle of political comedy is in reducing his opponents to caricatures, misrepresenting them to an extreme and portraying them as monsters or jokes. And that's Stormfront's whole bit. They even call it comedy most of the time.

So tell me - are you going to say the question of whether Stormfront is the font of brilliant social commentary is just a matter of opinion?

The Masked Chicken said...

To forestall a possible objection, not all transformations are funny. Coming home to find your husband in bed with another woman is not funny, even though your husband has gone from being assumed virtuous to non-virtuous. The difference between this and humor is that in humor, the narrative demands that your husband be both virtuous and not virtuous, at the same time and, yet, the situation is, nevertheless, not a true paradox, since truth valuation is maintained. This, in essence, is the fundamental problem in humor theory, at the present time. Both paradox and humor have feedback looping, but mechanisms appear to be different.

The Chicken

Brandon said...

We don't know the general answer, but in a conference paper I gave in July at the ISHS conference, I proposed that these sorts of changes are symmetry-breaking transformations.

This would be interesting if true; as Pierre Curie noted when he first explored the notion of symmetry-breaking, it's actually a causal notion (symmetry elements of causes are found in their effects, but not conversely), which would mean interpreting a joke as a joke is a by-product of our capacity to reason about causes.

The Masked Chicken said...

"which would mean interpreting a joke as a joke is a by-product of our capacity to reason about causes."

Precisely, as i will show, if I get time.

The Chicken

Glenn said...

I don't see where virtue actually has anything of significance to do with the Doctor's Wife Joke.

First, while the joke does describe the woman as being "young and pretty", "young and pretty" tells us nothing more about a woman's virtue than does "old and ugly". This is to say that the joke itself does not tell us anything about the woman's virtue -- at least not before the punchline. (This point might be the basis for a discussion; but it is a minor point, so I'll leave it as is.)

Second, consider a variation of the Doctor's Wife Joke. The variation is a 'Gedankenspiel' skit in The Benny Hill Show. The title of the skit is "The Doctor's Husband," and Benny Hill plays the role of the doctor's husband (i.e., the character Benny Hill plays is married, and the character's wife is a doctor).

- - - - -
A pretty young woman knocks on the door; the door is opened, and standing there is Benny Hill.

"Is the doctor at home?" the young and pretty woman asks in her bronchial whisper.

"No," replies Benny Hill. "Come right in."
- - - - -

Now:

a) It is hard to watch The Benny Hill Show without noticing that Mr. Hill frequently plays lecherous characters;

b) there is nothing virtuous about being a lecher;

c) the lecherous nature of the character played by Mr. Hill, i.e., the lack of virtue in character played by Mr. Hill, is known before the punchline is delivered (unless one's viewing of this skit happens to be one's first exposure to Mr. Hill);

d) the humor still 'works'; and,

e) the humor 'works' just as well in the Doctor's Husband skit as it does in the Doctor's Wife Joke.

If virtue has anything of significance to do with the Doctor's Wife Joke, why does the humor 'work' whether the doctor's spouse is a "young and pretty" woman (assumed by the audience to be virtuous), or is an obviously virtue-challenged lecher?

I think it may be that insufficient attention has been given to what seems likely to be of actual significance to the Doctor’s Wife Joke, and in fact is common to both the Doctor's Wife Joke and the Doctor's Husband skit:

i) a simple question calling for a "yes" or "no" answer is asked;

ii) one of the two answers to the question is given; and,

iii) the answerer is suddenly opportunistic ("Come right in."), and the focus of attention thereby switched from the questioner['s need] to the answerer['s desire].

Or so it seems to me.

Glenn said...

>> "which would mean interpreting a joke as a joke is a by-product of our capacity to reason about causes."

> Precisely, as i will show, if I get time.

If so, then doesn't it all, in a way, trace back to, "The received is in the receiver according to mode of the receiver"?

DC D said...

"Proverbial implies difference from actuality."

Thanks for bringing up my usage of the word 'proverbial' again. If it pops up one more time, I may lose control and shower the inside of my skull with thought gisum.

"Where's the brilliant insight and social commentary? ... David Spade also took on a role as an underclass unappreciated man in Joe Dirt - that doesn't mean it was brilliant."

The truth is, I don't really care about discussing the merits of Jon Stewart's show. I originally brought up Carlin and Stewart in this discussion because in my opinion there have been instances where their shtick, their comedy has broken through the lowly artform of making people laugh to say something rather profound (certainly not all the time). Going back through any of their material to find an example for you isn't really going to "win" me this argument, as it's most likely your opinion that they never said anything exceedingly clever, astute, profound, or even brilliant (they can't anyways because of the supposed restrictions that comedy places on in-depth social commentary). How convenient for your argument that you've dismantled any and all past, present and possible future claim of brilliant social commentary made by any comedian. You don't need to to worry about your opinion getting in the way because there's a universal law that says that a comedy will always fall short of brilliance.

Aside from this universal law, you must be aware of and in-use of some other objective standard for assessing brilliance. One that protects you from any kind of personal bias in this matter. I wonder what that standard is, considering that it's exceedingly difficult to shed all personal bias, especially when assessing the brilliance or lack thereof of public figures. Can you be certain that it's not entirely your opinion that you're not influenced by bias when assessing something?

Which brings me to this:

"I'm pretty sure bias isn't just a matter of... His criticisms of the left are piecemeal at best. The bias comes in who he talks about, what he covers, how sides are represented and more.."

Basically, your biased opinion. You feel that he's always been giving the 'ol reach-a-round to his lib friends and has never been equitable in his treatment of the left. I disagree. For all his faults (and the apparent limits of his medium), his real agenda has been exposing absurdity (and in his own words, bullshit), no matter where it comes from.

And, see, that's the thing about this whole discussion- you keep reminding me that this is all my opinion, but I bet your assessment of Stewart has more to do with your own opinion, rather than strictly adhering to some objective standard that protects you from pernicious opinions.

All this makes me wonder if there really can be an objective standard for assessing comedic brilliance. One that truly eliminates any and all personal bias. I wonder how many detractors of comedian X would be able to effectively utilize this standard when assessing brilliant bit Y.

At least we're not discussing objective moral standards... Wouldn't that be an orgy of thoughts and opinions!

Step2 said...

Stewart's primary vehicle of political comedy is in reducing his opponents to caricatures, misrepresenting them to an extreme and portraying them as monsters or jokes.

This isn't about Trump is it? The hostile takeover of the GOP has been like finding Atlantis; it is a mythical treasure trove for liberal comedy.

The Masked Chicken said...

"I don't see where virtue actually has anything of significance to do with the Doctor's Wife Joke."

The assumption is that the wife of a doctor is chaste (in part, because of societal expectations).

The Chicken

The Masked Chicken said...

"d) the humor still 'works'; and"

The humor works for different reasons. The interpersonal dynamics are different.

The Chicken

The Masked Chicken said...

"If so, then doesn't it all, in a way, trace back to, "The received is in the receiver according to mode of the receiver"?"

Actually, sort of. Each person's probability estimates while processing a joke are unique. I might try to offer the results of my current research if I could figure out a) if it has anything to do with the topic of this post and b) if I could write math formulas in a comment box.

The Chicken

Glenn said...

The Masked Chicken,

Thanks for the responses.

>> "I don't see where virtue actually has anything of significance to do with the Doctor's Wife Joke."

> The assumption is that the wife of a doctor is chaste (in part, because of societal expectations).

Yes, just as the assumption after the punch line is that that particular wife is adulterous.

That is, the joke itself doesn't tell the reader/listener either that the wife is virtuous or that the wife is adulterous. That the wife is first virtuous, then adulterous, is due to the goings-on in the mind of the reader/listener. And this is where so-called scripts come into play. The scripts, however, are not properties of the joke itself, but functions of the goings-on in the mind of the reader/listener. And to analyze a joke in terms of the goings-on in the mind of the reader/listener is to assume not only that one-to-one relations between scripts and joke parts can be made, but also that those relations are not merely correlative but genuinely relevant to an explanation of why the joke 'works'.

If script-switching really does go a long way towards accounting for why a joke 'works', then in addition to it being true that virtue actually has nothing of significance to do with the Doctor's Wife Joke, it is also true that adultery actually has nothing of significance to do with the same. That is, 'virtue' and 'adultery', though not unimportant, would simply be instances of the variable 'script_subject'.

At least on an algebraic-like point of view.

Crude said...

This isn't about Trump is it?

No, it's about comedy in general, and both what's maximally achieved with it (especially when it's standup, etc), as well as typically achieved.

Sure, there's a subclass of political liberal who pretty well beats off to 'Comedians brutally mocks groups they hate'. They're usually the same people who start blaming suicides and death on any mockery aimed at them.

Mr. Green said...

There’s something reconciliatory about humour: not merely juxtaposing, but uniting incongruities, rectifying disparities. And this is part of a wider framework of delight: we delight in the resolution of puzzles and mysteries, and much more so reconciling any kind of estrangement between persons. We can extrapolate further: the highest delight would be the greatest degree of reconciliation: say, a uniting of the Infinite with the finite. A that high end of the scale, we get joy; the small, concentrated delight we get from a joke or riddle is joy in miniature, a sort of “toy” delight.
A uniform, monochromatic world, with no differences to unite, would be dull(es) and joyless. (Maybe that’s why non-dualists have no sense of humour…) (You thought this post was unrelated to the previous one? It was a corollary! You cannot unite one sex, obviously it takes two (or it used to be obvious, at any rate).)

Mr. Green said...

Ian: How do we evaluate whether a joke is appropriate from a moral point of view? I often am uncomfortable with 'blasphemous' jokes (or at least feel I ought to be). Am I just being uptight?

I hope so! If you don't keep yourself suitably tightened up, your innards will ooze out and flop all over the floor. (And now you know where Modernists come from.) To continue the theme from my previous post, just as delight spans all the way from mild bursts of comedy to great joys, so we might expect negative reactions to occur when the proportionality between the things being united descends into the negative range. That is, some things are not meant to be united in certain ways, so the appropriate reaction to forcing them together ought to be an uncomfortable one.

Some people love butchering sacred cows, but the reality is that some things really are sacred, and require to be treated as such. People with no sense of taste or decorum (—and now you know where Modernists come from!—) will scornfully sneer at you for being too delicate to take a "joke", but if I'm right about this schema, blasphemy and other unpleasantries may have the form of jokes — the form in general that jokes and other delights have — but the wrong matter. You can understand how they are like jokes perhaps, in some way, but they genuinely are unpleasant, or downright nasty, rather than delightful.

The devil is, as always, in the details, but not being offended at something offensive is as wrong as not savouring something good. Good food ought to be pleasing to the taste, and rancid food repugnant; if not, there's something wrong with you. Understanding how the principles of the sense of taste apply to both, or how they would be equally attractive to a dung beetle, or anything else is no reason to deny the proper, healthy human reaction.

Mr. Green said...

DC D: You don't need to to worry about your opinion getting in the way because there's a universal law that says that a comedy will always fall short of brilliance.

Well, Crude didn't say stand-up comedy can never be brilliant humour. But there does seem to be an obvious argument why it can't ever be that profound in some other way: one-liners reach only as far as you can get in one line. That particular type of comedy has pretty severe restrictions on how deep it can penetrate, no? I think it might sometimes make profound points, but only when the profundity is already available for some other reason, and the comedy is just doing the relatively subdued auxiliary task of pointing out something people already know (or almost know). Other forms of humour (such as the seventeenth-century literary pamphlet?) might prove more worthy to the challenge, but I think in general it's hard to maintain enough biting wit to reach insightful levels. (Maybe a case of lockjaw would help....)


(With reference to my previous comment, political humour generally relies upon believing that a certain worldview is true. If you don't accept that, you might understand why someone would think an (alleged) joke is funny, but if they're actually wrong, then it isn't actually a joke. Of course, as with Ed's "John Foster Dullest" example, some jokes can be taken as hyperbole rather than literal truth, and some political humour falls into this category too.)


All this makes me wonder if there really can be an objective standard for assessing comedic brilliance.

Since humour is something real, there surely is.
How to measure it is left as an exercise to the reader.

DC D said...

Mr. Green (and Crude):

"Well, Crude didn't say stand-up comedy can never be brilliant humour. But there does seem to be an obvious argument why it can't ever be that profound in some other way: one-liners reach only as far as you can get in one line. That particular type of comedy has pretty severe restrictions on how deep it can penetrate, no? I think it might sometimes make profound points, but only when the profundity is already available for some other reason, and the comedy is just doing the relatively subdued auxiliary task of pointing out something people already know (or almost know). Other forms of humour (such as the seventeenth-century literary pamphlet?) might prove more worthy to the challenge, but I think in general it's hard to maintain enough biting wit to reach insightful levels. (Maybe a case of lockjaw would help....)"

I think something got lost somewhere between the beginning of our (Crude and I) interaction and the end. Originally, I had no interest in discussing the merits of any individual comic's style, routine or bit and the intellectual depths they could reach on any given topic. Honestly, I was just ruminating on how I personally feel comedy should be viewed.

That being said, I think what I really took issue with was the idea that all comedy is barred from true intellectual depth simply because of it's medium (if Crude implied that comedy, in its own form, can be brilliant, then I missed it but I certainly agree with that). This sounds like one of those dreadful Absolutes that only make sense from a certain rigid point view, and it may be a bit short-sighted when considering a long piece of (potentially brilliant) comedy. Not a one liner or some piece of mockery constructed to whoop up derisive laughter and righteous anger (I'll concede at least that to Crude- left leaning comedians certainly do that- especially Stewart over the last several years), but an entire narrative piece that weaves reality, truth, insight and laughter into it in a brilliant way. So, now we're not looking at just a joke, but (as I said) a piece of social commentary or story that draws you in and really hits the center of your being and moves you. Surely a piece of comedy that does this can be said to have transcended the limit you're placing on the medium?

But, maybe both of you are right, and I'm missing something in the definition of what it means to be truly profound, truly brilliant. That the trick of really good comedy is exposing something tacit or something almost formed in the audience's mind, as you said, but, in the end it's just a trick, even if it is an exceedingly clever one. In the end it may just be really good comedy but falls short of a more transcendent kind of brilliance.

"Since humour is something real, there surely is.
How to measure it is left as an exercise to the reader."

Ah, the fleeting objective standard that is ever just out of the grasp of one reacher, but (seemingly) not the other. Which is why I suppose no matter how insanely brilliant (I think) a piece of comedy is, and no matter how many people feel the same way, it will ever just be a subjective opinion, whether or not its objective value has, indeed, transcended mere comedy. Maybe I'm grasping. But, even If I've misunderstood your meaning, here, I still agree with that last line.

I appreciate your comments and time.

Step2 said...

No, it's about comedy in general, and both what's maximally achieved with it (especially when it's standup, etc), as well as typically achieved.

If it is about comedy in general you shouldn't be focusing on standup in particular. I would pick John Oliver as someone who does "informational political comedy" and that is because he takes a good amount of time to explain the topic.

They're usually the same people who start blaming suicides and death on any mockery aimed at them.

Blood is coming out your wherever.

Mr. Green said...

DC D: Surely a piece of comedy that does this can be said to have transcended the limit you're placing on the medium?

I'd probably go along with that to some extent; but I would also expect that such a work is also transcending the nature of comedy — i.e. the more profound it is, the less the humour is doing the heavy lifting, and the more something else is coming into play. That said, I've been suggesting that humour exists along some sort of continuum, so it doesn't bother me to think of various aspects mixed in together. Rhetorically, the pieces can fit together, and I would certainly say that it's possible for rhetoric to be profound (or perhaps I should say for a profound idea to be presented in brilliant rhetoric overall).

it will ever just be a subjective opinion, whether or not its objective value has, indeed, transcended mere comedy.

Well, any one person's interpretation will be subjective, naturally; but then again, we share a common human nature, so there is always at least the possibility of reasoning our way to agreement. In theory. (In practice... I hope you've got a good supply of Zantac!)

Mr. Green said...

Glenn: If script-switching really does go a long way towards accounting for why a joke 'works', then in addition to it being true that virtue actually has nothing of significance to do with the Doctor's Wife Joke, it is also true that adultery actually has nothing of significance to do with the same.

It seemed to me as well that both were more or less the same joke — though as noted, different script-relative interpretations for different folks. I took the different scripts to be “Is the doctor in [because I want to see him]” vs “Is the doctor in [because I want not to see him!]”

At any rate, I’ve often wondered whether angels have a sense of humour. Presumably they could understand jokes from an intellectual point of view — this word or this sentence could mean this or it could mean that; but since they communicate telepathically (telenoetically?) and not by discursively interpreting speech, it seems they might have no faculty for experiencing comedy in the way humans can.
Of course, angels, being bodiless, do not have senses like we do, and yet humour is an intellectual matter. Or perhaps the discursive experience of humour is something intellectual in a corporeal mode [ooh, who says a one-liner can’t be profound! [meaningful is another matter…[or form [OK, I’m going to stop now [Hey, that’s a funny phrase, isn’t it, going to stop—[sorry]]]]]] — something inherently uniting or incarnational. Or I may be getting carried away.


Let me reassure you that he did. (Alas, he no longer does. (Dear Sir, We are in receipt of two insurance claims filed by you for separate incidents on August 23, 2015. According to the claims, you walked into a bar in one post, and less than two hours later walked into a rebar in another post.

He ought to be re-barred from going out without a helmet. But cancelling his insurance seems a bit severe. [Hey, that’s a funny phrase, bit severe…] I think that whoever kept posting him to those positions surely has to take some share of the blame.

Crude said...

Step2,

If it is about comedy in general you shouldn't be focusing on standup in particular.

Sure I should, since it's pertinent to the point - Stewart and Carlin are getting cited as engaging in brilliant social commentary. I'm pointing out not only why that's not the case, but it actually can't be the case.

Blood is coming out your wherever.

Nah, I just got some of yours on me after our last interaction. Thanks for that, by the way - your performance was comedic, even if unintentional. ;)

Crude said...

Regarding the topic - really, go take a look at the examples I was dealing with: Carlin and Stewart. Particularly, Carlin the standup comic and Stewart's Daily Show bit. The idea that brilliant social commentary is at work in either just doesn't fly, and these were examples that were thrown at me - not ones I just picked out to make the point. Both, at their best, treat topics in a way that's shallow at best, inaccurate at worst.

And that is fine, as far as comedy goes. Because, as has been pointed out - comedy is about getting laughs. If people are laughing, you can be said to have done your job as a comedian. Little else matters.

If the goal is to start providing insight, serious truth and depthful analysis about your topic? You're off in another area, with different standards. Now, accurately - even fairly - representing the subject of your consideration is essential. Doing so thoroughly is going to be important, and communicating all of this not just accurately, but in a way that people can understand, is a major factor.

Not exactly comedy-friendly goals/factors. Lose them, and you lose the intellectual value. In fact, departing from them is necessary for most comedy - you need exaggeration, you need misunderstanding (intentional or otherwise), you need parody. And you don't need to be fair, or accurate, or even informative.

Aside from the obvious 'I agree so it must be deep' problem, let me suggest another issue at work here: the habit of filling in the blanks.

Ripping apart Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is pretty easy. You can mock, namecall, snipe, do bits - and if someone objects, it's possible to fall back on quite a lot of information to back up the claim that, say, Hillary's incompetent and dishonest. But I've run into people who think that, because that data is out there, 'that's what the comedian was saying' - and therefore the comedian was being insightful, etc.

But they weren't. They didn't bring up that information. At best they gestured vaguely in the direction of it. They provided no insight or brilliant analysis - and that someone else did isn't to their credit.

Unknown said...

People, in fact, very rarely think “I don’t agree with the view underlying it, but I have to admit it’s still funny.”

This is not a fact at all, and is contradicted by common experience. Examples abound. It's not "very rare" at all, which is why conservatives so often acknowledge how funny a particular comedian or movie might be, even though they disagree with the substantive content. If that wasn't so, Hollywood would be dead broke.

The Masked Chicken said...

"And to analyze a joke in terms of the goings-on in the mind of the reader/listener is to assume not only that one-to-one relations between scripts and joke parts can be made, but also that those relations are not merely correlative but genuinely relevant to an explanation of why the joke 'works'."

Yes, that is exactly right, although, I think you meant it as a counter-argument against the script idea. Two variable states change in the Doctor's Wife Joke: the status of the man and the status of the woman. He goes from Patient to Adulterer and she goes from Virtuous Doctor's Wife to Adulterer. In other words, both Patient and Doctor's Wife are anchored to the Doctor script and Adulterous Man and Adulterous Woman are anchored to the Adulterer script. At the punchline, "Come right in," the two scripts de-merge into two competing scripts - this is called, Script Opposition (Doctor Script (implies virtue) vs. Adulterer Script (implies vice)) , but, also, with a common locus of activity, called, Script Overlap ("Come right in," can exist in either script). Raskin maintains that you need both Script Opposition (the incongruous part) and Script Overlap (the congruous part) for script-switching to occur and neuro-mathematics suggests that he is correct.

It would take a full paper (which is in preparation) to explain why the goings-on in the mind of a reader are relevant, but scripts are being activated as the joke unfolds.

As the topic of this post is about humor and truth, I suppose discussing incongruity might be relevant, but it does not address the political aspects of humor of the original post, which I addressed in discussing humor killers. I haven't mentioned the moral aspects of jokes. There is almost nothing in the literature about this, either. St. Thomas Aquinas discusses mirth, in general, but not humor, specifically. I think the Jesuits discuss the, "joking lie," but, again, this only touches the surface of a true moral theology of humor. It is on my to-do list.

In any case, is this post an appropriate place to discuss incongruity, Bayesian processing, and the neuro-dynamics of humor? I mean, they are cool and all, but these are comments, not crowd-sourced academic discussions, like at Terry Tao's mathematics blog. Still, it would be nice to get the take of a critical, but friendly audience (you are friendly, right?) of outsiders in some of these issues. The humor scholarship community is pretty small and we have been together for years. It can lead to groupthink.

The Chicken

Glenn said...

The Masked Chicken,

>> And to analyze a joke in terms of the goings-on in the mind of the reader/listener is to assume not only that one-to-one relations between scripts and joke parts can be made, but also that those relations are not merely correlative but genuinely relevant to an explanation of why the joke 'works'."

> Yes, that is exactly right, although, I think you meant it as a counter-argument against the script idea.

No, it was not intended to be a counter-argument, but an expression of a cautionary thought I often experience when thinking about a model. While the cautionary thought is general, the expression of it was tailored to the particular case at hand. The general thought is: mathematics can tell us whether a conclusion is true with respect to an underlying hypothesis, but cannot tell us whether that conclusion is actually true.

Still, it would be nice to get the take of a critical, but friendly audience (you are friendly, right?) of outsiders in some of these issues.

My response to the question is to refer you to earlier comments of mine (e.g., the one beginning with, "I was hoping you'd show up[.]"), and trust that your good judgment will draw the correct inference. The pace of considerations for an outsider, such as myself, do tend to differ from that of those of an insider, and research pertaining to the validity of the SSTH is on-going, so I suppose I have been jumping the gun with some of my musings. Sorry about that.

Glenn said...

(If 'considerations' do, then surely a 'pace' does.)

Glenn said...

Mr. Green,

I think that whoever kept posting him to those positions surely has to take some share of the blame.

1. Mea culpa.

2. Wait, the guy is fictional. 'Mea culpa' retracted.

Of course, angels, being bodiless, do not have senses like we do, and yet humour is an intellectual matter.

Well, though it may be that they cannot laugh, perhaps it does not necessarily follow that they have not a sense of humor. And perhaps where a human would laugh, an angel's joy shines a bit more brightly.

Glenn said...

(Based on an joke in an episode of the Jack Benny Show I heard this morning:

("How many children do you have?"

("We have three children: Hank, Frank, and Mo."

("You have three children?"

("Well, we only wanted two children. But Hank and Frank were such delights, we thought we'd have one Mo.")

Glenn said...

Ah, good think I checked again -- s/b,

"The general thought is: mathematics can tell us whether a conclusion is valid with respect to an underlying hypothesis, but cannot tell us whether that conclusion is actually true."

Lori Wilson said...

Its funny because....The squirrel gets dead.

Also, Phineas and Ferb is an excellent example of incongruity.