I’ve been thinking three things about comedy lately:
1) How much I love it.
2) How angry and outraged comedy is making people.
3) I’m not going to list a third thing, because comedy is all about breaking rules.
Up to a point, it’s natural that comedy challenges and upsets people, but I like to think about how and why.
Partially because it makes me feel better about all the money I spent on my liberal arts degree. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Visual Art, Rhetoric, and Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature. Yes, a BS triple major. It’s an ALMOST useless liberal arts degree.
The one class that has been endlessly valuable to me was a class about comedy theory. A class about analyzing the function and purpose of jokes.
I think about that class every day of my life.
Almost all theories of comedy boil down to this: comedy functions on contrast. We break into laughter when two ideas are smashed together in surprising and satisfying ways. Humans are hard-wired to laugh at incongruity. If you doubt this, go tell a child the sound a duck makes is “moo.” The child will laugh and/or get really mad and hit you with a toy truck.
Every joke has a set-up and a punchline; an expectation and a surprise. Obviously, you can’t just throw two contrasting things together for the hell of it. That’s when you end up with tweets like this:
Citizen Kane and Peanut Butter. #PutTwoThingsTogether
The success of a joke is in the clarity of the set-up and the surprise of the punch-line.
Sometimes, the set-up is an actual line.
Set-up: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Punchline: To get to the other side.
When this joke was new, it killed. The expectation for an elaborate, clever response was set-up and then broken by a simple, obvious response.
A lot of modern technology cracks unwitting set-up and knockdown jokes. For example:
Me: Hey, Google Maps, how should I get to Chipotle from here?
Google Maps: Drive your car into the Pacific Ocean, Joseph.
But a lot of what makes us laugh doesn’t have a literal set-up line. The set-up line is just a “truth” we’ve culturally agreed on.
Back when we culturally agreed that men do not wear dresses, a man wearing a dress was hilarious. Now, not so much. As a joke, it’s tired and expected. As a cultural truth, many of us believe traditional gender norms are changing. Anyone can wear a dress and if you don’t like it you can go drive your car into the Pacific Ocean.
A lot of our humor is getting weirder. Strange cultural truths are being challenged. For example, our long held belief that handsome, charismatic leading men don’t look like otters. But as Benedict Cumberbatch and Tumblr proved, holy shit, that expectation can be broken. And it’s very satisfying.
We laugh when we see someone slip and fall on a patch of ice because the sight of another person flailing their limbs in a desperate attempt to stay upright shatters our innate idea of humans as advanced, intelligent beings.
Set-up: I am a dignified, respectable human in control of my body.
Punchline: Ha, ha, motherfucker, you just broke your coccyx.
Comedy, by its nature, is violent. It’s all about breaking, shattering, falling, killing, and driving into the Pacific Ocean.
But just because it’s inherently violent, doesn’t mean it has to be offensive.
I think a lot of outrage about comedy is because of the targets comedians pick. A lot of jokes still function on the agreed upon cultural “truths” that women are whiney or gay people are always flamboyant or all straight men only listen to women talk so they can “hit that puss.” (That last one is an actual joke I heard an actual comedian say out loud on purpose in 2015.)
Sometimes the audience is offended, but often the joke just isn’t funny to a lot of people because we don’t share that truth anymore. The set-up makes no sense so why would we be entertained by the punchline?
People talk about don’t punch down, instead punch up. Which makes sense to me. Don’t make fun of poor people. Instead make fun of the giant asshole corporations that are keeping them poor.
I think that’s a great starting point.
But even if you pick a worthy target for your comedy, it’s still an aggressive violent pursuit. It’s still punching.
If all you want to do with your comedy is punch, that’s great! There are plenty of weeds that need to be pulled out of our cultural garden. If the violent action of tearing a living thing out of the ground can create the positive, healthy reaction of laughter, then we’re already doing well.
Comedy is always destructive. It always will be. It’s always going to rip the weeds out of the garden. But I’m trying to think of clearing the weeds as just the first step. Since we’re tearing shit out anyway, maybe we can plant something new.
A new idea.
A new truth.
A new way for the chicken to cross the road that no one has ever thought of before.
A joke so powerful, it can pay off all of my student loans at once.
I can dream.
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