When Humour Stops Being Funny
by Francois Tremblay (e-mail: FTremblay@liberator.net) [April 15th, 2000]

     When do jokes become more than jokes? Are insults part of humour? To a certain extent, they can be. But besides being non-politically correct, which should not unduly preoccupy us, they can become hurtful, especially if you keep at it for weeks and months. Humour has recently been under attack in Montreal -- the humour capital of the world. We're starting to hear complaints that some humour-oriented TV shows that take a, shall we say, tad insulting outlook on our celebrities, are excessive. There is still something to be said for politeness, it seems. How much cruelty is too much? And should we eschew freedom of speech to stop it?

     That last question was a bait, of course. I am not going to suggest that we destroy freedom of speech because a couple of celebrity cry-babies don't like it when we say they have a big nose or that they don't know what they're doing. Judgement is a reality of life.

     But these various facets of humour are very interesting to examine. Is it possible that humour fulfils a more diverse role than just "ha-ha" jokes? Why is humour repressed in various authoritarian systems; could it be that it fulfils an important role in freethinking?

     And since humour is such a complex and subtle mechanism, its origins also seem to be quite mysterious. Why do we laugh? What purpose does it serve in terms of survival?

     Perhaps one of the reasons why humour is not studied to a great depth is because the subject does not seem very important. "One almost feels silly studying laughter, because it seems like an intrinsically silly topic," says Alan Fridlund (professor of psychology at the University of California in Santa Barbara), "but the ways that laughter and humour evolved and are used are actually quite serious." An ethnologist, Glenn Weisfield, concurs: "A lot of people would hesitate to build an academic career on something thatís supposedly so superfluous."

     It seems that the physical capacity to laugh develops in babies between 3 and 6 months of age. Tickling is the first thing that makes babies laugh. The bonding process between parents and infant intensifies, it is said, once the parents start getting the feedback provided by the manifestations of humour, that is, smiling and laughing. This may give us an important hint of the reason why humour has evolved -- it seems that children who are less responsive to parents may not be as loved as children who are more responsive.

     Fridlund, whom I mentioned before, then identifies the following phases of humour development as "rambunctiousness" (tossing in the air, rough-housing), and "peek-a-boo" (unpredictable twists). After this phase of reciprocal interaction is assimilated, the child can understand "real" humour, like visual or auditive puns. Teen humour is more pranks-oriented, perhaps, as Weisfeld hypothesises, as a result of the competitiveness of adolescence. Humour in older age tends to be of a coping variety, especially amongst older women.

     A reason why we skim the question of origins is that it seems to be a quite difficult one to answer. After all, humour is a quite subtle phenomenon: for sure, humour almost always requires language. But then, you have to consider that we know spirituality is genetic, and not acquired. Not religion in itself, of course, but spirituality in general. If something as ethereal and subtle as spirituality can be explained through evolution, then there is no reason why humour could not be explained.

     A common explanation is that humour is based on surprise. Jokes are often based on bending the rules of logic and common sense (especially on punch lines). Our brain is wired to look for these kind of sudden changes in our environment. This is especially comprehensible for other animals, which live in situations where they must react quickly. The more intelligent we get, it is logical to assume that we could be able to seek more complex changes, as in our mental models of reality, which jokes often twist around. Jokes connect new elements and make associations that we could not make in nature. This helps to make our banks of knowledge grow.

     Another explanation, proposed by Marvin Minsky, is to the effect that we must learn to avoid fallacies in daily life, especially for people who are not well versed in logic and reason. The role of humour would be to learn these things. Now, this explains why Christians don't have a sense of humour, or perhaps the reverse: because they don't use humour to learn, they stay in ignorance? What a thought. Minsky also hypothesises that humour is mainly about taboos and the nonsensical, because our mind uses censors to suppress unproductive mental states and analogies to accelerate cognition. Thus, he says, humour fulfils a function of helping us in "recognizing and suppressing bugs -- ineffective or destructive thought processes."

     The reason why we find humour funny, in any perspective, is because producing pleasure by this activity favours this detection of twists. When the connections are used for some time, they are no longer "funny": a stale joke quickly becomes boring. This makes us seek more unusual connections.

     Fridlund and Hecker examined this idea by starting from Charles Darwin's theory that jokes were basically "mental tickles." Their study concluded that there is proportionality between ticklishness and sense of humour, and that, as well, the propensity to laugh is also proportional to other reflexes such as blushing, crying or goose bumps. This suggests that the reflexes underlying ticklishness also support the reactions to humour, and that laughter is simply a reflex that "exhausts the tension that has built up" -- it is, as I mentioned before, a pleasurable reaction to the finding of new connections.

     That is not really surprising, so to speak, because we can easily observe that surprise alone is not a sufficient condition to laugh. The sentence "Hitler was the most ethical man in history" is surprising, but not funny. As Minsky says, to understand how to transmit the message effectively, you must remember that humour necessarily evolved in a social context. Therefore we must use language in a gracious or devious way.

     According to psychiatrist Dr. Mailloux, humour in psychology is acknowledged as fulfilling three main roles. The first one, and most common, is the one I have been discussing -- in short, being funny. The second one is open expression of feelings or thoughts, without feeling uncomfortable. Humour can convey any feeling, and can be used to go around repression of any kind. It's an "acceptable way" of saying those things that everybody thinks but cannot say. There is also a special case where no direct emotion is expressed, but humour is used more as a hostility transfer mechanism.

     The second role seems especially interesting, from the point of view of free communication. Perhaps humour is a mechanism that permits normal communication to be sustained, even in the face of censorship.

Humour and Freethinking

     The natural consequence of this hypothesis is that religions and cults should see humour as a very negative thing. This is confirmed by observation - we see that humour and jokes, especially about the doctrines, is frowned upon. For example, the Christian Bible says :

     "Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep" (Luke 6:25)
     The meaning of the first part is clear : happy people have no need for religion, neither are they desirable. The second part is probably an extension of this concept.
"Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" (Eccleiastes 7:3-4)

"For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity" (Eccleiastes 7:6)

     One might try to contradict this by arguing that the whole Bible is a joke, but I disgress.

     There is not much place for jokes in the stoic atmosphere of political tyrannies, religions and cults. Most religions have this notion that salvation or enlightment is a very serious path, and that humour has no place -- keeping our soul pure from exterior influence is hard enough. One must bear his cross, original sin, evil, or its equivalent. The religious life is one of slouched shoulders and heavy burden. The end of the world is just around the corner, this is no time to joke around. But actually the pretense of the ascetic life usually hides control -- control thru deprivation (which is observed especially strongly in brainwashing cults).

     In any doctrine, humour is bad because it stimulates positive emotions and makes one look at things critically. Humility and respect are elevated, selfishness and mocking are degraded. Many cult leaders understand the role of humour as a subtle tool of disagreement. The other side of it is that humor and joy wastes time that would be better devoted to important activities. As they say, "the devil finds work for idle hands."

     Sometimes humour feels like liberation... and when we are free, we laugh! Humour can be a great liberation. When you can laugh at something, you can distance yourself from that subject a bit. Of course, someone who is trying to control you wouldn't want you to be able to take that distance. There is a maxim that says, "if you can't laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?" Perhaps humour directed at one's beliefs is simply the first step of critical thinking.

     They say, "humour is the best weapon against oppressive systems." As for my own opinion on humour, I have to agree with George Carlin: you can joke about anything, it all depends on how you make the joke.

[Visit Francois Tremblay's personal pages at http://www.objectivethought.com.]

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