Surprise, Permission, and the Conditioning of Comedy

After yesterday’s post I can’t stop thinking about comedy. I began to dig around a little and the amount of material dedicated to theorizing and unpacking comedy and humor is a bit staggering. And in spite of my rather academic temperament, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to know. That wants to preserve the mystery of comedy. Isn’t that mysteriousness an inherent part of it? If a joke is expected, it won’t be as funny (or funny at all). This is true whether we are actors delivering it or spectators responding to it.

There’s that great anecdote about the Lunts we’ve all heard a dozen times. Supposedly Alfred Lunt was lamenting the loss of his laugh on a line—in which he asked for a cup of tea– that used to consistently deliver. His wife Lynn responded:

Alfred, dear, you are no longer asking for the tea, you are asking for the laugh.

Because he expected it, he could not get the laugh. When he stopped worrying about the laugh and simply asked for the tea, the laugh returned.

The same is true when we hear a joke. If we know and expect the punch line, we might chuckle, but it won’t floor us. If the punch line comes out of nowhere and catches us by surprise, we are goners.

Another thing we seem to need in comedy is permission. We talk a lot about this in theater—that the audience needs permission to laugh. You’ve got to get the early laughs in a comedic play, for the laughter to take hold later.

I think we also need a bit of permissiveness when it comes to what we find funny. This is especially true for jokes at the expense of others. I stumbled across an interesting post by Gil Greengross on Psychology Today about comedy, discrimination, and permission:

Mark Ferguson, along with another colleague, Chris Crandall, proposed what is called the “Normative Window Theory of Prejudice”. Simply put, the theory suggests that we place social groups on a scale, in terms of how legitimate it is to discriminate and have prejudice attitudes against them. It is totally acceptable to hold prejudiced views against racists, or against kids who steal lunch money because these behaviors are condemned in our society. It is not acceptable to hold prejudice views or discriminate against doctors or farmers. This distinction between the groups is pretty clear and robust, meaning that we will always hold these clear cut views about those groups regardless of the situation.

However, there are other social groups that it was once acceptable to discriminate against, but over time we have slowly shifted our views and consider prejudice against them as unjustified. Among these groups are women, racial and religious minorities, and gays and lesbians. These groups suffered historically from discrimination but today, more and more people agree that discriminating against them is immoral and wrong.

This is why the audience is willing to laugh freely at someone who is expressing racism or sexism, but will not necessarily laugh with their jokes (we hope—though racist and sexist jokes do, of course, abound.).

I still have a lot of questions about this issue, questions I brought up in yesterday’s post as well as in my post on June 26, 2013—but it does partially explain why the audience is so eager to respond to this type of humor. It also adds insight to the way our sense of humor evolves and is socially determined. He goes on to state:

These studies illuminate some aspects of humor that people sometimes tend to ignore. First, humor depends largely on the context and on the personality and the attitudes of the audience. Jokes are never neutral. The same joke can be funny or not, but can also be racist or not racist depending on who tells it and to whom.

Comedy is conditioned. It is not a universal currency. There may not be a theory that totally unlocks its mystery, as it exists with in a much larger milieu of expectations and permissiveness. But perhaps a study of what we agree to laugh at and how that evolves can provide insight into some of the fundamental ideologies that shape our societies.

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