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Perspective on Knowledge: Humor and truth

This article appears in the issue January 2017, [Volume 26, Issue 1]

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I’ve spent all day counting and can report that there are approximately one million different explanations of what makes something funny, possibly because there are lots of different ways things can be funny. I’ve long preferred to think that it has something to do with the sudden revelation of a truth. But even if that’s right, there are reasons to think that humor may be a particularly dangerous medium for truth, which would be especially problematic in an age when many of us turn to comedy for news.

The definition of “funny” is far easier than that of “humor,” for we can define “funny” operationally as “that which makes me laugh.” That sort of definition works for words like “irritant,” and it’s fine for “funny,” too.

The sudden revelation of a truth

Then we have to ask about the properties that make us laugh. At the risk of being arbitrary, let’s leave aside the sort of laughter we emit when we’re feeling nervous or socially awkward, although in terms of laughs per hour, those are the most common types.

The property I’m pointing to—the sudden revelation of a truth—shows itself in Seinfeld jokes that are observations of the “What’s up with … ?” sort, which are about social norms we inhabit but don’t notice. The humor is in the making explicit of a behavior we’d taken for granted. Likewise for the Amy Schumer sketch that makes explicit the rigid judgments men (many? most? some?) make about when an actress is no longer considered sexually attractive. This is a peculiar and important form of subversive humor that calls into question an important assumption that we already knew was true if we’d only thought about it explicitly.

But not all such revelations of truth are funny. Moses didn’t guffaw when he first saw the Ten Commandments. (The Hebrews did, but for the wrong reasons.) Likewise, when you found out that the person you were going steady with in high school was cheating on you with the captain of the team, you probably didn’t break out in laughter. That suddenly revealed truth just wasn’t funny.

It seems there are at least two other factors at play, both well remarked on in the literature. The first is that humor plays an important role in building social cohesion. For example, at Reddit, jokes frequently depend upon the reader knowing a lot of Reddit lore: The joke consists entirely in getting the reference. Getting it further confirms your membership in the group. Much of this sort of humor simultaneously excludes those who are not in the group, sometimes quite viciously: Consider the sorts of jokes that were made during the recent election cycle by supporters of one side or another.

The transgressive nature of humor

The other major factor to consider is the extent to which humor is transgressive, that is, a form of expression that gives us permission to say (and think) what otherwise would have been forbidden by social norms, and maybe by common decency. This can be a joke in which we admit to a vice of action or thought (Louis CK, Richard Pryor), but when turned against others and combined with humor as a tool of social cohesion, this is a powerful weapon for excluding those who are not in your group: You give yourself permission to make a joke that is insulting about the Other, and that binds your group through its exclusion of the Other. Common, but not pretty.

That type of humor is the opposite of truth.

Performing knowledge’s highest task

This sounds like a damning analysis of humor. But these limitations are present in our non-joking pursuits of truth. What we count as knowledge, our rules of evidence, our sense of what knowledge is worth the effort, and the way we talk about what we know are all constitutive of our tribe. We use knowledge as a way of including our cohort and excluding those benighted others. Humor’s transgressive nature can enable it to perform knowledge’s highest task: to question what we think we know.

That’s why some humor seems more trivial to us than others. Puns don’t expose anything important about the world or even about language, so they generally don’t elicit deep laughter. A great joke reveals a truth about something consequential. It likely comes with a punch of recognition that calls deep assumption into question. That recognition is by itself transgressive for it shows us that the world is not necessarily how it has seemed to us.

And sometimes a joke is just a joke.

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