Bigsley the Oaf

On Laughter

Posted in Uncategorized by bigsleytheoaf on February 4, 2012

About three weeks ago I asked my readers to ask me some questions. The (two) responses were great! I’m going to answer the first one, which is (I am grateful) super open-ended:

“finally, one thing that you haven’t mentioned is laughter…for me that’s at the top of that list.”

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that the act of asking you for questions, reading your responses, and not yet answering those questions has caused me a great deal of guilt/strife/inner-turmoil/what-have-you. I keep thinking things like “oh god, I am SO grateful to these guys for asking me such good questions and have still not responded, oh god oh god oh god.” Apparently this inner emotional churn was strong enough to unconsciously and outwardly manifest itself in the purchase and immediate consumption of “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This” by Jim Holt, a book about the history of humor. One of the points that this book makes repeatedly is that there are few histories of humor, and philosophers have said little about it.

I mean, laughter touches on some deep philosophical shit. Only humans laugh (basically), so there’s that. There’s the uniting of mind/body – why does “funny” as a mental phenomenon correlate with the various paroxysms and facial distensions of laughter/smiling/grimacing/what-have-you.

But, there are practical problems in writing about humor. As Holt notes, the most interesting philosophical writing is often on the most boring subjects. He uses the example that the philosophy of law is deep, complex, and fascinating while law itself is as dry as it gets, while the philosophy of literature is generally a snore-a-thon whereas literature is, well…

I think I understand the reason for this. I mean, how can you say anything about literature, in general? Where would you begin? I’ve actually run into this problem a lot (don’t worry, I’ll get to my actual thoughts on laughter below, at some point) – the problem of generalization feeling deeply disrespectful/dishonest/horrible. It’s part of why racism/sexism is, moral considerations aside, boring. What can possibly be said about “women” which is not deeply stupid?: Let’s say that you’re a wise old guy – 70 – and that you’ve lived a fair number of places – 10 – so you have on average 7 years of experience with probably only hundreds of women in each of 10 locations. Not to mention that the whole shebang is massively miscalibrated and biased due to the fact that the main interactions you’ve had were probably with 2-10 women (mother + relationships) and your own deep emotional attachments to these women, and the way that your whole perspective is therefore horribly skewed and twisted by your trauma and joy so that anything you say about women is actually more something that you’re saying about yourself and your own emotional state. Not to mention the fact that you’ve read books about women and participated in discourse on the subject of women, that you’ve read literature and seen movies and listened to songs that portray women in a way that they’re really not but that your stupid brain does not know they are really not. Not to mention the fact that you’ve never been a woman, but here you are, 70 years old, saying something stupid and simple like “women are like fine wine” because that’s all you can say because if you actually stopped to think about the complex and infinitely manifold constraints and pressures which have coalesced in and around you to form your opinion of “woman” your brain would literally melt – or else you’d be thrown into some sort of spiral/fractal impenetrable dark psychotic break from reality which could only result in your loss of belief in the existence of “woman” as type/instance/THING – in the same way if you actually concentrate on pain, or repeat a word over and over, or stare at something long enough and hard enough it kind of disappears – in the same way that when I was walking through Shinjuku park that one day and watching the man walk in front of me and started thinking about his family and all his connections and his relations to all other objects and suddenly he was gone and only his relationships remained – and I kept going, and those relationships just became relationships to other relationships until there was literally nothing there. And so you see what happens. If you actually look at literature, or laughter, you’re going to lose your immediate connection to it. You lose the sense of simplicity which lets you feel like it’s really there, even though it is, obviously, only an epiphenomenon.

But we love literature. We love laughter. What if we destroyed these things in ourselves? THE HORROR.

And here is the motherfucking crux. The man in shinjuku park didn’t really go away – only temporarily. “Woman” doesn’t really go away. Good old reliable brain. You can analyze laughter and literature and love and women. You can mutter insipid bullshit or formalize complex frameworks upon frameworks in which you articulate your most sophisticated and subtle understandings – but at the end of the day a woman is a woman, a man is a man, and the simplicity of your childhood basic mentality shines through like the boring simple thing it is. Relax.

And so, despite the fact that there are billions of types of things which are funny, trillions of ways things can be funny, zillions of reactions to those things, etc. Despite the fact that if you actually think about laughter and its history and its role in society – if you actually explode its complexity and try to wrangle with it your brain will be deep-fried in hot oily analysis. Despite all this – we can still pretty much talk about it. But let’s not take ourselves too seriously when we do so.

Laughter:

For one thing, laughter is a break. Why do we laugh when we’re tickled? What is a tickle? It’s a storm of sensations too complex for you to deal with. For every point of sensation there are a million counter-points. It is the result of running smack-dab into a nexus of high physical complexity [1].

For another thing, something is funny, to me, if it’s fucked. A fat man falling. That’s not supposed to happen, for so many reasons. And it’s funny. And it’s not supposed to be funny, which is in itself fucking hilarious. It’s hilarious that here’s this big old clump of cells, now falling, splitting from each other, injuries multiplying in a whole symphony of pain and complex blubber dynamics. It’s funny that this clump of cells is even so fat. The complexes of guilt and our reactions to them. Fat man falling as complexity nexus. And at the root, there’s all this pressure in the psycho-dynamics surrounding fatness and it needs to come out.

Laughter feels like an explosive release of pressure. Like, you know something isn’t “supposed” to be a certain way, but then it IS. It really IS that way, and all that time and energy that you’ve put into pretending that it isn’t, or that it usually isn’t, or whatever – it all comes rolling out.

Like a cute little child releasing a massive fart. Like the president literally slipping on a banana peel. Like a joke where the punch-line is actually unexpected because why was it actually unexpected?

There’s humor that validates our intelligence in a way that makes us feel elated[2]. DFW-style humor. George Carlin-style humor. Bill Hicks. It’s someone saying something that we don’t let ourselves say or think because it just opens up a world of complexity. It’s old-fashioned awesome – awe-inspiring – to see these cosmonauts of humor exploring distant alien worlds of society and social pressures which are actually not really so distant, we just spend a lot of our time maintaining the membrane which keeps us separated from them.

I think that Louis C.K. is very funny. There are all sorts of complex reasons that he’s funny (and if you’re following along – and you’re coming to the conclusion that complexes of complexity are necessary to humor – then it should follow that this is actually a big part of why he’s funny), but a major one is that he paints himself as a bad person. A bad person who is OK with it. What a release for all of us horrible people who are not OK with it.

But laughter isn’t just release. Laughter is many many things. If laughter were just one thing, it would be a daily routine. If we knew what it was we would get up, take a shit, have a laugh, then eat our eggs and drink our orange juice.

Laughter can be a reaction to cleverness. It can be a reaction to just being in a fucking good mood and seeing something simple like a pig wallowing in mud. Laughter can be a reaction to extremes in nervousness. Is everything funny when you’re nervous?

This is part of its paradoxically simultaneous intractability and simplicity. Humor is always there, in everything. It is a complex function on the surface, the horizon, the periphery, of human reality. This horizon is constantly shifting, and so so is humor[3]. Trying to pin down what humor is or will be is like trying to answer “what will society be like, in a week?” Jesus Christ! – where would you even begin?

Here’s another theory: laughter is the echo of our earliest and strongest experiences with psychedelic drugs, carried down through the centuries. Laughter feels dream-like, trippy, in a lot of ways. If you try to think back on why something is funny, it doesn’t seem funny. You understood so deeply why it was funny – its funniness was there with you, even physically – in the laugh, and yet it is ephemeral and gone. If you’ve ever tripped, or ever dreamed, it’s like that. Dreams seem so boring afterwards, but holy shit when you’re actually in them.

I mean, this is actually the question of how humor developed. In his book, Holt talks about the history of jokes – but I think that’s a lot like trying to think about the history of language by looking at the history of novels. The two are related, but come on.

So an idea that is random and totally unjustified except that it seems nice is that our pre-civilized ancestors were doing lots and lots of mushrooms, and other natural psychedelics, in such large quantities, and over so long a time, that they actually caused the evolution of a physical/mental system for dealing with periods of intensely high complexity. Because that’s what humans do, and that’s why we “win” (hahahaha).

Then again, who knows?

To conclude on a personal note – I think I’m funny. I don’t think I’m always funny, and I don’t mean to be arrogant, but a lot of people have told me that I’m funny, and I’ve frequently made a whole bunch of people laugh. It’s a weird feeling when everyone in a room is hanging on everything you’re saying and so viscerally reacting. It’s totally addictive, but also soul-destroying in a certain way.

Anyway, I just wanted to deconstruct the process of generating humor in this sort of situation – what it feels like to create spontaneous forms which an audience enjoys through laughter (see! that sentence is so fucking boring.).

First of all, the mood has to be right. If people are relaxed, that’s good. But not too relaxed. They can’t be lolling around. A party or gathering where people have had a few drinks, and it’s still early in the night, so there’s good energy and vibes flowing around is about right.

So anyway, I generally say something that is ridiculous, and that I know is ridiculous. It’s important that I know it. And it’s important that I let everyone know that I know it. I’m not sure why this is important, but it is. It’s like – if I were just being ridiculous – people would think that I’m laughable, but not actually funny. And if I knew that I was being ridiculous, but they didn’t know that, then I’d be kind of dominating them. This upward, almost recursive, structure sets the stage for a real human reaction. They know that I’m thinking of them, and that I know that they know, and so on.

The point, for me, is to create a sort of stage on which I am comfortable saying really weird/ridiculous/somewhat painful shit without people getting really pissed, or reacting in a sort of knee-jerk way. That’s important. You need to get them to get outside of themselves. They can’t be all wound up in their concerns – if everyone is like this then it’ll ruin the whole thing.

The next thing is to really let shit flow with all different levels of complexity and absurdity. When you tell a joke, you can’t just say something funny, you also have to say it in a funny way. This means that timing is important, as well as being able to construct your sentences well, word-play is a plus. Then there are all sorts of other properties that a thing can have – it can feel internal, like you’re inviting them directly into your deepest mind – or it can feel super external and performative (think Eddie Izzard). It’s best to keep things moving around. It can be confessional.

Confession is a big part of it, I think – telling people that yeah, I’m weak, and yeah, I do stupid shit – because this helps them feel less bad about the stupid shit they do. It’s weird, but I think that a lot of the function of (at least my type of) humor is that of the court jester – saying the uncomfortable, necessary, healing shit that no one else is willing to say.

…This all started with my cousins back when I would hang out with them when I was very young. I would cook up crazy scenarios – I would often come up with a premise like “if I had a million dollars” and follow it up with some off-the-wall completely unrealistic thing to do with a million dollars. Like start a candy store but only sell candy that tasted really bad. Or, buy a humm-vee and mount chain-saws on it. Ok, that shit isn’t funny, but it was when I was like 7. This was my first stage – the first time that my role in a group of people was to provide humor, to make them feel better by getting them to forget, in a way. Or remember, in a way. Their family situation was very sad. I think it helped.

————-

[1] I didn’t want to get too deep into tickling – but when I was going back through this essay I realized: isn’t tickling fucking weird? I mean, it totally shuts down your brain. No thoughts except “must stop the tickling!” In some people it results in laughter, but in others it results in nothing. Why? It works better when you’re tense. Why? In some people it just results in shrieking and shaking, but not really laughter. It’s hard to tickle animals. Why? Are animals just deeply relaxed and self-sure? Fuck.

[2] And it’s really important to not start thinking that humor appears singularly – there is happy humor and sad humor and angry humor and so on. Mixes of emotions. Emotional alchemy. My good god.

[3] Interestingly enough, the least humorous people always seem to be way deep inside social reality – like wall street motherfuckers. So deep in simple explanations that they don’t even have tension. People whose souls have left their bodies. A body functioning. A mind delusional and gone.

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2 Responses

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  1. tobyschachman said, on February 5, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    See also Arthur Koestler’s Act of Creation,
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Act_of_Creation

    The book opens with a discussion of laughter. The thesis of the work is that humor (“ha!”), science (“aha!”), and art (“ah!”) are intimately related.

    • bigsleytheoaf said, on February 6, 2012 at 5:03 am

      Sweet! Looks really interesting. I like the related “Conceptual Blending Theory” – very near to some of the stuff I’ve been thinking about, recently.

      Namely, I’ve been thinking a lot about “complexes” or “spastic forms” – forms whose dynamics and characteristics change so frequently that they are basically uninterpretable. Examples would be things like “Money,” “Twitter,” “The Internet,” “Man/Woman/etc.,” etc. I’ve also been trying to play chess/go in a more “blended” way in the sense that I’m not trying to privilege any one particular strategic “desire” over others, instead trying to think of moves that have many possible interesting/good continuations. Anyway, I’m rambling. But thanks for the link!


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