The Problem of Humor

Laughter is a problem. Yes it is, don’t laugh at me. It may be a problem larger than suffering, larger than evil, larger than a moon made of fingernails, and it is a problem because of this: laughter thrives on tragedy. Someone trips, and we laugh. A cow bursts into a shopping mall, and we laugh. A black man meets a Jew on the beach, and we laugh.

I agree with Kierkegaard:

The law for the comic is very simple: the comic is wherever there is contradiction and where the contradiction is painless by being regarded as canceled… [1]

Humor is our burst of surprise before incongruity, the sonar explosion that magnifies contradiction. It is our lighthearted reaction to oddness, to things that are not the way they were supposed to be. Provided nobody is hurt and things end well, what do we laugh about? People tripping, a cow’s parade, racist prejudices: tension, incongruity, and tragedy. We laugh about things that, if they followed their logic to the end, would amount to great sadness: the person tripping and hurting himself, or the racist tension leading to conflict and humiliation.

I noticed this tragicomic dynamic of humor after watching one hilarious video. Carlo Verdone, a Roman actor, receives a phone call late at night, of someone looking for Aunt Mary. “But Aunt Mary is dead!,” he answers, cross-eyed with a pajama hat. Verdone asks the other person what message she wanted to pass on, and it was about someone’s death. Then he learns that the two sons are dead too, and the dog. Tragedy follows on tragedy until, talking about the grandpa who did not have an arm, Verdone asks the person what number did she dial. It was the wrong number, and he sighs relieved that no one is dead after all, at least no one he knows except Aunt Mary, of course.

Soren Kierkegaard, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript”, in Howard Hong and Edna Hong, eds., The Essential Kierkegaard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 236.

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