YMIAFT Chapter 1 Part 5
A joke by any other name
“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”
~ Victor Borge
Imagine you are given a rose by someone you love. Even if you aren't the type who particularly likes flowers, I would imagine that you'll still appreciate the gesture and be somewhat happy about it. If it was someone you really liked and hoped they had the same feelings for you, the moment of getting a rose from them could be a thrilling experience. However, now imagine that the person who hands you a rose is a crazy stalker who has been waiting outside your house every night for the last two weeks, trying to catch a glimpse of you through your bedroom window. Now being handed a rose is far from a happy experience. You might even be terrified about the implied message of the rose if you thought this person was genuinely dangerous. In the two cases, your feelings are wildly different, but the rose isn't. The rose is the exact same plant in both scenarios, but what has changed is that both the person delivering it and the person receiving it are creating different contexts that alter the rose's meaning. That's why you can listen to people at the next table over and not be affected by their jokes, because it's a little like watching two lovers you don't know at all exchange gifts. The gifts aren't for you, so who cares?
Trying to define the characteristics that objectively identify love by measuring the shape and colour of roses would miss the point entirely. A rose is just a plant until someone puts it into a context of love. Similarly, potential humour is nothing more than words or images or events until someone receives it in a context that makes it funny for them.
The craft of comedy seems to operate a little differently than humour we see between people. And it is different, but only in the way that all arts have differences from the core feelings they appeal to. Like love songs, where the singer and the person listening aren't in love with each other, and, via modern media, won't ever meet or know each other. Love songs are at play with feelings of love that originally existed to bind us together in relationships, but can now be used to inspire similar feelings for our comfort and amusement. Ditto for horror movies playing with our sense of fear, which originally kept us from danger. And of course, porn, which can be very different from our real life experience of sex, but is no less based on the feelings of lust that originally existed to drive us to reproduce. Humour also had an original purpose, and we need to be careful to not confuse what we do with comedy with why we originally laughed. Just like how the fact that humans now frequently watch sex as a form of entertainment doesn't mean sex developed in order to be watched.
Comedy and humour are actually separate things. Humour is a sensation in your mind, and comedy is a craft. Humour is a fundamental human trait that everyone participates in and has an ability for. Not only can everybody laugh at anything, but just about anybody can inspire laughter in friends and family as a matter of course in their everyday relationships. Comedy is the elevation of that interaction into a performance. Just like a love song is the distillation of common human feelings into a particular shape for the sake of art and entertainment.
You would be right to point out that at least one difference between humour and love is that there is no consistent and involuntary reaction that humans have when presented with some symbolic gift of a loving relationship, whatever that signal may be. There is no equivalent in love to the laughter response. However, I don't think anyone could sensibly deny that there are strong and distinct feelings inspired by loving acts. The real difference is that humour, because of its laughter response, is easier to identify for an outside observer.
There is a spectrum of stimulus-and-response mechanisms. On one end, in the domain of pain and pins, we can objectively measure both the stimulus and the response, equally objectively. On the other end, where we find love and roses, both stimuli and responses are wildly variable. Humour is in the middle of that spectrum, having a response that we can hold constant, but stimuli that vary wildly. In any case, all we need to achieve with a comparison to love is that it is plausible for one human to inspire a sensation in another human based not on the particulars of their actions, but using the context of their relationship to shape the meaning of what they do. Potential humour becomes actual humour because of what we put into it and what we get out of it, not what it happens to be made of. Without the right relationship, timing, and context, verbal jokes are just words, sight gags are just things that happen, and amusing events are just sequences of actions.
The contentious part of accepting that humour is similar to the infinitely variable signals sent between lovers is that it means accepting that every performing comedian has a relationship with their audience, which seems odd given that we assume a comedy performance is usually for people the comedian does not know personally. In his book on laughter, Provine described standup as “socially impoverished”. But a relationship with the audience is exactly what is going on. That an audience for a standup comedian is largely made up of strangers the comedian has never met before is a surface level description that is misleading. Even strangers bring commonalities into the start of a relationship, right from before any interaction has taken place. There are cultural conventions, environmental conditions, and a lot of human nature that act as a base for us to establish communication. A large part of the craft of the comedian is having a feel for what connections can and do exist between groups of people beyond the people they know personally. This is the dividing line between friend-funny and stage-funny, an important distinction that any experienced comedian understands very well. The reality is that a comedian is in a relationship with the audience, but that relationship is not with individuals in the audience. It's the collective entity that ensues as a result of the community that we label as an audience. It's still the same process, where humour is the result of a relationship, it's just that to elevate humour to the craft of comedy, it's the type of relationship that changes.
The form and content of things that are funny is incidental to the underlying relationship that appreciates them. Funny things can, and do, take any shape or form, and because of their lack of consistency, do not in themselves reveal the nature of humour. When we want to find out what's funny, we want to find out what is going on inside people, and between them, that makes them respond with laughter.