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YMIAFT Chapter 3 Part 7

I don't get it

“If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don't bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he's a good man.”

~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of the long running animated series, South Park, once satirized another show, The Family Guy, by saying that every joke on The Family Guy was a simple formula of combining of a pop culture reference, a noun, and a verb, selected at random. By manatees. Never mind that last part, though. The point is that the criticism of The Family Guy was that their jokes all followed a predictable format. Which I generally tend to agree with. However, the unavoidable implication of stating that a show has a predictable format for creating jokes is that it seems to imply one believes that the people who watch it and laugh are lacking the ability to perceive that formula.

Are people who watch The Family Guy any dumber than anyone else? The show was saved from cancellation in its early years because of fan support, and has gone on to have twelve successful seasons and won Emmy awards for comedy. It's not a show lacking in popularity, so does that make me, and the creators of South Park, like the one guy at a comedy club who thinks it's the other eighty people in the room who don't know comedy? Or that the fans are somehow dumber for not seeing the obvious repetitions?

Only if I assert that the ability to appreciate metacontext the way I personally do is a measure of intelligence. Which it isn't. Knowing that humour is just a measure of the degree to which some mental activity activated enough weak synaptic connections in someone's mind at the right moment, and nothing more, I can divorce laughter from any need to evaluate intelligence. Or morality, or ethics, or personality, or anything else.

I've watched episodes of The Family Guy in Japan with my Japanese friends, and for them it's a very different experience from me. I may not know what pop culture reference is coming up next, but I am over pop culture references as a source of comedy in this context. Most of it is too close, though now and again it will jump enough outside my expectations to be just right. Not often enough for me to want to watch the show regularly, but it does happen. My Japanese friends, though, don't have the exposure to western comedy the way I do, so for them it's a completely surreal experience. Maybe they can even see the rhythms of the show as I can, but for them it's a matter of strange characters with inexplicable catch phrases popping in and out of frame to do strange activities, without much supporting context, so it's almost abstract in presentation. It certainly doesn't make them any less intelligent as people to see the show that way. A lot of the material is too far, but some of it hits home just right, enough that they're fans of the show. As a fan of old Monty Python sketches, I certainly can't critique anyone for appreciating surreal comedy. By extension, anyone watching the show, regardless of background, can come to appreciate any aspect of the show that works for them. Just like I can walk away from a card game that I've become tired of, that doesn't make the people who stay at the table for another round any less perceptive.

If you like The Family Guy, or anything else, you're no dumber than the person who finds it obvious, and no smarter than the person who doesn't get it. You merely have different pathways in your mind built around the material being presented. Humour is not a measure of intelligence, full stop. If you like The Family Guy, then all we can say about you is that you're somewhat in the same zone as the people who create it. And even then, only in the same zone for being at play with certain ideas, in a particular way, within the context of that show. No more, no less. We can laugh at things together in spite of our brain's potential for divergence from each other because of our brains default disposition of wanting to try to come together. With our modern society being as complicated as it is, though, our ability to find commonalities in more specific and contained ways becomes ever more refined.

With all the modern social conditions that limit the humour network's value as a tool for assessing commonality, people can easily find themselves laughing at things they would otherwise consider immoral, or stupid, or laughing along with people they wouldn't otherwise get along with. When someone beside you in a comedy club laughs at the same jokes as you, is that really telling you that much about that person? Not only is humour removed from its original purpose as a result of the natural progress of human civilization, people engaged in the craft of comedy in all mediums are frequently deliberately subverting that purpose by challenging themselves to get audiences to laugh at things the audience would not usually consider funny. Comedians want their material to stand apart from the run of the mill jokes shared between friends on a day to day basis. Comedians want to be stage-funny, not merely friend-funny, which results in the craft of comedy extracting itself further away from humour's purpose, and taking our expectations of what it means to be funny along with it.

Comedy is a whole different thing from humour.

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