Friday, March 21, 2014

What is Humor?

The joke died c. 1961, according to Scott Weems in his new book on why people laugh: Ha!   Or at least it got permanently injured. This news will come as a surprise to many, including my friends who email me funny anecdotes regularly, things they call jokes.

What Weems and others who have written obituaries for the joke have in mind is the emergence of Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior and other stand-up comics in the sixties who veered from the standard one-liners to amusing stories, many based on their own experiences.

Weems, a neuroscientist, writes engagingly for the general audience about his theory of humor, a subject that has intrigued major thinkers from Aristotle to Freud and Bergson. For Weems, interested in the surprise element in humor, what is funny arises from an inner conflict in the brain, part of a desire to understand the complexities of the world. 

When we take pleasure in the confusion of a complex question, he says, we find the joy of humor. A bored mind is humorless. And, as most people know, humor and wit are related to intelligence.

He finds that the brain relies on conflict and that the rigorous exercise of the mind involved in sorting out a world filled with turmoil is healthy for the mind just as laughter is healthy for the body.

I sense in this book another example of an author who has one dominant idea and who could have written a long, entertaining article in The New Yorker, for example; instead, like most authors, he wants the prestige and possible income of the book, even if most of the chapters that follow the introduction mainly provide examples of his thesis.

There are times when Weems' emphasis on humor as a natural response to complexity sounds familiar, like the old theory of absurdity or incongruity that I presented to my students more than thirty years ago.

Still his book has great appeal because of its topic. Most people wonder about the relation between humor and human nature, why humans laugh and animals do not. What's more, April Fools' Day is just around the corner.

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