What are you laughing at?


Tell you what Arthur Koestler thought. In 1964 he wrote a tome on the subject, The Act of Creation, the burden of whose 751 pages, is that all humor, scientific discoveries, and works of art occur when two worlds collide. He put it rather more ponderously, “when two matrices bisociate.” By this he meant, when two frames of reference [each with its own rules of logic] are unexpectedly juxtaposed. Abstract and boring enough for ya, so far?

Consider this visual joke: Penny the Cucamonga cat is “wearing” a [photo-shopped] party hat, looking anything-but-in-a-party-mood, being held by my daughter [most of whose festive facial expression I have discreetly cropped away, to preserve her privacy]. Koestler would say that there are at least two matrices bisociating here. Penny, a cat, is impersonating a human “party animal,” which is also a pun; and the obvious photo-shopping of the party hat is my daughter’s mockery of the shoddy paparazzi “photo-journalism” ubiquitous in LA, where this picture was taken. Not unlike those ancient philosophers, Koestler believed that in all humor there is an element of defensive-aggression, against the butt of the joke. In this case, the joke is metaphorically on Penny [since we know how much pets detest wearing silly human costumes for gag photos]; but it’s actually on the paparazzi. Geddit?

Let’s go back to my fave joke, introduced in the “Funny Bone” post. “Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?'” One matrix is the well-worn, formulaic [mostly New York-based] genre of “guy-walks-into-a-bar-bartender-says-why-the-long-face?” joke. This collides with a more obscure joke tradition [mostly in Ireland & the UK], of placing horses in unusual settings. Back in the day, there was a series of print ads for whiskey, using the slogan, “You can take a White Horse anywhere.” Near the beginning of the cult Irish flick, Into the West, a [white] horse is taken by lift up to the top floor of a council housing flat in Dublin, and the human passengers on the lift don’t bat an eye. [A nod to the whiskey slogan.] That gets the horse into the bar, in my fave joke. The second matrix is a pun: a play on the words, “long face.”

But where’s the element of defensive-aggression in this oh-so-sophisticated joke? The butt of the joke is the genre of joke, itself. It is what Jon Stewart would call a meta-joke. It is a joke about a type of joke. Probably, it resonates most with those of us who have tried to “be funny,” for a living [or for a grade in acting school].

Those of you who remember Jakobsen’s six Speech Functions will be raising your hands and “chirping” [@ 50 KHz], “Oooh! Oooh! This is Poetic Speech we’re talking about! Designed to Tell the Ugly Truth without Suffering the Ugly Consequences.” That is exactly what we are talking about. The teller of the joke [little David] gets to poke fun at big, bad Goliath; and the laughers at the joke get to expend their adrenaline in a non-combative manner. If they laugh until they cry, they even get to purge themselves of some cortisol. Goliath is mocked, but everybody survives. That’s what Koestler thought; and his most enduring book is Darkness at Noon, a repudiation of the “Goliath” of Communism, with whom he had previously cast his lot in the 1930s.

Now, back to Jaak’s laughing rats and tickling. [I’ll leave the cocaine commentary to the Wallabies among you.] Koestler believed that what rats [and little children] find laughable about tickling is that it is a mock attack. It’s funny because they know they are not really in danger of pain & suffering. The tickler is only impersonating an attacker. If actual pain results, or even the fear of pain, it’s no laughing matter. In fact, Jaak found, if even one cat hair [a signifier of threat from a predator] is in the room where a rat is being tickled, the rat will not “chirp” [@ 50 KHz]; it will bum [@ 22 KHz].

The rough-and-tumble play of all baby mammals produces “chirps” of glee. In developmental psychology, this epitomizes the concept, “This is only pretend.” Sigmund’s daughter, Anna Freud [she of the German Shepherd “Wolf”], called this Regression in the Service of the Ego one of the most important defenses older humans can use, as a respite from the real [not mock] threats in their lives. When we laugh at Jon Stewart poking fun at Kim Jong Il, we are pretending that the threat that little martinet poses to the world is “only pretend.” For that little moment, we are regressing to a childlike belief that Kim is just a joke [and giving our overtaxed limbic system a rest].

So, go ahead and laugh it up, folks. Feels great, doesn’t it?

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Filed under comic relief, limbic system, pragmatics, semiotics

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