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What is funny, exactly?

I've spent a little time delving into the "science of funny." What makes something funny, and why is it different for different people? Why is it that seemingly un-funny things can be funny in certain situations? For example: A big fat man in an inflatable tube wearing Hawaiian shorts, goggles, and flippers. Not really that funny at the beach. But walking into the Metropolitain Opera House? Pretty funny!!! The simplistic pseudo-scientific analysis of what makes things funny seems to indicate psychological incongruity, in other words, things that just don't seem to fit our paradigm of reality. Drag queens/kings have historically been the subject of humor, even since Shakespearean times. Take a filthy, sweaty taxi driver and dress him in some high heels and a pencil skirt and send him into Bloomingdale's to buy a new purse, and it's high comedy. For the same reason, a beautiful, feminine woman who enters a club in in a slinky dress, but then walks to the bar, orders a whisky, and begins smoking a cigar while back slapping a couple of monkey suits at the bar is entertaining, not to mention threatening. It's just not supposed to happen that way. Two things just don't seem to fit together, and the brain perceives it as hilarious. I like to think of humor as a tickling session for the brain.

But good humor draws upon the dark, horrible, and macabre. This is the reason why "springtime for Hitler in Germany" from the musical The Producers is so horrifically funny, and from my own experience, it was much funnier for my 82 year old grandmother, who actually lived through WWII, than it was for myself. Certain types of humor may be generationally and culturally influenced. For instance, I see that there was much more of a predilection for slapstick and burlesque style humor in the early part of the century (Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, Jerry Lewis), which later gave way to a more intellectual brand of humor (Woody Allen,) and later gave way to more of an appreciation for ironic humor and sarcasm (Jerry Sinefeld)  and that special brand of Gen Y, punk rock, flippant and irreverent humor.

I have a different theory about what makes things funny, and it's a little more complex than the simplistic version offered during a show about humor on NPR. What is funny to one person or another involves a complex interplay between cultural, biological traits and personal experience. Just as there seems to be a biological basis for certain types of phobias, there may indeed be a biological basis for certain types of humor, and it is most certainly culturally influenced. Humor is inherently mean spirited, since it more often than not preys upon deep seated insecurities and vulnerabilities.  Lucille Ball is constantly finding herself in terrible predicaments, and we delight in each episode in which she sunburns and is forced into tweed suits for fashion shows, and when she gets pelted with grapes at a winery in Italy and turns entirely purple we find this to be vraiment drole. Let's face it, most people like to think of themselves as loving and compassionate, but when it really comes down to it, they're natural sadistic fucks who delight at the chance to enjoy fun at someone else's expense. 

The best humorists have a talent for understanding psychology and manipulating others, and it is even possible to use what I like to call "reverse-reverse psychology," which is basically saying what you really mean, and making a joke out of it so people don't take it seriously, but meanwhile leaving them to wonder how much stake you really take in that joke (George Carlin.) Humor is necessarily a punk on your audience, in the same way that those sexy birthday cards with promises of naked babes inside only end up proffering an inapropos insult. Humor is often necessarily offensive, and this is why comedians often find themselves "sitting at the children's table" at official events (Fran Liebowitz) and you can be fired for making the right comment at the wrong time (Gilbert Gottfried.) Try as one might, it is impossible to be funny and be entirely PC, because the fact of the matter is, someone's shortcomings are always a joke to someone, whether it be dumb blondes, cheap Jews, or low class rednecks. Hated groups are often the butts of the jokes, whether they have been blacks in the segregated south, Jews in Hitler's Germany, or the hard-ass right in libero-nazi territory. True, humor draws from our most unsavory and barbaric emotions, mainly hate, violent impulses, and rank sexuality, but even in spite of the fact that most people like to think of themselves as socially responsible humanists, no one wants PC humor.  It's like watching the censored version of the South Park dirty sex tape episode and wondering why it wasn't as funny as the first time you saw it.  One of the moms at my kids preschool mentioned to me that cookie monster no longer eats cookies on Sesame Street.  'Tis a sad, sad day when the morality police can prevent the enjoyment of a simple pleasure on a once wacky and playful children's television program.

Humorists always sit at the children's table -Woody Allen

NPR story on humor
Huffington Post- Brainy Comedians

Ha!!!You laughed you sick perv!!! 
(You know it's funny)

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