Everybody likes a good laugh. It is intrinsic in our lives. Humour has been proven to be one of the most attractive personality traits among both men and women, laughing has been shown to make us healthier and even extend our life expectancy. It is such a commodity that comedians stand on the same level as some of the biggest Hollywood actors and sell out the biggest venues rock stars perform in. But not everybody enjoys the same humour. Making the wrong joke to the wrong crowd can end a career, even if you’re not a comedian. It can be hard to understand and distinguish comedy from simply hateful or ignorant remarks. For something which by its very nature is lighthearted, it can be serious and maybe that is because under the surface comedy is actually very complex, expressive and meaningful.
Understanding why we find something funny, to me at least, is just as important as the actual laughing. A German term, schadenfreude describes the joy our primal instincts give us at the misfortune of others. While this is often applied to bullying, it can also be used lightheartedly for comedic effect including self-depreciating comedy. But we may also laugh because a joke catches us off guard and challenges the way we view reality, even if it is downright silly and illogical. Or maybe the joke relates to inner thoughts, opinions and feelings. Hearing someone else talk about it, and in a happy way gives us relief that we aren’t the only ones and connects people together. When it comes down to it though what each individual is going to find funny stems from their lifetime of experiences. What they feel and thinks, how they’ve been influenced by others and social situations churning around them. Luckily there are many common strands which run between us creating overarching themes and situations to tickle almost everyone’s funny bone. So why is it that some people are so good at making others laugh and some can’t even get a giggle?
Have you ever tried to come up with a joke? Sure most of us can fire off a one liner on the fly, or repeat something we’ve heard someone else say. But actually coming up with an original joke is not so easy. It requires an understanding of the situation at hand and other people. Jokes can provide a unique perspective and insight into situations which are difficult for people to talk about. Though laughter may immediately follow it gets people thinking about why they are laughing. Maybe some glaring mistake or logical inconsistency was pointed out. Maybe an extreme bias or a glaring character flaw was highlighted. Or maybe a bad, horrible and stressful situation was just made a little easier to deal with. There is a reason nervous people crack jokes to break the tension. Laughing relaxes us all and makes it easier to analyze and discuss.
But jokes take more than just insight. A comedian needs to deliver the joke just right. Jerry Seinfeld has said that telling a joke is like playing music. If the timing of the punch line is just a little bit off, or the wrong word is used in the wrong place the whole thing falls apart. Since each joke is different each one also requires different timing and inflection, it isn’t as easy as just figuring out a formula. Each joke has to be analyzed for it. Delivery is a huge part of making people laugh and it takes an understanding of human nature to master that.
For me though the most important part of comedy is expression. Poetry, music and visuals are all often praised and looked at for deep meaning, for the expression of the artist. Be it a social commentary, a look at historical tension or the realization of inner thoughts and feelings art can be a great way for someone to communicate what they can’t put into regular conversation. But comedy can be the same way. It is how I feel most comfortable expressing myself. Comics like George Carlin, Bo Burnham and Seth McFarlane have all used comedy to expertly express their thoughts on a range of serious matters. In his song “Can’t Handle This” Bo speaks about his frustrations of finding fame at a young age and trying to handle the pressure to be genuine while still entertaining those paying to see his show. But more importantly he does it in a satirical and poetic way while still making the audience laugh. It is not as simple as showing the world your thoughts, it is putting together all the elements of humour in an artistic way and doing it well.
Everywhere you look today someone is either complaining about being offended or they are complaining about other people being offended. The one solace from this seems to be artwork. Even when it is considered offensive artwork is praised for generating discussion and bringing light to social issues. So putting aside the whole debate about people being overly offended by everything or people being insensitive, why is it that comedy is still so scrutinized by people? It is usually not considered an art form and people seem to be upset and offended in a completely different way than more conventional art forms. This is not new. Plato stated “the people we laugh at imagine themselves to be wealthier, better looking, or more virtuous than they really are. In laughing at them, we take delight in something evil—their self-ignorance—and that malice is morally objectionable.” Other philosopher including Rene Descartes had similar thoughts on the subject. I’ve always lived by a philosophy I heard long ago from the creators of South Park in regards to what they would make fun of. “Everything is okay or nothing is.” Everything will offend someone. We can’t spend our lives avoiding laughter just because someone will be offended. Being offended is part of life. Learning how to deal with that, questioning the intent of the joke, asking yourself if it is something worth getting upset over or maybe even is it something worth pondering more about and considering the past experiences of the one telling the joke are all vital character traits which society needs to work on developing. It is okay to be offended, but just remember that not everyone is and things you do will offend others. It is beneficial and some could argue vital for the growth of a healthy society.