How Comedy Works

“Although most people value humor, philosophers have said little about it, and what they have said is largely critical.” This is how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins its article on the Philosophy of Humor. Academics have traditionally looked down on comedy as an inferior genre.

I am a fan of comedy. When I was in graduate school in literature I tried to write about comedic works, but I found it hard to get professors to take the value of comedic literature seriously. There’s a really fun conspiracy theory as to why that tendency persists. It comes from a postmodern novel.

Umberto Eco wrote the novel that later was translated as a film, entitled The Name of the Rose. The premise shared by novel and film is that there is a missing text from Aristotle’s poetics and in this text describes how comedy works. It is undeniable that Aristotle’s influence over the development of philosophy and science in Europe has been huge, and that historical anomaly is even stranger considering we only have a tiny fragment of his works.

According to Christopher Shields’ article on Aristotle in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Aristotle’s extant works read like what they very probably are: lecture notes, drafts first written and then reworked.” In other words, we are missing a lot more than just his thinking about comedy. Of 200 works he composed, we have 30 volumes and they are in draft form.

What does it say about our culture that such a limited sample of a philosopher’s work could have such a big impact on cultural history? It speaks to the limited capacity of literacy in ancient times and even now. It took a couple of centuries for people to edit the work of Aristotle. To live, he had to teach. I wasn’t like there was a publishing industry. The learning happened through teaching students like Alexander the Great. If teaching was the important thing, then why did they write? Writing was about thinking, and thinking is such a rare thing in human history that works usually build on other works and are rarely foundational, so a missing treatise On Comedy could actually stunt the development of human research.

The best book I did find that described how comedy works is Freud’s book, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious. Freud’s great discovery in psychology was the existence of the unconscious, the shadowy nebulous life that lies beneath the surface of our awareness and translates itself surreptitiously at night through our dreams. The unconscious is not good or bad but simply the things that have been blocked from being expressed due to social constructs of what is or is not acceptable. The unconscious develops as a response to repression, to prohibition, but it also creates an internal conflict and pressure. 

The tension between what a person wants to do and what they are allowed to do creates energy that can cause internal friction if not expressed. Humor plays off of this tendency to repress, this hidden store of energy. The way it works is not that complicated. The comic’s joke leads us in one direction as a narrative. We are introduced to a serious topic that has serious consequences for people in the real world. Immediately we begin to prepare ourselves to respond appropriately. We are going to have to be good listeners, to empathize with someone’s pain, to struggle over tough questions with no good answers. We brace ourselves to deal with this rant. Suddenly, though, the story takes a turn and we are aware that we have been misled. We have been tricked into preparing both to repress our feelings and to deal with someone else’s difficult situation and then all of the sudden the true nature of the reality is revealed to us: the story is not serious, it is just for fun. 

That is the nature of the laugh. It’s our response to fake weights. It is a strongman lifting a barbell with one hand. It is a kook taking a slam. In the case of the kook slam we have this situation where we see a person who looks like they know what they are doing with the ocean. They have shown up with gear ready to get the wave of the day but then they are so entirely without experience that they get their lunch handed to them. We thought we were going to have to feel respect or reverence for someone doing something we might not be able to do ourselves and then we are rewarded with a laugh for realizing that the kook knows even less than you. They look expert and then are shown to be a fool. 

People talk about comedy punching up or punching down and that usually has to do with who is the subject of ridicule and their relation to the comic in terms of power dynamics. In the context of the joke, who gets to feel superior to whom? If you make a joke about someone with less privilege than you then it is called punching down. I don’t have any rules for what makes comedy good or bad, but there are some mechanics of how it works. Punching down can be funny but it can also backfire. It all depends on how much the comic can get the audience to go along with the premise and tap into the energy of the reversal of expectations.

Advertisers attempt to use comedy, but it is a tricky thing for marketers to pull off. This is due to people’s skepticism about marketing already. There is a common idea that marketing is manipulating people through lies and false promises, so when a brand presents the public with a joke it is trusting that they will understand the humor and it won’t discredit the seriousness of their other communications. The thing about jokes is they are dishonest, but with good intention. 

Because brands feel a tremendous amount of pressure to be creating content and when they run out of ideas the calendar always presents the easiest way to predict what people will be doing and thinking at a certain point in time it is almost irresistible for a brand to not try to do an April Fools’ joke. Because April Fools’ Day is a day when tons of people who don’t understand comedy attempt to be funny it is a great source of negative examples of how comedy works.

This year, I saw three examples of ads that played a prank on their audience in a way that I view as very counterproductive. They promised their fans something great and then revealed that it was a joke. Instead of causing you to feel like something bad is happening and then feeling super relieved when it isn’t true, these brands created the opposite experience. Instead they created a good dream, a better dream, and then waking up sucks. The successful joke is like a nightmare and the waking up from the nightmare is the laugh.