Monday, June 18, 2012
A breakdown of the Post-Nihilist appeal of Modern Era Slapstick Humor (Or why I love Jackass)...
I like Jackass. I like the humor. I've gone out of my way to watch movies with Johnny Knoxville in them. I've gone to see Steve-O in person... Here! Look!
I'm also reasonably intelligent. This causes a cognitive dissonance in some people. "How can you like that stupidity?!?!" they scream. "It's just idiots hurting each other and looking like complete douche bags!"
To that I have the following to say...
Eat a bag of dicks. I got philosophy on my side.
The Three Groups of Humor. (A brief explanation)
The presiding theory of humor is expounded by philosophers like Kant and Kierkegaard. In this group, humor is a response to incongruity; a term that can encompass logical impossibility, ambiguity, irrelevance and inappropriateness. This is a theory of humor that only proposes the origin of humor, not of the reaction of the humor by the experiencer. In essence, an incongruous situation naturally leads to humor. “In everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing”(Kant).
Schopenhauer expanded on this, implying the failure of a concept to account for an object of thought, and this leads to the base incongruity needed for the theory. However, he fails to account for anticipation (dramatic and otherwise) of a humorous instance, insisting that the suddenness of the incongruity is directly related to the harder the laughter, (this tension/release mechanism is the basis of relief theory... more on the relief theory later). Bergson (who combines incongruity with superiority theory) also postulates that "the comic does not exist outside of what is strictly human."
So, incongruity theory, which states that the logical impossibility and inappropriateness of a situation is the basis for humor, when coupled with the Bergsonian idea of the essential humanity of the comic, we can see how a tee-ball to the testicles of a terrified man can be funny.
Thomas Hobbes recognized our feeling of sudden glory when we realize our superiority over others, and applied it to comedic theory. The cliched laugh of triumph is a sterling example of this idea. We are better than the other, ergo we find situations humorous. This is a style of comedy that people like Ben Stiller specialize in, if only in the emotional and psychological sense.
However, inferiority theory is the exact opposite, but is included in the superiority category. In this idea, self-recognition in the antics and self-deprecation of the comic induce laughter. We identify with the comic's inadequacies, therefore we laugh to relieve the internal tension. This reversal is not a bad thing, however. Robert Soloman insists that to see yourself as less than ideal and to not take yourself too seriously is a sign of virtuous modesty and compassion.
These opposing ideas are sufficient, yet not necessary components of humor. Incongruity can be seen as a wider net, providing a both necessary and sufficient origin for comedy, and as an adendum, superiority/inferiority theories can be tacked on. So... The logical impossibility/inappropriateness of a situation, the Bergsonian idea of essential humanity, and the combined superiority ('I am smarter/more aware than these people')/inferiority ('I have done stupid things to myself before') theories lead to the viewing of someone shoving a toy car up their ass as being a humorous situation.
Relief theory is probably the simplest one of the three, albeit it explains only the laughter, not the humorousness of a situation. In it, laughter is seen as a way to release or expunge energy generated by repression. Freud and, more importantly, Herbert Spencer, describe this theory, but both miss the central point of non-humorous laughter. These nervous chuckles beget a physiological response to a stressful situation, which may actually be the origin of humor itself. Imagine a distant relative of humans, who in a stressful situation, such as being watched by a predator, releases their stress as a physical enunciation, a convulsion of the glottis in short barking noises. This relaxes the creature, and may in fact continue after the threat has passed. Now imagine that some creature figured out that it could get this same relaxing feeling when it watched some other creature trip or stumble. This may have been evolutionarily beneficial, which leads us to enjoy laughter. This is all hypothesis of course, but the mechanism is still plausible.
If we can expand, anticipation of something happening to someone else leads to a release of tension when the something actually happens. A little microcosm of natural stress building, which can relieve more than it anticipates.
So logical impossibility/inappropriateness, essential humanity, superiority/inferiority theory, and physical/emotional release of tension leads us to appreciate a man getting shot with a shotgun loaded with a tail stabilized bean bag.
In essence, Jackass encompasses all theories of humor.
And if I might make some personal observations... Jackass is the essence of humor. It is the punchline without any joke. It is the witnessing of something stupid done by people who do, in fact, know better. If we all appreciated Jackass for what it is; low humor, base comedy, simple irony, and useless fun, we can grow to appreciate humor more. Perhaps digging a little deeper and asking ourselves WHY we find things funny. I, for one, fail to see any humor in Wes Anderson movies, even though they technically fulfill some of the sufficient qualities of humor. However, watching a guy get his nipple bitten by a baby alligator... gets me every time...
After all... What is evolution, anyway? In every way but biologically it's the honing of a message, the crafting of an idea. The idea of slapstick comedy comes to no finer point than that of Jackass. However, anylyzing humor is like dissecting a frog, according to E. B. White. Nobody really gets anything out of it and the frog dies. And yes, I'm well aware that I'm using philosophical justification to justify something that I freely admit has no philosophical, social, or cultural merit... Just trying to shut people up and get them to laugh...