What is Funny? What Can Humor Do?

Humor Unit Culminating Project

Eric Kennedy

According to a conservative blog, the Tazmanian Devil leads a "boisterous" sex life...

According to Google Dictionary, "hilarity" is defined as "boisterous merriment". Here, the creators of Google Dictionary also demonstrate their talents in comedy by defining my favorite word with "boisterous" (a re-DONK-ulous word). In this Wikispace, I will address to the best of my abilities the "boisterous merriment" that we derive from various forms of comedy and dissect them, and hopefully shedding some light on our essential questions in the process.

Almost anything can be funny to me. Perhaps this is due to my inability to take many things completely serious; after all, I live by the motto "life is too short to take seriously." Still, that does not mean other people share similar tastes in comedy and humor. After all, we're all human!

But what exactly is humor? It is defined by Wikipedia as "the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement". Boiled down, humor is essentially anything that each person finds funny. Thus, humor is defined by each individuals' tastes and preferences. However, this presents a problem: there is not universal definition for what funny is.

And to these ends, there are many many many types and genres of humor. To name a few, there is satire, high comedy, slapstick, raunchy, situational comedy, puns, dark comedy, sarcasm, parody, absurdism, and countless others.

Douglas Adams is one of my favorite authors. His Hitchhiker's Guide series of books are best described as dark comedy, raunchy, absurdism, and science fiction rolled together

To me, humor and comedy only serve us to be entertaining, and all other purposes are moot. Even in the case of satire (which makes some point through humor), I believe it is more important that we laugh and enjoy the satire. Take for example, Candide by Voltaire. In his novel, the famous French satirist makes fun of practically everything, even himself. My favorite examples make fun of the German language, like the castle "Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphailia" (Voltaire 17) and when he makes fun of philosophy:

"Pangloss taught metaphysico-theologo-cosmonigology" (Voltiare 18). This of course is not an actual philosophy and is complete bullst, but this is Voltaire's point about all philosophy. In another case, Candide kills a Jewish man who owns Cunegonde, and when another man walks in, he kills him too without hesitation:

"This reasoning was swift and sure; without giving the Inquisitor time to recover from his surprise, he ran him through and laid him out beside the Jew” (Voltaire 39). Here, Voltaire is not so much pointing out a flaw in society (except perhaps excessive violence or acting before thinking of the consequences) as he is describing a not-so-funny situation in a very funny way. He does this through careful manipulation of tone (very blunt and matter-of-factly) and abrupt syntax (a long, descriptive sentence whose final clause is short and very shocking in subject matter).

(Here, of course, is the famously funny "Count Censored" video. The Sesame Street character sings the "Song of the Count", but some geeky video editor with a genius sense of humor bleeped out every usage of the word "count" as a verb, resulting in a ROFL video.)

However, there are myriad types of humor, some more funny to others. But because every person is different, different humorists and comedians experience varying levels of popularity. Currently, one of the hottest standup comedians is Daniel Tosh (of Comedy Central's show Tosh.0), who makes extremely vulgar jokes about babies and gays, kittens and asians alike. To him, there are no boundaries, and to me, he is extremely funny. Yet many more people with conservative tastes tend to take offense at his comedy. Please observe one of the less offensive portions of his recent stand-up show Happy Thoughts:

Still, there are things that are blatantly NOT funny. Tragedy, pure tragedy, is rarely made fun of. Even after more than 60 years, the Holocaust is practically untouchable in comedy. But many people feel better about lampooning terrible subjects after a long time has passed. South Park captures this perfectly:

Here, AIDS is being made fun of, and everyone celebrates that it has been exactly 22.3 years since AIDS broke out, so it is now officially funny. The notion that there is an exact amount of time that makes topics funny is both ludicrous and funny itself. South Park, although far too raunchy at times, is still one of my favorite shows. Trey Stone and Matt Parker, the show's creators, shy away from no subjects and are the reigning kings of satire, modern day Voltaires.

Thus, we see that everyone has different tastes, and the main problem of humor becomes evident: Trying to find a delicate balance between what is funny and what is appropriate, while trying to pander to the largest audience possible, makes a piece of comedy popular and widely appreciated**. Unfortunately, there is no solution to this problem. Some things are ridiculously funny and are widely appreciated, while others fade into obscurity. For every Seinfeld there are twenty failed pilot episodes of mediocre sitcoms.

Ultimately, though, it is up to the readers, the viewers, and the listeners to decide for themselves what is funny and what is not; what they get from the experience is also their decision. And with that, I leave you with my favorite skits from Whose Line Is It Anyways? If you are not familiar with WLIIA then you have not truly enjoyed life.