I was struck by this post, from Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias, about the underlying cynicism of comedy. Hanson refers to this (hilarious) Onion article, but his argument holds, I think, for comic pieces of all sorts, in all genres, from stand-up monologues to Laurel and Hardy slapstick. “Cynicism,” in Hanson’s mind – I agree with his formulation – refers to an attitude toward social practices that sees them as universally driven by the selfish motivations of the actor or actors. And to the cynical mind, the baser these motivations can be shown to be – in the sense of more selfish, and driven by animal needs, rather than reason – the truer the revelation, and thus the funnier. All the better if the revelation can be delivered to the actor(s) in question, in the presence of an audience that shares the cynic’s view, and thus shares in his (mocking) laughter.
What makes good comedy so appealing is its ability to do just this – and Hanson is also right, I think, to imply that much of the best comedy shines a light on clumsy, obvious efforts to seek status. Consider the various instances, on the show Seinfeld, in which Kramer impersonates a doctor. Why are they so funny, aside from Michael Richards’s adept physical comedy? The main reason has to do with our perception that in impersonating a doctor, Kramer is engaged in an at once desperate and highly inappropriate search for status. Doctors, in our society, enjoy very high status, and at least in part for that reason, many people want to become doctors. But this requires sustained excellent performance over the course of years of difficult coursework and apprenticeship jobs. Add to this our society’s respect for hard work in general, and disrespect for people who try to get out of doing it, and you have the ingredients for a high-payoff (cynical) comic moment, each time Kramer’s ruse is revealed, and shown to be driven by some base motivation (the desire to steal Elaine’s medical records, in one epidode).
Hanson himself is concerned, in much of his recent work, to understand and lay bare status-seeking – seeing it, for example, as the main reason so many people go to college, and outdo themselves, not least financially, to go and then send their children to the horrifically expensive “best schools.” (Disclaimer: I went to one of those schools, and enjoyed it, and got a great deal out of it – but I agree with him on this one. More in a later post.) Indeed, I’m quite sure that Hanson would argue that even laughing at this sort of comedy is a status-seeking effort – that is, an effort to raise one’s own status, if only in one’s own eyes, by mocking others’ efforts to achieve it.
Fine, but I’d suggest that here, he leaves something out, and it’s important. Comedy, in general, can also be seen as a vehicle for putting a set of social practices through a simulated QA process. Mostly post-release QA, since comedy, at least in our culture, now, focuses mostly on making fun of things many people, in our society as a whole, or a certain group, tend to do, though we can think of examples of comedy that makes fun of practices that are “still in beta” – early Cheech and Chong movies, for example.
How does this work? Most comedy calls our attention to certain practices by which people interact with one another, in such a way as to make them seem strange – especially practices of self-shaping and self-presentation – in order to get us to laugh at those practices, convincing us, in our own lives, to stick to other practices that, either explicitly or implicitly, it holds up as more socially acceptable, and thus better. (Or perhaps “better, and thus more socially acceptable” – for most comic works, the formulations would be equivalent.) Watching or reading or listening to a comic work of this type, we laugh when a practice is shown to fail QA – that is, when it’s shown, often contrary to the beliefs of the actor or actors engaging in it, not to be a positive (socially beneficial) practice, but one that’s negative, either because it’s driven by selfish, base motives, is useless in accomplishing its intended purpose, or both. Consider, for example, the movie I love you, man, in which the protagonist (played by Paul Rudd) continually makes the audience laugh by a series of outré efforts to raise his status in the eyes of his friend (Jason Segel).
Does my interpretation replace, supplement, or modify Hanson’s? The last of these. Hanson is right, I believe, but his account is incomplete. Of course, this could well be because it comes in a blog post, and doesn’t interrogate the nature of comedy as such. Rather, he wants only to point up the reason we find a certain kind of joke so funny. Be that as it may, I think it’s important not to draw what might seem to be an obvious conclusion from his post, that comedy’s main social function is to displace laughers’ anxiety about status-seeking. This is important, but in our society, status-seeking, when combined with other motives, is not seen as unacceptable – going to medical school to make one’s parents happy, i.e. improve one’s status in their eyes, by improving it in the eyes of society at large, is, for example, a respected practice. So comic works are often made up of a sequence in which socially inappropriate status-seeking efforts are held up for fun, by having characters engage in them, in unusual situations – akin to the “edge cases” that are the focus of software-industry QA. But these sequences, in most types of comedy, are almost always followed by a socially (and thus dramatically) satisfying climax, in which the characters are shown to return to engaging in socially acceptable practices, standard status-seeking practices included. Consider again I love you, man, in which the Paul Rudd character ultimately earns our respect when he shows his acumen as a real estate agent, and thus raises his status in the eyes of his client (Lou Ferrigno), as well as others around him. While his attempts to establish himself as a regular guy, in the Jason Segel character’s eyes, are funny because they’re socially inappropriate, showing himself to be a skilled agent registers as socially acceptable, and thus appropriate as a means by which the story, qua drama, can reach a satisfying conclusion
Even black comedies, in order to be satisfying, have to hold out, at least until the end, the possibility that there is a set of social practices that is useful, in constructing a satisfying, positive, meaningful life, in contrast to the practices being held up for fun. Consider Dr. Strangelove, the most commercially successful of black comedies: until the end, when the bombs begin to explode, there is at least the possibility that Lionel Mandrake’s attempts at truth-telling, and President Muffey’s efforts to make peace, the only positive (non-selfish, socially beneficial) practices shown in the film, will lead to the crisis being averted. Yes, both characters are shown to be too weak, in ways that pokes fun at both truth-tellers and peace-seeking – but again, only at the end are both practices presented as being inarguably useless, after both have been put through, and failed, an extended series of “edge-case” QA tests.