To Laugh or to Think?
Ever since the British alternative comedians of the early 80s were mockingly dismissed by their 1970s club comic predecessors as “the alternative to comedy”, there’s been a strange dissonance between the idea that something can be funny while also being something more, as if laughter and intellectual stimulation are mutually exclusive sensations.
To paraphrase a recent routine of mine, laughter is to comedy as orgasms are to sex. An essential component, but it’s nice if you’re feeling something else at the same time. Maybe even something that lasts beyond that initial moment of pleasure.
There’s no reason that comedy has to be exclusively about laughter, any more than sex is merely the mechanical pursuit of an orgasm. We might be chasing a certain sensation, or aiming to inspire it in others, but it’s unnecessarily reductive to suggest that comedy should be solely about that end “product” of laughter. Especially when it’s just one ingredient in a thousand different emotional cocktails it’s possible for it to produce.
In ‘The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humour’, Alistair Clarke proposes the idea that every instance of someone finding something funny can be explained as the surprise recognition of a pattern. While a convincing theory, and one that can be applied to puns, observational comedy, slapstick and myriad further examples, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you can find an exception. We can probably agree that it is possible to find something funny without feeling much else. Consider a moderately amusing Christmas cracker joke. Your brain decodes the pun and experiences a modicum of surprise as it registers the pattern between two similar sounding phrases. You emit a modest chuckle, and then move on.
But almost every other form of comedy requires more emotional involvement than that. We might find ourselves engaging with the personality of a stand-up comedian, empathising with the victim of a tragic irony, or even being inspired to reconsider our worldview (as we become surprised by a previously un-noticed pattern). While most Christmas cracker jokes are instantly forgotten, the best comedy resonates afterwards. Maybe just on our way home from the gig. Maybe for a lifetime.
If we continue with the idea of humour being the surprise recognition of a pattern, we should first recognise the subjectivity of both of those elements. Different things will surprise different people, and patterns can only be recognised according to any individual’s frame of reference. But let’s consider the generic reaction of surprise. Surprise, in essence, is having your mind changed about something. Surprise causes people to think about things differently. This could be a simple realisation of verbal misdirection, or it could involve a genuine re-evaluation of one’s opinions.
It’s surely no coincidence that the most stubborn people tend to also be the most humourless, whereas those who laugh openly and freely tend to be more ready to admit past misconceptions and reconsider an idea. This doesn’t mean you can’t make a stubborn person laugh. It just means you have to work harder to do so. Which perhaps illuminates the importance of humour in negotiating conflict resolution. If you can perfect the art of surprise, you can bring about real psychological change. (Providing the content of the pattern remains intellectually valid. Simply jumping out on someone and yelling surreal gibberish at them has yet to prove itself as a way of inspiring lasting change).
The importance of surprise to comedy is why humour remains the best tool we’ve got in combatting racist, homophobic or otherwise harmful worldviews. Simply telling a homophobic person that they’re wrong is unlikely to yield positive results, and could even be counter-productive if aggressively expressed. But if you can surprise them with the pattern that all people deserve equal rights, perhaps by surprising them with other, sillier patterns that exist across the sexuality spectrum, you’re much more likely to get through to them. It’s hard to keep hating when you’re laughing.
Similarly, some subject matters require more than just comedic skill. If you’re going to delve into potentially upsetting topics, then puns won’t suffice. You need to demonstrate empathy before the audience will even be prepared to be surprised by the patterns you’ve chosen to present. Otherwise you’re just being shocking, and that’s something very different.
Laughter, thought and feeling are in fact the opposite of being mutually exclusive. They are irrevocably intertwined. No jokes exist in a vacuum. So unless we’re aiming to create the simplest, “purist” comedy possible, we might as well take full advantage of the spectrum of emotions and intellectual processes that sit alongside the parts of our brains that process humour, and engage with our audience on as many levels as possible. Who knows, if we can perfect the art of conflict resolution through surprise pattern recognition… comedy might just save the world after all.