“Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the ABSENCE OF FEELING which usually accompanies laughter. It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion…In a society composed of pure intelligences there would probably be no more tears, though perhaps there would still be laughter; whereas highly emotional souls, in tune and unison with life, in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter. Try, for a moment, to become interested in everything that is being said and done; act, in imagination, with those who act, and feel with those who feel; in a word, give your sympathy its widest expansion: as though at the touch of a fairy wand you will see the flimsiest of objects assume importance, and a gloomy hue spread over everything. Now step aside, look upon life as a disinterested spectator: many a drama will turn into a comedy…To produce the whole of its effect, then, the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart. Its appeal is to intelligence, pure and simple.” –Henri Bergson
Above is a passage from process philosopher Henri Bergson’s essay Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic. The essay came to mind following the most recent Trump controversy where he apparently, “half-jokingly,” suggested that his second-amendment followers lash out violently against Hillary Clinton and/or her Supreme Court picks.
An article in Vox that followed Trump’s comment, which cites a string of tweets from Dallas lawyer and English PhD, Jason Steed (who apparently did his dissertation on the social function of humor), does a good job at showing why no one is ever “just joking” when they say something socially unacceptable because, “Jokes about socially unacceptable things aren’t just “jokes.” They serve a function of normalizing that unacceptable thing, of telling the people who agree with you that, yes, this is an okay thing to talk about.”
Bergson would agree with Steed on this social aspect of comedy, in fact, Bergson would say it’s really hard to laugh alone, actually. Laughing in a complicit group is the best and most preferable way for humans to laugh; going to a comedy club is like going to church in many ways, it’s a great way to bond with people (hey, when two or three are gathered…). However, if one is purposefully shunned or excluded from that laughing group, chances are fairly good that that precluded person won’t be doing much laughing.
But Bergson also makes two more observations about comedy that are interesting to me:
1. Laughing seems to primarily come from humans. A landscape, for instance, can’t be a source of laughter. When humans make fun of animals, it is often because they recognize some human behavior in them. Humans are not only creatures that can laugh, but also creatures that are a source of laughter. In other words, as humans, we’re always laughing at ourselves.
2. Laughter requires an indifference, a detachment from sensibility and emotion: it is more difficult to laugh when one is fully aware of the seriousness of a situation (this is what Bergson is saying in the above quote).
I think these two points are critical in attempting to understand what is going on in comedy.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love comedy, and like to think I have a pretty decent sense of humor! I think comedy is a fantastic art form, and I think comedians are some of the smartest, most insightful and thoughtful people around. More, one of the reasons I believe comedy can be such a powerful and valuable art form, and/or a means of assessment, is that one can be critical/deconstructive (and by default, personal, subjective, etc.) AND disarming at the same time, i.e. it’s possible for a good comedian to talk about tough, hot button issues, get people thinking, and not set off defense mechanisms. BUT, comedy’s strength is also it’s weakness in some ways. I think Bergson is right that comedy is a uniquely human thing, and because of this it can be very anthropocentric, rationalistic, and absurdist in many ways (more on my distaste for absurdism here).
Perhaps more relevant to this Trump thing, though, is Bergon’s observation that laughing is the result of an attitude of indifference. Think about it. That’s what the whole “just joking” phrase is implying. When someone says they’re “just joking” they’re saying they’re not serious (or more accurately half-serious; remember no on is ever “just joking”). And that’s another weak spot with comedy, in my eyes. When one laughs at a racist joke, for instance, it’s because they are able to suspend (momentarily at least) their care for that group of people who are the butt of the joke; the laughing person’s scope of care has been narrowed momentarily. This is sort of how comedians can talk about hot-button topics and not set off those defense mechanisms: they’re able appeal to their audiences’ cold, rational intellects in clever ways, and get the audience on their side by detaching them (again, temporarily at least) from their more concrete emotions and feelings. To laugh is to momentarily not give a shit. Case in point, even if it was a “joke” that Trump was making, when his followers laughed at the joke they were exposing themselves and indicating that they could care less about Hillary and her judicial picks getting assassinated.
Now look, it can actually be healthy in many ways to laugh; we all know that laughing certainly can be good medicine (it’s not the best thing to be too “emo” and super super serious all the time! As someone who has inherited a very Jewish neuroticism, I can attest to this! HA!). But another danger to be conscious of, as Adam Kotsko has pointed out before, is that too much of this continual emotional/valueless detachment can lead to inaction and indifference. We see this with the politico-tainment satire that is so very popular with liberals today. For many people, laughing along with John Oliver at the dim-witted, out-group conservatives allows one to feel superior and is ultimately enough to satisfy, thus there is no need (or desire) to actually participate in meaningful political action.
Painting above: Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto-5 by Shahlac