Friday, January 15, 2021

Is It Funny?

Ann Althouse has a post about her online interaction with her son about impeachment humor. He had put up the lines 

The most impeached president in American history! I wonder if Trump is tired of all this winning… 
Half of all impeachments of an American president have been of Trump!... 
We’re going to have impeachment, like you wouldn’t believe. A lot of people are saying he’s the best president ever at getting impeached. No one had ever heard of impeachment before Trump.

She asked "Is it funny?" which strikes me as the first question we should be asking about humor. Because if it's not funny, but people are calling it humor, then what is it? There are 233 responses there, so I'm not going to get buried in that, but it is at least interesting to look at the question.  Humor is often time-bound or generational.  My father-in-law, a humorous man, did not find The Far Side funny, though I found it hysterical.  He loved Laurel and Hardy, which I found mildly amusing. 

"Funny" is hard to define.  Stalin roared with laughter about what his enemies said as they were being tortured. I recall many jokes told by boys when I was young to be simply mean, and girls at that age could sometimes be reduced to tears laughing with their friends about things that had no intrinsic humor, such as a phrase that referred to an inside event that wasn't so much funny but shared by only a few.  "Cuckoo clock!" Hold-your-side humor. Very developmental.

Still, I think I have a vaguely objective measure for whether something is actually funny, or whether something else is happening. (And if the latter, what is the Something Else?) Can you imagine 1) a recognised comedian saying the line and 2) his or her audience laughing?  Let's apply that standard to the jokes above.

Can you imagine Bob Newhart saying any of the three lines and his audience laughing?

Can you imagine Richard Pryor doing so? Mark Twain?  Chris Rock? Mae West?  Really, take a moment and run each one through the mill.  It's only a few seconds each.

Put those words in Joan Rivers mouth, or Jonathan Winters and hear in your mind the response of their usual audience.  Robin Williams.  George Carlin.  John Cleese.  Eddie Izzard. Not working.  Not, not working as anything funny.

Let's hit the more modern, more political group and see what results.  If Sarah Silverman says this, what's her delivery?  What audience might she have that would find it funny? I can sorta maybe hear that,  Tina Fey?  Yes, maybe.  All the late-night and SNL people might be able to get laughs out of their audience from some of these lines, but I can't hear anything I would call funny.  I will assert that those laughs are not because of humor, but Something Else, but I have considerable prejudices in this area.  John Oliver: I wonder if Trump is tired of all this winning...


james said...

I remember getting a book on Chinese humor (examples through history) from the library. I remember reading it. I don't remember laughing very much.

The joke in question could be a touch-and-go one-liner from Twain, I think. But not in that expanded form.

Grim said...

In fairness to the Chinese, what I gather is the most uproarious of their humor is impossible to translate. It's a very sophisticated sort of wordplay that hangs on the fact that so many of their words sound exactly alike (because each character is pronounced with only one syllable), or very close to the same (same syllable, different intonation), or just one step removed (e.g. 'ma' or 'na' or 'ba,' either with the same tone or, two steps off, a different one).

None of this can pass into English at all, but it's apparently a highly developed form that is quite hilarious to native speakers.

Donna B. said...

It's not funny. It's sad. That isn't to say there isn't a category of "so sad it's funny" into which this might fall.

Before the 2016 election, I probably fell into the "never Trump" category. I couldn't see how he could defeat Hillary. I was wrong. After the election, I could see no benefit in fighting him at every point. I think he did a lot of good things, primarily foreign policy.

Christopher B said...

They seem to fall into the same category as the variations on "didn't inhale" and "it depends on the meaning of ...."

james said...

Grim: I gather they really liked Gulliver's Travels, and several Chinese authors wrote their own versions of a traveler finding strange societies that somehow throw aspects of his own into humorous relief. In one scene a grateful traveler who has become rich rewards the sailers who brought him home with wonderful delicacies--notably bird's nest soup, which they chuck over the side for being tasteless.