“What are we laughing at?” Upon entering a room full of twitters it’s an innocuous enough question. Here in the Youtube era we may not want to see the crude or unusual videos being shared, yet the cause laughter itself remains psychologically prescient. Plus, there’s also the timeless possibility that we are the butt of the joke! Usually, though, humour is intended to be harmless and perhaps vaguely edgy. It may even “beguile the censor”, like when a country singer literally croons “I’d like to check you for ticks” (Monro, 92. Paisley, online).
Laughter may be at something, because of something or with someone. If you’re illustrating to others the nature of life at AU, any and all of these possibilities can come into play. Although we distance students fundamentally have no classroom to walk into, we nevertheless may enter some funny moments as we describe to others our academic sojourn. After all, doing school from home can sound too good to be true. Who hasn’t wanted to skip out on a day of life and keep the home fires burning whilst claiming productivity? Sometimes it’s tougher explaining (or defending) our unique study regimes with a straight face and a philosophical countenance. It might work to make light of our situation and thereby inform others of our reality through the intellectual back door.
Not attending classes per se leaves no need to concern ourselves with laughing out of place and attracting professorial ire. Like a child who chortles during grace at a big fat family dinner, or even an adult who giggles nervously during sandwiches after a funeral, our AU experience is relatively private at the daily micro-social level. Any guffaws we do emit are likely to ring out against deaf walls and resonate back into our minds unheard by an Other. Tears of laughter at the implications for our social life if we stick to our self-imposed study goals? Tell it to the walls, cuz there’s no one else listening! Yet, the social implications of comedy in our daily lives arise as soon as we leave our den of academic inquiry and/or iniquity. Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
“So you do school on the Internet, that sounds easy!”
“Hey, have you checked out TED Talks, why pay tuition when it’s all there for free?”
Well-meaning peers say the darndest things and it’s natural to laugh as we summon an explanation to justify our existence as paying students. Every comedian has to practice their rap.
For his part, D. H. Monro classified three general types of humour delimited and explicated into three tidy bundles: incongruity theories, superiority theories and relief theories. To each we shall now turn.
How now brown cow?
Some lines just don’t add up, but we laugh anyway. It doesn’t make sense but neither do horse feathers and yet giggles prevail at such an outburst. Incongruity works this way because when imagery gets a bit wobbly it tips us askew, such that we can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of language and thereby of life itself. Arthur Schopenhauer, a noted pessimist who nevertheless took the time each evening to literally play the flute (an instrument with notable musical range and not a little associated with gaiety at the realization of the very lightness of our being), claimed that laughter at nonsensical non-sequiturs served to provide a needed break from “that strict, untiring, troublesome, governess, the Reason” (Moran, online. Schopenhauer in Monro, 91). Like the great Caribbean poet Aime Cesaire who famously intoned “reason, I sacrifice you to the evening breeze”, incongruity theory explains how laughter prevails when we are faced with sheer nonsense. There can be joy in misunderstandings, and in being misunderstood, as our explanations of life as an AU student attest.
Jacques Derrida, whose career described the arc of a valiant snowball battling a behemoth avalanche, likewise claimed that “to risk meaning nothing is to start to play” (Derrida, 4). Incongruity suggests a playful disabuse of the power implied in ordinary speech and action: it’s to throw a wrench in the works of normal life. And, like an AU student who waxes philosophic during an ordinary game of pool at his local small-town pub, sometimes just by expressing oneself slightly differently than the Other we can elicit peals of laughter. Referencing George Bernard Shaw’s assessment of the “trade unionism of married women” is just such an example; it’s a sentiment so antiquated as to be laughable and yet it still strikes a certain chord (Monro, 90 &92).
Laughter, the harshest medicine.
Social codes are nothing if not fragile entities lacking a solid core—their opacity shows through their clothing. This arrives us at the second species of humour: that explained by superiority theory. This category Thomas Hobbes summarizes as containing “sudden glory”, that soul-girding moment when we feel ourselves rise above the common sentiment of the hoi polloi and attain an apical level that boosts our ego and/or our sense of cosmic understanding (Hobbes in Monro, 91. Monro, 91). Here “satire and laughter at small misfortunes” remind us of how well off our life and our sense of propriety are; even something simple like a child wandering through snow with boots on the wrong feet can here suffice. So too can misspelled words, a fact that we students, stranded far from our academic peers, must be aware of if we are not to come off as pretentious poopy-heads in front of others. After all, functional literacy to some involves putting new struts on their wife’s car while to others it’s to have a command of spelling or grammar. If we position ourselves out of place by switching roles we might laugh till we cry because differences align our very beings; humour functions to reveal these truths. Monro notes that “the humorist drags into light the inconvenient facts that shatter these attitudes” of superiority (Monro, 92). Moments of hilarity in this vein can thus remind us of “our own past follies” and serve to provide a healthy levelling effect upon our self-esteem (Monro, 90). By laughing with others at ourselves of someone else we are reminded of the fragile nature of our status as adulting humans.
Superiority theory explains how humour can give us an omniscient view on life as a whole. Potty humour functions this way too, as with Robert Munsch and his infamous urinary references. We do all have some things in common, after all. Critical to superiority theory, therefore, is a shared sense of understanding. Henri Bergson, whose descriptions of the elan vital (an ineffable essence animating our existence) suggest an essential commonality betwixt each of us that is just waiting to be realized, is aptly summarized by Monro:
“Sometimes humor is at the expense of the person who is unable to live up to the conventional requirements, and here malice may creep in, but often enough the effect is to cast doubt on the conventional attitudes and values” of a given social circumstance (Monro, 91).
However, there is a deeper “social function of humour, it is levelled, according to Bergson, at the eccentric or noncomformist (because it is also)…aimed at the social code itself” (Monro, 91).
Responding to a query about what we do all day while we are purportedly studying, a reply such as “I just scroll through my newsfeed like everyone else,” might serve to break the proverbial ice. We are levelling humour at ourselves and others and thus tying our commonalities together. Thus, we all feel superior to those unaware of our common humanity.
Cracks in the walls of laughter
Relief theories of humour function specifically to break down these imaginary barriers. Herbert Spencer, whose deemed his ideal of isolated scholarly activity “cerebral hygiene”, hopefully appreciated the odd soilage of his mental realm by others (Qia.com, online). Spencer (who elsewhere coined the term survival of the fittest and thus enabled a great joke to be played on know-it-all science trivia buffs who thought it was Darwin), believed that:
“humor consists essentially in the abrupt transition of thought from a noble or elevated idea to a trivial or degrading one, leaving the psyche with an unexpected fund of nervous energy that overflows into laughter, which is, according to him, a physical release of energy” (Qia.com, online. Monro, 93).
This cathartic release feels good at the neurochemical level and thus adherents to the art of comedy return to the well over and over; some even fall in amid guffaws. Slap-stick, like life itself, is all about timing.
Laughter is thus a many-splendoured thing. Upon entering a roomful of mirth and enquiring its etiology, it might turn out that the occupants were laughing because someone had read an obituary of their favourite horse. As a result of one of the listeners not being aware of the species of the dearly departed family member a confusion had occurred. “May she bound over fences in heaven” sounds odd for even the most limber of pure-bred Canadian Grandma off to the big old farmland in the sky. Likewise, be it Lady Godiva naked on her horse in protest, or a character in an 1930s Hollywood movie exclaiming “Horse Feathers!” what matters about laughter depends upon the audience and the context. We have to know our audience if we are to explain the AU part of our life. And, hey, sometimes we really are just sitting around in our pyjamas scrolling through our social media newsfeeds, right? Even horses with feathers have feedbags. Newsfeed bags. Ugh, I’d best stick with essay writing!