What is Funny -- A serious discussion of humour.

What is "funny"?

Of course, one can always resort to the funny explanation of the funny phenomenon: "Funny Comes from Special Cows" (five geek points to anyone who knows the reference), but that doesn't really answer the question.

I ran across a video(qt) today. I expect it's a leaked or viral advert concept, for the VW polo (Not sold in North America, don't get your hopes up, indie boys and girls.)

Now, theres a quote widly attributed to Mel Brooks that goes something like this: "Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall down an open manhole." I must admit this is pretty much true. If you unintentionally fall down three flights of stairs like an auditioning reject for a movie needing a Chris Farley impersonator, odds are, even your closest friend will laugh at you. You, meanwhile, will only shriek in agony and beg for ice and medical bandages to be brought to the scene as quickly as possible.

But I firmly believe there is more to funny than just watching other people do stupid or painful or embarrassing things.

So what else is there?

Isaac Asimov was a writer with a book in every category in the Dewey decimal system. His work included a book called "Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor" and it is filled with and writing about humor, delivery, and the after-dinner funny story, which is the format most of the jokes use.

In the Treasury of Humor, Mr. Asimov says ". . . the one necessary ingredient in every successful joke is a sudden alteration in point of view." He calls it the Anticlimax, and says that this sudden drop or rise in mental location is what creates the laugh in a joke with a punchline.

I say that the definition of humour can be even more generalized than just the anticlimax description of a joke's punchline. I think that humour lies in juxtaposition.

Humour, is most funny when it causes us no harm, but creates a careful contrast between what is and what should be, or what shouldn't be and what should. For example, much of Monty Python's Flying Circus work is the most basic of juxtapositions. One may remember the Flying Circus episode with the forest scene filled with animals. Throughout the episode the scene, peaceful and serene, would appear, and then there would be a blinding flash and one of the animals (I believe a rabbit was first to go) would simply explode like a miniature grenade. No explanation, lead-in, or plot. But still most people laugh compulsively on the spot.

Despite the fact that the video I linked to above mocks a most serious modern issue (Terrorism), and involves a death, the juxtaposition of a car-bomber failing miserably at his attempt, the people outside calmly continuing with their tea, unaware that their lives would have been threatened, and the car remaining perfectly unharmed from the outside is so odd, so strange, and so out-of-place with what we know, that we are drawn to laughter.

Humour is juxtaposition. Entire movie scripts have been written around this concept. Look at Down to Earth or Mrs. Doubtfire or Miss Congeniality. This absurdity of the person assuming a different persona is always good for a laugh.

So there it is. My theory on what makes humor funny. It must be the contrast of a surrealism with reality.

And if any of you were wondering about that Cow reference at the top? Here's the answer. Just read the five page links in the body.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


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