Guest post by Brony: Every one of us is a “God of Jokes”

Originally a comment on Penn Jillette on how to Professional Comedy With Added Misogyny.

What pompous overblown impulsive reactivity!

We all individually have a say in what is funny and what is not. Every one of us is a “God of Jokes” and a comedian should realize that. I’m pretty sure that comedians don’t totally ignore the surrounding culture and adapt to it in order to hone their craft. That culture has a structure made up of our individual dispositions, experiences and beliefs that are the source of jokes. It’s a pretty clear attempt to use his authority to bully a disliked opinion down.

We should consider why things are funny and what the effect of humor is on the subject of the joke’s objects. Why we have jokes about other people that draw on stereotypes and unflattering associations is a totally valid subject of concern. How to deal with jokes that make like more difficult for other people is a totally valid subject of concern. I definitely smell some paranoia about criticism of humor in Penn’s chosen approach here.

There is not a whole lot of research into humor, but I have looked at it because Tourette’s comes with some altered appreciation of humor, in addition Tourette’s is the subject of much social humor, thinking about these things is self-defense. It seems to me that when you scratch beneath the surface of a joke you find tension. Lots of comedians (professional and non) joke about things that they are troubled with on some level, family, age, politics, religion, sex, race, more. The joke relieves the tension and makes the person laughing at it feel better about the thing.

But not every means of reducing tension is valid and a professional comedian should be able to maturely discuss that fact. If someone is tense because of sex, gender, or race issues spreading around a stereotype to hide, or distract the source of tension is a bad idea. It’s puts an emotional bandage on a social wound that will still be leaking after the joke or show except now the persons telling and laughing at the joke can go pretending that reality is something else easier for a while. It won’t be funny to a person personally harmed by the social wound that is being replaced by an exaggeration or falsehood for the amusement of others.

And maybe we don’t want these sources of tension to be funny anyway. The worse we feel about social problems, the more attention gets directed to them, and the sooner something gets done about them. The temporary emotional salve of humor can effectively let us put things off for a while, but can be habit forming on a group level.


  1. machintelligence says

    Allow me a plug for the recent book “Inside Jokes” (using humor to reverse-engineer the mind) by Hurley, Dennett and Adams. It not only addresses the “how” of humor (what makes us laugh) but also the “why” of humor (what is the evolutionary basis for finding things funny).
    Disclaimer: if you read it, you will find yourself analyzing jokes.

  2. says

    I really need to start editing my comments for types more thoroughly before posting 😛

    I expanded this a bit more in the post on Facebook before it was deleted. When it comes to jokes and disadvantaged communities there are at least two groups of people that are reducing tension with jokes, and more than one kind of joke involving these subjects.

    The first are people uncomfortable with sex, or race, or gender and they are overwhelmingly not on the receiving end of prejudice or bigotry, white men like me for example (even with the TS I can still see the privilege). When these folks tell jokes that reduce their tension on these issues through bigoted and prejudiced means that offer cheap laughs and stereotypes I really don’t give a crap about their feelings. I’ll pick the best strategy to confront the joke-teller depending on the situation. They don’t need help with their pain, they need to feel the sting of social disapproval.

    Actual disadvantaged groups using humor on the other hand are another situation. They will often use humor to get messages across or use humor to make their lives more bearable in the face of prejudice and bigotry. They have all the sympathy, empathy, and support that I can muster. Any person with privilege needs to be able to see the differences between why a joke is funny, who it is going to be funny to, what sort of tension or pain it is reducing, and how it might be making someone’s life better or worse. Is this fair that disadvantaged groups get to use humor about these things differently?

    Yes it’s not fair and so what? Not every part of existence is fair. We hold it as an ideal that everything should be as fair as possible but even ideals need to be rationally and logically implemented. Freedom of speech has limitations, gun rights have limitations, we find new ways where our rights come into conflict all the time. This area needs to bend to reality as well and that reality shows that not all humor is equal, and that it can be categorized and criticized differently. Frankly Penn looked every bit the outraged religious fundamentalist seeing something offensive that was merely not to his taste, and all he had to deal with it was volume and accusations veiled as questions. I expected more from a professional.

    @ machintelligence
    I’ll take a look at that. I’ve also found a lot more research related to humor than I did the last time I looked. My favorite paper is one where they questioned unicyclists on how people reacted to them while out riding because of a common set of experiences reported by unicyclists. It turns out that suddenly seeing a unicyclist is startling, and responses tend to be gender biased (no reason to rule out culture) with physical aggression in boys eventually turning into a “…snide, aggressive, stereotyped humorous response…”.

    The tension of a possible threat transforms into words meant to turn that feeling of threat into humor at the false-threat’s expense. I’m reminded of the movie Braveheart where the Scottish mooned the English at the Battle of Stirling in order to transform the tension of battle into humor at their enemies expense.

  3. MyaR says

    There is not a whole lot of research into humor

    I would somewhat disagree with this. There is significant research within linguistics that I’m aware of (see pragmatics of humor, semantics of humor, cross-cultural analysis of humor, linguistic theory of humor, metalinguistic humor analysis, etc.) that hasn’t seemed to make it into much material for non-technical audiences. Additionally, there’s significant cognitive-based analyses of humor (like the book above, which I clearly need to acquire) and various psychological and interdisciplinary approaches. One of the problems is finding it and the second is interpreting it, because of the combination of technical and non-technical concepts. (Well, there’s also the problem of accessing a lot of the academic publications.)

  4. moarscienceplz says

    And maybe we don’t want these sources of tension to be funny anyway.

    “Stupid Pollack” jokes used to be a staple of humor. I wonder if Penn still thinks those are a good source of material for a comedian today? Italians are criminals, Irish are drunkards, Jews are greedy – heck, yeah, why WOULDN’T a comedian today want to tell jokes like that? If it was good enough for Jackie Mason or Archie Bunker to get a laugh with, it MUST be preserved forever!

  5. says

    @ MyaR
    This situation got me looking into it more and I found a lot more than I did last time. My use of jargon in search boxes has improved. Thanks for those concepts, that will make me even better.

    I was also a bit limited in how I was searching at the time because I was a little focused on humor as it related to TS, and the forays into humor in general were more limited than I thought. For example we have problems with comprehension of non-literal language such as sarcasm. I discovered that I had come up with my own way of dealing with humor involving this by using my own sense of humor in pretending that the other person was being literal and expanding on that.

  6. MyaR says

    Oh, another thing that can be illuminating about humor anti-jokes. (The ones that take a racist/sexist/transphobic/etc. setup and deliver something serious rather than a punchline. “A priest, a rabbi, an Irishman, and a gay man walk into a bar. What a fine example of an integrated community!” Of course, as with all humor aside from simple puns, there’s a lot more to it.)

    Oh, another term for you Brony — discourse analysis and (humor|jokes|comedy).

  7. Martin Cohen says

    A joke of my own creation for which I would appreciate comments:

    Many people have complained about the Koch brothers and have wondered what should be done about them. I tend to be flexible: I am OK with either one or three injections.

  8. says

    @ MyaR 6

    Thank you. Anti-jokes are really interesting to me, it’s like sarcasm in how they flip an emotional structure around a subject. It’s really fascinating the way our logic works. Sometimes I think that the altered social emotions and OCD tendencies breed an intense curiosity about social information, most of the obsessions and compulsions in TS do seem to be centered around social information in different ways. I may never be able to master it, but it’s all still really fascinating.

    @ anthrosciguy 7
    Yeah my typos have a really bad way of flipping the logic of my sentences. Fortunately I’m usually wordy enough that the context is obvious 😛

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