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Comedy As A Utility

Introduction: Humor is not funny. It’s serious business.

Why do some adult people have a “juvenile” sense of humor, while some children are called “old  souls” for their rapier wit? This brief paper seeks to illuminate the reader’s understanding of how comedy and humor develop. Here are a few basic ideas that form the foundation of the hypotheses presented on this page:

• Comedy is contingent on perceived threat. Every form of comedy relies on some sort of threat, evolving from physical to social to psychological; but in each case, the safety of the individual’s person, status, or ideas is under fire. Comedy happens when the threat proves false.

• The phases a person displays can indicate that individual’s low rank in society. The lower the phase that is most commonly displayed, the greater the chances that the person is poorer, less powerful, and less able to effectuate changes in his or her life. However, the opposite is not necessarily true. An individual that expresses higher phases is not necessarily likely to be materially wealthy; but is likelier to be more content, educated, healthy, grateful, and perceive the world through a more positive lens. It is perceived as less common to see, for example, a politician publicly using crass insults against an opponent, while a broom-pushing employee might be perceived to have lower social expectations, and this kind of humor would be expected from him or her.

We are not surprised when poor or powerless people use excessive profanity. Why is this? It’s simple: profanity always indicates threat, and the poor often feel powerless, so they use the poor man’s low-cost social power by simply making others uncomfortable. The F-word is perceived by the “lizard brain”, and it should be noted that in several cases where an individual has suffered a stroke or otherwise loses linguistic brain function, curse words can manage to retain a foot-hold, and continue to get expressed. We marvel that sometimes the delirious and old will curse, but they accurately perceive themselves as threatened by themselves and others. Again, profanity always indicates threat. While the words considered vulgar or profane vary from culture to culture, casual use of profanity indicates separation from peaceable society, and is abhorred.

• Comedy becomes more complex, rather than more profound, with the size of a group’s cultural library. Compare the cleverness of a hypothetical tribesman of a simple, illiterate aboriginal group of somewhere between 300 and 3000 individuals living on an isolated island, with cleverness of a hypothetical, globally-minded European who has been educated in the finest college. Both individuals may draw from a wealth of experiences, but the erudite European might call on a more expansive historical network due to his or her education. The tribesman’s framework is simply smaller. Yet, in either case, if perceptions, cognition and attitudes line up correctly, all forms of humor may become available to each, as the expression of the forms can be used as a way to measure  individual development. Humans simply haven’t been geographically-separated long enough for biology alone to dictate this.

• Culture and traditions may indicate what forms of comedy are socially-acceptable, and thereby direct a group towards one form of comedy or another, regardless of individual development or preference. The more tradition-oriented the group, the less exploratory the humor of the successful joke.

• The phases develop as a consequence of experience, perception, and age. Two individuals may experience identical horrible experiences, and based on their differing decisions and coping abilities, those two individuals will recall very different experiences. We typically consider this part of the maturation process, and it is self-evident that nobody is exactly equal in this regard. An more-socially-adept person is more likely to grasp more advanced forms of humor, even if his or her vocabulary or mathematical processing power is subpar. To understand comedy is to understand the human condition. The more complicated the person and the more complicated his or her society, the greater the requirement for comprehension.

Notably, age is a transitive factor in humor comprehension: a toddler will likely grasp the humor of false physical threats, such as a “pratt-fall” or a funny walk, or even hiding one’s face and revealing it repeatedly in a game of “peek-a-boo”, while an older, more experienced, thorough understanding of social expectations is prerequisite to perceive subtly inappropriate behavior (which is not intrinsically physically threatening, but threatens the norms of the group) in a clever play. Terrifically dark, clever humor may be found in children in war-torn areas of the world, because those particular children often grasp the tenuousness of life.

For social humor to work, people must identify themselves with their ideas. If you ridicule Catholicism, for example, a Catholic person is much more likely to take offense than would a Muslim. The Catholic person perceives a threat to his ideas, culture, and possibly to his person. The point is, the ego is invested in the idea at this point.
It is well-known that people build their perceptions of the world around the ideas they are told as children. Those spoon-fed childhood beliefs form the foundation of the family group and culture. If you were to sit an American child down and carefully, scientifically explain that there is no Santa Claus, you would not merely be attacking the belief in Santa. You would be attacking the relationship of trust that the child had formed with its parents; you would be removing the child from a state of trusting security. This would not be funny to the child nor the parents, because you have posed a legitimate threat to their social bonds. Again, people first identify themselves with the ideas they believe in: attack the idea, and the person feels attacked also.



The more advanced the comedy, the further away the perceived threat is to the immediate physical survival of the target, and the further out into the realm of identity and beliefs.

By engaging in a conscious and analytical approach to comedy, you can gauge what phase someone is currently experiencing, and know how to best relate to them. Use the chart to the left for key indicators to inform your diagnoses.

A passive approach is to simply observe what sorts of things a person laughs at the most.  An active (riskier) approach is to make jokes and tell stories. Be advised that by probing with too advanced or too primitive a form of humor will instantly alienate you from your audience. It seems best to start somewhere in the middle lean in one direction or another to test for positive responses.

The phases we’ve discovered so far are…

1. Physical threat

2. Me Versus You

3. Us Versus Them, or Teamwork

4. Culture

5. Absurdism

6. Inward reflection

Next: Physical Threat