Friday, 22 April 2011

I: Why it's funny to see people Fail

Having discussed why we laugh in my previous entry, I was going to post an article now on what makes us laugh specifically, in other words, what exactly is funny and why. The argument, however, proved far more ambitious than I anticipated, and it seems I shall have to deal with it in a series (four more entries including this one, I'm expecting). So you'd better get used to the topic of comedy because it's going to dominate the writing on this blog for a while...

Ok. There's a wealth of different 'genres' or types of humour, but in my opinion most of them can be resumed into a few central modes, with the other types being mere combinations, variations or spin-offs of these modes. Black humour, for instance, employs a specifically macabre tone or imagery compared to its alternatives, but the comic mechanisms it makes use of are not unique to the genre. In fact they're identical to those you find in other types of jokes. Similarly, you can make distinctions between romantic comedies, coming-of-age comedies, pants movies, British comedies, comedies of errors and what have you, but the difference between all of these is not the way they make us laugh. They've got great tonal variations, and they touch on different topics, and they may have different presentations or stylistic traits, but when it comes to the funny bits, they still return to the same principles. What are these principles, and how many of them are there?

Broadly speaking, I can think of four foundational classes of humour. I shall dedicate this blog entry to the first of them. The other three will be dealt with on my blog over the coming thirty days or so, time permitting.


I wasn't sure how to call the first class of humour. I was thinking of 'Contrarian' or 'Thwarted intentions,' but ultimately I just adopted Fail. It's not a name I particularly like (and I may change it in future articulations of the argument), but it's familiar jargon by now thanks to the Americanism of using 'Fail' as a noun rather than as a verb (with greater emphasis – the 'epic fail!'). You can find endless collections of Fails in google images and on Youtube, and you'll also frequently hear expressions like 'goalie fail' when a goalkeeper scores an own goal, or 'relationship fail' when a girlfriend is disappointed by something her boyfriend just did (or viceversa). It's always very simple stuff, relating to accidents or bloopers or mistakes. Usually the idea seems to be that anything going contrary to a person's intentions is funny, but the core principle is even more primal than that, and we can describe it more or less like this:

Anything that doesn't work is funny, as long as it belongs to someone else.

This is just an application of the principles described in the Why do we laugh entry. The crucial aspect is that the subject of the Fail has to be a distinct, recognizable OTHER. If the 'victim' is a skater on Youtube who falls from a concrete step, we're bound to laugh to a degree proportional to how spectacular his fall (and therefore his failure) is – provided that an excessive damage isn't caused, in which case the reverse sentiment of empathy gets switched on and we feel concern instead of amusement. Exactly how much damage is 'excessive damage'? Our personal sensitivity and our own experiences will have an influence (if I've once broken my leg while skateboarding, I'm less likely to laugh at a falling skater) – and this goes to show, again, how unpredictable the homo sapiens individual is. But a good guideline is this: the more alien the victim from ourselves, the more pain we can tolerate him/her to take before it stops being funny. If a member of my family falls from the skateboard, or my girlfriend, I'm far less likely to laugh than if it is the anonymous skater on Youtube. Were I to read about a group of people accidentally blowing themselves up with a grenade, I wouldn't find it funny; but if it's a band of raving Nazi skinheads attempting to throw the grenade into a synagogue, I'd probably laugh a bit or at least smirk, because they are so remote from my social circle that even such a horrible disaster fails to cause empathy (and in fact has an ironic ring given their original intent).

The degree to which someone or something is alien or external is contextually determined. As usual with homo sapiens, you can't just categorise things and make broad sweeping rules. I'm never going to laugh at my brother if he gets hurt in public and other people are laughing at him as well, because I recognise him as closer to my social circle than all the other people. He is, after all, part of the tightest social circle of them all, which is the family. But I may laugh at my brother if it's just the two of us, or us two and our parents, and he trips on his laces and falls (without getting too injured, obviously), because in this case it's enough for him not to be me to invest him with a foreign aura. Similarly, I probably wouldn't laugh even at the Nazi soldiers if they blew themselves up while in combat with, say, a horrible alien species invading our planet – because in that case, they still have more in common with me than with the other element. Their failure would be my own. Commonality, the measure which determines how much pain can be taken before something stops being funny, is not absolute but relative.

Due to its communal and social nature, Fail humour is at the heart of racist and sexist jokes, among other things. More frequently than not these jokes are poor on irony and wit. They simply take a (usually degrading) trait attributed to the category in question and augment it by hyperbole. How do you kill a nigger in a car? Place his head out of the window and let his lips slap him to death. There isn't really a 'reversal of intent' there, or an ironic construction. There's barely even an insult, because 'big lips' isn't much of a degrading trait (unlike jokes which compare blacks to shit or describe women as stupid... though of course the joke is still offensive, inasmuch as it seems to imply that there is a 'correct,' and therefore non-criminal, way of killing black people). There's just an image which exaggerates a trait supposed to belong to (and identify) black people, that is to say, the big lips. The thing that makes this 'funny,' to racist sensitivities anyway, is that it draws a line between us and the Other(s). 'They' are different from 'us' and we can distinguish them because their lips are so big. The communal nature of the laughter mechanism then kicks in, and we define our 'alliance' as white people by laughing (this would have been useful in tribal communities – a group of people laughing at you looks threatening - remember that laughter is also a way of baring teeth - and denotes confidence and dominance, so a tribe laughing together at another tribe are sending a very clear signal).

Note that laughter kicks in only if the highlighting of this difference is done in terms of a Fail – in this case, the black person's death. Yes, you can have jokes based on the same mechanism which seem to have no failure in them and in fact sound almost complimentary, such as quips on the length of a black man's penis, but there's still a Fail in there, and it's still racist: the Fail is that of the black man to be defined by anything else other than his sexuality. Jokes based on the idea of black people having super-schlongs are projecting blacks as no more than walking dicks, and are therefore degrading them (though I think you could use this premise to change the object of the racism, if you were to make a joke where the implied Fail is that of the white man and his smaller penis. But I can't really bring to mind jokes which do this, given how little anti-white racist humour I've encountered). This same exact process is at work when we make jokes or sing jingles about supporters of a rival football team, for instance. Again, the degree to which this is funny depends on the subject: the more racist s/he is, the funnier it will seem, because s/he will feel the 'alliance' more deeply.

Discrimination humour mingles with other forms of humour, the way they all do. There's racist/sexist/homophobic jokes which actually demonstrate clever, witty or ironic constructions. A 'pure' racist joke is in fact not as easy to find as you may think – even the 'big lips' one I mentioned earlier makes use of other funny principles aside from mere discrimination (and we shall come to these principles in future entries). When it comes to the Fail class of humour, it's so primal that other than the 'video of the guy falling down,' you can't do much with it unless you throw in other comic genres as well.

But before this type of amusement gets completely defamed, I should say that the Fail mechanism doesn't have to be discriminatory. If targeted towards individuals rather than ethnic, national or sexual groups, then it won't be socially divisive (even if it may be offensive). Here's how Jerome K. Jerome, one of the greatest of comedic writers, informs us of his mates' ineptitude at packing suitcases. When George is hanged, Harris will be the worst packer in this world. This double insult thrown almost casually into the phrase is funny because it implies a.) the social failure (or 'fail') of Harris, who can be expected to be hanged some day, and b.) his otherness with respect to our (social / intellectual / moral) group, since we subsist under the same law and community but are not under threat of being hanged. The casual quality of the tone implies that it's something we all already know, and therefore reinforces the sense of community and alliance.

I said that most jokes based on Fail also make use of other forms of humour. Correspondingly, Fail humour is itself employed by other, more sophisticated comic genres. I'm thinking that comics and animation make use of anthropomorphised animals partly because it makes their slapstick easier to digest. By dressing their fundamentally human characters in the robes of animals, they make them more alien and therefore easier to laugh at. They also diminish them considerably as human beings: these are not men, but men degraded to the status of animals, and so not legitimate in our moral group. (This makes sense in light of the Aristotelian statement that comedy is about people who are slightly worse than we are. I'm assuming he meant morally).

Intriguingly, human characters themselves can play important roles in animation films where the protagonists are animals. Think of the old ladies in Tom and Jerry or Sylvester and Tweetie, who are NEVER the 'victims' and always the 'punishers.' Their human appearance goes hand in hand with this role: if they were the ones who Failed, then they'd be represented as animals. No-one wants to laugh at an old lady getting hurt (for that matter no-one wants to laugh at a cat getting hurt, but remember that Sylvester and to a slightly lesser extent Tom are not cats, but humans degraded to the level of cats). There's exceptions, like the rival of Bugs Bunny, that bald guy who consistently gets the shit beaten out of him. In that case something slightly more complex is at work, I think there's more than just Fail humour coming into play, but the Fail element is probably that of a man so inept that he is overpowered by a rabbit (among the most harmless of creatures).

Aside from the old ladies, though, I'm musing on the figure of the mindless 'baby' who constantly and innocently endangers him/herself and has to be rescued by the despairing protagonist(s). It's a common figure which has been given its most interesting expression, to my knowledge, in the Roger Rabbit mythology (link to an exemplary short). Of course, the baby *cannot* get hurt. There is no figure more immune to Fail humour than that of the infant. Roger Rabbit, by contrast, as the human character so idiotic that he is no better than a rabbit, goes through all sorts of injuries and we still laugh at him. (To an extent, anyway, because after a while the degree of injuries gets so extreme that we start rooting for Roger over the baby, Tom over Jerry, and so on. This is a familiar feeling to anyone who's watched a bit of cartoons).

Fail humour is the most basic and primal type of comedy. Other types follow on from this genre, but complicate it to the point that it becomes something recognizably different. The second of our four classes of humour will be the subject of my next blog entry.


Max Crisp said...

I think fail is just slapstick adapted to the needs and expectations of today's world. We're no longer a precious race, and so we can afford a few people getting hurt. Real realism?

The Judge said...

I'd argue that slapstick is a type of fail as I'm describing it, but this is just semantics.

Actually, I think Slapstick is a much better title for the type of humour I'm talking about. Thanks for the suggestion!