Monday, 16 May 2011
The third comedic principle is fairly well-known, but a little awkward to explain.
Succinctly: we laugh when a taboo is broken. Freud defines a 'taboo' as something that is simultaneously desired and prohibited. Since 99% of what is desired and prohibited in our culture involves sex, it explains why so many of our jokes are based on sex in various forms, either explicitly or by allusion - or, should I say, they are about FUCKING.
The word 'fuck' is already a case of Taboo humour, like all swear words. But fuck is the most important of them all: it signifies the object of desire, and simultaneously stands as a prohibited signifier. We cannot say fuck, anymore than we can do fuck (although of course, we do both - and if we can't do one, we do more of the other). And so the use of foul language becomes an automatic joke, one which irreverent comedies will integrate with gusto (South Park, for example, which puts its endless cussing in the mouth of children).
Consider the fact that an infinity of our jokes are simply 'other ways' of performing the FUCK word, that is to say, stories of people having sex liberally and in violation of all possible laws: oral and anal, polygamy, adultery, incest, bestiality, occasionally rape, sex in churches, in public offices, in schools, in public, in elevators, in the street, on highways and planes, or inversely in scenarios where laws are abrogated, as in far-off islands, in jungles, in forests, in deserts. In all of these jokes, the laughter (or punch line) occurs at the moment when the law is violated. We laugh when hearing all these stories, because we like (to) FUCK.
The things you find on the internet...
Now the question of why we laugh at all of this is a little more subtle. Not everything that gives us pleasure elicits laughter: we also like to eat or feel the open air, but we don't laugh at this. For that matter, we don't laugh at genuine sexual excitation, like seeing a hot partner taking his/her clothes off. In fact, we've stated that we laugh to express an alliance. So where's the alliance here?
In Fail humour, we laugh at the person failing because we are excluding him/her from our alliance. In the Taboo, we laugh WITH the person who breaks the taboo because that person is giving us what we want. We grow up under a repressive social law, by necessity; when someone starts saying fuck or having sex, it shows to us that we can do it too. It liberates us. We consolidate our alliance in the novel social order which finds its fulcrum, or its leader, in the first violator of the taboo. This social order in turn will become repressive as the alpha figures emerge and establish their dominance over the available resources. In less abstract terms, this historically happens in human communities when males grow and establish their 'possession' over the females (first by marrying them, and then by becoming fathers). It is for this reason that old people are far more rarely amused (and more easily insulted) by Taboo humour than the young. It's adolescents especially who laugh at programs with swear words and who go see films with lots of soft nudity, incidental sex and all the stuff which defines pants movies like American Pie, Road Trip, Scary Movie and an infinity of others.
In passing, this is why in my previous entry I refused to define films such as those by the Wayans brothers (Scary Movie, I mean) as samples of the Absurd - because they contain all sorts of other stuff and they could just as easily be called samples of Taboo humour. Read back on the other entries or wait for the next ones, and you'll see there's no type of comedic principle which isn't reabsorbed in the Wayans / Mel Brookes / Leslie Nielsen comedies.
Now, I said that we laugh with the person breaking the taboo to express our alliance with him/her - we want to be included in his/her new social order, so we can break the taboo as well. This is how things must have been in primordial times, and why laughter evolved to respond to the presence/allusion of sex. But since the rules of these primordial times have long since failed to apply exclusively, as we saw in the evolutionary futility of Absurd humour, the 'person' in question doesn't have to exist. Specifically in representation, a taboo can be broken without anyone being there to break it, much like a sketch performed by actors can activate the Fail principle without anyone actually failing. The taboo-destroyer doesn't have to be there, or at least s/he can be in the background, like the film director who produces the movie (but really, his/her presence is immaterial... even if we don't know that person at all, or even know that s/he exists, we will laugh all the same).
The subject of representation combined with sex inevitably brings our minds to pornography. This is a bit of a special case and it's worth saying a few words about it. There's certainly lots of liberated sex in there, but it hardly qualifies as comedy. We don't laugh when watching pornography. The point is that porn is about enacting a fantasy, not violating a law; in the space of the fantasy, there ARE no laws, except for that of the will of the fantasiser. In order for there to be a law, you must acknowledge an Other. In a fantasy, and therefore in pornography, the self regresses into a private sphere where there is no Other person and the whole natural world goes and works exactly according to the self's laws. What makes porn interesting for our purposes is that even though pornographic representation isn't Taboo humour, porn itself is a taboo object and therefore makes for the stuff of jokes in films and comedies of this type. So even though reading porn isn't funny, seeing someone reading porn is; this is invariably combined with a Fail joke, and as a result we get the sketch of someone being caught reading porn, or some 'loser' whose loser-ness is defined precisely by his reading porn (a paradoxical combo: we laugh at the Fail of the loser who reads porn, and because of the fact that suddenly porn is allowed to us!).
Taboo humour is more than just sex, though. We've got endless jokes involving copulation, but we've also got a wealth of them involving just shit, piss, vomit, farting and all sorts of other disgusting stuff, and these work according to the very same principle. Unsurprisingly, they are all considered together to be obscene jokes. Why are THESE things funny? They're not as obvious as the sex, but they're still objects of taboo.
Cum is not too hard to explain, because it's metonymic for sex, so of course it would be Taboo humour. Also quite easy to explain is burping - it's the liberation of a physical need which is usually prohibited by the rules of good manners (an expression of the overarching social order). Now by extension, much like we can explain burping, we can similarly explain farting, and we can extend this to explain shit. We want to shit wherever we like, but it's not allowed. Also note that the anus, along with the mouth and the sexual organs, is one of the erogenous zones of the body and the infant learns to associate it to pleasure very early.
This is why we laugh at disgusting things, provided that they're related to the liberation of our physical processes - something disgusting is a violation of an order, and therefore of a law. In this sense the Taboo principle activates humour even when there's no bodily involvement. Blasphemy, insulting the monarchy or the church, bad manners, politically incorrect humour of all types also falls under our category. The film Borat recently gave us a very clean example. The guy does nothing over the course of the film other than violate codes of good manners and behaviour, be it verbally or physically. The higher the authority he is insulting, the greater the Taboo that is being broken - and therefore the funnier the joke.
One more thing must be said before coming to a close. I've tried to keep psychoanalysis out of this series as much as possible, but here it's impossible not to bring it in. I mentioned defecation as an example of Taboo humour because it reflects our desire to release our bowels wherever and whenever we want. But in reality the desire that we are talking about is not a desire to defecate per se. Rather, the act of defecation is symbolic for a greater desire for unbounded physical liberty, what Freud calls the Pleasure Principle, that is to say, the possibility of satisfying every urge and desire instantly. In this sense, our desire is so chtonic that it is not even about sex. The taboo always throws back to the one same urge, the same subconscious projection: the body with no confines, no law and no restriction - the body, indeed, as its own law.
This can also be formulated as the Dionysian principle, at the heart of all Dionysian values, symbolised by the O. (It may seem that I'm going out on a limb here, but people who have read my work know how important Apollo and Dionysos are to me...) It follows that taboo humour is represented by a breach of Apollonian values (themselves symbolised by the I), which is the same thing as an affirmation of Dionysian ones. The two things are not in conflict - indeed, the breach and the affirmation occur simultaneously in the same act or gesture.
Dionysos. It always goes back to him
Apollo and Dionysos were first formulated by Nietzsche as a more functional duality to understand humanity, history, representation or whatever stuff 'wisdom' is made of than the age-old one of Good and Evil (two concepts which Nietzsche famously disbelieved in). Apollo and Dionysos do not correspond to good and evil, but they both have positive and negative aspects, and both can stand for 'good' or 'evil' according to the circumstance. In the case of Dionysos, the aspects of this dualism are wonderfully illuminated by the taboo principle. On the positive side, there is the sheer euphoria of fucking, the irreproducible, self-sufficient inebriation of the orgasm, of laughing till you think you'll die, of getting drunk, a sensual epiphany which at its peak is transcendent of all morals and laws, and before which any form of order and difference - even language - falls away and becomes redundant. On the negative side, there is the horror of a world where everything is base and featureless, where all possible ideals and good feelings are dragged down into an equal mud by the howling power of obscene jokes, where you can not say "I love you" or "Let us be friends" without instant peals of derision echoing all around you. Any pleasure or beauty that is passing and temporal is inherently Dionysian, the more so in proportion to its brevity, while the nightmare of the Dionysian world is that nothing is durable or permanent (exactly the opposite is true of Apollo, where every good thing is timeless and transcendent, but never actual and present). The mad god, blessing and cursing with the same hand, on the same altar, at the same ceremony - this is Dionysos.
It will be remarked that taboo humour is much more explicit now than ever before. There's more obscenity and more images of cum and shit in our films and TV than there's ever been, and by far. Needless to say, this has prompted much concern about the 'degradation of our morals,' that age-old cliche' that once-dominant social groups use to bemoan their loss of power. I'm not sure if I've ever read of an age or a country in which people said that morals, culture and society were on the up, even marginally so (perhaps it's only ever been the case under totalitarian governments...). For what it's worth, though, I see no reason to worry. Taboo humour has the power to degrade ideals only to the extent that these ideals have the power to affirm themselves. Debasing humour has become more aggressive and liberated only because the rhetoric of the dominant ideologies has itself turned increasingly offensive. When films and books and TV become more persuasive (and violent) in telling us that we should go to war, buy their products, wear their clothes and believe in their faiths, only then does the offence of taboo jokes raise its bar and offend more fiercely. But taboo does not have the power to change the real moral face of society. In order to do that it would have to establish its own counter-morals, and therefore its own ideals - and the moment that it tries to do something like that, it becomes vulnerable to its own methods. Taboo will never raise itself beyond itself. It presents no threat to our culture, no more so than our culture in general presents an offence to our spirits (not a rhetorical figure, that).
So that's about it, with regards to taboo humour. I said previously that comedy has a very brief half-life. Societies change, and humour also changes, because it is built on the values of said societies. I think taboo may be the exception. Precisely because it refers to a universal subconscious desire, its jokes remain practically identical across ages and nations. The instances of obscenity in the Greek comedies, for example, were among the very few moments when I actually laughed. I guess we must give obscenity some credit for this, if for nothing else. So fuck!
Friday, 6 May 2011
PART I – The Absurd as an extension of the Fail principle and the subordination of the latter to the former.
The second class of comedy follows from the Fail principle and extends it into a new and distinct territory, which I shall refer to as the Absurd.
The two classes, though different, are intimately connected. Fail humour makes evolutionary sense; the Absurd is an extension of the principle which only genuinely appears in human culture with the birth of representation. You don't really get the Absurd in nature, though you can get some basic forms of it in everyday language (more on this later).
The principle of Fail is that something going against your intentions is funny (technically, it has to be someone else's intentions, but we've been over that). The Absurd broadens this idea and brings it to the point that anything going against your expectations is funny. Of course, when an intention fails, there's also a failed expectation; and that still qualifies as a Fail. But it's possible to have a reversed expectation with no intentions being thwarted for any subject. You could argue that then we're just talking about a case of “Expectation Fail!” which therefore falls under the same initial category. But the theorem does not hold, because it is the breaking of OUR expectations, and not SOMEONE ELSE's, that is funny to us – and at the heart of Fail humour, as I discussed in the last entry, there's the idea that it has to happen to some Other, and the more Other the victim is, the funnier the joke.
With Absurd humour, we react by laughing when something happens that is completely and powerfully removed from what we expected (this has no evolutionary utility – it is, as we said, an outgrowth or even a by-product of the neurological principles at work in basic Fail humour). Here we must postulate the idea that, when the Absurd is activated, we are witnessing something that happens. But witnessing what, exactly?
The simplest answer is to say: witnessing the contrary of what we expect. If a super-muscled man comes out to address a crowd and the voice he speaks with turns out to be squeaky like that of Mickey Mouse, people will laugh. The muscled man isn't necessarily failing, unless he didn't intend to speak like that. But if that's his normal voice, then there's no Fail. It's just funny because it's the opposite of what we thought. (The connection between Fail and Absurd is here quite open: you can pull the argument by the sleeves to say that there's a *perceived* fail in the man's inability to produce a masculine voice, but the idea is clearly stretched. After all, it would be funny even if it were the other way round – a teeny dwarf suddenly speaking out in a booming, roaring, tenor voice, which is aggrandising rather than debasing. And so we cannot call this Fail humour, not in the same sense; it's something different).
A good example for our purposes is sarcasm. Sarcasm is, fundamentally, Absurd humour. It is simply a case of someone saying the opposite of what you would expect, or what would make sense in a given circumstance. You can argue there's a Fail in there, because the sarcastic comment is either *addressed* to a designated 'victim' (“You're elegance personified, really” to someone who puts no attention in his wardrobe) or *about* a negative, dislikeable object (“What you call the country of eternal sunshine,” said someone I knew during a rainstorm in Spain, and this we could label as “Weather Fail!” – except that of course this also is stretched, because weather has no 'intention,' and therefore cannot 'fail'!). But notice that what's funny is not the fail in itself, it's the comment about it. In other words, it's not the thwarted intention, but the thwarted expectation that is the source of the humour.
Most cases of the Absurd do contain a fail, even if a minor one, because this class of humour too, like all others, knows very few cases of purity. The Monty Python sketch on the middle-class twit of the year, for instance, is an Absurd short film which also refers to the very obvious social failure of its protagonists / victims. But these Fails are subordinated to the Absurd nature of the representation, which provides the real source of laughter by the measure of its absurdity. The rule is that the greater the incongruence, anachronism or whatever, the funnier the sketch. Something that is only slightly unexpected may be strange, but it's not funny if it isn't outright absurd. After all, we get marginally thwarted expectations every day, and we don't think any of these are funny.
To the extent that the Absurd principle takes over the main comedic function, a Fail may not be necessary at all, or it may be so subtle that it's hard even to formulate what it is. I would argue that the sketch of the philosophers playing football, also by Monty Python, is an example of such a case. The only failure I can see at all is that the philosophers can't execute the procedures of a football game, but the idea of their presence on that field to play is so outlandish in the first place that you can't imagine they would intend to play at all. It's a Fail which you've got to go pretty far to fetch, and out of your way.
PART II – Histories and examples of the Absurd.
I've used the shibboleth that Absurd humour is equal to something being the opposite of what we expect. But in reality, and this is important, the absurd doesn't have to be the contrary of our expectations. It can be just any strong deviation from them. And this too is exemplified by the Monty Python football sketch: there is no dialectic relation between philosophy and football, so seeing the Greeks and the Germans playing the sport, while very distant from our expectations, is not the contrary of them.
So to define this as concisely as possible, Absurd humour is simply a case of something deviating from our expectations, where the greater the deviation, the funnier the joke. It is almost exclusive to the world of representation; you seldom get this type of humour appearing spontaneously in the natural world.
A couple of words on its practical manifestations. The words 'Absurd comedy' usually brings to mind the French dramatic tradition of the 20th Century, mostly in Beckett, Ionesco and a few others. In reality, though, the people who have done the most to cultivate and develop this type of comedy are the British, and by quite the distance. They have a far greater number of comedians in the field and a more enduring tradition, starting from the aforementioned Monty Python, who specialise in the most intelligent, sophisticated and amusing Absurd comedy in the world, and on to a whole list of followers (and/or plagiars). Some of these are clever (Brasseye comes to mind), others are forgettable, to the point I won't even mention them on this blog. The French, on the other hand, hardly transcend the contained and short-lived tradition which developed right after the war, not in duration, style, method or medium. I may be misinformed about this, but my impression from my time in Paris is that the French Comedy of the Absurd is dead – there's no-one writing plays in the style of Beckett and Ionesco anymore, or even following on from their footsteps. Sure, there's revivals and regular re-enactments of these plays and other attempts to celebrate them, but the most creative work is done in other fields (and, most importantly, in other genres – the French DO have an incredibly rich tradition in comedy, from Moliere onwards, but it's not of the Absurd type at all). This is understandable, because in my opinion that type of comedy isn't very good. There may be a certain literary merit to the works of these playwrights, but I can't say I found them funny. Furthermore, while British Absurd comedians are true artists of the people, enjoying immense popularity at home and even a good measure abroad, the French Absurdists are among the most elitist of all modern writers. Their plays are hard to follow, hard to understand, and potentially boring if you aren't in the right mindset. It's the type of stuff I couldn't recommend to friends or family except for those within literary academia. So it's only natural that the British work in the genre should have enjoyed an extensive following, one which is still at work and developing today, while that of the French should have decayed.
This prevalence of the Absurd in British comedy must have played a part in developing the stereotype of so-called 'British humour,' which is known abroad as a particular type of irony, often very subtle and/or hard to understand. In reality it's not about irony at all (I shall discuss irony too in the coming posts). Instead, it's about a particular way of breaking expectations by means of nonsense. It's certainly not limited to television – The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a popular case of the Absurd in literature, and I've asked around: its humour is unfathomable anywhere but in England. More importantly, it extends itself to everyday talk and lingo. THIS is the major difference between the French and the English in this field. When you hear British people speak with each other, you'll detect certain turns of phrase which distinguish themselves for their absurdity. A man will rant for fifteen minutes about how terrible the amusement park at Brighton was, to the point of committing suicide, etc. and his interlocutor will respond with a terse: 'So it wasn't very good, eh?' This seems to be a variant, or a subset, of sarcasm. You don't get this type of stuff outside those rainy islands. More, the British even have a whole subgenre of jokes, almost unique to their culture (at least from what I've experienced), which are Absurd twists of incredible purity: “Why did the man fall off the bike? Because they threw a fridge at him.”
I normally like to go into the history of the literature I discuss, but I can't say much about Absurd humour before the 20th Century, British or otherwise. In part it's the fact that comedy, whatever its genre, has a very brief half-life. The things we find funny change from society to society and therefore from times to times – remember that we laugh to express our agreement or disagreement with a person and his/her values, and since values change all the time, so do the objects of humour. This is the reason why, even though tragedies from four-hundred or two-thousand four-hundred years ago are still extraordinarily moving and enjoyable, comedies by Aristophanes or Lope de Vega or even Shakespeare are seldom funny. You'll enjoy them and smile and nod at their wit, but you almost never laugh hard.
But another important reason why I can't go much into the history of this stuff is that British humour only developed a predominantly Absurd tradition in recent times. If you look at Shakespeare's comedies or Byron's verse, the comedic principles are classical (more on these in future entries), much like they were in France or in Spain. Unless there's whole veins of jokes and dramas which have remained obscure (and this is entirely possible), we must conclude that a taste for the Absurd has developed only lately in the circles of major comedy.
One last 'genre' before closing – it would be tempting to see that type of comedy popularised by Mel Brooks, Leslie Nielsen, and the Wayans brothers as an American tradition of the Absurd. They are, after all, completely nonsensical and they often even sink into gratuitious metatextuality just to subvert expectations. But such an assertion would not be true. These movies contain much absurdity, but they hardly restrain themselves from throwing other types of jokes at us either, of the most varied and unbridled kind. There's absurd sketches in there, but there's also almost every other comedic principle in action too (including Fail, of course). Really we should see these films not as case-studies or samples of the Absurd, but as open forums where anything goes, where every aspect of representation is subordinated to the comedic principles themselves, to the point that the story, the characters, or the film's inner consistency, are all of no consequence face to the opportunity of pulling a laugh. And so we cannot say that these represent the American Absurd, not in the same way that Monty Python and Ionesco stand for the British and French Absurd(s?).
With these considerations I've said everything about Absurdity (and it's probably too much anyway). It's time to turn to our third comedic principle. In the next entry, of course.