Monday, 16 May 2011
COMEDIC PRINCIPLE # 3 - TABOO HUMOUR
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!