Mark Shea: On humour

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funny man in a life saver
Humour is a deeply human experience. PHOTO: wayhomestudio/freepik.com

I think I have a pretty good sense of humour.  My wife tends to disagree.  I have a weakness for really dumb gags.  I mean really dumb.  The dumber the better.  Dumb as in this and this, and especially this. My wife is a very patient woman.  Also, that last link will never not be funny.

Of course, dumb humour is not my only jam when it comes to humour. I love puns which, contrary to popular opinion, are not the lowest form of humour, but are extremely high.  Shakespeare, the greatest writer in our language, loved them too and littered his plays with them.

So, by the way, did our Lord Jesus Christ.  That’s why our first Pope was punningly renamed “Peter” (Rock) and told that upon this Rock Jesus would build his Church.  Puns are language at play and are often breathtakingly ingenious, which is their great pleasure.  They are linguistic acrobatics and, when two or more punsters are gathered together, linguistic swordplay or dance is in the midst of them.  I will love them till the day I die, unless I am killed while making Easter eggs, in which case I will love them till the day I dye.

We stand virtually alone in the universe as creatures who possess a sense of humour

Humour takes infinite forms, but there are certain things key to it.  The first is that it appears to be a trait limited almost exclusively to humans.  “Almost” because a few primates seem to be capable of it to an extraordinarily limited degree.  Humour is more than laughter.  Even rats are capable of laughter-like responses when tickled.  But tickling is not humour.

Humour depends on cognitive abilities that are almost entirely human.  Koko the Gorilla, trained by humans to use language to a limited degree, developed a very simple sense of humour about physical things: tripping, slapstick, etc.  But that’s about it.  We have no evidence for much beyond that in the animal kingdom.  We stand virtually alone in the universe as creatures who possess a sense of humour, and it appears that this is due to our ability to perceive incongruities in a uniquely human way.

With most animals, if something is weird, the response can range from puzzlement (think of confused cat videos) to fear (think of cats freaking out about cucumbers in cat videos) to a fight response (again, think cat videos).  But in addition to these animal responses, we do something unique when confronted with weirdness: we crack up—often at cat videos.

G.K. Chesterton, himself one of the funniest writers who ever lived, astutely observed that the opposite of funny is not serious.  Rather, the opposite of funny is not funny.  Indeed, all humour is about something serious, and the more serious the subject, the funnier the jokes about it.  That is why the world is full of jokes about sex, death, politics, and religion, but not so much about lint or fingernail clippings.

Humour can accompany many kinds of human experience.  Joy, for instance, is often expressed not just with laughter over the goodness of life, but with the festivity that is full of jokes, funny stories, and hilarious anecdotes.  All over the world, weddings are accompanied by toasts and tributes full of hysterical yarns about the adventures of the bride and groom.  Humour is often celebratory.

Humour can also accompany grief.  Funerals and wakes are also filled with funny tales of the life of the deceased as we mourn their absence and remember their essential humanity. Because humour is about incongruity, the right kind of humour can go far in shattering a mood of crushing grief, sometimes by reminding us that the one we have lost would himself wish us consolation, not sadness.

Humour is often a way of relieving the tension between what is and what should be.  No small part of the way underdogs have always dealt with oppression by the powerful has been through humour, because the oppressed, far more than their oppressor, can see extremely clearly the tension between what is and what should be.

This use of humour as a sort of weapon has played a huge part in the history of our species.  And like all weapons, it can be used both for good and for evil.  Next time, in this space, we will explore that further.

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