Revamping the Four Major Theories on Humor
There does have to be a revolution of form in order to accommodate different voices.
—Hannah Gadsby, New York Times
The “out and outspoken” queen of comedy, Wanda Sykes, has no problem speaking truth even in the face of a difficult crowd. After the election of Donald Trump, she quipped, “I am certain this is not the first time we’ve elected a racist, sexist, homophobic president. He’s just the first confirmed one.” Like Sykes, we understand what is funny to some is not funny to others, but we also see how once marginalized game-changing comedians have come to center stage to reveal the profound relevance of humor in American politics. As Sykes puts it, “My comedy is speaking truth to power and speaking up for people who don’t have a voice because those are the kinds of comics I grew up with.” After all, she continues, “That was their style: Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dick Gregory and Moms Mabley.”
By the early twentieth-first century across the U.S. cultural and political landscape, the comic, building on a rich legacy, has become our truth teller. From late-night television shows such as those hosted by Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah to stand-up performances at New York’s Muslim Funny Fest, humor is not merely for escape but also a way to handle our gut instincts and to get to the guts of an issue. Yet we know that conventionally audiences expect laughter to serve as mere amusement. We also know that under the cover of amusement, toxic jokes turning on race, Islamophobia, homophobia, or misogyny and rape are used as a tool of oppression and a form of cruelty. But what of humor turned around and aimed at the abuse of power? This book is about how humor from below can serve as a source of empowerment, a strategy for outrage and truth telling, a counter to fear, a source of joy and friendship, a cathartic treatment against unmerited shame, and even a means of empathetic connection and alliance. In so doing, we challenge the philosophical foundation of humor as a simple device for debasement or for detaching ourselves from messy situations and their emotions. Instead, we offer a humor that connects body and soul, and that connects us with each other. This humor of connection is what self-described neurodivergent comic Hannah Gadsby claims when she strives to “break comedy in order to rebuild it.”
Since the time of Plato, philosophers and critics have treated the comedic as of lesser worth than serious art, and of little value compared to rational discourse. Those with an appreciation for high art tend to dismiss comedy as lowbrow, fueled as it often is by raw emotion. Laughter and ridicule are said to expose how the body, with its animal instincts, rattles the brain and weighs down the soul. When humor has been appreciated by intellectual elites, it is most valued as a cerebral game and an elevated skill of true wit that rational minds play. Because women and others who are socially disempowered are viewed as closer to animals and ruled by emotion, they have been perceived as less capable of true humor and relegated to mockery’s natural targets. Their laughter, unlike that of the assumed more logical mind, has been thought to display unseemly emotions and a body out of control. Our question is how we might shift the study of the comedic from the cerebral tease while unmasking cruelty excused as mere amusement (“it was just a joke”) to expose humor’s underlying power plays together with its strategies for talking truth. By embracing women, animals, and other subversive creatures as comedy’s central agents rather than its targets, we aim to revamp the major theories that have for too long defined the meaning of laughter and humor.
The socially disempowered have historically found humor to be a tool of resistance in hidden (and not so hidden) transcripts that recharge the social atmosphere and body politics, yet their humor has been ignored to such a degree that they often are not even considered funny. Think about a debate that cultural critic Christopher Hitchens rekindled in 2007 when he attempted to explain “Why women aren’t funny” in Vanity Fair. Backed up by modern “science” (he cites a single study of ten men and ten women), Hitchens’s answer is that Mother Nature (that “bitch”) made it so that men have to find some way to appeal to women, and humor is apparently the trick. “The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips so many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. . . . Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal, if you get my drift.” Hitchens indulges in the usual misogynist humor of the patriarch in this case by donning the mask of the underdog. Under the surface of this elevated show of wit, and arguably the science behind it, is a lowbrow tits-and-ass joke.
Debates over who is funny move beyond an ongoing battle of the sexes and its cis-gendered heteronormative subtexts. Following in the rich trajectory of intersectional theory, and aware that like Tina Fey we are white and middle class, we look not only at issues of misogyny and sexism but also at racism, mass incarceration, and Islamophobia as well as hate speech and rape jokes disguised as free speech. In agreement with Patricia Hill Collins and Simra Bilge, “peoples’ lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other.” Keeping in mind the “intersecting systems of power,” we see that when not only women but also other targeted groups, including Muslims in a post-9/11 world and prisoners locked up under a policy of mass incarceration, mock those with inflated cultural or social authority, comedy along with belly laughs can cut deep into our gut feelings and shake up oppressive tropes and all too traditional narratives. We include nonhuman animal species within our understanding of subversive agents of laughter and power, thus broadening the intersectional lens. Often unpredictable and sometimes more readily felt than explained, waves of laughter amplified through social media can alter the political landscape, forge new identities and alliances, subvert long-held assumptions built on hierarchy, and exuberantly reveal, as Tina Fey put it, that “women are just as funny as monkeys,” but only because, as we insist, our nonhuman kin turn out to be comics as well.
Of course, far too often an oppressive culture either silences or reabsorbs subversive monkey laughs, reinscribing the socially disempowered as simply targets of ridicule. The stakes of who is allowed to laugh, or who is even perceived to be capable of genuine laughter and humor, are high. The erasure of the socially disempowered from the status of the comic, and thus the agent of true humor, is part of a persistent historical narrative and a master game plan that has come to define the construct of the rational man. This manly trope in turn defines others as humorless as he constructs his own self as civilized. In so doing, humor is neutered such that it mitigates laughter’s radical potential, leaving a measured enjoyment of humor as at best a cerebral interlude amid serious matters. Or, in Hitchens’s pithy reformulation of what women lack: “You will see what Nietzsche meant when he described a witticism as an epitaph on the death of feeling. Male humor . . . understands that life is quite possibly a joke. . . . Humor is part of the armor-plate” to deal with that “farcical bitch”: life gendered female. Indeed, for various elites, humor devolves into a refined mental act, an existential detachment from life or a dry intellectual enjoyment of puzzles far from the depths of the belly laugh. Just consider gallows humor as displayed in the frequent citation of Oscar Wilde’s deathbed words: “This wallpaper is atrocious. One of us has to go.” At its most profound, cerebral wit is said to offer a moment of transcendence before one’s fate. At its worst, such humor, as found in a tits-and-ass joke, reinforces oppositional dualisms through the kind of ridicule designed to keep those deemed other in their place. When the laughter of marginalized social groups is recognized, it is dismissed as comic relief, a distraction from the real matters at hand, and possibly on the verge of being out of control. Disregarding the other’s laughter as mere relief reassures dominant social groups that they still hold the reins of power. The refusal to register the social power of subaltern laughter marks a central bias in standard philosophical conceptions of what humor is.
This bias is systemic and requires a full frontal attack on the very foundations of comic theory. Challenging cultural dualisms as well as human–nonhuman hierarchies, we revisit the four dominant theories that have explained laughter and comedy across disciplines—superiority theory, relief, incongruity, and play—through the multiple lenses of feminist and other game-changing comedians. Superiority theory, often understood through the critiques of humor prevalent in ancient and early modern thinkers, exposes the pleasure found in mocking others. This pleasure arises as a reinforcement of the other’s inferior social status or as a means to reaffirm and enhance one’s own social standing. In the eighteenth century, two alternative theories gained prominence. Relief theory argued that a comic venting of emotions through a hearty laugh offers a physical release of tensions. The Western mind–body split also sported a cerebral theory of laughter’s source in the perception of incongruities—that is, in the jack-in-the-box violation of mental patterns or anything that offers surprise. Various versions of this cerebral theory continue to anchor dominant approaches to humor, sometimes with a secondary appeal to humor’s capacity for momentary physical relief or to its calming effect. A fourth significant theory of laughter emerged in the early twentieth century from animal studies and evolutionary speculations investigating the playful shenanigans of chimpanzees. Around the same time, animal-like antics suspending hierarchical rank and privileges turned up in a prominent literary history of subversive folk carnivals.
Just like the mind and body, these theories have often been understood as separate and distinct, but our philosophical approach establishes an interconnectedness that reaches deep down to the naughty parts. This alternative approach owes a debt to more than two decades of groundbreaking work from feminists, philosophers, and historians as well as social and natural scientists insisting that humans, along a continuum with other animal species, are emotionally driven, social, and embodied creatures. In other words, far from an aloof mind perceiving the world at a distance, the self is a process, one both relational and porous, with various levels of consciousness and felt awareness throughout the body. Think about why doctors might inquire about the well-being of our loved ones to gauge our own physical symptoms. At the center of our lives are not just our inner thoughts but also reflections as they are entangled with emotions and networks of relationships with others. More than just perceiving and thinking subjects, we are also affective agents extended into a biosocial field of often mysterious forces.
The term “affect” indicates a significant visceral component of our multilayered selves that roots much of felt experience in the preverbal, unconscious right brain and in the gut. The gut, or enteric nervous system, is also known as the second brain and has more than thirty neurotransmitters and 95 percent of the body’s serotonin. In contrast, the term “emotion” points to a significant role for the semiautonomous left brain’s capacities for verbal articulation and reflection. Given the difficulty of disconnecting one part of the body from another, we do not treat the distinction between these terms as hard and fast. Nor are they meant to reinvoke a mind–body binary. Often contagious, affects are not, as in the case of the feeling of the heartbeat, merely physical sensations; rather, they are more of an emotional vibe that is easier to feel than define. Ranging from racialized fear to laughter’s revitalizing energy, affects carry culturally imbued meanings across porous borders. They travel through discrete and even precise tones, gestures, and rhythms, but they also spread like waves through biosocial networks, and they thus can define the mood of a crowd. Affects like fear or laughter’s pleasure might stir up a crowd and sometimes provide genuine comic relief. Consider how a stand-up comedian reads a room to alter its collective vibes.
By bringing viscerally felt emotions and the gut brain into play, comedy and satire as much as any of the other arts can call us back to our animal selves. From among the most ancient literary productions—a fart joke penned around 1900 BCE during the Bronze Age in Sumeria—to the contagious memes and comedy sketches that populate social platforms, no other style of communication exposes the stakes of the body and the social sphere more insistently than the denigrated genre of comedy. Perhaps this is also the reason that it has been dismissed. Taking on the caricatured figure of the rational man, our topsy-turvy approach elevates the belly laugh and frees the comical as a vehicle of communication with often unstoppable social and political momentum. In the end, we offer through the comedic not a philosophical definition of what makes us laugh but a vision of life. Such an approach, however, demands a holistic reworking of the theoretical foundations of humor. Thus, we begin our bottom-up venture into comedy by first turning superiority theory on its head.
Superiority theory is thought to offer the oldest approach to laughter. Hitchens exploits superiority theory in his just-so story of why women can’t be funny: “Male humor prefers to laugh at someone’s expense. . . . Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair.” Superiority theory focuses on the pleasure experienced when one is the agent rather than the target of laughter. This pleasure, the theory maintains, stems from an increase of one’s power, status, or reputation at the expense of others; those others are either perceived to have been diminished or are confirmed to be of an inferior status by a humorous verbal attack, slight, or insult. That some caution is due in any use of this mode of humor is signaled by comic Hari Kondabolu’s warning that “there’s a lot of things people find funny that are really just bullying.” To be sure, this was the concern of traditional philosophers who have been suspicious of laughter. Plato, immersed in a rigidly hierarchal culture, saw this problematic form of humor as the gratuitous enjoyment of weaknesses or flaws of those deemed social inferiors. Centuries later, Thomas Hobbes famously explained laughter as the ego-satisfying pleasure of a “sudden glory,” or a felt superiority over others. In contrast to Plato, this early modern thinker believed that laughter registers not social inferiors in a static social world but rather relative changes of social position in a field that we collectively inhabit. The superfluous nastiness of ridicule that punches down continues to motivate some to argue, along with Plato and Hobbes, that ridicule should be frowned upon or even censored. Such nastiness is why the Puritans, with their rigid moral culture, banned the comedic as “evil speaking.”
Since the modern revolutions that followed Hobbes and the establishment of free speech as a basic right, evil speaking from charged slurs to outright racist, misogynist, and sacrilegious jokes has been vehemently defended while too often ignoring—if not playing ignorant of—the dynamics of power. Indeed, many comics assert their right to make others laugh as their first obligation, even marking among their targets the politically correct who would challenge their freedom. Think about the French journalists at the satiric rag Charlie Hebdo and their defense of cartoonists’ depictions of the Islamic prophet Mohammed as a terrorist. Backed by appeals to free speech, there are those who argue along with these cartoonists that ridicule has no limits and all is fair game. Yet that avowal is punctured with an uneasiness over where and when fuzzy lines can be crossed. Indeed, satire is hardly an innocent affair. It can be a high-stakes game of power, and as the French rag itself discloses on its website, one typically fueled by anger and politics. Satire is not a toy for those who would bury their heads in the sand.
While the 2015 Paris massacre was a tragic overreaction to the cartoons, the derogatory portrayal of a revered figure for a devalued racialized minority may register as an act of hubris and humiliation. An insult can feel like sticks and stones, and thus might result in significant harm. Modern liberal defenses of free speech as an absolute right ignore the degree to which speech is inextricably bound to power dynamics and social positions. These liberal conceptions of autonomy and self-ownership view the individual as detached from others at their core. In this excessively abstract view of the self and its liberty, free speech means simply expressing one’s own opinions. Speech and its relation to power was more clearly understood in ancient Greek democracy than in excessively abstract and individualistic modern theories. For the Greeks, acts of humiliation performed by the powerful damage the target’s social position and thereby wound their core sense of self. Too often today we misunderstand the ancient concept of hubris as a mere attitude of arrogance rather than as a relational breach that harms the vulnerable. In the ancient democracy, hubris was an act of violation, not a personality trait, and a charge directed exclusively against the entitled and privileged by those who suffered from abuse. Such abuse—for example, the hubris of a tyrant—would call forth truth telling as standing up to power, or what the Greeks termed parrhesia.
Tragically, acts of laughter and insult can elicit as reactions from their targets the stereotypically violent or erratic behavior that they would claim to expose. Consequences of such reactions inevitably threaten to spiral out of control, suggesting the need for some shared sense of justice and fair play. But where to draw the line remains highly contested, with claims regarding who is the victim and who the perpetrator depending on perceptions of social positionality. The humorless—including the figure of the politically correct feminist as well as the holier-than-thou pedant, who declare some topics forever off limits—set themselves up for the irresistible ridicule typically aimed at the entitled and morally rigid. They all too readily corner themselves into the role of the straight man—those positioned on the comic stage for a fall. Yet there remains among many some nagging sense that in laughter, things can go too far.
Weighing in such considerations as the tragic impact of persistent patterns of insult and humiliation suggest that no single right, including free speech, should be treated in the abstract, removed from our lives and thus as an absolute. Like ancient acts of hubris, ridicule and insult need to be understood and evaluated in terms of their context—and this means with particular attention to the intersectional relations of power and status that they enact and the violations they risk. Antiblack slurs are not appropriate in the context of white supremacy, nor are misogynistic rape jokes in patriarchal cultures. Of course, it is easy in our comic age to stake a claim against rigid absolutes, and indeed we offer no unyielding principles or universal laws. Yet along with Collins and Bilge, our intersectional lens is focused on a path toward social equality. Keeping in mind that individuals can be powerful based on one category of identity but relatively less powerful based on another (e.g., as a white woman or as a gay man), we reject any static binary reading of power as up/down or dominant/resistant. Yet still we find across much of the political spectrum a principled agreement on the golden rule of comedy: one punches up, not down. Accordingly, laughter would target the ignorance and arrogance, or more to the point the hubris, of powerful elites and dominant social groups. A barb directed at arrogance is rightly perceived to take the culprit down a notch, but only because the target claims a status that is more than deserved, often displaying an unwarranted sense of entitlement. Shaming through laughter has long been thought to offer a social corrective for such abuses of power, exposing through ridicule the entitled and hubristic or, more colloquially, the “pig” or “asshole.”
While many might agree that those who suffer harm from positions at the margins of society deserve compassion if not respect, the tacit rule of comedy—punching up, not down—is not an easy call. Recall the culprit who takes more than he deserves yet thinks he is the victim. A look at the 2016 U.S. presidential election season (staged as Donald “Pussy Grabber” Trump vs. “Crooked Hillary” Clinton) underscores that who is culpable remains bitterly contested terrain. Mockers set up targets for a fall through images or stereotypes that portray their victim as having it coming. Think of Hitchens, who plays up the role of the underdog, and, threatened by the perceived demasculinization of culture, blames bitchy Mother Nature. Political correctness and its critics reveal cultural divides and media bubbles, making it difficult to determine who is on top. For a moment, let’s pretend that Hitchens is right and women do prefer to be fair. That sensibility does not necessarily annihilate humor; sometimes it fuels it. Alert to buried social subtexts of laughter, we do not set aside but instead rebrand superiority theory as leveling humor, reclaiming for ridicule egalitarian methods and aims against entrenched hierarchies and biases.
Our approach assumes that ridicule operates on a multilayered field of affect and power where agents and their targets possess varying sources of status and social capital. On this biosocial field, laughter is hardly a neutral source of pleasure. It impacts how we are viewed, who we are, and our range of agency in everyday politics. Its visceral force alters the images, norms, and habits of affect and cognition that diminish or enhance identities and social positions.
Artists and theorists, in their distinct ways, have observed that comedy is bound to the mechanisms of power. When an interviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News inquires about the relevance of humor during “uncertain times,” Wanda Sykes avers that her followers “need someone to come out and make some jokes and at least try to make sense of everything that is happening and laugh at it.” Speaking in front of the Senate’s subcommittee on a wide-ranging discussion about “the terrorism problem,” U2 front man Bono insists that “comedy should be deployed. It’s like, you speak violence, you speak their language. But . . . you laugh at them, when they’re goose-stepping down the street, and it takes away their power.” The Russian theorist of carnival, Mikhail Bakhtin, writing during the era of Soviet totalitarianism, also did not want to speak the enemy’s language. He too thought that sending in the clowns could undermine authoritarian elites by treating them to a feast of fools and setting off a laugh riot.
Taking away social power is more than a mere gesture. Laughter’s uproar exposes hypocrisy, unjustified privilege, and lies. It can be the scourge of the sociopath and the narcissist. This exposure is not always malice; sometimes it is righteous anger seeking some degree of social justice. For centuries, folk cultures orchestrated subversive political events such as carnivals that threatened to turn the world or dimensions of it upside down, overturn bodily hierarchies, and dissolve social inequalities. As Bakhtin explores, these festivities trace back to ancient saturnalias where the “fool or clown is the king of the upside-down world.” In this topsy-turvy-dom, unlikely bedfellows would come together in equal dialogue and leveling humor, all for the purpose of laying bare some naked truths—if, all too often in some folk traditions, on the backs of women. No doubt a John Belushi–style Animal House, from fraternities to Hollywood to Congress, can be as much a festival of jerks as of wise fools. Our point is that carnival foolery from the ancient festivals to contemporary memes is hardly innocent.
However, there remains a persistent suspicion that comic laughter is politically irrelevant or ineffective. This suspicion is partly due to misunderstanding where much of its political force resides. The politics of humor is not solely in the commentary or perspective that it may verbalize. Much of the politics resides in a gut-level affective register of humor’s impact on social positions. Yet often if attention is paid to the visceral affects of humor, these affects are understood too narrowly as transitory comic relief. Indeed, a common critique is that carnival humor and ridicule produce little more than a temporary respite from an oppressive situation. Employees relieve tension through mocking the boss instead of engaging in organized action that could change their working conditions. This view is reflected in traditional accounts of comic relief. Relief theory, tracing back to Lord Shaftsbury in the eighteenth century, Herbert Spencer in the nineteenth century, and Freud in the twentieth century, explains laughter as a physical process, one typically viewed as mere venting that offers little more than a feel-good moment. In fact, laughter alters physiology and allows for a fuller sense of life and sustained vitality. Complex processes barely captured by the simple term “relief” can be glimpsed through an older term, “catharsis,” which refers to both the healing component in ritual and a measure of infrapolitics. Comic catharsis, more than just physical relief, invokes ancient social practices of working through emotions and altering social identities. When relief theorists treat catharsis as merely synonymous with getting something off your chest, they hardly do it justice.
We don’t rebrand relief theory, but we do recast it as a cathartic, biosocial catalyst, and thus as a major player in an easily unsettled political terrain. The energy and power that subversive comics reclaim from repressive and authoritarian climates can decolonize our selves while strengthening our social and political force. Turning mockery around from victims to the oppressors can heat up and refocus the energies of social movements with their demands for change. Through the propagation of laughter, feminist stand-ups—Wanda Sykes, Ali Wong, and Samantha Bee, as well as the midcareer work of Roseanne Barr—confront the continual war on nasty women to reappropriate a public culture and a public space that is marked as all too male. If a physiological politics can demonstrate how laughter may well be the best medicine, this is because cathartic venting can be much more than an emotional or physical release and return to a calm neutral state of normalcy. Cathartic processes can transform shame and fear by serving as a catalyst for social change. Such a power dynamic on a fraught landscape plays a critical role for the well-being of our porous, relational selves. We cannot heal and regenerate apart from a rechanneling of the flows of affect and power on this biosocial field.
As a biosocial event, cathartic laughter reshapes the contours of social space, influences our affects and emotions, and offers both a reimagined social life and a catalyst for it. Comic levelers like Amber Rose and other tricksters who have converted the shame of women defined against our own bodies as tits and ass into a SlutWalk movement demonstrate how laughter can allow us to take back our lives, and fuel biosocial and psychosocial transformation. Similarly, Dean Obeidallah has taken on post-9/11 mass anxieties in both his Axis of Evil Comedy Tour and Muslim Funny Fest with the aim of combating the social contagion that infects ideas of race and nationalism for positive social change. At an immediate level of felt affect, laughter’s contagion, no less than that of anxiety or hate, demonstrates how affects can function as a network-like phenomena, influencing masses of people to absorb the moods of those whom they may not even know. Comic relief has been miscast as a palliative or a pleasure pill, little more than a bit player in social politics, when in fact a good belly laugh has the potential to alter the vectors of affect and power on a volatile political field.
Incongruity theory, unlike relief theory, has retained its prominence over the past several centuries. This theory locates humor not primarily in bodily and emotional relief but rather in the pleasant surprise that occurs through the violation of normal mental patterns and expectations. While much of the intellectual elite continue to view out-of-control laughter as vulgar, as they have for eons, cerebral puzzles are seen as different. These mental jolts produce a whimsical smile, giving the rational mind its own sense of satisfaction and elevation that keeps emotions at a distance. The philosophical impetus for this intellectual take on humor traces back at least as far as Kant and continues to influence current understandings of humor, including those of Noel Carroll, Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams’s use of cognitive science as well as Simon Critchley’s exposition of Freud’s Stoic musings on humor. For example, Critchley offers that what draws a smile is the existential incongruity of a human mind stuck in an animal body, with its humiliations and mortal fate. Such a Stoic take captures a dominant strand of thinking throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it recurs in Hitchens’s rebuke of female humor. Before “blessing” women for a crippling sense of fairness, Hitchens doubles down on his neo-Freudian claim that humor is an intellectual defense against “life itself”—what men, “battered as they are by motherfucking nature . . . tend to refer to . . . as a bitch.”
Feminists are also aware of life’s absurdities. In fact, unmasking the unexpected social and political stakes that lurk behind the cerebral turn, with its mental machinery, is one more task for those raucous belly laughs in league with Elizabeth Wilson’s gut feminism. Rather than cultivating mind–body separations, feminist laughs offer the chance to process injuries and punch back the patriarch not by detaching but by reconnecting the head with the belly. The mockery that converts despair into hope or diffuse anger into indignant outrage gives a jolt not just to a mental apparatus but to an entire biosocial system inextricably bound to politics and power. Along with comedian, writer, and fat-positive activist Lindy West, our excitement with comedy increases when we “feel its potential to move the world.” Reversals and violations upset social not just cognitive expectations. Our interest is not in the incongruities of mental or existential puzzles but in everyday absurdities that call us to action.
In contrast, first-brain approaches to humor distance the mind from the body politic and its belly laughs. These approaches also collude with the assumption that because of the cerebral qualities of humor, only humans exhibit true laughter. Yet the growing scientific evidence that nonhuman animals can laugh and can even demonstrate a sense of humor punctures any assumption of human uniqueness and distance from our animal kin. Moreover, some of the most prevalent examples of animal laughter and humor underscore the larger politics, including the social and motivational context, that may well accompany the cerebral laughter presumed to be unique to humans. One popular 2015 YouTube video of a man performing a magic trick for an orangutan demonstrates how an ape can indeed appreciate intellectual puzzles, but, we note, all the more so with the jovial camaraderie that accompanies the performance. The man shows the orangutan a small box with a grape in it. Then he quickly lowers the handheld box below a barrier and, unwitnessed by the orangutan, tosses out the grape and returns the lid. When he brings the box forward again to pull off the lid and display an empty box, the orangutan bursts into Kantian laughter. To be sure, this trick demonstrates the appreciative laughter on the part of the nonhuman ape for violations of mental expectations, but this ape’s subsequent reaching his arm out to the human, followed by the animal’s rolling on the floor with laughter, suggest something more is at stake. In another example, a notorious chimpanzee named Georgia at Emory University’s Yerkes Center sprays water on intrusive human visitors to generate laughter from her fellow enclosed apes. In short, incongruity as it commonly occurs in humor is found in the camaraderie of social play, if not the game of power. Our aim is not to dispense with incongruity theory but to locate the playful aspect of mental puzzles in its larger context with political oomph. In other words, we should not dismiss what monkeys do or what they see.
These animal antics point toward yet a fourth theory: that laughter and humor originate in social play. Laughter occurs rarely when we are alone; indeed, it seems to turn on the fact that humans, like many other animal species, are group-oriented creatures. Both evolutionary theory and animal studies lend credence to the idea that more than mere rest and leisure, play affords a sphere where humans and our animal kin negotiate the ins and outs of social bonds. Indeed, the social function of laughter as a bonding agent can be witnessed in response to tickling by a friendly other, a response that humans share not only with apes but also other nonhuman critters. Scientists have tuned into everything from the chirping of amused rats to the “infectious laughter” of parrots. More generally, variants of laughter work pervasively and primarily as a social lubricant and an invitation to play, and thus only secondarily as a response to a joke. As John Morreall reports in his Stanford Encyclopedia article on humor, laughter is especially prominent in play, including in “mock-aggression such as chasing, wrestling, biting, [and] tickling” displayed by a range of species. Yet this take drops the ball on laughter’s social force as theorists turn back to the trope of the rational man and his enjoyment of incongruities in their search for the relevance of play for humor.
For such theorists, the intellectual tilt of incongruity theory leaves the rational man inexplicably taking pleasure from the irrational. After all, the mind should prefer to take its pleasure from the logical, not the silly or absurd. This inconsistency in the profile of the rational man prompts the inclusion of play as a theory, and it serves as a counterweight to “humor’s bad reputation” among philosophers. However, this formulation of play theory gives too much to the rational man and his privileged needs.
Its key response to “how playfully violating mental patterns and expectations could foster rationality” is that humor facilitates “a disinterested attitude toward something that could instead be treated seriously” scoring for the mind some well-earned mental rest. This view settles for a simple binary between the serious and the playful. Humor is said to benefit higher mental functions, as does a good vacation, by disengaging the mind from a burdensome “world of good and evil.” A climactic moment of Morreall’s presentation of the argument, relayed through Oscar Wilde’s deathbed quip cited above, underscores how humor offers a calm detachment from life and its frolics. Rather than any sustained engagement with the rough-and-tumble fray, this kind of humor transcends it.
A good sense of humor can doubtless elevate us above the burdens of the world, offering good cheer in stressful conditions and wisely counseling that we might roll with the punches rather than fruitlessly challenge unalterable conditions. Freud, writing in the midst of twentieth-century atrocities, cherished for good reason the Stoic humor that could release one from excessive investment in the world and its cruelties. Sometimes, however, social change and the emotions that motivate it require such an investment. What Bakhtin characterizes as a “serio-comic” intervention in the high-stakes games of cultures and politics plays seriously with that “world of good and evil.” Sometimes you roll with the punches, but sometimes you have to punch back.
Recent research on animal behavior uncovers how important play may be for negotiating relationships and cultivating, along with social bonds, a sense of fairness and solidarity; it is much more than a simple escape. On the basis of observations of wolves and other carnivores in his backyard in Colorado, biologist Marc Bekoff comes to a conclusion that may well suggest that aspects of laughter and humor trace back to a sense not merely of play, but of fair play. “Social play is thus based on a ‘foundation of fairness,’” Bekoff writes, having argued that play provides a training ground for neutralizing differences of rank between playmates and for garnering social expectations of reciprocity and taking turns. More than just practicing for the hunt, animals engage in play fighting to learn how to interact with others and to negotiate friendships through tacit social codes. But to play fair and establish connection, animals must first learn to level an unlevel playing field, which is also a function of comedy.
Indeed, each of the key elements of social play can perform a role in verbal or gestural humor among humans and other animals. Bekoff observes that play typically begins with a start signal, such as a bow, for a dog. For humans, we suspect, the levity of laughter can similarly communicate that mock aggression and playful insults are not meant to harm. Carnivores keep the fun going by establishing the proverbial level playing field through role reversal and self-handicapping. Dominant or larger animals self-handicap by exercising care to engage in soft biting, yielding any advantage to their more vulnerable partner. So too each animal carefully exposes its underbelly to the other in a gesture of trust. This is a role reversal that is especially important for the dominant animal to perform. Humans likewise seem to expose something like their tender underbellies through self-deprecating humor. This gesture of humor generates the possibility for more genuine interactions as psychic defenses come down. Bekoff speculates, “Animal play appears to rely on the universal human value of the golden rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Following this requires empathy . . . and implies reciprocity.” Humor too can demonstrate this ethics of empathy and reciprocity when it temporarily suspends hierarchies and predatory behavior, leveling the field as we take turns showing our underbellies and serving as the butt of the joke. Licking our wounds and those of others to deal with or even challenge the abuses of power, we learn when and when not to bite back. Harsh ridicule, like hard biting, cuts short the play and camaraderie. In short, this scientific study (in contrast to Hitchens’s) strengthens the possibility that the comic can on occasion, like “women[,] . . . prefer that life be fair.”
As many stand-up performances illustrate, comedy flickers uncertainly across a murky spectrum, from the harsh bites of ridicule to empathy. Ridicule creates in-groups and out-groups as well as a distancing of others by laughing at them, while empathetic humor cultivates a sense of camaraderie by laughing at others, but only as we would laugh at ourselves. Humor, broadly understood, is a nuanced play of exclusion and inclusion, a dialectic of hostility (laughing at) and joyful solidarity (laughing with), riding an emotional roller coaster of shame and pride. At stake is the vital issue of who belongs to cultural, social, and political communities, and under what terms. Placing in conversation theorists and practitioners of comedy and satire that span centuries of intellectual thought, we offer an approach that brings forward its potential impact on social change and political movements, past and present. Our rebranding and reframing of the four basic theories of comedy, and our weaving together in the chapters that follow of their inextricable links, rest on the assumption that comedy operates along with our visceral selves in a multilayered field of affect and power. Parallel to the Stoics with their legacy, we join with Wanda Sykes, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, and Moms Mabley to offer not a definition but a philosophy of life. But unlike the Stoics, our serious yet comic vision does not elevate the human mind over an incongruous body with its mortal fate. The primary aim is not to transcend life’s eternal absurdities with Stoic resolve. We engage the humor of eros—that deceptively subversive Greek word for life and love—against man-made ones. We consider our investigations in this field not the final word but an opening act and an invitation to rethink the history of humor from below together with its philosophical uptake.
Overview of the Chapters
Chapter 1 asks why feminists are perceived as lacking a sense of humor. How do feminist comics use humor not only to demand their right to the public stage but also to affirm their own sense of power and joy? Despite the perception that feminists are killjoys lacking a sense of humor, women have long used ridicule and other comic tactics to express anger and subvert traditional norms. In fact, the poststructuralist exposure of the pervasive impact of power through norms that shape knowledge and discourse leads us to suspect that forms of humor and irony might offer a means of political change more effective than any appeal to reason alone. Indeed, given that social norms shape cognitive habits, the disrupting of social norms through ridicule might free our thinking as well. This chapter seeks to untangle an often hidden history of feminism featuring a range of female comics, including Wanda Sykes, Margret Cho, and the problematic Roseanne Barr. The humor of those whom feminists have dubbed the chauvinist pig eroticizes the abuse of power and a sense of entitlement. Inspired by Audre Lorde, among others, we explore how humor can upend patriarchy by instead eroticizing alternative sources of power and joy.
In chapter 2, we consider whether laughter can alter political climates of fear and hostility. On the eve of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, comedian Dean Obeidallah recalls that he went to bed thinking he was white, or at least as white as his Italian neighbors. After 9/11, however, the mood changed, along with Obeidallah’s race and national identity. The use of humor in social and political movements reveals that it can alter values and change perceptions by tapping a dimension of experience that eludes any narrow conception of ourselves as impermeable individuals exercising self-agency. Waves of collective affect such as Islamophobia cross porous borders, exemplifying a contagious vibe of negative energy and a troubling unpredictability at the core of political and social systems. This chapter turns to the comic stage for an antidote to mass fears. When reasoning fails, laughter holds the possibility of altering toxic affects and thus the social landscape.
Chapter 3 challenges the idea that all nonhuman animals lack humor along with other higher capacities, rendering them inferior to humans. If various nonhuman species do demonstrate a capacity for humor, what does this tell us about the comedic and about ourselves? Animals are the ultimate uncontested target of ridicule. Hardly any major theory of mockery does not align the ridiculous with the animal. Yet nonhuman animals not only suffer from mistreatment but also assert a sense of their own defiant agency that at times takes a turn toward the comedic. Gut-wrenching histories of animal communities resisting unfair labor practices expose sources of oppression but also world making outside humanist categories. This chapter speculates on the evolutionary origins of laughter and concludes that various species use ridicule against alphas to demand fair play.
Chapter 4 examines the concept of comic relief. Is it a distraction from real problems? Or can laughter spark a communal catharsis that reconnects us with ourselves while driving out toxic social norms? Recent reflections on humor for the most part keep their proper distance from any attempt to explain its cathartic power. These approaches emphasize the cerebral functions of humor while neglecting the larger social dynamic as well as the emotions, the body, and the physiology of the affects at stake. We do not deny the value of brainy humor, but with a nod to feminist materialism’s interest in the gut (not the phallus) as the second brain, we turn to the deep-down relief of the belly laugh to generate social change. The feminist SlutWalk movement, along with Amber Rose and the humor of Amy Schumer and others, exemplify the cathartic power of humor to alter negative attitudes and transform the social atmosphere by literally and figuratively changing the air we breathe.
Chapter 5 looks at whether humor can enable us to bridge social and cultural divides rather than just reinforce them. What kind of empathy could do this radical work? In much the same way that an earlier era of social justice flowered with the soulful music of the 1960s and 1970s, the emotional engine of social change over the last couple of decades has grown out of the truth tellers in stand-up comedy. Yet the truth-telling function of the comic arts can be put to multiple uses. It can rally the troops and preach to the choir, or it can build bridges over sharp social divides. Comedy Central’s Jeff Ross’s roast of Brazos county jail inmates and the Boston police demonstrates how humor serves as a vehicle of a radical empathy that can travel across social groups to reach a larger viewing public. While straight satire and ridicule subverts or reinforces lines of power, the empathetic humor of the roast, laced with flirtatious mockery, can offer far more than just a temporary break from the harsh realities of life. This mode of humor has the potential to de-escalate tensions and reveal the humanity of mortal enemies, thus opening up across social divisions a horizontal field of solidarity. All the more in this age of mass media, when social platforms can hold anyone hostage, laughter can burst through prison walls and insulating bubbles.
In our Conclusion, we ask, along with Tig Notaro and Hannah Gadsby, if, in the midst of frightening circumstances and pressing problems, we can afford that old formula: Comedy is tragedy plus time.