Sunday, September 21, 2014

The other non-repeatable phenomenon

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, humor, comedy

There is a class of phenomena, in which nearly everyone participates, but they are not amenable to scientific experiment. They are not repeatable. Sometimes a person does certain actions singly, sometimes they are done by cooperating persons acting together. Sometimes the functions of the body alone are used, sometimes other artifacts will be used. One particular person or one particular group may do certain things and others witnessing it are unmoved or uncaring. A different person or group, carrying out the same activities and perhaps using the same kinds of objects, or not, may move other persons, even a great many others, to feel strong emotions. Further, from one day to the next the response can differ significantly.

What kind of phenomena are these? Music!

Precisely the same paragraph above can be stated, aimed at a different answer: Comedy!

Or, in a broader sense, Humor!

Some 25 years ago the company where I worked sponsored "informances" by various performers. In one case we were visited by a professional clown. He was a dwarf, and an expert at all kinds of bizarre behavior and pratfalls that reliably induced us to laugh ourselves silly. Yet he spoke of his ambition to find the "lowest Comic denominator", a "formula" that would cause people to laugh regardless of cultural background. He never found it.

He knew how to make a Midwestern American audience laugh joyfully. He told of going onstage in an African country, where he walked out and promptly took a pratfall. Several people in the front row rushed onstage to make sure he was unhurt. Nobody laughed. They were horrified that their distinguished visitor might be injured.

I wonder if Peter McGraw or Joel Warner ever heard of him. Probably not. But they do mention several groups and institutes that study humor. They spent a year or so traveling the USA and the world to evaluate a theory Peter McGraw had developed of "benign violation." Dr. McGraw directs the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at U Colorado in Boulder and Mr. Warner is a writer who works out of Denver. Together they wrote The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.

They began and ended their journey with sessions in comedy clubs, where Pete tried his hand at stand-up comedy. In between, in addition to obligatory visits to LA and NYC, they visited places where you'd expect life is too tragic for laughter (Tanzania and Palestine) and others where you'd think people are much too laid-back (Scandinavia) or rigid (Japan) for comedy to work well. They followed, and joined in with, a troupe of 100 clowns who go yearly to Iquitos, Peru, the most inaccessible large city, to observe how humor and comedy might ameliorate the tragic level of poverty there. They found just putting on a red nose and floppy clothes sets up both clown and observers for funny business.

What is "benign violation"? Dr. McGraw sees a comic as looking for something that violates mores or norms, and finding a way to make it less threatening, more benign. A clown's pratfall, from which he pops up unharmed and roaring with laughter, is an example. So is the "Just kidding" kind of laughter we use to deliver news that might cause mild distress. Great distress is another thing, though the authors report on the cast of Saturday Night Live who decided to carry on with the show on Saturday, September 15, 2001, just 4 days after "9-11"!

But consider a take-off on the "chicken-road" kind of joke:
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To show the armadillo that it is possible.
It helps if you've been to Oklahoma or north Texas, where armadillos are the most frequent road kill. What's the violation here? The dead armadillo. And the benign part? The chicken helping out.

I am not sure every kind of humor can be fit into this model. Dr. McGraw seems able to do so, but then, this is his baby, and a scientist with a theory can be very clever indeed, getting "everything to fit".

Reading the book led me to consider the different meanings of "humor" and "comedy". "Humor" refers both to our sense that some things are funny or amusing and the quality of situations and narratives (written or spoken) that we find funny or amusing. "Comedy" is a genre of entertainment that primarily exploits humor to make an audience laugh. It is an interesting paradox that when most of us tell a joke, we frequently laugh along with those we tell it to, but when a comic makes jokes, he or she must not laugh. At least, that is the modern restriction. I remember how much fun Red Skelton got from his own jokes, and none of us felt he shouldn't laugh with us. It is also interesting that we laugh about quite a number of things that aren't really funny. It seems laughter is a great social lubricant. I know one woman who ends every single sentence with a laugh or a giggle.

Though both authors had an equal hand in writing the book, its point of view is of Joel observing Pete. It is an interesting option, and probably made for better flow of the writing than other devices for co-authors to speak to us. Joel reports that a year in search of humor has made him funnier, and Pete seems to have done a much better job with his second stand-up routine. He recognized that comics who succeed have to work at it diligently for a long time. Many people can tell jokes that have their friends in stitches, but would probably flop badly before a tough crowd at a comedy club.

But Joel seems to have found a simpler formula than trying to figure out benign violation: Go to a costume store and buy a red nose. Just putting that on seems to make it possible for you to do things you usually wouldn't dare, and for others to find them funny. Without the nose, they might instead be angry or just puzzled. Worth a try!

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