Monday, July 10, 2006

Who would you vote for, Hitler or Roosevelt?

Historically, of course, in most times and places, comedy has been too undignified for successful adults and was primarily reserved for children, adolescents, the powerless and the incompetent. From the perspective of Heidegerrian authenticity, Maslowian actualization, or even a Csikszentmihalyi flow-state, peak experiences are singularly humorless. Comedy thrives on unexpected twists and turns, competent people proceed in a clear path, so competence is usually antithetical to comedy.

Comedy is, by its nature, a diversion, and people satisfied with their lives have little need for entertainment. Maslow would tell us that the need for diversion arises when a homeostatic disequilibrium summons the desire to pack condensed pleasure into short periods of time because deeper pleasures are absent (and, indeed, “abrupt hilarity” is symptomatic of depression). The "entertainment" industry thrives in proportion to the degree that the rest of the economy spreads misery, as a safety valve to keep people sane. Sometimes, the audience's response to comedy owes more to biological imperatives and crowd psychology than to the inate quality of the material.

What makes people laugh? What are the characteristics of quality comedy? Distracting people from their misery is a big business, and has been studied exhaustively. Nonetheless, while good jokes can be quantified and described mathematically, they is notoriously difficult to generate. There are dozens of different types of comedy, but they all share the basic mechanism of surprise, repression and frequency:

C = (S & R) * log(F).

S: People react with laughter to many surprises. For example, a startling musicological moment can generate laughter, as can an aesthetic breakthrough, or even bad news.

R: Too much repression, and a person is humorless. Too little repression, and a person has no need for comedy. Often, laughter is a valve that releases the tension that accumulates through neurosis. The superficial opinion is that neurotic women are sexually attracted to men who make them laugh, but neurotic women are more likely to laugh at men to whom they are sexually attracted.

F: The James-Lange theory of emotion tells us that, once a person is laughing, it is easier to keep them laughing. A comedian’s use of catch-phrases is a technique by which emotional memories of laughter are summoned, to put people in a frame of mind to laugh at future jokes. The optimal frequency for humor is e (~2.71), which rounds to three as the comic number. Some comedians insist that seventeen is also a comic number, but, as far as I know, there is no laboratory experimentation in support of this.


Comedy was traditionally an under-class consolation for the Paretian masses, to make their powerlessness bearable. Social power affects comedy, and political comedy is funniest when a person who is denied social power uses it to assert moral authority. In a social hierarchy of A-B-C, it is somewhat funny if C mocks B, very funny if C mocks A, somewhat funny if B mocks A, somewhat cruel if A mocks B and very cruel if A mocks C. The same caricature yields different comic effects depending on social context. According to the above formula, when comedy breaks social boundaries, it increases both the amount of surprise and also the amount of repression.

In America, a sense of humor is considered a very desirable trait, “funny people” are rewarded with social power, and people go to great lengths in quest of amusement. Still, there is a constant need for new comedians, because comedians generally deteriorate over time, becoming more familiar (reducing surprise), more powerful (reducing the social impact of the comedy) and less repressed (living alongside their neuroses, they either cure themselves or succumb to substance abuse). As a comedian rises in social class, routines that were once surprisingly funny become overly familiar and cruel. Seinfeld stopped being funny but Larry David has stayed funny because he steadfastly maintains himself as the brunt of his own jokes: the pleasure generated by his material is fundamentally predicated on David's misery.

Political anxiety has replaced sexual anxiety as a major cause of personal neuroses, and, for the last few swings of popular sentiment, political comedy has been a leading indicator of a change in political climate. It is generally true that whichever side is funnier will probably be in power within fifteen years. In the sixties, people like Lenny Bruce and Paul Krasner mocked the rigid, incompetent seriousness of the ruling elites. In the late Carter years, Rush Limbaugh was genuinely funny, because he flexibly satirized the rigidity of American liberal dogma, which had turned the positive values of the sixties into social programs that were hurting the very people they purported to help. Twenty-five years later, the welfare state has been dismantled, and the conservative movement has ossified into an out-of-touch model of reality, with the three horsemen of the liberal apocalypse (Jon Stewart, Hosea Frank, and Stephen Colbert) ready to usher in a new age of liberal comedy, followed by, let us hope, enlightened goverment. Gandhi’s famous formula for political movements – first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win – misses the next four steps, which complete the cycle: then you lose touch with reality, then they mock you, then you lose, then they ignore you.” (The difference between “ridicule” and “mock” is the difference between Ann Coulter and Ze Frank.)

In our society, everyone likes a good laugh, and powerful people are judged by their willingness to laugh at themselves. One would think that leaders would be appreciated for demonstrating competence and their ability to handle the serious business of making decisions in the public interest. In America, however, politicians run on their borscht-belt schtick, eagerly host comedy shows, and hire professional comedians to script jokes that will prove they do not take themselves too seriously. Foreigners find it shocking that more Americans vote for American Idol than vote for President, but it is more shocking that the Americans who vote for President apply many of the same criteria that they applied to voting for American Idol.

{Ze Frank's show has moments of inspired social satire, coupled with a good sense of traditional comedy and a bit of college-scatology. His use of a single-person webcam and editing to mimic the dynamics of a comedy duo is a fundamental genric addition to filmed comedy. Watching his show is almost as exciting as watching Charlie Bowers discover hidden potentials inside the singer real surrealist comedy. Frank's willingness to be the brunt of his own jokes presages a long and successful career. His humor oscillates between absurdist, social satire and scatological, intermingled with thirty-second condensations of recent psychological and political research.}

3 Comments:

Blogger Richard Ryan said...

This is some wacky ass shit, dude. The discriminating blog reader would harvest more utils reading Richard Ryan's http://web-o-words.blogspot.com blog, speakin' frankly....

9:31 PM  
Blogger St Anthony said...

We have the same problem here in good old Blighty - more people vote on 'Big Brother' than vote for the politicos ... actually, given the current state of our parliament, that's not suprising.
If only the sainted Lenny was here to see it.

11:13 PM  
Blogger St Anthony said...

Got your address from your friend, Dan Visel, when he gave you a mention on the Gaddis chatlist.

From Petula Clark to Boulez - what I'd like to see is these two titans of modern music working with each other.

11:18 PM  

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