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On funny

Last week, the New Yorker ran on article by Tad Friend on what makes things funny. The article (which isn't online) was fairly entertaining, but not particularly enlightening, and I've been puzzling over the question since I read it. What does make a thing funny?

The best I've come up with is this: A combination of emotional distance and metaphysical or aesthetic dissonance. In other words, things that are funny are things that strike you as just plain wrong, but that you don't care about.

The emotional distance aspect explains a few things, I think. For instance, it's wrong to laugh about sensitve subjects because not caring is, by definition, insensitive. And people don't often find jokes about things they care about to be especially funny, either. On the other hand, being able to laugh about something (particularly your own self) is often a sign that you have a healthy attitude toward it — that you're capable of looking at it without getting too caught up.

And dissonance also seems to apply to most funny things. Together, they explain Mel Brooks' famous quote — "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy
is when you fall down a manhole and die" — quite readily: Your own pain makes you care about getting a cut, and it's the sort of thing that happens all the time; whereas the dissonance is greater when someone arbitrarily disappears down a hole in the ground, and you don't feel an emotional response until you think about it.

Good jokes, I think, require a somewhat different sort of dissonance (but a dissonance all the same). That is, it may be funny to see a cartoon of a guy walking down the street and a piano landing on his head, but saying, "So there's this guy, and he's walking down the street, and then this piano comes out of nowhere and — Wham! — he's a pancake" isn't actually a good joke, as such. But it's just a different sort of dissonance that matters there, an aesthetic one. Instead of the world not being as it should, it's a story that strikes us as somehow wrong, and in an interesting way.

This (if there's anything to it) has the unfortunate consequence that a theory of what makes jokes funny would only be as accurate as a theory of aesthetics. In other words, even if it's right, it doesn't explain anything, except why these things are so hard to explain.

November 14, 2002 3:19 PM

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