Humour: it’s no laughing matter

What does it mean to be funny? It’s different for different people. Some people love fart jokes, while others prefer intricate social satire. Different theories on humour suggest that unexpectedness can be a trigger of laughter, or that people who are confused won’t find a joke funny. Humour tends to rely on the shared experience, which means that topics a lot of people know about have more potential to be funny. So a joke that brings up a well-known, serious event, issue, or person, and turns it on its head, making it absurd, light-hearted, silly, is playing off the effect of contrast and universal understanding for its success. Basically, it’s likely to get a laugh. Maybe that’s why comedians who are offensive to some are also funny to most. Interestingly enough, humour can be a clever and surprisingly effective way of holding up a metaphoric measuring stick to the logic of an idea.

Humour and satire are valuable because they flout stigmas or taboos in a way that encourages us to examine, process, and re-evaluate. Humour humanizes public figures and complicated issues—it sparks important discussion, breaks the ice, and provides comic relief; it is a way to share culture. It can be used as a tool for communicating to the masses; an idea that’s funny gets across more easily than a monotone lecture or long paper. A prime example of this is Barack Obama taking the stage on the popular Internet talkshow Between Two Ferns, hosted by Zach Galifianakis, who is best known for his acting work in the Hangover films. The webisode consisted of Obama and Galifianakis exchanging biting jokes framed as questions at each other. For example, Galifianakis’ question “What is it like to be the last black president?” was answered by Obama’s “Really? What’s it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?” While some have criticized Obama for participating in the simple online video, he effectively used the opportunity to plug the United States’ healthcare website, which saw traffic go up 40 per cent after the show racked up over 20 million views.

On the other hand, humour also has the potential to hurt feelings and change perspectives in ways that are only favourable to some, not beneficial at all, or even harmful. Humour can validate or normalize behaviour that causes harm. So, in deciding whether or not it’s okay to make a joke, the question is whether the harm of telling the joke outweighs the benefit it will provide. A joke told among friends who are unlikely to be negatively impacted or influenced is harmlessly funny. A joke with greater reach, by virtue of affecting more people, has a spectrum of possible good and bad results; the riskier the material, the greater the potential for gain—or harm. As important as humour is, humourists only have so many tools and perspectives with which to predict their jokes’ outcomes. Sometimes, when something’s funny to you, you just have to put it out there, but be prepared to listen to constructive criticism before deciding whether to stand behind your comedic contribution.

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