What’s not funny?

Periodically, I laugh when another student makes a blatantly obvious comment in class, a comment so primal and basic, that it appears erroneous to state such an ‘insight’ at all. Am I a dick for laughing? I don’t think so, and it has to do with context. I refer back to The Humour Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, a book by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, who put forth something called Benign Violation Theory.

The student voiced “a given” about the subject, a comment too fundamental to have to say; this is a violation to me because I perceive it as a social and logical abnormality to make such an obvious statement. However the student is in no danger of derision because ultimately he or she has made a statement assumed to be utterly true, hence the violation is benign.

The situation gets sticky in terms of the context of my laughter. I am laughing to myself, so I am not directing laughter ‘at’ the student or rallying the class to say, “What a blatantly obvious statement, you dingus.” That’s when things are not funny: when we laugh at someone for their failures or tragedies. But the student’s obvious insight never crossed my mind beforehand. I think I’m really laughing at my own faults, which humour has made me conscious of.

Tig Notaro’s famous stand-up set from 2012 is so hilarious and cathartic because it draws awareness to the hair-thin line between comedy and tragedy. She walks the tightrope as she describes her year: pneumonia, a bacteria that ate away at her digestive tract, the death of her mother, a break up, and to top it all off, a recent diagnosis of breast cancer. The borders of these tragedies overlap. It’s funny because she is in a comedy club; the audience doesn’t expect this confessional discourse to be so pummeling. It is not happening to the audience, it is happening to Tig and she has shattered a social structure by presenting it in the comedy club setting with such nonchalance.

If she told you this in her living room, it would not be funny. It would feel like she is confiding in you, looking for help, help that you are presumably not able to give her. Or, if it was a studio recording, and you could not hear the murmurs and laughter of an audience, that would not be funny either because it would seem like a confessional recording by some hopelessly alone blogger. We couldn’t joke about this.

Hopelessness is medicated with humour. It is only off-limits to laugh about an isolated individual’s fallibility. Context helps us laugh at the failures and tragedies we all experience.

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