False Laughter

Fol­lowup to: Poli­tics and Awful Art

There’s this thing called “de­ri­sive laugh­ter” or “mean-spir­ited laugh­ter”, which fol­lows from see­ing the Hated Enemy get a kick in the pants. It doesn’t have to be an un­ex­pected kick in the pants, or a kick fol­lowed up with a cus­tard pie. It suffices that the Hated Enemy gets hurt. It’s like hu­mor, only with­out the hu­mor.

If you know what your au­di­ence hates, it doesn’t take much effort to get a laugh like that—which marks this as a sub­species of awful poli­ti­cal art.

There are deli­ciously bit­ing satires, yes; not all poli­ti­cal art is bad art. But satire is a much more de­mand­ing art than just punch­ing the Enemy in the nose. In fact, never mind satire—just an atom of or­di­nary gen­uine hu­mor takes effort.

Imag­ine this poli­ti­cal car­toon: A build­ing la­beled “sci­ence”, and a stan­dard Godzilla-ish mon­ster la­beled “Bush” stomp­ing on the “sci­ence” build­ing. Now there are peo­ple who will laugh at this—hur hur, scored a point off Bush, hur hur—but this poli­ti­cal car­toon didn’t take much effort to imag­ine. In fact, it was the very first ex­am­ple that popped into my mind when I thought “poli­ti­cal car­toon about Bush and sci­ence”. This de­gree of ob­vi­ous­ness is a bad sign.

If I want to make a funny poli­ti­cal car­toon, I have to put in some effort. Go be­yond the cached thought. Use my cre­ativity. Depict Bush as a ten­ta­cle mon­ster and Science as a Ja­panese school­girl.

There are many art forms that suffer from ob­vi­ous­ness. But hu­mor more than most, be­cause hu­mor re­lies on sur­prise—the ridicu­lous, the un­ex­pected, the ab­surd.

(Satire achieves sur­prise by say­ing, out loud, the thoughts you didn’t dare think. Fake satires re­peat thoughts you were already think­ing.)

You might say that a pre­dictable punch­line is too high-en­tropy to be funny, by that same logic which says you should be enor­mously less sur­prised to find your ther­mo­stat read­ing 30 de­grees than 29 de­grees.

The gen­eral test against awful poli­ti­cal art is to ask whether the art would seem worth­while if it were not poli­ti­cal. If some­one writes a song about space travel, and the song is good enough that I would en­joy listen­ing to it even if it were about but­terflies, then and only then does it qual­ify to pick up bonus points for prais­ing a Wor­thy Cause.

So one test for de­ri­sive laugh­ter is to ask if the joke would still be funny, if it weren’t the Hated Enemy get­ting the kick in the pants. Bill Gates once got hit by an un­ex­pected pie in the face. Would it still have been funny (albeit less funny) if Linus Tor­valds had got­ten hit by the pie?

Of course I’m not sug­gest­ing that you sit around all day ask­ing which jokes are “re­ally” funny, or which jokes you’re “al­lowed” to laugh at. As the say­ing goes, an­a­lyz­ing a joke is like dis­sect­ing a frog—it kills the frog and it’s not much fun for you, ei­ther.

So why this blog post, then? Don’t you and I already know which jokes are funny?

One ap­pli­ca­tion: If you find your­self in a group of peo­ple who tell con­sis­tently un­funny jokes about the Hated Enemy, it may be a good idea to head for the hills, be­fore you start to laugh as well...

Another ap­pli­ca­tion: You and I should be al­lowed not to laugh at cer­tain jokes—even jokes that tar­get our own fa­vorite causes—on the grounds that the joke is too pre­dictable to be funny. We should be able to do this with­out be­ing ac­cused of be­ing hu­mor­less, “un­able to take a joke”, or pro­tect­ing sa­cred cows. If la­beled-Godzilla-stomps-a-la­beled-build­ing isn’t funny about “Bush” and “Science”, then it also isn’t funny about “liber­tar­ian economists” and “Amer­i­can na­tional com­pet­i­tive­ness”, etc.

The most scathing ac­cu­sa­tion I ever heard against Ob­jec­tivism is that hard­core Ob­jec­tivists have no sense of hu­mor; but no one could prove this by show­ing an Ob­jec­tivist a car­toon of Godzilla-”Rand” stomp­ing on build­ing-”hu­mor” and de­mand­ing that he laugh.

Re­quiring some­one to laugh in or­der to prove their non-cultish­ness—well, like most kinds of obli­ga­tory laugh­ter, it doesn’t quite work. Laugh­ter, of all things, has to come nat­u­rally. The most you can do is get fear and in­se­cu­rity out of its way.

If an Ob­jec­tivist, in­no­cently brows­ing the In­ter­net, came across a de­pic­tion of Ayn Rand as a Ja­panese school­girl lec­tur­ing a ten­ta­cle mon­ster, and still didn’t laugh, then that would be a prob­lem. But they couldn’t fix this prob­lem by de­liber­ately try­ing to laugh.

Ob­sta­cles to hu­mor are a sign of dread­ful things. But mak­ing hu­mor obli­ga­tory, or con­stantly won­der­ing whether you’re laugh­ing enough, just throws up an­other ob­sta­cle. In that way it’s rather Zen. There are things you can ac­com­plish by de­liber­ately com­pos­ing a joke, but very few things you can ac­com­plish by de­liber­ately be­liev­ing a joke is funny.

Part of the Poli­tics Is the Mind-Killer sub­se­quence of How To Ac­tu­ally Change Your Mind

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