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

Next post: “Human Evil and Muddled Thinking

Previous post: “Politics and Awful Art