What did the cannibal say to the other cannibal when they were eating a clown? “Does this taste funny to you?”
What makes us laugh? Can humor be explained? Why is it so hard to explain a joke to someone who doesn’t get it? The explanation of why something is funny cannot itself be funny, which defeats the purpose of explaining humor. However, it does not mean we can talk about a general theory of humor. Inasmuch a theory of music is not itself musical, a theory of love is not itself loveable, a theory of humor should not be required to be funny itself, either.
In the essay Laughter the philosopher Henri Bergson claimed that laughter is a human, carefree and shared phenomenon. Laughter is human, because it does not take place elsewhere in nature, and carefree, because it does not require emotional involvement, and shared because it requires a community of shared opinion. This makes laughter a “light-hearted comedy.”
But Georges Bataille thinks otherwise: laughter interrupts commonality, shatters the rational indifference of the mind and negates the humanist ideal, for it is always “intermingled with a pleasant sensuality.” Laughter in this context is actually convulsive and overwhelming. This Bataillean laughter is not Nietzschean, which bespeaks a Mediterranean bright sun, a grateful disposition where serious truths are spoken while laughing. In Bataille’s writings you can hear him laughing like the madman of Nietzsche, like his insane father who screamed with pain as well.
But the most plausible theory theory of humor is Schopenhauer’s, one that reduces all funny situations to paradox: an object is suddenly included in a completely foreign category and we perceive this as the incongruity between the conceptual and the real. Incongruity is essentially the inconsistency with our expectations, when the abstraction fails to include a certain particular event, person, or an object of thought, and we are surprised by this failure. Schopenhauer says humor as “the cause of laughter” is “in every case … simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between concept and the real object.”
When the particular object transcends the general, it appears incongruous with the abstraction. In other words, humor emerges from the unexpected relief from the intellect as the victory of sense perception over the powers of abstraction. In humor we flee from our intellects. Surprise, also a crucial element of humor, in which “the greater and more unexpected … this incongruity is, the more violent will be his laughter.”
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