In many ways, humor is utilized as a means of disarmament. It is the responsibility of an individual wielding the lofty mantel of humor to suspend and perhaps reconstruct the reality of their audience, if only for a moment. In the Kantian perspective of humor, there exists a paradoxical relationship between a specific form of catharsis and the original tension of expectation. Kant establishes the role that naivete plays in our human appreciation of humor saying: “We laugh at the simplicity that does not understand how to dissemble; and yet we are delighted with the simplicity of the nature which thwarts that art” [Kant, 49]. There is something so poignant about naivete; we find it quaint and charming against the stark and, quite often, brutal reality of the world, yet we also have the lingering sense that these unworldly opinions reveal some sort absurdity deeply embedded within our cultural consciousness (as dead metaphors will attest to). We are, for a brief period, able to comfortably entertain notions of our norms, society, and entire lives as merely cleverly crafted ruses (a horrifying concept by most standards).
The Woody Allen pieces are prime examples of humor’s ability to disarm and reconstruct. Allen takes concepts that our society takes for granted (such as death and prostitution) and completely subverts the reader’s preconceived understanding of them in a way that is totally unexpected and creative at the same time that it is simplistic. There is nothing so strange about a death without the macabre pomp and circumstance we have grown accustomed to expect, yet we balk alongside Nat as the overweight and underwhelming character of death clumsily stumbles through the window. This unexpected characterization makes us laugh because it breaks our morbid tension and momentarily allays our despair in regards to our ultimate mortality. This fleeting moment of lightheartedness allows us to ask the difficult questions, like “Is there anything after?” without experiencing a crushing sense of anxiety and uncertainty; humor encourages an almost child-like curiosity within subject matter that is too imposing to approach frankly [Death Knocks, 190]. In The Whore of Mensa, Allen’s ‘intellectual prostitute’ character explicitly extols the virtue of this constructed naivete in literature asking, “’I think Melville reaffirmed the virtues of innocence in a naïve yet sophisticated sense- don’t you agree” [The Whore of Mensa, 54]? There clearly exists some interplay between what is humorous and what we have forgotten or forsaken alongside our innocence.
It was Mark Twain himself who said that, “To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art” [How to Tell a Story, 241]. If art truly is the mirror of the society that creates it, then our American society is one that harkens back to a time of simplicity and innocence when confronted by inconceivable thoughts. Humor, when used correctly, provides a basis for this kind of recalled naivete.