I recently saw a very amusing two-panel comic strip. The first panel, embellished with a banner saying “Inappropriate Catcalling,” shows the classic situation of a car driving by the silhouette of a shapely woman walking under a streetlamp. The car is calling, “Nice legs, sweetheart!” to the pedestrian as it passes by.
The second panel, emblazoned, “Appropriate Catcalling,” shows a cat curled up by a cell phone. A comforting voice is coming out of the phone, telling the cat, “Hey, pal, I know things are rough for you right now, but I really hope that soon you’ll be happy. You deserve to be happy.”
I laughed pretty heartily at this little comic. Perhaps my laughter comes from an appreciation of an absurd world in which cats require comfort and bolstering up for the future. Perhaps it comes from a sense of relief when the second panel strays from a theme that causes my inner feminist to cringe. Perhaps it has to do with a reexamination of the words involved. I never really think about the fact that this action is called “catcalling,” after all, and this comic put the phrase into a new and interesting context where two very different instances with the exact same title are laid out side by side. Or perhaps my amusement with this comic strip comes from my sense of belonging to a secret club that gets why it is funny. While I don’t think this joke is terribly complex, I wouldn’t assume that everyone alive today would understand it. Perhaps this gives me a thrill that pumps blood into my organs around and causes a burst of laughter.
A person must have a cultural context before he or she can understand the subtleties of an instance of humor like this, even when the instance described is not overly complicated. One must, however, understand the society that not only has rampant catcalling but also finds it inappropriate. It is also worth noting that our society has become somewhat obsessed with cats as of late. “Cat people” are getting more attention on social media than ever before, and it does not really seem all that far-fetched that a person may want to comfort his or her cat in this way. All this simply adds to the humorous content of this short and sweet comic strip.
Additional context helps us enjoy almost anything a little bit more. In Voltaire’s Candide, the author deflates notions of metaphysics, religion, government and philosophy. Readers will have a much fuller enjoyment of the humor here if they are able to draw parallels to the various academic fields that Voltaire incorporates. Just as the comic causes one to think about the origins and subtleties of words, Candide causes readers to reexamine what it is about these various disciplines that we so revere. The fact that these are fields to be respected is so ingrained in us that we often do no stop to laugh when they are ridiculous or incongruous. We rethink the word “catcalling” in the comic strip, but we rethink metaphysics and its teachings in Voltaire’s classic work. Both deserve a reexamination.
Candide’s Dr. Pangloss is a philosopher who arrives, through the power of his own observation and mental capacities, at the idea that the world that exists is the best world that could exist. He passes this wisdom on to his disciple, Candide, along with the idea that everything is part of a greater plan. Standing alone, this idea seems appropriately philosophical and wise. When Candide tries to live out this position, however, he is painfully shot down and exploited for his naiveté. Terrible thing after terrible thing happens to our protagonist, and we can see his ideas beginning to change ever so slightly. By the middle of the tale, he has already abandoned some of his altruistic ways and become a murderer, out seeking a profit so he might buy back his love.
This narrative subverts all expectations of the gentle philosopher whom Voltaire has presented to readers in the opening paragraph of his story. Humor in this tale comes largely from the readers’ connection of previous details in their larger contexts. Much like the catcalling example, expectations are subverted, and the one who laughs is in the know of a larger context for the joke.