16 September 2014
The Punch Line
After completing all of the readings, I noticed a strong correlation between issues of social injustice and humor. While King and Kolvenbach shed light on areas within our societal sphere where we seem to be falling short of our ideals, earlier thinkers such as Plato, Hobbes, Kant, and Kierkegaard aim to discuss the ways in which humor often conveys this same notion of “falling short”.
In Hobbes’ interpretation of humor, he explains: “laughter is nothing but an expression of our sudden glory when we realize that in some way we are superior to someone else”(19). Here, we see that Hobbes’ is suggesting that humor is evil—he explains that humor is used as a way to assert power over another human being to feel better about one’s self, or, in other words: to win. Also equating humor to evil, Plato explains that humor is “a mixture of pain and pleasure”(10). Plato suggests—once again—that, “man is somehow pleased at his neighbor’s misfortunes”(10). Kolvenbach and King would argue that using humor for this purpose is unjust in that it represents a more deeply rooted social issue that may exist beneath laughter’s surface.
On the other hand, Kant and Kierkegaard offer a milder interpretation of humor—one that leaves fewer victims of laughter behind. Specifically, Kant describes laughter as a bodily sensation that restores our health; he explains that the “punch line” of a joke is the “animation of our intestines and internal organs”(45). Here, we notice that a joke is made as an effort to spark a sense of vitality—the humor exists in the punch line and not at the expense of someone else. Kierkegaard also illustrates humor as a series of contradictions. He points out that laughter is derived from the point at which two things contradict one another. Laughter via contradiction works to deflect any harm made by the joke away from the parties involved and, instead, allows it to dwell in the space where the verbal discontinuities exist.
Twain, Hurston, and Allen also adopt similar interpretations of humor within their texts—they, too, use humor in a lighter sense. Specifically, Twain argues, “the humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling”(239). Twain is suggesting that someone’s delivery of a joke and intent are the deciding factors when qualifying humor as malice or “bubbly”. Here, we notice that—like Kierkegaard—Twain values the function of the punch line; he assigns laughter to his story’s punch line, which serves as an essential component of understanding the nature of the humor he uses.
Similarly, in Allen’s text, we find humor at the point at which our expectation meets our reality. Just as Kant explains in his piece, “as the understanding stops suddenly short”… we find humor when we, “do not find what it expected”(47). This re-routing within his narrative allows us to not only laugh at the absurdity of the plot itself but at our own assumptions as well.
Ultimately, as we become aware of the different functions of humor, it becomes quite clear that just as humor can be used as a destructive force, it can also be used as a constructive force. Here, we notice that humor—used in the correct “manner”—has the capacity to bring about awareness and act as a social buffer when addressing issues of social injustice. Humor, then, serves as a tool for breaking down malignant social structures, while also facilitating the construction of new structures—positive structures that can inspire social change within society.