We’ve spent a lot of time talking in class about humor being humorous because it highlights absurdities. The theorists and stories that we had to read all link together to illustrate a spectrum of absurdity: ranging from general strange things and ironies to, on a more serious note, highlighting absurdities of the human condition and injustice.
As a humor theorist, Kant described humor as absurdities that “change representations in judgment” on a basic level: what you expect isn’t what you get at the end of the story. Both of Woody Allen’s stories, in addition to Mark Twain’s Jim Blaine story are humorous for this reason. Death being a literal human who apparently should be taller, to thinking a story is about prostitutes when instead it’s about paying for intellectual conversations, to a story where you think you’re finding out about a bull, but you never do because the man’s too drunk to tell the story: these are all humorous stories because of the change in judgment, our preconceived notions are shaken up by the absurdities of the story and we have no other choice but to laugh.
Humor theorist Kierkegaard takes the absurdity spectrum a step further, saying that humor isn’t only about life’s absurdities and a change in judgment but rather it a relationship with irony that makes stories so humorous. He uses the example of a child telling a younger child, who is only a little younger, to listen to him because he is older. This is funny because of the irony in a small child thinking he is considered older and wiser to a child not that much younger than him. Irony is employed in The Gilded Six Bits when Joe finds out Missie May is sleeping with another man. The irony is employed when instead of screaming or any other normal reaction to being hurt/upset he instead “opened up his mouth and laughed.” Our judgment is changed by the sheer irony and oddity of this man laughing at what he has just witnessed: something that is definitely not funny. This comes full circle in the end, after Joe and Missie May have had months and months of marital problems the store clerk says to another customer that he wishes he could “laughin’ all the time” like Joe because “Nothin’ worries ‘em.” The reader can chuckle at this because of the irony that we as the reader know something the store clerk doesn’t: everything, in this moment, is worrying Joe.
Plato moves the barometer on the humor spectrum a little further. Perhaps agreeing that absurdities and irony play a small part in the basics of humor but ultimately laughing causes us to “experience a mix of pain and pleasure”—the pain deriving from our self-ignorance. In the specific cases of our readings this self-ignorance is due to injustices we fail to realize.
Jesuit, and justice advocate, Kolvenbach explains to us that our self-ignorance with injustice is unacceptable and must be changed. He lays down the foundation to not only recognize injustice but to also “…engage with human society, human life, and the environment in appropriate ways, cultivating moral concern about how people ought to live together.” One way to engaged with human society to change their mind is through humor, changing their judgment—as stated earlier on—and hitting them with a justice punch-line and a call for change when they don’t even see it coming. In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. highlighted one form of injustice—racial prejudice—that needed a call to action because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Humor is a subtle way, through absurd stories and ironic moments, to “artfully craft” (as Twain would say) a story that makes people laugh. And it is in that moment of laughter, where Hobbes would say we’re laughing to express “glory when we realize we are superior to someone else.” When humor reaches the top of the absurdity spectrum and highlights injustice, it is that of realization of self-ignorance through laughter that humor has the potential to stop being funny and to enact change.