Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why We're Laughing With Them

One of my favorite television shows is Impractical Jokers, which is billed with a faux warning stating that the show contains “scenes of graphic stupidity among four lifelong friends who compete to embarrass each other.” During each episode, the “jokers” participate in various hidden camera challenges in which they must take turns listening to the directions given through an earpiece by the other jokers behind the scenes. If at any point one of the jokers refuses to obey one of the directions given to him, he takes a loss for that challenge. At the end of the episode, the joker with the most losses must face a punishment created by the other three. Although this Candid Camera-esque format could certainly lend itself to a very mean-spirited series of pranks against both each other and the unsuspecting public, there are a few factors at play which prevent this from happening.

The first is that the jokers, Sal Vulcano, Joe Gatto, James “Murr” Murray, and Brian “Q” Quinn, have actually known each other since high school and can truly be considered lifelong friends. There is a palpable camaraderie between the four jokers that impresses upon the audience that we are meant to laugh along with them rather than at them.

The natural friendship between the jokers is evidenced in their genuine reactions when one of them does something humorous. Herbert Spencer writes about laughter as an involuntary reaction in “The Physiology of Laughter.” None of the jokers demonstrate this better than Sal, who is known for constantly falling over into convulsions of laughter when one of his friends does something particularly hilarious.

Part of René Descartes’ analysis of humor is rooted in the cynicism that we often laugh at those whom we believe to deserve “some small evil” (24). Although there are certainly a great deal of examples of this malicious style of humor throughout the world, I do not consider Impractical Jokers to be one of them. From time to time during the show, one of the jokers will take a loss in a challenge due to the fact that he has refused, for whatever reason, to follow the jokers’ directions. Although this means that the jokers may now be one step closer to the punishment (which is most often something extremely embarrassing, yet never painful or mean-spirited), this shows that they are actively practicing a self-limitation that aims to protect either their own dignity or the dignity of the other participants.

Furthermore, it is very rare to see a blur over the face of a member of the public who had unwittingly participated in one of the pranks. This implies that the vast majority of participants in the show did not feel as though they were offended or harmed in any way and thus consented to having their image displayed on a nationally-televised program. What the audience can take away from this is that the pranks on this show are meant to be in good spirit and that it is acceptable to laugh along.

The final component of Impractical Jokers that prevents it from becoming a pathway to humiliation is again found in the show’s tagline: the jokers are competing to embarrass each other. By deflecting the focus away from those being pranked and toward the actual pranksters, the public becomes the vehicle for the humor rather than the target.

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