Humor is subjective. While many have sought a comprehensive explanation for the physiological or psychological act of laughter, traditional knowledge dictates that the degree to which a person finds any individual joke funny is entirely contingent upon the social context in which it is delivered. This explains why a joke translated from a foreign language often falls flat, and why we scratch our heads reading about the Dogon tribe’s practice of playfully exchanging excrement (Douglas 147). However, some cultural anthropologists have challenged the notion that a culture-free analysis of joking is impossible, and have pointed to several key components of humor that transcend societal barriers.
In Jokes, cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that the common denominator in all jokes, regardless of their cultural context, is their subversion of power and control (149). This is not pure superiority theory, however, because she contends that the “joke pattern” must include elements incongruity and relief. She writes: “The essence of the joke is that something formal is attacked by something informal, something organized and controlled, by something vital, energetic” (149). While LaMott’s Ham of God may seem like a straightforward example of this theory – the informal “Birkenstock type” speaker beams her complaints against The Man (the Bush Administration, but also the media and mainstream political culture more generally) – a Dogon’s tossing of excrement also serves as another example of a joke that seeks to level out the hierarchy within a particular subgroup.
Although cultural anthropologist Victor Turner focuses less on the individual joke and more on the joker, he too argues for the universal capacity of humor to confront power dynamics. In “Images of Anti-Temporality: An Essay in the Anthropology of Experience,” he discusses the inevitability of “social dramas,” and the necessity for relief constructs (246). This relief can come in the form of a “performance,” in which the performer is afforded the “unusual power” to “criticize society as a whole with impunity” (256). Entertainment is thus cathartic in this way no matter which cultural brand of comedy it may practice.
As a non-Western example of this, Turner points to a Hindu performance in which the Kutiyattam actors entertain in a way which critiques the caste system while evading the wrath of those ridiculed (256). In contemporary American society, the satire of the “organized and controlled” by the “vital” and “energetic” is a billion dollar industry. Our options for televised late-night ridicule of political figures and institutions are endless. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report might come first to mind, but Saturday Night Live, Real Time with Bill Maher, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, South Park, Family Guy, American Dad, and countless others would fall under this category. The entertainers on these shows are offered impunity to be the “dialectical dancing partner” of the social dramas we encounter; joking on the sometimes painful elements of the social hierarchy that governs all societies.
The funniness of any particular joke will always vary from person to person. Human beings, after all, are deeply preferential creatures. This is a subject Lawrence Millman touches on in Embarkation, in which he reflects humorously on his travels, writing: “The person who delights in Paris might turn up his nose at smelly Rome or odorless Copenhagen. An aficionado of deserts might prefer the Desert of Maine to the shamelessly overbearing Sahara” (7). Similarly, I might personally laugh out loud at a willfully ignorant sports announcer but not at a cat on an underwater treadmill. However, Douglas argues that it is wrong to assume that “the acid test of a joke is whether it provokes laughter or not" (148). Rather, a joke can be universally evaluated based on its capacity to refract, distort, and subvert a certain element of a social hierarchy. With this in mind, it is important to remember to think beyond the laughter and appreciate a joke for the micro-rebellion it wages instead.