Recently I encountered a very stressful situation. I had a soft deadline for an application (which I met early), but was told the day before the hard deadline that I needed to select, memorize, and film two three-minute monologues. A dear friend of mine, to whom I described the situation, said, “let me be your anger translator,” and subsequently acted out a scene in which he would stand behind me across from the offender(s). In his scene, I calmly responded: “Well it is a bit difficult to learn two completely new monologues in less than twenty-four hours, but I will do my best.” He then jumped and spun around, describing the situation exactly as it was, with no fear of offending anyone.
This is humorous for a few reasons. First, it made me laugh and release tension that had been building up from when I heard the news. It also brought in superiority theory, for it was a form of the oppressed lashing out at the oppressor. And finally, it involved incongruity theory, because the absurdity of my buttoned-up friend jumping and screaming and “sass”-ing does not fit the everyday context of people professionally interacting with people.
I felt the resonance of Anne LaMott during this interaction, for she too uses humor to work through her experiences. In her stories, she laughs instead of crying, or makes her readers laugh, and then is able to work through the situation to a truth and sometimes reverence. Note she begins “ham of god,” by telling her readers, “On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death” (LaMott 3). This provides humor not only because she is using it to work through her pain, but also because of her blunt attitude. This breaks the social norm that we experience daily of people trying to cover everything up for one another, so we seem capable and proper individuals. Thus, for her humor to work, we need to be socialized creatures. We have all felt these feelings, and we may remember many times in which we have hidden our truth in favor of conventional experience. LaMott’s work allows us to experience her truth as well as our own, for through humor, she illustrates that it isn’t so terrible to be honest.
Millman’s humor converses with experience in a slightly different manner. His humor is more that of situation. Many anecdotes which he relates are absurd, so the incongruity theory brings us right into his world, but some are also potentially disgusting, and he gives them a humor treatment instead of lamenting the gross aspect. For example, he begins by chronicling his travel by ferry and the subsequent “plague of seasickness” (Millman 1). He describes the situation with the phrase, “Nobody bothered to get up; they simply leaned over the side and heaved,” and follows the story with, “And yet quite a pleasant mood prevailed among my fifty or so bunk mates. They’d all seen much worse than a little half-digested sheep’s brain salad on the floor” (1). This humbles Millman as well as all of the other passengers, in a similar way to LaMott’s humbling of herself. He humbles most people he encounters, for he even describes the Vikings, known for being strong and mighty and tough, by referring to them as “cranky, restless people” (7). Thus he takes our experiential and socialized conventions and flips them on their sides.
Victor Turner and Mary Douglas were both British anthropologists (born a year apart), and both studied symbols and rituals/rites of passage. Thus their works, too, depend on experience, but not as that which creates the need for laughter, as in LaMott and some of Millman. Anthropology, by definition, deals with humankind and their social roles and interaction. In her work, Douglas describes the development of intellectual thought with regard to joking as having “moved from the simple analysis of social structures current in the 1940s to the structural analysis of thought systems” (Douglas 146). She explains that the new problem is the dialogue between thought and social experience, for joking had not yet been explored in its “total relation to other modes of expression” (146). Thus, as anthropologists, Turner and Douglas work with experience to understand to what extent experience of a culture is needed to fully appreciate the humor.
In Turner’s exploration, though he reminds us that he is “not a theologian or a mystic,” he takes an almost transcendentalist approach (Turner 244). He explains that as we are social creatures and thus form groups as we go through our uncertain lives, hoping that our sociability can be permanent. He also asserts that we “seek to rest our restless minds in meaningfulness” (245). This hearkens back to LaMott’s work, for on her forty-ninth birthday in her state of pain and despair, tries to ground herself in meaningfulness by following Matisse’s tenant: “I don’t know if I believe in God or not. . .But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer” (LaMott 6). Turner takes the group experience to then explore jokes as a function and product of a shared group experience. As I learned this week in my own stress and read from these four authors, experience is, then, a major player in how humor is created, why humor is created, and what a particular type of humor is.