January 6, 2011


Few would disagree with the argument that humor largely depends upon one’s culture. First there is the idiom of language. I watched a British TV comedy recently and heard the audience roar with laughter over a word that had no meaning to me. One had to know the various ways the British used the term to understand the double entendre. Beyond culture, humor is also a matter of personal preference. Some people laugh at sight gags, a pie thrown in a person’s face, for example. Some don’t. Other roars at a joke their neighbors think is silly.  Why the disparity exists makes for good debate.      

Last week, I watched a recording of the final theater performance of “Beyond the Fringe, a British comedy revue from the 1960s. It was very popular and ran for several years. I was in England at the time but never managed to see a performance, so I didn’t hesitate to rent the DVD. All of the sketches struck me as still fresh and funny. Several times, I had to press the pause bottom so I could wipe away tears of laughter. The humor of the pieces depended neither upon sight gags nor a play with words but upon satire. One sketch is a conversation between two philosophy professors trying to impress one another. Having been a philosophy major, I enjoyed watching two grown men fret about the interpretation of a word while the world lay in chaos at their feet.

As yet no thinker has developed an accurate definition for humor. Some have argued that the various forms – sight gags, word play and satire — share the element of surprise. Seeing someone slip on a banana peel, hearing words used inappropriately, or watching serious people behaving “unseriously” tickles our fancy. It’s not what we expect. 

Surprise, however, as an explanation for humor isn’t the defining element. Terror, too, needs surprise. Walking down a dark corridor in a haunted house is rife with the fear of surprise. And oddly enough, fear can promote a desire to laugh. Both emotions reside in the limbic brain, so the wires sometimes get crossed.

Nonetheless, an author who wishes to write humor must wrestle with surprise and become its master. It’s the one aspect of humor that crosses cultural lines. Like salt in an apple pie, if it’s missing the taste is flat.

Other mammals share a sense of humor with humans, of course — dolphins, for example — though I cannot say if a pie in the face would strike them as funny.    Certainly, I’d never try it on a lion… too big a culture difference.