Nice Humor/Mean Humor

My brother Eugene recently had a guest post on The Motley Vision, "On Humor and the Literary Novel." A question was posed in the comments about why some "mean" jokes make us wince while other "mean" jokes make us laugh. In other words, why does just about every character on Everybody Loves Raymond make my skin crawl but Cox and House don't?

I've pondered this question for awhile, and here's my answer!

I think the difference lies in the intent of the joke (sarcastic diatribe, insult, pun, whatever). I don't mean the intent of the joke to the jokee but the intent of the joke to the audience.

In most of Everybody Loves Raymond, the jokes are made to make the jokee wince with embarrassment. More than that, the intent of the joke is to make the audience complicit in the jokee's embarrassment. The joke is the embarrassment.

Shakespeare, who did everything, employed this kind of joke (as well as all the other kinds). The treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night is precisely this type of humor. The joke lies in Malvolio's embarrassment. Which is why, I think, that particular part of Twelfth Night is rather problematic. However, that's just me. There's plenty of evidence (reality TV shows, Three Stooges, Roman games) that human beings enjoy watching other human beings suffer.

That being said, I also think a lot of people feel as I do and prefer the non-embarrassing joke. In Scrubs, for example, Cox belittles J.D. with his "Mary Janes" and "Buttercups," but the intent of the name-calling is not to embarrass J.D.--that is, not to embarrass J.D. before his audience (us). This works partly because J.D. is the narrator and therefore controls the audience's perspective. If he wants us to see him humiliated, there must be a reason. It works also because J.D. doesn't embarrass easily. Finally, it works because, if you've watched the show long enough, you know that Cox adores J.D. (and that Cox and J.D. are actually very similar; I didn't realize how much until the episode where Cox talks about seeing himself sitting on a throne while a conversation is going on--"He's J.D.!" I thought although J.D. is fundamentally kinder and less angry-guy).

This same principle is at work in House. In my post on Cox, Becker & House, I make the argument that everything House says is intrinsic to his personality. He doesn't belittle his interns to make the audience laugh; he belittles his interns because that's how House deals with life.

The point being that in both House and Scrubs, the jokes are not at the expense of the jokees. In fact, the jokes often backfire unto the jokers.

In a tangential kind of way, I think this same principle applies to sex jokes. I almost always wince when American comedians tell sex jokes. Said comedians are almost always aiming for result #1--make the audience wince or laugh with embarrassment. The jokes aren't even funny; they just make people laugh because the jokes are "daring."

In contrast, British comedies like Red Dwarf and Black Adder and Vicar are replete with earthy humor, but the humor is not used to embarrass the audience and rarely to embarrass the characters. Jokes about sex seemed to be used more for their useful metaphorical content than anything else. Consequently, I find them far less leering and salacious.

Or, as C.S. Lewis wrote in Screwtape Letters (see my post about C.S. Lewis' non-repressive nature), sexual humor gives rise to incongruities. There are people who tell sex jokes because they want to talk about sex (American comedians), and there are people who tell sex jokes because they want to use the incongruities (Monty Python and all those guys). So I have never seen any comedy with Ben Stiller, and likely never will, yet I think the beginning of Monty Python's Meaning of Life where the teacher gives an in-depth sexual education class to a bunch of TOTALLY BORED teenagers is absolutely hilarious and far less "dirty" (for lack of a better word).


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