As a funnies editor, I spend a lot of time thinking about humor.
What do I find funny this week? Will other people find it funny as well? Will my article cast some light on the human condition, exposing a peculiarity so truthful that the reader cannot help but to emit a chuckle of recognition? Or will I merely string together phrases such as “twangy banjos” and “dancing koalas” until I make myself giggle?
In general, I like humor. I like the way my body feels after I laugh. I like the feel of community that can be created by laughing at a shared experience. I like exposing uncomfortable truths with well-crafted satire. I like moments of absurdity that make our own incomprehensible lives seem logical in comparison. I like the mental image of dancing koalas.
But sometimes I feel that in our collective desire to be constantly entertained, we excuse some forms of humor that we ought to look at more critically. In the same way we have (and ignore) the food pyramid, I think that we ought to recognize that some types of humor are less healthy than others.
Here’s what I would put in my “Use Sparingly” box at the top of the funnies pyramid.
1. Humor that revolves around cruelty. To some, this may seem too obvious to mention. But watch an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos or Family Guy and make a pie graph of how much of the humor depends upon people getting emotionally or physically hurt. (Editor’s Note: Don’t actually do this. This is a terrible use of time.)
Some level of laughing at misfortune may be part of our nature. As the old song almost goes, “If watching people fall off trampolines is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” However, we should always be conscious of what exactly we are laughing at, before we lose our capacity for empathy. Extreme examples of cruelty-driven humor are – especially with the power of the internet – never far away. Without limiting daily intake of Schadenfreude, actual tragedies may begin to seem a bit like slipping on banana peel.
2. Humor that is a form of exclusion. This sort of humor is as bad as Chuckie Marie’s cake of rainbows. Get it? No, you don’t, and neither did 99 percent of the other students at my high school. Inside jokes are prime examples of humor as exclusion, a great way to alienate people who don’t have exactly the same history as the joke-teller.
This is especially important to keep in mind as Goshen College makes attempts to make its campus more diverse. It can be easy to assume that our audiences are more monolithic than they actually are. To give just one example, are we constantly telling Mennonite jokes, forgetting that Mennonite is just one of many backgrounds on campus and that not everyone will resonate with, say, potluck humor?
3. Humor that deflects responsibility. In an episode of one of my favorite TV shows, The Office, Ryan (the temp) laughs his way out of a request to help with the cleaning, explaining that he would exacerbate the situation if he tried. Even with a simple task like running a paper towel through a spill, he would “find a way” to make it worse. A joke, but one that led to him not contributing.
I have used humor in this way before. If I don’t go to a blood drive, it’s easier to say that I’m a recovering vampire than to apologize for my misplaced priorities. If I waffle on my vegetarianism, it’s easier to say I am eating a murderous cow who deserved death than to justify my laziness. If someone asks about my religious beliefs, it’s easier to say that I have met the god of Twizzlers than to explain the tangle of contradictions, doubts and debates that dominate my thinking.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. It’s fairly commonplace to use humor to deflect and distract, and this is not all bad. One of humor’s greatest functions is its ability to defuse tense situations.
Still, humor at its best reveals new truths and insights. If humor is used to avoid truthful discussions of real issues, it’s not good humor, and it’s not good for us.
These are three hard categories to avoid, and I certainly don’t always manage to steer clear of them. In my pursuit of humor, I’ve sometimes tipped a few cows that should have been left sacred.
But I urge you to think, without over thinking, about what exactly tickles your funny bone. Challenge others, including me, when you feel their jokes are making the universe just a little bit worse. Look for new types of humor, from new people and new places.
And be sure to have a good old laugh at a secret joke or dancing koala every once in a while – if that’s what you’re into.