Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Flirtation, mean jokes, and some observations on humor

I noticed something the other day. Flirting and mean jokes are very much alike.

In both cases, the talk is presented as playful. Tossed off lightly, as it were, intended to make people smile if not laugh. In each case, the talk is aimed at a borderline of discomfort. In the case of flirting, the borderline of discomfort is that of invasion, though the message of the talk is usually positive. In the case of mean jokes, the borderline of discomfort is that of insult, and the content is negative.

In both cases, the speaker who uses flirtation or mean jokes is protected by their status as "deniable" messages. If the person receiving the message feels invaded or insulted, the speaker can always say, "I was just kidding." What I've found in the case of mean jokes, though, is that people aren't usually joking. They're using the convenient deniability to protect themselves while delivering negative messages that they really mean.

Humor is difficult.

A lot of humor is based on borderlines of discomfort. These borderlines are culturally defined, which means that humor doesn't necessarily translate well.

I admit I laugh at "Wait, wait... Don't tell me." And Jon Stewart gives me quite the chuckles. The hardest I've ever laughed was at The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Monty Python - English humor. Some of the jokes, of course, went right by me. They didn't make me groan, but instead made me go, "Wha...?" The ones that got me, on the other hand - whoa! Monty Python's parrot sketch brought tears to my eyes.

I think a lot of humor is like that, because if humor didn't tread borderlines, it wouldn't be funny. My preference is for humor along the random/weird borderline, because if I don't get it, it just leaves me behind. I laugh at some types of uncomfortable/taboo borderline humor, but when I don't get it, I can hardly stand it. With Mr. Bean, for example, I have to leave the room after about five minutes - same with Mike Myers at his worst. Profanity generally leaves me cold, but it "fits" well with certain types of humorous content. Seinfeld was always firmly on the borderline of inanity/pet peeves, and I couldn't stand it.

But in English generally, even if I don't "get" the humor, at least I understand what it's trying to do. Humor in a foreign language is much tougher.

French humor was always a rewarding effort for me. I thought Asterix and Tintin comic books were hilarious - Tintin went more for the physical slapstick humor that was relatively familiar, while Asterix added a dimension of puns that is difficult to describe. I think puns in English are often considered to be low humor, though they are used constantly in the area of sports, and often in news headlines. The puns in Asterix were so thoroughgoing that you just had to love them. And the cultural borderlines they played with were somewhat familiar.

Japanese is harder. I've studied a heck of a lot of Japanese, lived there three years, watched a lot of Japanese television shows, and I have yet to get it completely. Some stuff I've figured out. The physical humor - I can understand the ridiculing/embarrassing/fooling/injuring people borderline to some extent. It was a little like America's most sadistic home videos. The humor satirizing extreme elements of Japanese culture, I could also get - like a sitcom-style show that depicted a number of families going to extreme measures as their children passed through rigorous testing to enter kindergarten. Or like Juzo Itami's The Funeral - a great movie - which satirized the societal expectations of behavior surrounding a funeral for a man whom everyone in the film disliked. But some of it, especially comedy-dialogue, left me totally bewildered.

So what about in writing stories?

Well, as I've told all my critique friends, I can't write humor. Not jokes, at least. So I don't try to go for ridiculous situations or funny twists or wild over-the-top comedy. On the other hand, I love to have my characters be funny just because of who they are. Like the gecko Allayo in "Let The Word Take Me" (Analog, July/August 2008), who because of her cultural background drew the utterly serious and sensible conclusion that the young Human man David Linden was possessed, simply because he talked so much.

When I started writing this post it made me wonder what an alien or fantasy society would look like if it were designed with its own particular brand of humor - or have humor take a different role, maybe a larger role, in society as a whole. I'm not sure if I've ever seen anyone do something like that - not having the entire story be a comedy, so much as having the people in it make humor an important and integral part of their lives. If any of you have encountered such a thing, do tell me where, because I'd love to see how it was done!


  1. Terry Pratchett might not be exactly what you're looking for, but I think you'd find his Discworld books worth reading if you haven't already read them. My personal favorites are the Death series and Going Postal (but the latter may not be so funny if you don't know how much of the wacky stuff in there actually happens).

    Personally, I'm more wry, and I like having characters who share my "keen sense of the obvious" (which is how one friend described my humor).

  2. I like the humor in the original Warlock series by Christopher Stacheff (sp?), and of course the Callahan series by Spider Robinson :). I grew up on Asterix and Obelix, though in English, and the over the top punning is just wonderful. TinTin had some of that, but yes, much more physical and cursing...in stray keys from the number line. My father's family is very into punning so much so that I'm an unintentional punster. The words just come out that way.

    However, in the past 5 years or so, I've had real trouble with the borderline issue...and my boys. There's a balance in trying to be funny and being mean that is something learned, not innate. Trying to make them situationally aware so they knew when crossing that border hurts or humors the other person was/is rough.

  3. I love Terry Pratchett, but haven't read Discworld. I should check it out. Thanks for commenting, Carradee.

    Thanks for the recommendations, Margaret! I'm glad someone shares Asterix and Obelix with me. I agree that finding the borderline of humor across contexts is a challenge. Thanks for your comment.

  4. I love when humor slips into high-stakes situations. It's so unexpected to find people cracking jokes in the face of certain death, but also oddly refreshing.

  5. This reminds me of the reactions of our Japanese exchange student to The Three Stooges (whom she had never seen before). She laughed so hard she almost cried at the falling-down slapstick physical humor =when it involved only one actor=, but was very uncomfortable with the schtoinking and bopping of one another.

  6. I love Monty Python and Mel Brooks style humor. Book-wise I laugh hysterically over the Callahan's Bar stories, when I'm not groaning in delight. Puns, jokes, and word-play galore, each night of the week featuring a different type of humor, so there was Punday Night, Tall Tales Night, a night devoted to riddles, and so on. Spider Robinson is crazy good.

    I'm not so good on being humorous myself. Anything funny I do or say is unintentional. I'm so straight-forward, I get double takes when I pop off something that could be taken in a strange way. I've learned to roll with it. Even when I'm mildly embarrassed by the mistaken meaning, the surprise on other people's faces makes me laugh. Too bad I can't ever remember exactly what I've said. It might make it easier to learn how to write it.

  7. I live in The House Of Guys:2teen sons & husband who all LOVE Monty Python, Mr.Bean, WillFerrell-MikeMyers, the 3Stooges ! Anything over the top, slapstick, bawdy, bathroom, mockery, disgusting. I have to leave the room when that stuff's on the telly (with the penguin).
    I love dry wit. Those puns, effective wordings, manipulations and twists on situations that make you think Wha--? When I miss them, they usually revisit me in the middle of the night, like that perfect comeback one can't produce in the moment. They make me laugh even then, then do a headslap. When I catch them, I feel superior to everyone, like I'm on a higher intellectual plane.
    Monty Python hits that mark frequently, but not the pottymouths.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Pamela. Sounds like an adventure with all of your boys! I appreciate dry wit as well, and generally steer clear of pottymouths and such...