Mischief and pranks have an important place in human cultures. Locally, we have April 1st, a holiday dedicated to fools and mischief, as well as Halloween, in itself a sort of mischief night (which can border on destructive). Brian mentioned that April 1st in Britain has historically been an occasion for elaborate stories and japes, including by television and newspapers, though he thinks the prevalence of satire sites has diluted the effect of the day itself. In the early 1960's the BBC had a whole report on the spaghetti harvest (from spaghetti trees) in Italy. There was another one in the Guardian in 1977 about the fictional country of San Serriffe. The whole idea was to make it just plausible enough, while at the same time using a semicolon-shaped map, and engaging other print-related jokes.
Che asked if humor was universal. It probably is, but the shape it takes will depend on which culture it appears in. Humor may have arisen as a form of play. Play, we decided, is a great way for young creatures to learn adult skills in a safer environment where it's not literally life or death.
Humor often relies on playing right at the edge of established social rules or taboos. It can lead to discomfort and people will sometimes protect themselves from reprisal by saying "only kidding" and trying to classify their speech as attempted humor (whether or not it actually was!).
Fools and jesters have an important role in mental health. They reduce tension. They play with exploring uncomfortable ideas. A step away from stress is probably also good for physical health. People with chronic pain are often very humorous because they use humor to distract themselves or protect themselves.
There is always the question of who is allowed to tell a joke. My sense was to compare it to the concentric circles of the diagram of tragedy - the innermost circle, the most affected, can joke to others, and it's probably acceptable to joke "outwards" about uncomfortable topics, but not inward. The more common way to talk about it is to say it's not okay to "punch down."
Jesters were also allowed, more than anyone else, to mock the powerful. George II apparently banished his court jester.
We talked about the tradition of roasts, where the guest of honor gets mocked. That guest is still in a position of honor and power, however.
There is a lot of cultural capital and privilege invested in the use of humor.
When you are paid for being funny, there are extra rules... like, "Don't offend the people who are paying you." Humor always walks that fine line.
We discussed some of the historical records of jesters. The earliest names known in Europe generally come from the Renaissance. Henry II had a jester. Apparently in the 5th century, there were people who farted on command. Apparently there was a jester in China called Chin Huang Ti in 207 BCE. Though the stereotype of jesters is medieval European, this is not really true.
Humor gives a degree of safety. Flirtation is a form of humorous play allowing approach while defusing the serious aspects of sexual interest.
What is the lowest form of wit? Puns? Sarcasm? Potty humor? In babies, you see humor around their discoveries about their bodies. It also becomes a way to gain power relative to parents, to explore and seize power.
There is scatological humor, visual humor, slapstick humor, language humor. Non sequiturs can be really funny, as can lack of sense-making.
If you are using humor, consider who tells the joke.
What is the role of profanity? Is it just for shock value? Is it identity politics?
We spoke briefly about the humorous interviews on The Daily Show and why they were humorous. We also talked about how sarcasm is rare in Japan, and not used in the same contexts.
Thank you to everyone who participated. I'm so glad this report is finally out!
This week's hangout will be Wednesday, August 26th at 3pm Pacific and we'll be discussing Modesty. I hope you can join us!