More Prattle about Jokes and What’s Funny

I’ve been thinking a lot about this xkcd comic:

Short version: sex tarp is so much funnier than sex dungeon or (for God’s sake) sex party because it’s something we’ve never heard before. That is: either universally or for a certain portion of the comedy audience, laughter comes as the result of invention and novelty.

Long version: that’s not the whole story. I mean “sex sandbox” or “sex atrium” are equally unheard of and novel. But they’re also inaccurate, in that no one wants to have sex in a sandbox and there’s nothing even remotely sex-related about an atrium. Also, this is a sketchiness continuum, so neither of these has an adequate amount of unease. A tarp however, is so perfectly situated at the intersection of wetness-concepts and filth-concepts that it is precisely sketchy.

So we laugh at the accuracy.

So good comedy is about telling sudden truths succinctly.

Still not entirely satisfied. It’s not so much that “sex party” or “dungeon” is uninspired and inaccurate (perfectly normal and unsketchy people host sex parties, I imagine, plus they’re social events, whereas nobody else’ll be joining you two on that sick tarp), it’s I want to argue unintelligent, too. This is where talking about comedy gets dangerous and borders on snobbery and elitism.[1] Because I can envision a certain probable dialogue between two people:

A: How was your date last night?
B: Ugh. He said he wanted to take me back to his sex dungeon.
A: Wow, really?
B: He was the sketchiest guy ever.
A: Well….
B: What? He was.
A: I guess. But he could have offered to take you back to his sex tarp.
B: …
A: !!!
B: What?

“Sex tarp” (et al.) is a punchline that betrays its own weariness with everything that’s come before it. As a punchline it shows evidence of an act of striving. Maybe this has nothing to do with intelligence and is just bringing us back to novelty. But in the same way that, for jokes to be funny, punchlines need to catch us by surprise (hence Stop me if you’ve heard this one), things that want to be funny have to be smarter than we are.

So we laugh when we’re innocuously outsmarted? I don’t know what it means for a joke to be smarter than a person. But if I believe (as I do, see the footnote) that one thing can’t be funnier than another thing, then that I can’t believe I believe such a thing (I mean it feels wrong on every level) means that I believe one person can be smarter than another person.[2] Thus, the same joke can be smarter than one audience member (who finds it funny) and not smarter than another audience member (who doesn’t).

Is this madness? One thing I know about myself is that I’m a sucker for things that make me feel smart. I’ve written repeatedly (and very recently) about how comedy operates outside intellect, so everything about the above feels inaccurate, if not outright wrong. Anybody willing to put in their 2 cents in the comments will be, collectively, my best friend. At issue: is it universally true that funny jokes are smarter than we are, or is this some personal comedy taste on my part?

UPDATE: Okay here’s a clearer example. This here is some of the worst bylined writing I’ve found online. Sorry Mr. Schlossman, but you’re not good at what you do. And while I can see you being humorous you’re not at all funny. And yet there’s Cory, moved and delighted enough by the piece to comment: “You’re hilarious!” Why don’t I find any of it funny?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. And also irrelevant, because any earned laugh makes a thing funny, and I’m not sure I’m there quite yet, but I think “funny” is like “unique” in that either a thing has that quality or does not have it. If my aim is to get at what’s funny and why, it’s no good pointing out that one person or one joke is funnier than another, which means I need to revise my claim above. It’s not that “sex tarp” is funnier than “sex party”, it’s that it’s funny, and that “sex party” is not. And so my whole larger point with this footnote is that to get snobbish about comedy is a futile exercise, because once somebody laughs at what you can’t, your arguments about its humorlessness become wrong.
  2. I want it to be clear I’m trying to talk only about a kind of comedy intellect. Humor smarts. Not anything IQ-based or other such silliness.

2 thoughts on “More Prattle about Jokes and What’s Funny”

  1. i’m no scientist, but i think what you’re saying here is mostly on point. there are some forms of comedy that benefit or suffer from the archie bunker effect, i.e. someone stupid watching totally agrees with archie and laughs at pratfalls and obvious humor. the simpsons – some folks laugh at homer saying “hmm beer” and falling down, some laugh at jasper johns stealing a painting off the wall – and howard stern – some people enjoy the strippers and think howard is a racist/homophobe, some get the satire – being the best examples i can think of off the cuff.

    i also think what you’re asserting is one of the main reasons “arrested development” failed. on the surface it’s a sitcom about a wacky family. but it’s actually very smart and requires you to pay attention, negating the average sitcom viewers expectations and willingness to invest.

    obviously these examples don’t hold true to stand up. for me stand up skews either dumb or smart. on one end of the spectrum you’ve got a larry the cable guy type and on the other a, i dunno, a louie? not saying that i’ve never laughed at a larry the cable guy joke, i’m sure i have, but it’s not the kind of comedy i identify as “good” because it’s so obvious and requires little to no engagement on my part.

    maybe it’s because stand up is based so much on language? maybe it’s like reading a book; you need to be able to create and understand the joke in your own head to find it funny. i think this really holds true when you take into account “visual” stand ups. the most obvious examples of this being a gallagher or carrot top. there are reasons they’re constantly the go to when talking about bottom of the barrel stand up?

    i do think you are totally wrong about that piece about underwear. that guy is a genius. c’mon, he bought a space jam dvd and the underwear feel like elves blowing on you. genius.

  2. Louis CK’s a fairly broad comic. His talents are frankness and honesty, with some admittedly smart and inventive turns of phrase. But it’s that the stuff of his comedy, or his frankness and honesty, is about a certain acquired level of experience. His more recent famous bits—hilarious, everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy, suck a bag of dicks—are spoken from a person who’s out in the world and paying lots of attention. And it’s an urban world, mostly. Larry the Cable Guy does similar forms of truth-telling, but it’s a much more rural/suburban world he tells the truth about, and these truths are truths we’ve often seen before on TV and movies. The form/language is Larry’s, but the stuff of it is … old.

    So it’s not so much smarts as it is experience?

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