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On not getting the joke

“Mock the Week tells me something about the British I would rather not know. It commands an audience of about three million. As I watched, it occurred to me that Britain may well have three million people who would happily go along with the mob if we ever had a government that incited violence against the vulnerable.”

Nick Cohen, who loathes the alleged “comedy” programme Mock The Week as much as I do. An interesting theme, that Cohen does not explore much after raising it, is how entertainment thugs such as Frank Boyle consider it now acceptable to be extremely unpleasant about the elderly, and why this might be. Now that so many groups of humans are considered politically off-limits for jokes, only the old are left, provided they are middle class and white. Cohen muses that this trend of being vile about the old might be a sort of pent-up frustration about the rising costs of paying for an elderly population. He may have a point. But Boyle should remember that he is going to be old one day. And by the time he is in his dotage, who will remember him?

Cohen evidently loathes Mr Boyle. I rather enjoyed this piece of invective:

“Boyle is the show’s strutting cock. A gaunt, aggressive, slit-eyed Scotsman with a neurotic determination to be heard first and always, he seems to have grasped that the critics will hail him as “edgy” if he courts the porn market.”

Dearie me. Oh for the days of Dave Allen, a real comedian who understood that making people laugh is not the same as drawing blood. Well, at least I now have Family Guy to look forward to later on. Right now, Britain does not produce many funny people, in my view, with the possible exception of the cast of The Fast Show. There is a seething sort of anger and thuggery too much in evidence. I struggle sometimes to wonder where it has all come from. Explanations?

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62 comments to On not getting the joke

  • lucklucky

    The first thing for humor is to be capable of laugh of himself. With current extreme narcisism/nihilism that is impossible.

  • Tom

    “Now that so many groups of humans are considered politically off-limits for jokes, only the old are left, provided they are middle class and white. ”

    We still have the French. And Canadians. And French Canadians.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9V7zbWNznbs

  • John Louis Swaine

    It’s far easier to be funny by being vicious – which is precisely why I can’t watch Mock the Week (nor Ian Hislop on HIGNFY).

    That said, Michael McIntyre is a breath of fresh air. A british comedian who doesn’t get laughs by simply ridiculing soft targets.

  • guy herbert

    Well, humour is a matter if taste. I like Mock the Week and think Frankie Boyle is the best thing about it, even better in that context than the always splendid Dara O’Briain (who chairs it).

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Well, there’s always that most British of Authors, Terry Pratchett, whose constant theme is the importance of simple decency. One of his books (“Guards! Guards!”, I think) has a cabal based on the power of petty small-mindedness which comes to a nicely sticky end.

    A culture that can produce a Pratchett – and a vast readership for him – isn’t a dead loss.

  • Pa Annoyed

    They do say that you should never try to analyse humour. However, I like to break the rules sometimes.

    Humour works by demonstrating incorrect assumptions or actions, especially socially embarrassing ones. (Laughter is basically a mechanism to signal to your social group that you have recognised and corrected the error.) If you don’t recognise the assumption, or you don’t think it’s incorrect, you won’t find it funny.

    The number of times I’ve seen someone say that some style of humour “isn’t funny”, as if it could be measured as an absolute objective property, and express shock at the people who find it so… especially when their problem stems from taking the joke or the attack literally.

    Mostly, jokes about subjects like the elderly are based on those annoyances or adverse reactions that many of us feel but suppress out of politeness and decency. The reason it’s funny is that the comedian is breaking the taboo to reveal our less civilised selves. Recognising that the truths we notice secretly are taboo and that to hold, let alone reveal them is a social error, reminds us of and reinforces the social restriction.

    If people were not inherently polite and decent, they wouldn’t find it funny – it has to break a rule, so you must have the rule to break.
    If you did it for real, (to their granny, say) they wouldn’t find it at all funny. But they can enjoy a temporary respite from the social restriction not to talk about it by making a joke of it.

    I usually have this whole argument when someone is proposing to ban some form of humour they don’t like. Or at least to punish the comedian for doing it.

    As a rule, professional comedians tell jokes about things that make people laugh – being genuinely unfunny is a bad career move and its own punishment. They all have their own market niches and ‘brands’, which suit different styles of humour, but somebody has to find it funny or they’ll get no business. Yes I’m sure Boyle remembers that he’s going to be old one day – but he’ll cheerfully tell “old” jokes and “men” jokes and “Scots” jokes all night, because people pay him to. That’s Capitalism.

  • “Gordo Brown? Macho? If Gordon Brown’s so macho, then why is the image that he projects that of an old woman’s cushion, left outside in the back garden for cats to piss on?”

    —Frankie Boyle on Mock The Week (definitely not attacking Brown in any way at all because Nick “ugly twat” Cohen says so).

    “Why on earth would anyone vote to replace Gordon Brown with David Miliband? It’s like replacing a copy of Reader’s Digest with an A to Z of Peterborough. You may as well elect a nest of tables.”

    Frankie Boyle on Mock The Week (definitely not attacking Brown (or Miliband) again).

    I like viciousness, frankly. I like Mock The Week and find Frankie Boyle very funny indeed. But then he is angry, like me. He also says the kind of things that I would like to say, such as…

    “There is a vegetarian option… You can fuck off.”

    —Frankie Boyle

    To say that none of the other comedians laugh at the others’ jokes (as Cohen says) is also a blatant lie. But then, I suspect that Nick Cohen doesn’t have a sense of humour because he’s a bloody Lefty.

    What I did find very funny was one of the comments left below Cohen’s pathetic article…

    NC: As I watched, it occurred to me that Britain may well have three million people who would happily go along with the mob if we ever had a government that incited violence against the vulnerable.

    Commenter: I recall Nick Cohen cheered on the bombing and invasion of Iraq, I call that inciting violence against the vulnerable. And it happened.

    Quite.

    Quite apart from anything else, that last paragraph by Cohen is ridiculous. What he is basically saying is that anyone who laughs at jokes about old people could, at any minute and with the slightest provocation, be hunting down and killing Jews.

    It’s a pathetic, evil, stupid thing to suggest and I am very surprised, Johnathan, that you would subscribe to such idiocy.

    DK

  • Laird

    “There is a vegetarian option… You can fuck off.”
    —Frankie Boyle

    Now that is funny!

  • Eric

    I don’t think it follows at all that because people find this type of humor appealing they’re likely to easily incited to “violence against the vulnerable”. That’s quite a leap.

  • manuel II paleologos

    I recall Nick Cohen cheered on the bombing and invasion of Iraq, I call that inciting violence against the vulnerable. And it happened.

    So Cohen supported the ousting of the Baathist regime therefore is now unable to criticise distasteful comedy? Erm…

  • I like lots of forms of comedy including Frankie Boyle.

    And I also second PersonFromPorlock.

    And basically entirely what DK said.

  • Old Man

    The explanation of this kind of ugliness is provided by Roger Scruton in Beauty and Desecration, City Journal, Spring 2009.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    DK, you may be surprised at my loathing of the verbal thuggery of Mr Boyle, but you clearly don’t know me all that well and have just assumed I share you taste in potty-mouth humour and taste for saying “fuck” or “cunt” in every other sentence. Take a gentle bit of advice from someone who admires much of what you do: it is not funny any more. Your blog is great on the issues but I get a bit bored by the relentless swearing. Not offended, but bored.

    Let me also correct a misunderstanding: while I am as capable as you or anyone else of using salty language to drive home a point – as I did in responding to a fundamentalist religious nutter the other day – I remember that vicious humour is only funny if you are not on the receiving end. You may laugh at a gag by Boyle, say, but would you be giggling if he directed his fire at the things you hold dear? I don’t think so.

  • Cleanthes

    “There is a seething sort of anger and thuggery too much in evidence.”

    Because people don’t find stuff funny if it mocks their profoundly held beliefs. Hence why the BBC is awash with trendy lefty comedians and the controller of R4 was quoted – in defence of that trendy lefty bias – as saying that that was simply because there “aren’t any funny right wing comedians”.

    She doesn’t find them funny because they are mocking her in a way that is far too close to the bone.

    Lefties know they’re rumbled, that everything they stand for has been shown to end in disaster, without fail. And they’re turning nasty as a result.

  • Millie Woods

    FYI Tom. Radio Canada the French branch of the national CBC network is in hot water because of a joke about a black ‘gar’ in the maison blanche. The English network has demanded that Radio Canada apologise and mea culpa forever but guess what – to date no takers. I’m with Radio Canada. Quebecois humour is a little like Jewish humour – maybe it’s a minority thing not readily understood by the majority.

  • Interesting, Millie.

    All this time, I thought the sum total of Canadian humor was shrieking that the US sucks. 😉

  • Johnathan,

    DK, you may be surprised at my loathing of the verbal thuggery of Mr Boyle, but you clearly don’t know me all that well and have just assumed I share you taste in potty-mouth humour and taste for saying “fuck” or “cunt” in every other sentence.

    No, I don’t.

    What I pulled you up on personally was your apparent support for the last paragraph of Cohen’s article in which…

    … he is basically saying is that anyone who laughs at jokes about old people could, at any minute and with the slightest provocation, be hunting down and killing Jews.

    You sense of humour is entirely your own affair (as is Master Cohen’s), but I was surprised that you could endorse the article without baulking at that final line.

    I take it that you agree with Cohen’s conclusion?

    Take a gentle bit of advice from someone who admires much of what you do: it is not funny any more. Your blog is great on the issues but I get a bit bored by the relentless swearing. Not offended, but bored.

    I can understand that. Reviewing a collection of posts from the last few years, I was bored myself. You may have noticed that there has been a not inconsiderable falling off in the frequency of the swearing as well the viciousness of the personal attacks.

    I fully expect that trend to continue—at least, in any posts in which I am trying to make a point, rather than relieve my feelings.

    Let me also correct a misunderstanding: while I am as capable as you or anyone else of using salty language to drive home a point – as I did in responding to a fundamentalist religious nutter the other day – I remember that vicious humour is only funny if you are not on the receiving end. You may laugh at a gag by Boyle, say, but would you be giggling if he directed his fire at the things you hold dear? I don’t think so.

    I will refer you to your earlier sentence: “you clearly don’t know me all that well.” I can and frequently do laugh at vicious humour aimed—not least by Frankie Boyle—at things I hold dear. I went to a all-boys boarding school: one learns to do so.

    DK

  • I don’t mind Frankie Boyle, his humour is crass and doesn’t appeal to one’s best instincts but some of the lines are very funny and his delivery is excellent.

    If I was attacking ‘Mock The Week’ then the painfully unfunny duo of Andy Parsons and Russell Howard would be the prime target. Watching Parsons tell a joke is like watching a blind man do a 3 point turn, you can see immediately what’s about to unfold in very slow motion a minute or so before it happens.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    DK, I am not aware that Cohen said anything about a mob mentality being directed against the Jews. I re-read his article, and and that is not in there.

    He’s talking – as ought to be fairly obvious – about what he feels is the ugliness of Mr Boyle’s turn of phrase, of what it says about his attitude towards anyone who he reckons is “past-it”, etc. Maybe Mr Cohen is getting a bit overheated over nothing – after all, Boyle is a pimple on the backside of our national life – but it is fair for him to note the extent to which this sort of abuse is now mainstream.

    In the past, the Boyle’s of this world (what an apt surname!) used to do their stuff in late-night comedy shows. The folk knew what they were getting. Now it is on mid-evening TV, bought and paid for by the licence fee (a fact that as a fellow libertarian, you obviously dislike as much as I do). Now if Boyle wants to talk about masturbating while watching fellow female guests on his show or whatever other witticisms come into his skull, I would at least be grateful for not having to pay for it.

  • RAB

    Sigh
    Sometimes I think people take comedy far too seriously.

  • John W

    This is a rather interesting topic – I am very much enjoying the arguments from all sides.

    This comment by DK is especially intriguing “I can and frequently do laugh at vicious humour aimed—not least by Frankie Boyle—at things I hold dear. I went to a all-boys boarding school: one learns to do so.”

    The connection between politics and humour is fascinating – consider the satirists and clowns of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Court Jesters, the vicious mockery of The Enlightenment, the Samizdat and underground publications and the banning of words like erm… [omitted]…and airplane [because, behind the Iron Curtain, the word suggested the possibility of escape!!] Milan Kundera’s “The Joke” etc. etc..

    A fascinating subject.

  • Richard Garner

    I change over when Mock the Week comes on. It just pales compared to Have I Got News for You or QI.

  • John W

    I do take humour very seriously. In my teens I saw some old movie footage of Chinese landowners being mocked by socialists prior to the landowners’ public execution [tied to a pole and carved alive, literally] and Joseph Goebbels [a doctor of philosophy] was an acknowledged master of sarcasm.

    Here are 2 quotes by Ayn Rand on humour-

    “Humor is the denial of metaphysical importance to that which you laugh at. The classic example: you see a very snooty, very well dressed dowager walking down the street, and then she slips on a banana peel . . . . What’s funny about it? It’s the contrast of the woman’s pretensions to reality. She acted very grand, but reality undercut it with a plain banana peel. That’s the denial of the metaphysical validity or importance of the pretensions of that woman. Therefore, humor is a destructive element—which is quite all right, but its value and its morality depend on what it is that you are laughing at. If what you are laughing at is the evil in the world (provided that you take it seriously, but occasionally you permit yourself to laugh at it), that’s fine. [To] laugh at that which is good, at heroes, at values, and above all at yourself [is] monstrous . . . . The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.” -Ayn Rand during question period following: Leonard Peikoff, “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series (1976), Lecture 11.

    “Humor is not an unconditional virtue; its moral character depends on its object. To laugh at the contemptible, is a virtue; to laugh at the good, is a hideous vice. Too often, humor is used as the camouflage of moral cowardice. ” -from “Bootleg Romanticism,” The Romantic Manifesto, 133.

    My comments [above] should not be taken as criticism of any of the previous comments on this blog topic.

    This is merely a topic which particularly intrigues me.

  • RAB

    I think it was Ken Dodd who said…

    Freud wrote a book analizing comedy, oh yes!
    But what the hell did he know!?

    He never played the Glasgow Empire on a saturday matinee did he!

  • Pa Annoyed

    John W,

    Interesting quote. But I don’t think it’s right.

    “Humor is the denial of metaphysical importance to that which you laugh at. The classic example: you see a very snooty, very well dressed dowager walking down the street, and then she slips on a banana peel . . . . What’s funny about it?”

    Humour originates in a mechanism for the correction of errors in behaviour, attitude, or understanding that could lead to the violation of social rules. If the error is to assign metaphysical importance to something that has none, then revealing the error could be funny; but the error here it might be as simple as not looking where you are going, especially when you are trying hard to give the impression of superiority and competence. Or perhaps the converse in this case.

    Humour can be used to reinforce or break down social rules, depending on whether the error being corrected is their observance or their violation. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on the rule – but one thing it is most unwise to do is to try to take it too seriously. The idea that it can be “monstrous”, or “The worst evil that you can do” is just silly. The only thing that you couldn’t make jokes about would be something that never made mistakes. And if you think that you or your heroes never make mistakes, … well, on those grounds alone you’d make a perfect target for humour.

    Different people have different senses of humour, because they operate by different social rules, and make different assumptions related to them. I’m rarely bothered by it (and I’d count it as free speech even if I were) but what people find funny, and more particularly what they don’t, can be very revealing.

    Q. How many Libertarians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
    A. None. The Market will take care of it.

  • John W

    RAB said “….He never played the Glasgow Empire on a saturday matinee did he!”

    Classic!

    Pa Annoyed said “Interesting quote. But I don’t think it’s right….Humour originates in a mechanism for the correction of errors in behaviour, attitude, or understanding that could lead to the violation of social rules.”

    A sort ‘social convention enforcer?’

    I dunno – I’ve never found holocaust jokes funny.

    I suspect the concepts logic and expectation form part of the definition but I’m open to any other offers.

    This is a good thread!

  • Johnathan,

    DK, I am not aware that Cohen said anything about a mob mentality being directed against the Jews. I re-read his article, and and that is not in there.

    Could you explain to me then what this final paragraph in Nick Cohen’s article—requoted below, for your convenience—actually means?

    As I watched, it occurred to me that Britain may well have three million people who would happily go along with the mob if we ever had a government that incited violence against the vulnerable.

    OK, I cited the Jews as an example of “the vulnerable” because the immediate picture that came into my head was a sort of Nazi mob chasing down the street, but I guess that you could use other “vulnerable” types—such as the elderly (a demographic group that seems to be a favourite of Master Cohen’s throughout the article).

    DK

  • Ayn Rand:

    The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself

    That figures.

  • John W

    Alisa said Ayn Rand: The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That figures.

    Actually, in that context I agree with Rand that it would indeed be evil and monstrous.

    Ayn Rand is discussing the issue of humour as it relates to metaphysical validity, in this instance the metaphysical validity of the self.

    That would be a totally different issue to laughing at oneself because of some inconsequential error or in the light of some minor epistemological blunder of little or no metaphysical importance.

    This is what I find intriguing about both sides of the argument because I think they may emerge from different aspects of the same principle.

  • Laird

    I don’t know about “metaphysical validity”, but I do know that I don’t trust anyone who can’t laugh at himself.

    Whatever her other virtues (and I think they were many), Ayn Rand had absolutely no sense of humor. Frankly, I don’t assign any weight to her thoughts on the matter.

  • Leaving AR aside, an inability to laugh at oneself suggests an inability to see the world from an objective POV – not a good quality in a philosopher, let alone a mere human being.

  • Going back to AR for a moment Laird, I don’t know how much you know of her outside of her philosophizing: I wonder if she did have a sense of humor in here everyday life, apart from her books, interviews etc – or not. Either way it would be very telling.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Could you explain to me then what this final paragraph in Nick Cohen’s article—requoted below, for your convenience—actually means?

    I think he means that the sort of people who laugh with Boyle’s form of “humour” are, in his view, of the sort who might, under certain conditions, support what he sees as unpleasant political/other mass movements of one sort of another. He may be mistaken. Let’s hope so.

  • Phil Mill

    You need to take a break and possibly even get a life. I just listened to Frankie Boyle’s podcast. He jokes about Baby P being poorly-named, and wonders whether Mr T as a “wee boy” was abused on an aeroplane. He then mentions Dara O’Briain has lost 3 stone for the Irish version of I’m a Celebrity…”set in the Irish potato famine”.

    And on it goes. Outrageous, shameless, nasty and designed to cause possible offence to pretty much every single topic and minority imaginable i.e. not just old people.

    Personally I find Frankie Boyle utterly hilarious and, since we’re in a serious discussion, for me his rudeness is a celebration of political incorrectness and therefore freedom of speech. Use it or lose it and the likes of Jim Davidson and Frankie Boyle use it. I don’t care if people don’t them funny. They make at least some people laugh and they serve an important function in the open society.

    You humourless bores who are exercised about Frankie Boyle need to stop hearing what you expect/fear/loathe.

    And one other thing. Comedy is a function of tragedy so it is almost impossible to funny without cruelty being done to, or cruel observation being made about someone. Even that lovely gent Ronnie Barker said comedy had to be cruel.

  • Phil Mill

    Jonathan wrote: “the sort of people who laugh with Boyle’s form of “humour” are, in his view, of the sort who might, under certain conditions, support what he sees as unpleasant political/other mass movements of one sort of another. He may be mistaken. Let’s hope so.”

    Of course he’s mistaken. People who mock and laugh at themselves or at others aren’t to be feared. Humour is inimical to authority. The ones to watch out for are the ones who take themselves seriously and frown on certain kinds of jokes.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Phil, I am not humourless, as you should realise from the stuff we put on the site from time to time. Nor do I need to be told by to “get a life” because I happen to find a particular form of humour revolting, disgusting, etc.

    And in case anyone brings up the hoary old line about my decrying freedom of speech, of course, with such freedom, a lot of what is said will be necessarily crap. But my freedom of speech also means I can call such stuff for the crap it is.

  • Phil:

    Comedy is a function of tragedy so it is almost impossible to funny without cruelty being done to, or cruel observation being made about someone. Even that lovely gent Ronnie Barker said comedy had to be cruel.

    It may apply to you or Ronnie Barker, it doesn’t mean that this is what humor is about to other people. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to be preachy, and not being a Brit, I have no idea who the people discussed here are anyway. I’m just saying that your definition of humor is by far not universal. I also disagree with Pa’s definition for the similar reason of it being way too narrow.

  • Phil Mill

    Alisa, the definition I gave is about as universal as it gets. It derives from Greek tragedies via Shakespeare and literally any example of comedy I have ever encountered. I challenge you to find me an instance of comedy that is devoid of tragedy.

  • Phil, unless it is the academic definition of comedy you have in mind (which is not what this thread is about), then: Charlie Sheen frying eggs on top of Valeria Golino’s abdomen.

  • Phil Mill

    “But my freedom of speech also means I can call such stuff for the crap it is.”

    True, but you seemed to be agreeing with Cohen (since you quoted him) when he suggested that people who watch Mock the Week “would happily go along with the mob if we ever had a government that incited violence against the vulnerable”. Cohen’s problem with Mock the Week is not that it is “crap” but that it engenders and appeals to people who enjoy viciousness and nihilism.

    If we accept Cohen’s argument we have good grounds for censorship.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Cohen’s problem with Mock the Week is not that it is “crap” but that it engenders and appeals to people who enjoy viciousness and nihilism.If we accept Cohen’s argument we have good grounds for censorship.

    We no grounds, no matter how vicious or nihilistic it is, since obviously, the “viciousness” of humour is a matter of opinion (as this thread demonstrates).

    I quoted the piece I did not because I agree with everything that Cohen said about the show, but because I understood his worry about where such sentiments sprang from and what they might portend. That’s all. I sometimes quote people whom I don’t necessarily endorse 100%.

    I get a bit concerned when some libertarians, in their understandable desire to protect free speech, as DK and others have done, get upset if anyone like me has a go at material for being vicious, crude or whatever.

    It is perfectly possible for a person to defend free speech in a hardline way, as I do, and yet at the same time to state how so much of what exists in our culture is repulsive. Which it is.

  • Phil Mill

    Alisa, I haven’t seen the movie but according to one review it is a “parody film that ridicules Top Gun, Rocky, and even Dances with Wolves”. My guess is that the egg-frying gag takes the portrayal of “hot” women in action movies to a ludicrous extreme (she’s so hot the egg will fry on her stomach). The film makes action movies look tragically deluded, shallow, self-satisfied and implausible.

  • Phil Mill

    Jonathan, the point I am trying to make about comedy is that there is a time and place for laughing at things. In the courts of law, places of worship or in formal business meetings humour is rightly controlled because otherwise real injustice, injury or folly could be perpetrated as a result of suggestions made in jest. Seriousness is seriously important.

    But so is comedy. And the time and place for comedy is on shows like Mock the Week which are clearly labelled: NOT SERIOUS. The problem with Mock the Week is that it’s on telly, so it’s subject to all the dull constraints and mores of the ruling liberal elite who run television. That’s why Frankie Boyle’s podcast is so much funnier.

    Comedy is seriously important because it allows our imaginations to play with ideas and consider outrageous, disgusting, cruel, absurd possibilities that would be wrong to consider in serious situations.

    Even if you don’t advocate sending in the brown shirts, you’re already at the top of a slippery slope when you allow yourself to take the words of comedians seriously. The only exception I have to this rule is when comedians themselves attempt to get across serious messages at which point I generally find them unfunny. The crime in this case is that they are not funny, even if the cause is their ill-advised efforts to change my mind on something serious when I am relaxing to enjoy their wit and funny ideas. Russell Howard on Mock the Week is a prize example of this kind of bore, a foolish ignorant intellectual minnow whose political views are as predictable as they as are shallow. He occasionally does make me laugh, but for the most part he is not worth listening to.

    In a nutshell, I think comedy is so important for the brain and for one’s ability to see folly in yourself and those around you — and therefore interact rationally with other human beings — that absolutely any genuine attempt to make people laugh should not merely be tolerated but applauded and encouraged, no matter how racist, ageist, homophobic etc.

  • Cohen’s problem with Mock the Week is not that it is “crap” but that it engenders and appeals to people who enjoy viciousness and nihilism. If we accept Cohen’s argument we have good grounds for censorship.

    That does not follow. It must not be the state’s business deciding what people can enjoy and simply enjoying viciousness and nihilism is not a criminisable offence unless you support the notion of classifying it as a thoughtcrime.

  • Phil, you haven’t missed all that much, except for a few good gags like that one – it’s a Naked Gun type of thing.

    The film makes action movies look tragically deluded, shallow, self-satisfied and implausible.

    OK, I see the tragedy now:-P

  • Phil Mill

    OK, I see the tragedy now:-P

    I think you are mocking my efforts to shoehorn the word “tragically” into an explanation about a movie I’ve never seen, in a desperate attempt to justify my spurious oversimplified theory about all comedy ever…..keep up the good work – I approve of course 🙂

  • Laird

    Phil, I agree with most of your points except this one: “In the courts of law, places of worship or in formal business meetings humour is rightly controlled . . .” You obviously haven’t spent much time in courts or business meetings; humor is a regular visitor to those environs. Indeed, I would posit that the more “serious” the event the more humor is necessary to break the tension. Have you never heard laughter at a eulogy?

    And as to places of worship, I can think of no place where humor is more needed, or more appropriate. Nothing on this planet is more deserving of a healthy dose of ridicule than organized religion.

  • Midwesterner

    There is a sub-type of humor that I think of as the ‘just kidding’ or ‘it’s a joke!’ sort of humor. This humor is the way people test the water for people who share some particular opinion or value of theirs.

    One example of this is ethnic humor. I have observed persons tell a joke that was met with disgust instead of laughter who would follow up with ‘It’s a joke!’ and yet I find out after knowing them long enough that the joke expressed their personal values. It is not always the case but it is often enough that I try to personally avoid telling any ‘jokes’ that would reflect badly on me if taken literally.

    I knew a Muslim who would tell Christian themed jokes but would never think of telling a Muslim themed joke. That is not humor, that is warfare.

    Something of interest to me in the field of humor is the show Hogan’s Heroes. It pretty much followed Ayn Rand’s humor as a weapon definition. I only learned a few years ago that Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink) left Nazi Germany with his parents in 1935. John Banner (Sergeant Schultz) spent time in a camp and got out before the industrial genocide began. Leon Askin (General Burkhalter) also spent time in a camp and while serving in the US military found out that his parents had been murdered in Treblinka. Robert Clary (Corporal Louis LeBeau, the Frenchman) is the most powerful case. He was one of 14 children in a large family. He and 12 members of his family were sent to Buchenwald. He was the only one who survived.

    Sometimes humor is very serious.

  • Rob

    “Mock the Week” is detestable. ‘Satire’, my arse. It’s a bunch of pissed blokes yelling shite with an audience of baboons lapping it up. The worst bit? Each one of us is robbed to pay for it!

  • John W

    How I miss The Mary Tyler Moore Show – now that was uplifting comedy.

    Here is an [audio] example of Ayn Rand’s humour from Philosophy Who Needs It? (Link) delivered at West Point 1974.

    You might claim-as most people do–that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? “Don’t be so sure–nobody can be certain of anything.” You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: “This may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. You got that from Plato. Or: “That was a rotten thing to do, but it’s only human, nobody is perfect in this world.” You got that from Augustine. Or: “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” You got it from William James. Or: “I couldn’t help it! Nobody can help anything he does.” You got it from Hegel. Or: “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s evil, because it’s selfish.” You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: “Act first, think afterward”? They got it from John Dewey.

    Some people might answer: “Sure, I’ve said those things at different times, but I don’t have to believe that stuff all of the time. It may have been true yesterday, but it’s not true today.” They got it from Hegel. They might say: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” They got it from a very little mind, Emerson. They might say: “But can’t one compromise and borrow different ideas from different philosophies according to the expediency of the moment?” They got it from Richard Nixon–who got it from William James.

    Now ask yourself: if you are not interested in abstract ideas, why do you (and all men) feel compelled to use them?

  • They didn’t borrow any of it from anyone, John. All they did was to think the same more or less obvious things other people before them thought, and which some of them were pretentious enough to put in writing. At least Rand made an effort to write fiction.

  • Largo

    Since Rand has been brought up.

    What had she say about wit and wordplay? The remembrance of Safire’s line “It’s not the teat; its the tumidity” never fails to bring me delight.

    Did Rand consider such to be in a category wholly distinct from humor? Because I don’t see anything metaphysical pretense being skewered here.

  • Phil Mill

    Laird, actually I have plenty of experience of business and enough experience of the law to know of which I speak.

    You are right that humour often surfaces but the point is that the humour is controlled. The most senior person at the meeting will tolerate a certain amount of appropriate, ideally relevant, humour according to his or her personal taste and judgement, and in the court so will the judge. But if you keep quipping and punning, still more if you joke about screwing up the order in front of one the biggest potential customers or joke about the defendant in a way that will prejudice the case you will soon be slapped into place. Humour is an advantage in business and in the law, but there are plenty of successful humourless business execs and lawyers. By contrast there are vanishingly few successful business execs or lawyers who don’t know when it’s time to quit being funny.

  • John W

    Largo asked ‘Did Rand consider such to be in a category wholly distinct from humor? Because I don’t see anything metaphysical pretense being skewered here.’

    It is metaphysical because the pun relies on the metaphysical difference between heat and teat, and humidity and tumidity.
    Not all comedy relies on ‘metaphysical pretense’ – the pretense issue was only specific to the example she quoted.
    But she makes clear that laughter at bad and evil things is OK – similarly, epistemological blunders and insignificant breaches of customs and conventions. Even laughter at one’s own errors would be perfectly moral.
    But to sneer at one’s own being, one’s very existence, the vicious unrelenting mockery of anything and everything would be problematical.

  • John W

    Johnathan asked ‘I struggle sometimes to wonder where it has all come from. Explanations?’

    I blame Kant’s Copernican revolution and his view of mankind ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.’

    Original sin in its bleakest interpretation reborn.

    This is worse than an attack on the Enlightenment – it marks the onslaught of a counter-reformation.

  • Laird

    If that’s the best illustration of Ayn Rand’s (alleged) humor you can find, then I rest my case. Would you be so good as to point out what part of that was supposed to be funny?

  • Laird: ultimately humor is like beauty, in the eyes of the beholder:-)

  • John W

    Laird asked, without a trace of irony ‘If that’s the best illustration of Ayn Rand’s (alleged) humor you can find, then I rest my case. Would you be so good as to point out what part of that was supposed to be funny?’

    Well, in the lecture to the graduating class of West Point that I linked to above, the laughter begins with the pun at 5.34 but it really kicks off with the quotation(Link) at 14.48 through to 17.10 [and 26.45, 29.00, 30.00, etc., etc..]

    The Q & A is classic Ayn Rand, especially the way she deals with one of the ‘casualties’ at 24.10.

    Perhaps a certain level of intelligence and education is required if you are to fully appreciate the elegance and sophistication of Rand’s humour.

    There’s a reason for that – as she says in the lecture ‘garbage in, garbage out.’

  • Laird

    You’re right: no trace of irony whatsoever. Maybe there was something in her mannerisms, but there is absolutely nothing amusing which comes through in your transcript.

    I asked you to point out the funny bits in that transcript, and you reply by telling me to listen to a 41 minute poor-quality audio tape (plus an additional 27 minutes of Q&A) so I can ferret out the gems for myself. Thanks, but no thanks. However, I did listen to the section you quoted above. For the most part I can’t figure out what they were laughing at (in the few spots where there was some laughter). It clearly wasn’t her deadpan, humorless delivery. A topical reference to Richard Nixon (who was in office at the time) gets a polite laugh? Wow. “You got that from Plato.” That knee-slapper got a polite chuckle from a few people (although heaven knows why). The only line even close to being actually funny was the reference to Emerson having “a very little mind”, which I will concede was amusing in conjunction with the quotation (but wouldn’t have been standing on its own). There’s no “elegance and sophistication” on display here. Drone on for 41 minutes and any audience will find something to laugh at, if only to relieve the tedium.

    I’m not saying that she didn’t have anything intelligent to say, I’m saying that what she said was essentially devoid of humor. So I’m back where I started: if this is the best you can do for an example of Ayn Rand’s alleged humor, then I rest my case.

  • Largo

    John W:

    Logic and expectation. In a word, perhaps, incongruity?

    The Onion is a master of this — the incongruity of the tone with the subject reported.

    Even in “non-humorous” situations. The discovery of the unexpected in mathematics. The ‘hmmm’ that results. Sometimes truncated to a ‘ha!’ with a brief aspiration, and contraction of facial muscles to a smile. Insight into the world — even (or perhaps especially) in logic and mathematics — is often expressed bodily with a chuckle.

    You’re right, this is a good thread!

  • John W

    @ Largo – one of my comments, which included a reference to Court Jesters and the Ancients, is being held by spambot – I ain’t writing it again.

    Zoologists allege that primates and other animals are also capable of appreciating physical humour. Babies show a similar capacity but there needs to be an element of comprehension that the incongruity is non-threatening otherwise they become startled and anxious.

    Is humour an instinctive trait?

    Ayn Rand defined an instinct as an automatic and unerring form of knowledge [and knowledge as a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation.]

    Humour seems to fit the bill as something that relies upon implicit knowledge which brings us back to metaphysics and the topic of Johnathan’s post.

    One of Ayn Rand’s most intriguing essays is “Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?” from The Objectivist Newsletter.

    I cannot summarize the whole essay in a few sentences but there is some comfort to be found in the following:

    The concept of objectivity contains the reason why the question “Who decides what is right or wrong?” is wrong. Nobody “decides.” Nature does not decide—it merely is; man does not decide, in issues of knowledge, he merely observes that which is. When it comes to applying his knowledge, man decides what he chooses to do, according to what he has learned, remembering that the basic principle of rational action in all aspects of human existence, is: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” This means that man does not create reality and can achieve his values only by making his decisions consonant with the facts of reality.

    In other words, the humour of Devil’s Kitchen is innocuous because it targets the Enemy Class.

    Left wing humour on the other hand comes at a price and that price has to be paid for either politically socially, or psychologically.

    Reality is a tough crowd.

  • John W

    @ Laird had you listened to the recording you would realize that several thousand people did find Ayn Rand both a humorous and captivating speaker. Hence the prolonged standing ovation.

    I rest my case too.