I have been thinking about comedy and social acceptance. Laughter is not solely human. Chimps are known to laugh, so they must have some sense of comedy, though we might not consider all chimp humor to be funny.
In 1981, the movie Quest for Fire was released. It was based on a 1911 Belgian novel of the same name by J. H. Rosny, which was a look at an early, pre-language human tribe that had lost their fire in a rain storm. These early humans do not know how to make fire, but they depend on it, so they have to go on a quest to find a naturally occurring fire to gather an ember. In the movie, there is a moment when the director explores humor. One of the tribe is up in a tree, tossing pebbles onto the head of one of the other clan members, annoying him. This gives the thrower and a few others a sense of delight. Suddenly the thrower tosses a much larger rock. The throw is so firm that the victim’s head bleeds. However, the thrower and the rest of the clan burst into laughter at the event. Eventually the victim relents and laughs along with everyone else while he nurses his wound.
I would expect that this is chimpanzee humor, and unfortunately we carry that with us. YouTube makes it clear that we still laugh at people’s pain. In the early 1960’s, Dick Van Dyke, in the tv show named after him, played a comedy writer named Robert Petrie. In one episode Mr. Petrie considers writing a script on the growth of comedy, mentioning that slap shtick is an early form of comedy he hopes we have grown out of. As he performs the skit, he is befallen with little slap shtick accidents, visually disproving what he orally hopes to prove. Laurel and Hardy, and The Three Stooges will always be with us.
We believe that we have elevated ourselves in some way, that somehow modern comedy is more attuned and does not delight in the agony of others. But then consider The Big Bang Theory, the tv show not the cosmological event.
In The Big Bang Theory, we have Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper, roommates and co-workers at California Institute of Technology. Most consider Sheldon Cooper the main character. He certainly takes a center stage. However, I would contend that Leonard is the intended main character. For one, he is the most normal of the entire cast of characters, and therefore the most relatable. For another, the show’s title, The Big Bang Theory, isn’t about physics. It is about getting laid, the big bang, which Sheldon avoids at all costs. It is Leonard who is in a constant quest to hook up with Penny.
Regardless, Sheldon is often the cause or brunt of the joke. He is supposedly brilliant with a genius IQ, while he is devoid of normal common sense and socialization skills. To paraphrase Bernadette, ‘The part of his brain that makes him brilliant is giving the rest of his brain a wedgie.’
We all find it acceptable to laugh at Sheldon. If Sheldon really existed, he would be quickly diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Asperger Syndrome. It is interesting that it is acceptable to laugh at a person with diagnosable conditions. We wouldn’t laugh at a person in a wheel chair, but we laugh at Sheldon. The producer, Chuck Lorre, denies that the character has these conditions. But then consider Sheldon’s astrophysicist friend, Raj, who openly states that he has diagnosable conditions, such as Selective Mutism, an extreme form of Social Phobia. We all find it acceptable to laugh at the predicaments he gets into because of his psychological ailment.
Actually, Sheldon is a rehash of Adrian Monk, of the tv show, Monk. Monk is a brilliant detective, with OCD and other extreme phobias. Both Monk and Sheldon share OCD, a germ phobia, social anxiety disorders, and obsess over organization. The only real difference between Monk and Sheldon is that Monk is a likable guy that you have pity for. Monk regularly visits a psychiatrist, where we are often treated to giggle moments during meetings with his medical doctor. Sheldon, on the other hand, you want to like, but you are clearly aware that he would piss you off.
Sheldon, Raj, and Monk differ from Gilligan of Gilligan’s Island, or Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show. Both are totally inept, sharing none of the brilliant characteristics of Monk or Sheldon. Their only redeeming quality is the same as Monk’s. They are likeable guys. They both represent a more base humor. We laugh at Gilligan’s totally bungling character, rather than wishing to help him, while the Skipper whacks him on the head.
How is it that in the twenty-first century we find ourselves like the Quest for Fire clan laughing at the pain of someone being hit in the head, either physically or metaphorically? As we learn to be more accepting of race, sexuality, disability and other conditions, why is it still acceptable to laugh at Adrian, Sheldon, and Raj?
A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Why the long face?” A joke paints some sort of incongruity. It is incongruous to see a horse in a bar. It is incongruous for the bartender to treat it so casually. We are thrown a curve ball when the bartender’s question points at the natural design of the horse. George Carlin asked, “Are you going to California on a plane?” He answered, “No, I’m going IN a plane. You can go on one if you want to.” A simple, everyday event is met with an incongruous curve, creating unexpected results and unnatural imagery.
As an addendum, while I was working on this piece, Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report, ran into a comedic stereotyping snafu. A joke intended to point at the problems of stereotyping was taken out of context, giving rise to a racial complaint. It strikes me that laughing at people of a different race or nationality is not significantly different that this discussion about laughing at people’s pain, at least in some subset.
Generally racial stereotyping is a form of demagoguery where some larger, homogenous group picks out the differences of some other group. Often this is turned into humor of the chimpanzee brand. What may be a joke to the rock thrower may not be a joke to the person or people hit. Is there significant difference between Sheldon and Oriental racial humor, for example? Both are good at math, and neither can drive, or so the jokes go.
Do writers create brilliant people so they can burden them with incongruous errors, bringing their brilliance down to earth, giving us license to laugh at the characters despite the social norm of not laughing at the disabled or otherwise different? Is it okay to laugh at their problems because they are so superior in other ways? Is our laughter a release of tension as we fear the superior mind and are relieved to observe their human foibles? Have we really risen above chimpanzee humor, or do we simply like to see the mighty experience pain as they slip on a banana peel?