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Playful Seriousness: the Power of Humour to Communicate Weighty Issues

Updated on April 24, 2019

Serious Comedy

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The Sincerity of Humour: New Methods of Communicating Serious Issues

“Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh” – George Bernard Shaw

There are many different ways to package enlightenment, and a myriad of different methods by which it may be sent and received. Some prefer their insight enshrined in solemn ritual, others esteem empirical utilitarianism, while still others would have it wrapped with the delicacy of artistic imagination. Whether religious, scientific, or cultural, so-called truths are what humans use to construct their personal identities and make meaningful connections in space and time. This process of transforming experience not merely into belief, but into knowledge, is central to this essay’s broad understanding of what is meant by taking something seriously. Stand-up comics act as mediums through which this transition may occur, and thus inhabit a powerful liminal space somewhere between legislature and polis, philosophy and art, or even dream and reality. It would seem important then to examine the comic filter and chart how the messages which pass through it are manipulated and reproduced by the humourist. Following this, some observations on public reception and reaction to these messages should provide a good insight into the efficacy of the comic framework in rebuilding knowledge systems. Firstly though, a brief detour through the evolution of wit as a rhetorical device in Western thought will be required to establish it as a meaningful object for our discussion.

In charting the etymology of eutrapelia, Pat Arneson reveals a critical moment in the history of humour where Christian dualism separates seriousness and wit. Aristotle’s understanding of eutrapelia as a ‘happy and gracious flexibility’ (Arneson 49) is superseded in the New Testament by St. Paul’s sense of it as ‘foolish talking’ (52). What is reflected here is ‘the prevailing attitude of the day…that…humour and the sacred must remain separated, because such an association suggested religious insincerity’ (52), an attitude which endured in academia’s persistent rejection of comedy as a form meriting earnest consideration. The charge is that if a message is communicated humorously, it may easily be dismissed due to an assumed ‘insincerity’ on the part of the speaker; a view whose antithesis holds obvious advantages for an objectively fantastical, yet fanatically ardent religious perspective. Many humourists have drawn attention to the ritualistic annexation of seriousness with which Christianity has attempted to disguise the comic inconsistencies of its doctrine:

‘It’s not that I don’t believe in a higher power, I definitely do…My thing is when I go to church I can’t get past the fact that I’m just listening to some fucking guy…D’you ever think of that shit when you go in there? That’s just some dude…And people are like (mocking tone), ‘No, that’s a special guy’…(Indignant) No it isn’t! (Audience laughs and cheers) It isn’t! Nah, he didn’t like levitate down from the ceiling like ‘Ahhhhhh!!!!!’ (spreads arms angel-like; Christ on the cross), all this white light around him. Why would you listen to another human being tell you where you’re going to go when you die? It’s just like, dude, have you ever been dead? No? Great. So, wouldn’t it be safe to assume that you don’t have the slightest fuckin’ idea what you’re talking about? (Audience claps, cheers & laughs) Yeah! You’re making’ it up! You’re makin’ this shit up. (Mocking tone) You’re not fooling me with the robes and the candles, speakin’ in olde English, (Parodies a pastor), ‘He said it unto ye…’ Shut the fuck up, you don’t talk like that (Audience hysterically laughing) You’re just some guy (counts on fingers): your name’s Jerry, you play soccer, you got your ass kicked in gym class, and now you’re doin’ this.’ (Bill Burr)

What is particularly striking about this monologue are the obvious parallels between how Burr and a preacher perform. Amplified speaking to a crowd assembled to hear this particular take on social and metaphysical issues aligns the comic’s practise with that of the cleric, suggesting that the object of the performance is to at least reinforce some sought-after inclination when thinking about these issues. At the same time, Burr’s very ordinary clothes, and coarse language align him with the audience, thereby bolstering his argument by the fact that we are ‘just listening to some fucking guy,’ and rendering Burr’s performance perhaps more serious than that of the cleric in its lack of affect. The question is, then, whether comedians such as Burr can be seen as inhabiting ‘the middle ground between someone who never takes anything seriously and one who takes everything too seriously’ (Arneson 51). For Aristotle, this type of humour might be more representative of agroikos, a classist term meaning boorish, or bomolochos meaning buffoonery, neither of which demand the serious attention reserved for eutrapelia. In the simplest possible terms, we are wondering whether certain kinds of comedy can be thought of as philosophy. In order to arrive at some conclusions, it will be necessary to examine how humour is produced, and how effective these production techniques can be at elucidating the serious content of a joke.

In January 2015, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) held an event called ‘Seven Serious Jokes about Climate Change’ which aimed to offer new perspectives regarding this global crisis. In his review of the evening, Dr. Jonathan Rowson remarked that what fascinated him about the material ‘was the tension between the seriousness and the urgency of the issue, and the creative challenge of making people laugh about it in a way that didn’t trivialise the problem.’ Participants were given topics such as the law, finance, or technology, and tasked with creating a comic bit focusing on how each topic bore upon the phenomenon of global warming. Observational, black and absurd comedy, as well as satire were the most common genre in evidence, inciting, as they do, laughs tempered with knowing shakes of the head. However, there was one performance which was particularly effective at allowing for the scope of emotional responses which this unique crisis can elicit.

Rob Auton’s piece is remarkable in the breadth of genre, form, and sentiment it is able to encapsulate. Opening with a few deadpan witticisms on humdrum matters, Auton creates an atmosphere in which laughter is elicited by using interesting linguistic and sonic connections to create a kind of radical normalcy. In this sense, his work falls very much under Arneson’s definition of how ‘…eutrapelia functions in dialogue to reveal unexpected connections in language: to open the possibility for surprise in the speculative nature of language, to negotiate meaning in the play of language, and to potentially shift one’s horizons of understandings so fresh interpretations may emerge’ (“Playful Seriousness,” 46). Comedy is being used here to undermine unitary capitalist isolation tactics by creating an ecosystem of experience which finds expression in language. A good example of this is Auton’s declaration that he is from York, followed by his informing the audience that he bought an “I ❤️ NY” T-shirt and then crossed out the “N”. On the surface, this joke does not seem to go beyond the appropriation of a bewilderingly popular piece of material culture by associating two connected, but ultimately hugely contrasting cities; a perfect illustration of Auton’s radical normalcy. However, this is also where the Hobbesian view of humour as essentially an expression of superiority falters, since it is revealed as more fundamentally an act of association through which the connectedness of things and ideas is emphasized. It can, of course, be claimed that humour is often used to affirm the hierarchical nature of an association, thereby cementing unjust power relations, but, the NY joke undermines this by stressing the contingent nature of such relations over time. In this sense, the humour returns to an Aristotelian understanding of eutrapelia as ‘necessary to restore order and bring chaos’ (Arneson 51), and should very much be regarded as philosophical.

Moving into the main section of Auton’s performance, a kind of quasi-comedic slam poem loosely based on Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World,” we begin to witness what happens when eutrapelia is applied to the fundamental incongruity often apparent in serious social crises. By observing Auton’s delivery, we may observe possibilities for humour which go beyond the simple binary of frivolous or serious. As climate change makes it more and more difficult to connect with the human project, satire is no longer adequate, symbolic as it is of a certain, very anthropocentric superiority. In the paper “Must we (NOT) Mean What we Say?”, Ernst van Alpen et al. stress that, in order for our words to be accepted as sincere, we must be bound by all possible meanings into which these words can be made. This idea represents a foundational shift from the understanding of sincerity encountered in St. Paul and offers a more comprehensive notion of what it means to be serious. By this reading, seriousness is not so much personal conviction, but perhaps concern for the multitudinous ways in which one can read and be read. Auton seems acutely aware of this responsibility, and has drifted away from the mere clown to a figure more akin to Bernard Shaw’s vision of his Don Juan character:

‘Far from relapsing into hypocrisy, as Sganarelle feared, he [Don Juan] has unexpectedly discovered a morality in his immorality. The growing recognition of his new point of view is heaping responsibility on him. His former jests he has had to make as seriously as I have had to take some of the jests of Mr W. S. Gilbert. His scepticism, once his least tolerated quality, has now triumphed so completely that he can no longer assert himself by witty negations, and must, to save himself from cipherdom, find an affirmative position’ (Man and Superman, xiii).

As Auton’s poem opens, we are very much on a comic footing as he caricatures an average person’s passive reliance on technology, and jokes about underwhelming experiences of appliances such as the microwave. The power of Auton’s affirmative position is that it offers the humorous as one possible position before stating:

‘Technology, it’s there for me, it allows me to fly over the big blue sea, and I think to myself…oh…hold on a minute…What’s this? Planet getting hotter graph? Photo of melting icecap? How can I care when I’ve got this brand spanking new photo collage app? There must be an app that rebuilds an ice cap. I’m sure someone is working on an ice cap app (Audience laughs)

What is so compelling here is that eutrapelia is seen to break down as it tries to unite nature and technology; the very fundaments of what Aristotle regarded as a cornerstone of human intelligence undone by the primacy of climate change and the absurdity of the hope placed in technological solutions. This act is consummated when Auton tries to combine the words ‘technology’ and ‘sea’ to create the term ‘technolosea’ before stating, ‘Do I need to say more?’ Aristotle’s understanding of eutrapelia is reconfigured as not merely a productive process, but one which must also emphasize dissonance if it is to truly encapsulate the human experience. This conflict is very much felt in the performer’s emotional spectrum which can be fragile, amused, sardonic, defiant and distressed. It is this breadth, in both meaning and feeling, which allows for the kind of profound seriousness expounded by van Alpen et. al in that it allows an issue to be funny and funereal simultaneously. It creates a radical normalcy which more truly reflects thought processes which can be laughing at a person slipping on ice one minute, and, with one little click, be reading about chemical attacks in Syria the next. Comedy should be a radical place where one can cry while also admitting the possibility of a return to joy through humour’s ability to imagine alterity and overcome what it scorns by laughing and pointing at it. Rather than seeing humour as some kind of tonic to alleviate the oppressive gravity encountered in the world, a more affirmative position is to conceive of it as a means by which this gravity might be negotiated without becoming oppressive. Of course, the human mind is perhaps not yet malleable enough to be comfortable in such a non-binary situation, and it is tempting to pursue the pure states of pleasure which comedy can elicit. This hesitancy is reflected in Auton’s performance when he raises his eyebrows after the suggestion that global warming might not be so bad since we’ll be able to swim to work. The audience half-laughs at this, and he is making them conscious of the fact that they have entered some alternative state in which they are not entirely sure how to respond emotionally or intellectually. To round off our discussion, it will be necessary to consider audience reactions to serious messages framed comically in order to get a sense of their efficacy.

In How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin groups joking with the ‘parasitic uses of language which are not serious’ and which do not ‘attempt to make you do anything’ (104). Another use of language assigned to this group is poetry of which Seamus Heaney ‘could not think of a case [which had] changed the world, but what [it can] do is…change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.’ The insinuation here is that certain types of linguistic vessel may not be designed to incite direct action but are effective further back in the causal chain by manipulating how someone thinks. In studies carried out to assess the effects of contemporary political humour on information processing and persuasion, ‘the data were consistent with the notion that humorous messages might be processed carefully (but not critically) yet simultaneously discounted as irrelevant to attitudinal judgements’ (Nabi 29). This research would suggest that when an issue is framed as a joke, it will change your brain, but it will not change your mind. However, as Arneson has pointed out, ‘there is a qualitative difference between taking something humorously and taking it lightly’ (52), meaning that just because something strikes us as funny, this does not necessarily mean that we automatically dismiss it as frivolous. Indeed, humour can provide an access point for discussing issues which ordinarily would not be talked about at all. In “Taking Humor Seriously: Talking about Drinking in Native American Focus Groups,” Keith Bletzer et al describe how ‘humor permitted and embodied a discussion of sensitive topics, which otherwise might be considered improper or inappropriate’ (297-8), and, speaking as a male, it is notoriously common for delicate personal issues to be broached through the use of jokes. Nabi’s research would suggest that this is not a particularly effective method by which to ensure lasting attitudinal change, but she concludes her paper by suggesting that there may be some deeper potency to the comic framework.

‘Too many critics seem to expect a harvest of paintings, poems, plays and novels to drop from the twisted branches of civil discord. They fail to realise that the artist needs time in which to allow the raw material of experience to settle to an imaginative depth where he can transform it and possibly even suggest solutions to current and very urgent problems by reframing them according to the dictates of his particular discipline. He is not some sort of super-journalist commenting with unfaltering spontaneity on events immediately after they have happened’ (Longley 173)

In the above quote, we get a poet’s view on what Nabi has identified as a sleeper effect when it comes to the possibility of humour being used to change how people think about serious issues. Longley’s insistence that experience ought to be given time to ‘settle to an imaginative depth’ reflects Nabi’s findings that ‘comedy…not only evidenced a persuasive effect immediately after message exposure, but this influence continued to increase over the course of the next several days such that a significant gain in attitude change emerged after one week’ (49). Here, we get a meaningful amalgamation of the breadth espoused by van Alpen, and evidenced in Auton’s performance, with the view of humour as a fundamentally pleasurable experience. According to Nabi, serious messages which are framed comically encourage ‘greater…involvement in the message’ (33) due to the enjoyable method by which they are delivered. This process also evidenced ‘less counterargument’ as the pleasure connected with humour perhaps incited the reduced antagonism and prejudice which Longley espoused when describing an appropriate reaction to events in the Northern Irish Troubles. In this sense, humour should be considered as a highly serious form in its ability not only to allow the individual to consider an issue from a variety of emotional and intellectual perspectives, but also in its ability to deliver such messages in a powerful yet entirely peaceful manner. Of course, this power should not be underestimated, and there are surely incidences where it would be harnessed by those wishing to disseminate destructive messages: for this reason, it should be taken all the more seriously.

In a talk entitled ‘Why you will Marry the Wrong Person,’ Alain de Botton states that ‘it is the task of philosophy to let us down gently,’ and it seems appropriate to extend this description to the task of humour. Irony and satire do this by revealing incongruity by pointing away from it; eutrapelia allows us to make connections between things which seem in opposition, and to accept that dissonance is an inevitability we cannot avoid; while surreal or absurd comedy carries some of the existential burden for us. Humour allows us to access serious sociological, philosophical, and metaphysical questions through the community of laughter, but any meaningful understanding of its qualities must be more all-encompassing. To begin to fully understand an issue we must allow for the myriad of ways in which the issue can be understood; only then might we be able to imagine how it could be changed for the better. Humour, in its ability to forge new connections and never regard an issue as exhausted, seems to offer much in terms of how we might find new ways to tackle serious issues.


Citations & Further Reading

van Alpen, Ernst et al, editors. “Must we (NOT) Mean What we Say?” The Rhetoric of Sincerity. Stanford UP, 2009.

Arneson, Pat. “Playful Seriousness: The Virtue of Eutrapelia in Dialogue.” Atlantic Journal of Communication, vol. 26, no. 1, Jan – Mar 2018, pp. 46–58.

Berlant, Lauren. “Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece).” Critical Inquiry, vol. 43, no. 2, Winter 2017, pp. 305-340.

Bernard Shaw, George. “Epistle Dedicatory.” Man and Superman: A Comedy and A Philosophy. Brentano’s, 1905.

Nabi, Robin, et al. “All Joking Aside: A Serious Investigation into the Persuasive Effect of Funny Social Issue Messages.” Communication Monographs, vol. 74, no. 1, March 2007, pp. 29-54.

© 2019 John Cairns

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