The Meaning of Humor

Humor affects us all. You wouldn’t be where you are today (sitting there, reading the Squelch, your interest waning) without it. The primary definition of humor given in Webster’s Dictionary is “a normal functioning bodily semifluid or fluid (as the blood or nymph).” I have no fucking idea what this means, but to me humor is something funny. I kind of liked the part about the nymph, but the rest of that definition is lost on me.

The first recorded instances of humor can be found on the cave walls of Lascaux. In 1957, archaeologists unearthed a primitive carving of a black guy, a Jewish guy, and a Polish guy walking into a bar. The punchline is no longer decipherable, but cultural anthropologists have speculated that, since these carvings were made in France, it is likely that the three bar patrons were refused service by obnoxious waiters. This illustrates the fact that different cultures have different conceptions of what is funny.

For example, there is a type of humor which is often referred to as “British,” quite possibly because it comes primarily from Great “Britain.” British humor usually falls into two categories: funny and weird, or stupid and weird. Both types often involve men dressing as women, a device which, like the metric system, has been imported into American comedy with varying degrees of success. It never ceases to amaze me that this is considered simply the pinnacle of humor.

An analysis of British comedy engenders some key questions: How does British humor fit into a larger cultural framework? If there is a God and He is merciful, then why does “Benny Hill” exist? Is it possible to enjoy a Monty Python film if you watch it with people who insist on saying every line along with the actors? Do all those people who refer to Shakespeare’s “comedies” truly think that he is funny, or are they just embarrassed because they don’t get it either?

Even though humor can vary according to culture, there are some things that everyone can agree on. For example, everyone knows that there are some things which just aren’t funny– AIDS, the Holocaust, and Saturday Night Live. Beyond this common ground, though, there is much disagreement as to what is funny. It has come to my attention that many otherwise sane people find Jim Carrey to be intensely humorous. While I am willing to allow that a guy who makes funny faces at the camera is amusing to small children and the intellectually challenged, I have serious doubts about a society that sanctions his being paid $7 million to film two hours of fart jokes.

Ultimately, humor, like intelligence, is about associations. If you combine two elements that people wouldn’t normally associate, like chocolate and peanut butter, or Alex Weingarten and ethics, then you’ve said something humorous. “Cows and scientology.” That’s funny. Don’t ask why, but it is. So learn to appreciate the humor that surrounds you, because laughter, like radiation, brightens our lives. And laughter lasts much longer.