Analyzing 'Funny': Mechanical. Absurd. Hilarious.

I’ve been watching and listening to comedy most of my life (my older brother used to stay up late, record Saturday Night Live on an audio-cassette – this was before we had a VCR – and play the routines for me the next day), and it feels like we are living in a kind of golden age of good new comedy. SNL is better than it has been in years, led largely by amazingly funny women. The Daily Show & Colbert Report were brilliant. A string of recent shows too long to list, but including The Office, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, Veep, Parks & Recreation (among many others) has reinvented the sitcom. There’s an amazing new crop of stand-ups out there, Louis C.K. being probably the most famous – and formally adventurous. It really is kind of mind-blowing.

So I’ve been thinking a lot of late about what makes things funny. (In part, also, because I've been taking Improv classes these past two years.) Seems like a silly question, maybe – anything that makes you laugh is funny. But why? Why do we laugh at things in one situation or context that would make us cringe or cry or become furious in a different context? What purposes – social, physiological – does laughter serve, and what mechanisms – in life, in stories, and in our bodies and brains – provoke it?

There is, of course, a large body of academic literature out there about the nature of humour, and even the physiological mechanisms of laughter. The one I read, acting on a university prof's recommendation (12 years later!) is: ‘Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic’ by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. (A book which is strangely difficult to find in libraries, but you can easily buy a cheap reprint on Amazon or elsewhere.)

The book is a bit dense, not because of jargon, but due to its long, abstract sentences. And most of the examples he cites are old: a lot of Molière and other theatrical and clowning references that are obscure to us in North America.

A playwright and clown friend of mine said, “I read it a long time ago and recall thinking that for a book about comedy, it wasn’t much fun.” He’s right. It would be a great project to ‘translate’ this work into modern, contemporary English, and to replace all the examples with contemporary ones from the amazing wealth of new comedy that’s been done in the past several years.

Bergon’s basic argument, though, is easy to understand – and test – by watching just about anything, asking yourself, ‘Why is this funny?’ and applying some of his insights.

In its most reduced form, his argument is that we laugh whenever human beings behave MECHANICALLY (that is, automatically, absent-mindedly) where they should be more flexible and adaptable to the variable demands of real life. REPETITION is therefore often funny because it makes human behaviour appear oddly mechanical. Ditto for obsessive behaviour and other repetitious actions and attitudes. We know this person is a nut, and we can anticipate that whenever a certain situation arises, he or she will react to it the same way. When they do, we LAUGH, because their behaviour appears as mechanical. They are slaves to their obsessions, neuroses, or habitual patterns of behaviour.

Often, this is accidental or unintended. When I saw ‘PROMETHEUS’ everybody in the theatre laughed at the scene where Charlize Theron is running away from a rolling spaceship that ultimately crushes her. Why? Because everyone in the audience was thinking, “Just go left, you idiot!” But, no – she continues to run straight ahead, that is, directly in the path of the rolling ship! Mechanical. Absurd. Unintentionally hilarious. (Watch the trailer here:

Beyond that, however, Bergson argues that laughter is fundamentally SOCIAL, and CORRECTIVE in nature. In short, it’s a way we have – as humans – of signalling each other that we are behaving badly. We laugh at each other’s vices, failings, mistakes, neuroticism, obsessions, etc., as a way to correct our behaviour – but also, sometimes, at our virtues if they are over-the-top: people trying too hard to be ‘good’ or to play nice.

Thus, most humour arises from our SOCIABILITY (trying to be polite, nice, friendly, helpful, agreeable) and our ANTI-SOCIABILITY (being rude, aggressive, unfriendly, arrogant, vain, haughty, snobbish, etc.). 

I plan to write a much longer piece attempting to synthesize his argument further, and with more contemporary examples, but below I offer what I think is a nice illustration of how it can be applied.

The following is a short bit of comic business from a Buster Keaton film, ‘Sherlock Jr.’ (1924 – I know, very contemporary! But at least you can find it easily online. And sometimes it helps to go back to simple, classic routines to see how they work).

You can watch the entire film – it’s only 45 minutes – here on YouTube.

The part I want to discuss runs from 02:41 to 06:21.

Keaton’s character is an all-purpose employee at the local movie house – at times a projectionist, ticket taker, usher and janitor.

While sweeping up the trash after a show, he takes a little break and sees a $3 box of candy in the window of the shop next door. He wants to buy it for his sweetheart, but he only has $2 on him. He gives up when the clerk won’t negotiate on the price.

Luckily, when he goes back to sweeping, he finds another dollar. Now he has $3! He puts it in his pocket, puts his jacket back on, and is about to head back to the candy shop when…

(1) A finely dressed young woman appears and begins rummaging around in the pile of trash. He asks her what she is doing and she says, ‘I lost a dollar. Did you happen to find it?’ He says, ‘Can you describe it?’ She gamely provides a description of a dollar bill, and he is forced to hand it over to her.

(2) He’s back to square one. As he is getting ready to resume his job, an older woman comes rummaging through the pile of trash, also looking for a lost dollar bill. He’s perplexed for a moment, but suffering a pang of conscience, feels obliged to give her one of his own. Now he’s down to one dollar.

(3) A large and threatening man appears. Keaton hands over his (own) last dollar without question and runs inside the theatre for fear that the man might beat him. Keaton reappears a moment later and the man – surprisingly – gives the dollar back. This is a happy development. Until Keaton sees the man find what he is really looking for in the pile of trash – his lost wallet. The man opens his wallet and counts the thick stack of bills inside to make sure they are all there. Then he leaves, offering Keaton nothing.

Why is this sequence funny, other than being surprising – since surprises can also be scary, dramatic, etc.?

Let’s analyze the interactions one by one.

(Encounter 1) The first woman, to all appearances, is properly searching for her lost dollar bill. Thus, Keaton is in the wrong to keep it. First laugh: he wants to appear honest (vanity; sociability), but also to give himself a credible pretext for keeping it (selfishness; anti-sociability). Second laugh: he asks her to describe it, as you might some other more unique lost item (absurdity – all dollar bills are the same; anti-sociability – testing her honesty for no reason is rude). Third laugh: instead of taking offence, she (surprisingly, politely) plays along and he is obliged to do the right thing and give her back the dollar bill, giving us a fourth laugh. We laugh because he is forced – by conventions of politeness/morality – to do the right thing against his obvious will to do otherwise. The bit is already so rich, but it's far from over!

(Encounter 2) First laugh: a second woman appears to properly search for a lost dollar bill as well, establishing a comical repeated/mechanical pattern. We laugh again because this presents the possibility that the previous woman was conning Keaton (anti-sociability), and thus he should have withheld the bill from her – he’s made a mistake by being honest and fair with someone (potentially) dishonest. (It also makes his absurd testing of her story, retrospectively, legitimate, though it seemed rude and anti-social in the moment.) We laugh again when he gives the second woman HIS OWN dollar bill, out of a kind of excess of conscience (ultra-sociability). This behaviour is almost mechanical (thus absurd) because whereas before he selfishly wanted to keep the bill that was not his, now he is unable to adapt to the facts of the situation (he cannot possibly have this particular woman’s dollar bill, though he may have given it erroneously to the previous woman), and feels ethically compelled instead to give her his own, which is kind but also absurd. So we laugh.

(Encounter 3) First laugh: he gives the man the bill without question because the man is big and threatening. This is funny because (a) we have seen the pattern repeated 3 times now, with heightened degrees of absurdity, (b) it is a form of – again – absurd sociability (because it is ACTUALLY Keaton’s dollar bill, not the man’s), and (c) because his behaviour is mechanical, both in giving the man the bill and running away out of fear: it is a direct line from stimulus to response, as if he has no control over his impulses. (He doesn’t even know if the man is looking for anything, he just assumes it automatically based on the pattern set up by the previous two instances.) Second laugh: the man surprisingly gives the bill back as not his own (sociability where violence was feared). Third laugh: the man finds his wallet, filled with a good deal more money. Keaton has lost a chance that he didn’t know he had to pocket even more money (surprise, anti-sociability – the desire to find and keep other’s money if one can get away with it).

Over and over again, he is a hilarious victim of both fate and his own excessive conscience.

Part of what is delightful about this routine is that by the end we feel we have seen every possible variant, every permutation and combination of situations that can arise from one we have all found ourselves in: finding money that isn't ours and wanting to hang onto it. The comic potential has been thoroughly explored - and exhausted - in continuously surprising ways.

Notice, too, that all of these relate to very human interactions, urges, rules of etiquette and social morality. We laugh at his specific situation, but we also laugh at the general qualities of his behaviour that we also recognize in ourselves: avarice or greed, vanity, fear of violence, fear of discovery, situational dishonesty (the willingness to break rules if we can safely get away with it), and the poetic justice of the ironic ending. His punishment for his greed and mild dishonesty is that he ends up $2 short and loses out on a much bigger potential windfall.

Of course, we're not really aware of these 'moves' as they are happening, or rather, we perceive their significance - and react, with laughter - so quickly and automatically that we are not aware of having to do anything thinking or judging. Their meaning is immediately obvious, because we are all skilled observers of (and participants in) human social interaction. But if we slow the scene down, as we have here, and look at each 'move' in turn, Bergson’s theory sheds a good deal of light on what is happening and why it instantly triggers laughter.

So, the next time you watch something funny, ask yourself: what am I laughing at? Is it the characters’ anti-sociability: the casual rudeness and put-downs on ‘Veep’ between co-workers who (we know) will nonetheless go on working together for years to come? Or is it their excessive sociability (Steve Carell on the ‘The Office’): their almost painfully sincere desire to be liked, and their inept attempts to win others’ affection and admiration?

COMING SOON: A much longer work-up of Bergson’s ideas with contemporary examples (that is, more recent than 1924 – I promise!)