The Metaphysical Stroke: Humor

February 6, 2011

A pun—like any mousetrap joke—is what we might call a one-alarm joke. The brain jumps out of bed, slides down the pole, races to the scene, and “gets it”—i.e., sees both meanings at once, resolves the ambiguity, thus restoring order and security. It’s a kind of infection control. This activity of our Cognitive First Responders is experienced as pleasure, whether or not it is based in abject fear.

This is from, “The Dead Chipmunk”, by Chris Bachelder. The piece is an “interrogation into the mechanisms of jokes”. Bachelder explores a variety of theories of humor, including the idea that comedy is violent:

Kurt Vonnegut called jokes mousetraps. This metaphor fits into a traditional conception of humor as a form of violence. (Freud theorized that humor is an act of aggression.) Much of the language of comedy is hostile. We say of funny people that they kill us or slay us. A comic will say that a joke killed, which is the opposite of bombed. We say of wit that it is either dull or sharp, and a sharp wit might be called rapier. Dull humor clubs us over the head or even bludgeons us. We describe wit as mordant and sardonic. The root of mordant is the Latin mordere (“to bite”), and the root of sardonic is the Greek sardonios, referring to a plant on the island of Sardinia that (according to legend), when ingested, makes you laugh so hard you die. By comparison, Vonnegut’s mousetrap is fairly innocuous, though illuminating. To be certain, there is an element in joke-telling of entrapment by lure, and there is a sense that the receiver (the victim) walks into the joke, following desires or expectations toward the punch line. As many jokes work by swift and precise reversal (of expectation or logic), you could call the very form of the joke cunning and aggressive. Punch lines—they’re called punch lines—are often short and sharp. They are brutal in form if not content. If the receiver of the joke does not feel punched, he might feel as if he has been blindsided or as if he has suffered a kind of logical whiplash. Vonnegut, though, wasn’t talking explicitly about the violence of joke-telling. He was talking about the craft of joke-telling, the mechanism of the joke. The joker sets the trap—just as there is potential energy stored in a compressed spring, there is tension in the joke’s setup—then springs it. The punch line snaps, harnessing and releasing the joke’s energy.

You can view the whole article at: But it will only be viewable, for free, for a limited time. Otherwise, take a look at these two intriguing theories around the nature of humor:

Most theories of humor—most notably the Incongruity Theory—posit that humor grows out of surprise. As Pascal wrote a long time ago, “Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees.” Surprise here is kind of an umbrella term, and there are many ways of articulating surprise—incongruity, wordplay, reversal, non sequitur and all logical fallacy, the mixture of high and low, vulgarity, inappropriateness, and of course irony, which can be formulated as a (surprising) difference or gap: between what is said and what is meant, between what happens and what we expect to happen, between what a character knows and what a reader/viewer knows. (Sarcasm being the crudest form of irony: “Analyzing humor. Yeah, that sounds like a blast.” The mental processing of irony involves recognizing the gap and interpreting it.) Laughter, according to the Incongruity Theory, can be seen as the physiological response to the cognitive act of resolving the surprise. Some theories of humor (the Ontic-Epistemic Theory is a real knee-slapper) contend that funny things short-circuit the brain, causing a fleeting cognitive lockup or a kind of tiny metaphysical stroke. In this model, a joke creates a small tear in our notion of the real, the brain rushes in to mend the rip, resolve the incongruity, and our subsequent smile or chuckle or guffaw is an act of profound relief. Humor, then, emerges in a sense from terror, as the mind gets a tiny peek at the void, then quickly nails a board over the crack to preserve its illusion of mastery, control, meaning, order, reality.


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