Friday, December 21, 2012

The Gag Reflex

Henri Bergson did write  Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic and Freud wrote Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, but it’s hard to believe our current generation of academics can effectively take time out of their Husserling to make salient points about the gags, word play, inflexibility (one of Bergson’s ideas) and farcical cases of mistaken identity (that characterize Roman Comedy for example). Even Daniel Dennett, a philosopher of consciousness, who is one of the authors  of the volume under consideration, Inside Jokes, in Tim Lewens TLS review, “What’s so funny?” (12/7/12) is suspect. The basic theory is summarized by Lewens as this: “we find things funny when our expectations are overturned.” Lewens finds that the theory “performs best” when the authors who also include Matthew M. Hurley and Reginald B. Adams, Jr. deal with “jokes and riddles.” But the authors are “on less secure ground when it comes to the comic effects of mimicry.” And Lewens proves his own mastery of humor when he takes them to task using Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles as an example. “Brooks’s cowboys are a rough, uneducated and vulgar bunch. It would be hard to argue that the audience has a committed expectation that these cowboys are the sorts of people who wouldn’t fart in company. Perhaps instead we have committed expectations for the frequency or loudness of farts, which the cowboys’ exuberance overturns.” To begin with this is a masterful analysis of an iconic scene and shows that philosophers can foster useful discussion even on a subject as defying of philosophical analysis as humor. It also brings to mind another great moment in the history of humor and that’s the famous Monty Python vomiting scene in which one person'a hurl produces a chain reaction. It would be hard to say that expectations are overturned in this piece of over-the-top vulgarity. Quite the contrary, “the gag reflex,” which is more at work in its physiologic than humorous form, is what makes the scene so believable and the viewer is left with only two choices: to laugh, or begin throwing up him or herself.

1 comment:

  1. ...this book sounds akin to "Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folk Tales", a scholarly product which first tells the tale and then proceeds to take all the fun out of it through dry analysis. Yes, I own this book. The folk tales are a hoot, and the dissection almost as much fun, being their obverse.
    Of course I immediately skimmed the book you mention here, and fell out laughing at the jokes. Everything else aside, this is a must-have for me; for its humor, for its attempt to quantify an unquantifiable essence of being, and most of all for its fascinating last chapter (unavailable through preview) "Could We Make A Robot With A Sense Of Humor?".
    Thanks for bringing it to my attention, and for your own analysis as to the perils of attempts to analyze humor.


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