March 8, 2011

All Laughs

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How laughing releases our frustration with language.

Steven Pinker, renowned cognitive scientist, one of Time magazine’s 100 most important intellectuals, professor at Harvard, Stanford, MIT, etc., had 715 people laughing about 9/11 on  Friday. Pinker’s lecture at the Statler Auditorium, entitled “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature,” used lingual constructions to discover the ways in which we perceive the world. Among these constructions was the case of one Larry Silverstein, the owner of the World Trade Center building complex. Silverstein had taken out an insurance policy, which entitled him to $3.5 billion per “destructive occurrence” affecting his property. The question was, were the terrorist attacks one occurrence or two? And perhaps more interesting, why were we all laughing about it? In the spirit of Pinker, I’d like to search here for the connection between language and humor, both of which are so important for good artwork.

One of the categories of language/human nature that Pinker investigated was “causality.” He gave as an example the words of Charles Guiteau, who had been accused of assassinating President James Garfield. Citing the medical chicanery that eventually led to Garfield’s death, Guiteau wrote in his autobiography, “the doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.” Pinker’s reading met roaring laughter, putting the death of a president on par with the attacks of 9/11 in terms of comedic value. Is humor, then, fundamentally dark? Writers since Aristotle have held that when we laugh, it’s mostly at the misfortunes of others. So do we laugh harder when the unfortunate one is famous or powerful, or not a person, but a nation?

An article published a few days ago in The Jerusalem Post, and picked up by, supports this view. The article consists of an interview with Berkeley professor Mel Gordon, who claims that “Jewish humor was born in 1661,” and traces its roots to the Eastern European figure of the badkhn. This “cruel court jester” was “biting, even vicious,” and “grotesque, even scatological.” Likewise, Pinker, a self-proclaimed cultural Jew, read aloud “34 euphemisms for feces” at the lecture, and the crowd went wild. He got an even bigger laugh when he read the full text of the 2003 Clean Airwaves Act, which proposed an amendment to an earlier act of Congress that sought to punish profanity. The amendment specifically named as profane “the words ‘shit’, ‘piss’, ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘asshole’, and the phrases ‘cock sucker’, ‘mother fucker’, and ‘ass hole.’” We can disagree about whether the use of these words should be punished, and those of us who saw The Vagina Monologues on Saturday would question whether one word in particular should even count as a profanity. But there’s no question that the whole situation is funny. Why? Is it because the poor Congressman who introduced the amendment had to read it in front of the House, pronouncing the very words his amendment tried to ban? Are we still laughing at the misfortunes of a powerful other? Or is the amendment funny because Pinker is reading it; our laughter a form of gratitude to an esteemed intellectual who has the chutzpah to curse onstage at what is undoubtedly Cornell’s most hoity-toity college?

I think the answer has less to do with rebellion than with knowledge. What is striking about Groucho Marx and Billy Crystal, who Pinker cites as masters of humorous language — indeed, what is striking about Pinker himself — is not meanness but meekness, the comic’s removal of himself from his surroundings. (That this argument also seems to apply to Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, and whether Judd Apatow speaks either to the pervasiveness of Jewish humor in America or to my own prejudices, I’m not sure.) When Groucho says to a young woman, “I’ve been looking for a girl like you — not you, but a girl like you,” he’s no longer engaging in the trodden, oft-abrasive language of seduction, but rather poking fun at it. He’s distancing himself from society and from language, laying bare the weird logic of words — normally, when we say to someone, “I’ve been looking for someone like you,” we don’t just mean any old someone, but the particular someone we’re talking to. Groucho’s wordplay is thus a realization of the absurdities of language in exactly the same way as is Pinker’s lecture. And the ultimate reason we laugh, I think, is to get these absurdities out in the open and off of our chests.

Original Author: Jake Friedman