Episode 57: Henri Bergson on Humor

BergsonOn Bergson's Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900).

What is humor? Bergson says that, fundamentally, we laugh as a form of social corrective when others are slow to adapt to society's demands. Other types of humor are derivative from this: just as the clown falls on his face because of a (pretended) physical flaw, as if he's a machine that doesn't work and so becomes noticeable as a machine, in satire, we poke fun at society's breaking down, and in wordplay it's as if the language is breaking down, and in a sit-com featuring unlikely coincidences, it's like fate itself is breaking down into senseless patterns of repetition.

Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan are joined by comedienne Jennifer Dziura, using Bergson as a jumping-off point to throw around lots of theories and questions: is it the unexpected that makes something funny (which would make timing key), or our identification with the funny situation, which would go against Bergson's notion that you need some distance from the person you're laughing at, or else you grasp him as an individual and get sucked into the breakdown as tragic? Can deformities be hilarious, as Bergson thinks? What about dark humor, or self-deprecating humor, or the laughter of delight or being tickled? Read more on the topic and get the book.

End songs: Another two lo-fi, quickly recorded driblets from the Mark Lint album, Black Jelly Beans & Smokes: 1991's “The Nipple Song" and a song written by the Gerber Brothers (Ken Gerber being the guy who drew our PEL icon) performed with Mark from 1990, "Come On, Lady." Between these is a snippet of Jen's standup. No puppets, though. Sorry.

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  1. natalie says

    I think it would be beneficial to have some guests with a larger age gap, especially in issues such as comedy as I think it would add to the broad spectrum of perspective on how/why things are considered funny.

      • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

        Here’s about 4 minutes of genius from a different era.

        Pure improv with nothing but a stick. I’ve always thought of Jonathan Winters as one of the funniest people around since stuff started being recorded. He does a lot of character work and it’s his ability to immediately establish a presence, connect to an archetype or stereotype and exploit it for laughs that distinguished him from anyone before or since.

        That said, he’s not some kind of character clown and is as good (and topical and edgy) as Pryor, Carlin, Louis CK or Chris Rock. If you have access to Showtime, find The Green Room with Paul Provenza episode in which he is a guest.

  2. Tim says

    the thing about inherently comic characters (versus characters being funny) that Dylan brought up never really got addressed, but there’s an F Scott Fitzgerald quote about it: “once a character is really established as funny everything he does becomes funny”

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Bergson is definitely up on funny by association. Since so many types of humor don’t really fit his theory, he relies on them having been associated at some point with something that according to his theory would actually be funny.

      It does seem a bit of a stretch, but here’s one point from our collective experience: once a comic actor has been well established, it’s hard to see that person do a dramatic role and not read the humor into it. Of course, it’s hard to see whether you’re really “reading it in” or whether the person just has such a funny manner that they can’t help putting it in there even if they don’t want to. The only way to test would be to, e.g. get someone not familiar with Bill Murray or Steve Martin or whomever and have them see one of the dramatic roles first, and see what they think. I think a lot of our aesthetic experiences are infused with such associations, so, e.g. if you know some painting is by this famous artist that you like, you judge it really differently than you would the same painting if you don’t know the painter.

  3. Ted says

    I was a bit underwhelmed by this podcast. I had high hopes for it, as I think this is a great text, but the whole pod was spent trying (unsuccessfully) to be funny, rather than talking about what funniness is, aside from a few unsustained flurries of cogency. I was glad to hear Louis CK brought up, but he was dismissed immediately for being “sophisticated.” God forbid!

    Now, to allow the virulent misogynist in me to surface–I found it a bit rich that your big podcast on humor featured a woman talking for like 70% of the run time. A woman–you know, they’re much like men, but without that whole being funny thing.

    Deplorable misogyny aside, I loved the choice of text, and have big hopes for MacIntyre next time. Excelsior!

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      As we said on the ‘cast, humor (or should I say attempted humor; it’s funny that humor is sometimes a type word and sometimes an achievement word, i.e. in the category of humor vs. actually funny) is polarizing…

      I fully intend to have a 2nd humor episode (not sure when); we’re none done deliberating this one. I’m still leaning toward getting another comedian to join us on that one, but maybe I’ll be convinced otherwise. It depends, I guess, on whether we can seduce a celebrity with the promise of this one.

      We did feel a bit bad at the end that we didn’t do a nice sum-up/run-down of how all the parts of humor according to Bergson fit with his theory; I tried to make up for that in a bit in revising the episode description (http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2012/05/03/topic57/). However, in doing the edit, I realized that we actually hit most of Bergson’s exemplars and threw out several other theories as well. At most points, the conversation then went to counter-examples to that theory: no, “the unexpected” is not sufficient for comedy, and the ironic distance may or may not be necessary for it, and it’s certainly not always even intended to be corrective, and delight is at least a neighbor to humor in a way that Bergson doesn’t seem to be able to account for.

      So I dispute the claim that this was light on the meat, and think that Jen did her part and wasn’t just in there doing her act.

      I will however, take the blame for my own attempts, and can only offer consolation by saying that I said several other unfunny (and sometimes lengthy) things that I then edited out.

    • L Lawless says

      Ted, Darling, how deep is that “virulent misogynist” in you buried? Do you let that badboy out daily? You know you do.

  4. Ruth says

    Hey PEL! Big fan of your podcast generally (just one year out of undergrad. where I studied philosophy) and enjoyed this particular episode (as I’m an 9 month open mic-er comedian, a baby comic). I have always thought there are quite a few parallels between philosophy and comedy. The basis for good writing in either genre goes from a particular and ends with a universal, or vice versa and the simpler the language increases your ability to keep your audience. While it may seem that comedy is a tradition from court jesters and fools–a thought that haunts me when I spend a night bombing on mics, questioning my hobby of self debasment, and abnegation in the company of cynical alcoholics–I always remind myself that despite the vast difference in our material, Socerates did in alot of standing up as he spoke. No props, no characters, just thoughts and dialog. While this isn’t the style of all stand up comics, the art of conversation, the process of examination and reflection and the search for a point (which is called a punch in comedy lingo) is evident in both. Now, I may be completely incorrect in this anaylsis, I am hardly a philosopher and less of a comic (my newest favorite joke concerns a date with an existenialist during which I realize I am much more into the X-files, because maybe it’s all being and nothingness but I want to believe we are not alone–this tend gets met with silence in anything but a well educated alt. room) but I think the intersection of comdey and philosophy is ripe for discussion. I really enjoyed Jen’s comments, and was glad to learn of her existence generally, I think it would add more to the discussion if you found a more traditional standup. Jen seems to have found her audience pretty quickly–kudos for that, it’s not easy–but that leads her to more of a ‘niche’ performer. Part of the art of stand up is being able to play any type of room (mianstream, alt., urban, college, gay, etc) and win them over. This skill is hard won by years of open mics and constant touring. I don’t think you’d need a ‘famous’ funny person so much as a working comic who knows the hustle.

    Thanks for the podcast, I really enjoy it. My day job is a library tech. and I usually listen as I perform the mundane tasks of library upkeep. You guys save me daily from dewey decimal induced madness.

    • Profile photo of Dylan Casey says

      You are right, of course, that the “quarrel” between philosophy and poetry (of which comedy would be a subset) is very old and Socrates was in the middle of it at least in ancient Greece. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates comes out hard against poetry mainly as a kind of undirected art of persuasion. A nice combination with this would be to read Aristophanes “The Clouds” which features Socrates as a main character who runs a “thinkery” and is not nearly as respectable as Plato’s version.

      Maybe we’ll get back to that section of the Republic sometime, or even “The Clouds”.

      BTW, I am sympathetic with your Dewey decimal madness — my first work-study job as a college freshman was at the Michigan State University library in the “Federal Documents” section. One of my jobs was to shelf-read the entire section from the Department of War/Defense for orderly placement of materials. Everything from detailed maps of the seven seas to tracts on the evils of VD.

  5. David Buchanan says

    What really struck me was the distance between Bergson’s idea of humor as a social corrective and the subversive stand-up tradition. Comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Monty Python and Bill Hicks were brilliantly subversive. I mean, they didn’t use laughter as a means of enforcing conventional norms but as a weapon against the conventions they found objectionable. This is not very different from the social criticism philosophers have been doing all along. Steve Martin was mediocre until his girlfriend told him to take some philosophy classes. That’s what turned him into a comedy genius. Have you seen Woody Allen’s latest? Oh man, it’s deliciously funnyosophical.

  6. Brian Carless says

    I really enjoyed the Bergson. I found the central contention of Bergson’s thesis to be a great jumping off point for the consideration of laughter and humor more generally. A brief, very brief, intro, summary at some point about where this essay fits into the bigger picture of Bergson’s philosophy may have been helpful and that is something that I do count on you guys for. This essay was ideal for the show, I think, because as an interested and intelligent listener/reader I am not a philosopher and this text/discussion wasn’t weighed down with a lot of jargon. Kudos in that regard.

    What I take Bergson to be saying is that laughter is provoked because of some kind of disconnect between self (selves) and society. Bergson’s disconnects betweem body and spirit or intention and the restrictions of the material world need to be read in historical perspective and begin to look like the contradictions that arise from our simultaneous and multiple purposes. What Bergson has done is clear the decks for, not so much a philosophy of humor, as, a science of it; a sociology, or more properly, an anthropology of laughter. But let me say right now if anyone refers to a joke as a meme I will personally reach through the internet with my reification stick and beat you with it.

    A couple of example will help, I think. I recently had a very earnest discussion with my young son about the effects Ryan Braun’s use of PEDs would have had on his performance last year. I had a similar conversation with a good friend of mine about how PEDs would have effected Braun’s “performance” over the course of the last year. My wife thought that it was absolutely hilarious that I almost started having the second conversation with my son. The humor doesn’t simply arise from the double meaning that was lent to the work performance but rather putting that word into play against the three very real, very important aspects of my “true” self. As far as the corrective function of a situation like that it doesn’t so much bring me back into line with socially approved roles but rather it puts those various meanings into play so that I can reflect on and negotiate with them and not have to spend countless hours in therapy.

    Similar things could be said about the comedy of Louis CK and the rape joke that Jennifer and the guys had so much trouble making. I’m thinking in particular about the video of Louis CK posted on the PEL website some weeks ago. I found it hilarious precisely because it is good to be white, and male for that matter, and it is true despite how we try to think and act publicly by expressing and acting toward matters of equality and fairness. And in the “its funny precisely because it is horrifying” category would be rape. My rape shtick, if I could do one, and I can’t, would start with observing all of the earnest consideration and hyperventilating punditry that we have recently had about birth control. Isn’t it really about societal (read male if you like) control of female bodies and reproduction: “Oh, I can stop worrying now. There’s my rape”. What I am trying to get at is that the contradictions in the discussions about motherhood and birth control are the provocation for the humor and not the cynicism of all the discussions.

    I mean the above examples to be suggestive. I don’t propose that there is a simple one to one correspondence between particular conflicts of values and humor. I would draw an analogy between humor and taboo, swearing in particular. Edmund Leach’s essay subtitled “Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse” points out how certain words have become swear words and how it is not a simple matter of rabbit equals bad so archaic forms of rabbit can be swear words ( a cunny, or cony, is an archaic word for rabbit). As far as humor being a corrective force to bring individuals back in line with society seen in the light of the emergent industrial modernity that was soon to find its apotheosis in the first World War and things like violent anarchy were viable options it doesn’t seem such a stretch. I think that we can see though that laughter has as much subversive potential as coercive.

    The central mystery is even deeper now. Why is laughter so closely related to the contradictions of our lives together as human beings. It is tempting to become hyperbolic and call it a creative force superseding even that of sex and death. But that would be a bit too much.

  7. Jasin 13" N. Austen says

    Hey, here’s a joke for ya:
    Why did Micheal Jackson hang his baby out of a window?
    Ok, never mind that. Or what did ya get when you cross a saber tooth tiger with Elton John? Google it.
    Anyway the Professor Brothers skits on YouTube for real are funny and cracked me up like an Easter Egg when I first saw ’em. Check out “Jesus F*cking Christ” and “TA Interview”, “Late Date”, “China IL” (parts 1 and 2),
    All right. Hey it’s good shit. Oh and “Movie Talk”. Brad Neely is the proverbial shit

  8. Joan says

    hmm…i wonder if the rats would think any of these guys are funny:

    file:///Users/jbrown/Library/Mail Downloads/Rats Laugh, But Not Like Humans: Scientific American.webarchive

    off topic, but sorta related, amazing research…what do y’all think about this??

  9. Joel says

    Hey philosophers,

    While the talk was on Bergon’s theory of laughter on disabilities, I remembered being in high school where I watched a video about shaken baby syndrome and I could not stop laughing looking at victims who were shook. I guess the internal logic of it is that I was distanced from the situation and the condition of those babies can be prevented by choice. The element of rigidity began all my laughter because practitioners were shaking (lifeless) dolls. The imitation of how one commit such a bad choice was funny. Then I could not keep myself from laughing at the victims.

  10. John says

    I’m extraordinarily late to this particular party, but this episode made me think of one of my favorite books: Eric Idle’s Road to Mars, which has a lot of things in it that I think you folks would appreciate (specifically there’s a robot who is trying to come up with a theory of comedy).

    The book is fairly universally panned, but I think that folks don’t give it nearly enough credit for being really, really smart.


  1. […] Our humor episode gave me an excuse to finally get this album all converted and posted for those interested. To quote my liner notes: Black Jelly Beans are the ones that normal people with a fine taste for fine things pick out and throw to the weevils, but which certain freaky weevil-like individuals find quite to their liking, thank you… […]

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