Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wit, Or Derisive Humor

The French philosopher Henri Bergson in his Le rire (Laughter, 1911) made the point that wit or derisive humor is a universal corrective for deviancy in the social order. He softened the idea of overt hostility by saying that the creators of wit undergo "a momentary anesthesia of the heart" as they poke fun at the actions of someone. According to Bergson's point of view, wit is a tool of satire in that its purpose is to bring about change. Such thinkers and writers as Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Will Rogers, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Oscar Wilde used their wit to focus attention on the kinds of behavior they thought inappropriate or damaging to society as a whole. Most of the twenty-first century's editorial cartoonists and late-night comedians use wit for similar purposes as they criticize changing social, sexual, religious, and political mores.

John Simon in Paradigms Lost describes wit as "aggressive, often destructive (though one hopes, in a good cause), and almost always directed at others." He compares it to humor, which he describes as "basically good natured and often directed toward oneself, if only by subsumption under the heading 'general human foolishness'" (p. 72).

Simon's description of self-deprecating humor as being "basically good natured" is important in understanding why members of ethnic groups can tell jokes about themselves but get offended when someone from outside the group tells the same joke. When a person is inside a group and clearly identifies with that group, then the telling of a joke about the group usually falls under the category of good-natured encouragement for group members to think about changing their ways. Henry Spalding in his Joys of Jewish Humor (1985) says that many Jewish jokes come in the form of "honey-coated barbs" at the people and things loved most by Jews. While they verbally attack their family and friends as well as their own religion, they do it with a great sense of affection. A joke teller from outside of a group has little or no influence on group beliefs and actions and so by telling such jokes is cementing negative stereotypes rather than bringing about changes.

Christie Davies, who has collected and studied jokes across different cultures, as has the cultural anthropologist Alan Dundes, explains that there is great satisfaction in assigning a negative trait to someone outside of one's own group. Placing negative traits far away from oneself is satisfying because it frees the joke tellers from having to think about whether these characteristics are pertinent to their personalities. The comedy writer Max Shulman, in a 1982 talk at Arizona State University, said something similar when he explained that if one of his stories makes a reader say, "I know someone like that," the reader is amused and laughs. But if the story is so on target that the reader says, "Oh, no, that's me!" the reader is not amused.

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