Thursday, May 12, 2011

Incongruity Theory

I think one of the driving forces behind my interest in laughter and ultimately, humor, lies in the rigidity we apply to the mobility of life and its incongruity with the concept of what’s funny.

Laughter seems to emanate from the mechanical and living dovetailing into each other. Imagine if you will, a refined man walking along the street dressed in a fine suit and carrying an attaché. It appears as if he’s quite busy and on his way to his office or an important meeting as he ignores most passersby, focused entirely on his goal of going from point A to point B. Suddenly, without warning, he loses control of his footing, his arms fly up, his attaché soars 10 feet in the air, he slips on the proverbial banana peel, slides along the busy street and plummets face first into a pile of murky water.

We laugh, almost instantaneously. As if it were a nervous release of energy or something perhaps evolutionarily pre-programmed within us to consider falling or the inelasticity between his mind and body hilarious.

The humor in this situation is similar to humor in any situation. It’s in proportion to the unconscious. The comic needs to appear unconscious of him or herself. This is why a carefully rehearsed line, delivered like a carefully rehearsed line, is rarely funny whereas a carefully rehearsed line, delivered with an unconscious mistake is funnier. We want that smoothness of delivery. We want the incongruity to appear natural.

The philosophical study of humor focuses on three areas: incongruity, superiority, and relief theories. Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard supported the incongruity theory, which seems to have had its origins in Aristotle’s Rhetoric (III, 2). Aristotle presented that the best way to get an audience to laugh is to setup an expectation and deliver something else. Rene Descartes proposed a similar surprise theory, but Aristotle explained that the surprise needs to “fit the facts,” or as it is commonly referred to today, the incongruity needs to be capable of a resolution.

The incongruity theory includes such things as ambiguity, irrelevance, and inappropriateness.

Ambiguity (A woman flies into Boston eager to enjoy a plate of fish the city is renowned for, jumps in a cab and says, ‘Where can I get scrod?’ ‘Gee,’ the cabby replies, ‘I’ve never heard it put in the pluperfect subjective before!’)

Irrelevance (Inspired by the brusque manners of Dick Cheney, how many neocons does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Go fuck yourself!)

Inappropriateness (Why did the space shuttle Challenger blow up? The astronauts were free-basing Tang) – okay, maybe this one is inappropriateness/tragedy + time.

You get the point – it’s just like how the London newspaper headline read during World War II, BRITISH PUSH BOTTLES UP GERMANS. Whether inadvertent or deliberate, or a combination of both, these jokes simultaneously manage to remain innocent and raunchy at the same time. Something the majority of us, despite any rigidity, can’t help but chuckle at…

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