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The Thorny Nature of Humor

by Izzy Kalman (October 2003)

Humor is a major subject in my seminar presentations. I explain that most of us go through life laughing and we don’t even recognize the nature of what we’re laughing at. The great majority of humor is the portrayal of people’s faults. It is not funny when people look smart and talented and happy. It is only funny when they look stupid and clumsy and miserable. But we do not readily let this enter our awareness because we believe it is evil to enjoy other people’s misery.

One seminar participant left me an evaluation that disputed my definition of humor, saying that humor doesn’t have to be about people’s shortcomings, it can be about people being clever. But if you examine humor in which someone is being clever, it is always at someone else’s expense: the clever person makes someone else look stupid. Cleverness by itself is not funny. The invention of the light bulb was clever. But was it funny?

Another seminar participant thought she found a joke that does not make anyone look bad. The joke: A comedian was fired for sitting down at a stand-up comedy club. Perhaps the participant thinks that being fired is pleasant, but it would make most of us miserable. And firing someone for “sitting” while doing “stand up comedy” is the kind of thing we can expect of Amelia Bedelia, the learning-disabled maid who has made millions of kids laugh. And speaking of Amelia Bedelia, why haven’t those books been banned by now, since it is not nice to make fun of the learning-disabled?

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