Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Surrealist Lightbulb and the Fine Art of Conspiracy

What makes a joke funny? What elements go into humour?

It may seem silly, but two incidents lately have made me wonder about these things in a serious vein.

The first is the hilarious behavior of the British Columbia HRC in its earnest discussion of whether the CBC television programme Little Mosque on the Prairie is funny. I'm fairly sure the Islams bringing Mark Steyn and Maclean's magazine up on blasphemy charges don't think its funny either. I think they think that non-Islams are required to think it is funny because that is how it is expected to work as a propaganda tool. They've been told that Westerners have this thing called "humour", and that when Islam is presented with this substance coating it, the dumb Westerners will accept it more readily. I'm fairly sure they think that "humour" is like a kind of icing that makes the dumb Westerners enjoy any awful bit of baked sawdust presented as cake.

So, in the course of the procedings, the Islams accused Mark Steyn of not finding Little Mosque funny. I am given to understand that the Kangaroos earnestly brought in "humour experts" to engage in a serious discussion of what makes a programme funny, and what doesn't. I was not told the outcome, whether Little Mosque would be stamped as "Official Canadian Humour", and whether that would mean that not finding it funny, or at least not pretending to, would leave open to prosecution in the Human Rights Tribunal anyone who didn't laugh along with the laugh track. Canada's getting pretty weird, and I'm not sure what the rules are these days, not having been keeping close enough watch.

The second incident is the rather odd reaction of Richard Dawkins and his Bright friends when presented with a parody of themselves.

I will not explain at too great a length, but it made me think that I am right and that one of the defining characteristics of the left/atheist/newfangledperson/southpaw crowd is a nearly complete blindness to irony. I've not yet finished thinking about what this means, but if I come up with something, I'll let y'all know.

Meanwhile, someone else has done a pretty good job:

Long ago, I remember watching some film about human evolution narrated by Richard Leakey, Jr. It was interesting as such films go, but you got the sense as it went along that it explained everything at the cost of leaving everything out—like scientists in a Far Side cartoon analyzing humor.

The crowning moment of the film, for me, was when Leakey stood in front of the gorgeous twenty-thousand-year-old cave paintings in Lascaux, France and, with genuine puzzlement in his voice, wondered aloud “Why did they do this? What was the purpose?”

I had the distinct impression he would have expressed equal bafflement were he standing in the Louvre. There seemed to be a gene missing somewhere. He was a man who knew a great deal about human origins and yet, however smart he was, there was something about him that was radically out of touch with, well, what it meant to be human. You felt he needed tape on his glasses, a pocket protector, high water trousers and D&D dice in his pocket to complete the image he seemed to project with such earnest unconsciousness.

So, a friend of mine has decided to try his hand at satirical columniating in his local paper, (No, I won't tell you who and where, not yet anyway), and we are working on his technique.

Maybe I could offer my ideas to the BC. Human Rights Tribunal, they seem to need the help.

What's Funny?

I've come up with four elements that seem to be present in nearly all humour. I have called them:

Juxtaposition, Subversive Truth-telling, Exaggeration Ad absurdam, and Conspiracies

Humour in general seems to be dependent upon the element of surprise and all of these elements contribute to creating a reaction of surprise in the audience (except conspiracies, which do the opposite, but play upon our vanities, which is a different thing... to be dealt with last).

Satire seems to depend upon Subversive Truth-Telling and Exaggeration Ad Absurdam more than the others. There is usually the Conspiracies element there too.


We laugh when something unexpected happens in a familiar surrounding, that does not threaten. We laugh when John Cleese, himself a living parody of upper-class English manhood, shows up in a dress and starts talking like a Manchester housewife. When we say to someone, "How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?" our audience (assuming they are very young and have never heard this old chestnut) begins to smirk in anticipation of being surprised by an unexpected answer; and the laugh, when it comes, is an exhalation of relief. Jokes are for adults what peekaboo is to an infant, a constant surprise.


I will use lightbulb jokes to illustrate.

Q. "How many Surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?"
Ans: "A fish"

Juxtaposition is probably the first element of humour. It is the one children like most and the one that Monty Python claimed as their own. It is, simply, the placing of a completely unexpected object in a familiar surrounding, as in the Surrealist LB joke above.

We expect the lightbulb joke, which by adulthood is pretty familiar territory, to go in a set pattern. The example is the psychiatrist LB joke, and the answer "Only one but the lightbulb really has to want to change" presents a small juxtaposition between the expected habits of psychiatrists and what we know about lightbulbs. The psychiatrist LB joke is only mildly funny to most people because the juxtaposition does not create a very wide gap. Its humour rests only on the silliness of the idea that a psychiatrist would treat a lightbulb.

The gap is the humour. To make an analogy, a joke is like a ride at an amusement park. We are taken up in a comfy and, we know, perfectly safe chair to a great height, and allowed to plummet to the ground in a perfect simulation of something terrifying and unexpected. The gap created by a juxtaposition of the expected with the unexpected, is the distance one falls. The greater the distance, the more "terrifying" the ride, the more fun. The bigger the gap created by the juxtaposition, the funnier the joke.

This is the first reason the Surrealist LB joke is funnier than the psychiatrist LB joke. Its juxtaposition of the expected answer (something mildly droll, perhaps, about painters) with the totally unexpected non-sequitur of "a fish", creates a vast gap between what we expected and what we now have.

The psychiatrist LP joke is mildly amusing and probably gently mocks our interest in self-help pop-psychology. Whereas the juxtaposition of the Surrealist LB joke creates a vast gap that shocks us into a much bigger laugh.

Exaggeration Ad Absurdam:

The Trad lightbulb joke. "How many Trads..?" "Change?!!" mocks the traditionalists' obsession with never changing anything in their lives, of wanting to hang on to everything of the past, no matter how absurd. It implies they would rather sit in the dark than change even a lightbulb. It mocks their fanaticism and silliness by bringing the issue into to an extreme absurdity. No Trad would ever hesitate to change a lightbulb of course, but the implication that they hold their Traddiness to be a higher goal than ordinary acts of life-maintenance illustrates a true aspect of their characters.

The Surrealist LB joke also has an element of ad absurdam. One would expect that Salvador Dali had not so inculcated his artistic sensibilities that he would not know the difference between a lightbulb and a fish. But it exaggerates what we assume is the oddities of the Surrealist school painters to make their ideas look silly.

Of course, satire depends heavily upon Exaggeration Ad Absurdam, as we see with the all-time classic example of Mr. Swift's essay on the Irish Problem. It employs juxtaposition, in the fact that the target audience is familiar with the sad scene of the Irish situation, and exaggeration to a great extreme in suggesting that the solution is to go all the way with the logic and treat the Irish as cattle for food, rearing them, essentially, as an alternative to the beef industry. A Modest Proposal, particularly with its completely calm and matter-of-fact tone, enraged the English ruling elite because it implied that there was only a small step between the way the English treated the Irish at the time, and treating them as animals to rear for food. The target audience got the joke because they saw that the logic was perfectly sound, but the joke was on them, and they knew it. (More on Mr. Swift and the elements and nature of satire later).

Conspiracies and Subversive Truth-Telling:

But the Surrealist LB joke is funnier than most LB jokes, and more sophisticated. First, it assumes quite a lot of knowledge on the part of the listener. It assumes that he has enough grasp of English to know what the expected type of answer is to the question "how many?". He also is familiar enough with the culture to expect a lightbulb joke to follow a familiar pattern: "How many Xs does it take to change a lightbulb?" "(Number)" followed by a brief explanation. This is part of the set-up. The familiar surroundings that will create the distance of the gap created by the juxtaposition. The ground, from which the lift takes up our comfy chair.

The joke also expects that we are familiar with surrealist art, and modern art in general and agree that it is pretty silly. It creates a conspiracy, therefore, between the joke teller and the listeners. The joke draws us into the conspiracy that we all agree Surrealism, and probably most of modern art, is just dumb, and that its practitioners and supporters are so divorced from reality that they can't answer a simple question without going all weird.

It mocks also the modern social convention that we are never allowed to voice this opinion for fear of being seen as philistines. We must never make fun of or take lightly a major modern art movement, (or, by extrapolation, modernity in general). Telling a joke that mocks Surrealism, and by extension its fans and supporters, is a subversive act of Truth-telling that garners a sense of relief from the audience who laugh at the shock of hearing it, but are also glad that someone has dared to say it.

By creating a conspiracy, and engaging in Subversive Truth-Telling, you have both flattered your audience and given them permission to think what they want. It allows them to form an elite of their own, people who are "in the know" about how silly modern art is. You have raised them from the position of philistine bumpkins to being in the same class as the modern art elites. They will love you. The Surrealist Lightbulb Joke is, therefore, the little boy who was the only one who dared to point at the Emperor and laugh. He breaks the spell of the tailors and allows everyone to laugh and point as well.


Satire seems to consist mostly of extreme exaggeration of familiar things and people.

Mr. Fowler gives us, in the Oxford Concise, "(Rom. Ant.) poetic medley, esp. poem aimed at prevalent vices or follies; a composition in verse or prose holding up vice or folly to ridicule or lampooning individuals...use of ridicule, irony, sarcasm etc..."

Irony: "Expression of one's meaning by language of opposite or different tendency, esp., simulated adoption of another's point of view for purpose of ridicule ...use of language that has an inner meaning for a privileged audience and an outer meaning for the persons addressed; Socratic: simulation of ignorance as means of confuting adversary.

Let's examine one of the more popular satirical offerings, The Simpsons.

The Simpsons employs three elements that make it great satire (and extraordinarily clever marketing): Conspiracies, exaggeration and subversive truth-telling.

Its satire seems to consist mostly of presenting a world that is only slightly, but absurdly, exaggerated version of our own. It takes cultural elements with which we are all familiar, exaggerates them and re-presents them in such a way as to make the real world seem absurd. That is the purpose of satire, esp of the sort you are proposing. To make other people see the world as we see it. To force other people to recognise the absurdities of the real world by creating a satirical fantasy version of it.

Satirical characters are just exaggerated archetypes, the types familiar throughout literature. The vast cast of two-dimensional background characters in the Simpsons is one of the best examples of this going. We recognise them all instantly, either from our dim recollections of high literature (the salty old sea dog, Captain Creech comes straight out of at least half a dozen 19th century novels and poems) or modern films. Monty Burns is Ebeneezer Scrooge, and probably a dozen others. The Comic Shop Guy, Mayor Quimby, Principal Skinner are all immediately recognisable archetypal characters from films and popular culture, (and sometimes our own high school experiences).

But what the Simpsons does best is the Conspiracy. The Simpsons requires an extremely high level of cultural literacy, coupled with the knowing aloofness that so characterises members of the post-60's generation. People born after the 1960s seem to display the same sense of not really belonging to this culture, but of being stuck in a surreal and nearly always hostile world that we did not create and about which we can do nothing. We all believe, whether our parents are alive or not, that the world we live in was created by them and for them, and not for us. We feel that the Boomers still own the world and only grudgingly allow us to live in it, as long as we don't make too much mess. We feel trapped in a bizarre parodic culture that only dimly resembles the world we think we should be living in. We are, in a word, alienated. Which makes us an ideal target audience for a parody.

The Simpsons draws us, a very specific target audience, into a vast but at the same time oddly exclusive club for whom the dozens of rapid-fire references to cultural artifacts in each programme act as code words. It is a form of verse and response antiphonal relationship between the show's makers and the audience. A sign and counter-sign required to be let into the club's doors.

Conspiracy, upon which satire is enormously dependent, necessarily creates two camps: us and them, the people who get the joke and the people who are the butt of the joke, or at least the straightman. I think the genius of the Simpsons is to make the in-crowd so huge. Nearly everyone raised after the 1960s, and a fair number who weren't, are in on the joke, but it creates this vast conspiracy that includes nearly everyone, while maintaining the feeling that we are enjoying the company of an exclusive group with the right gnosis. It is an exclusive club, complete with exciting hand signals, that everyone can join.

More on this later.


Mark S. Abeln said...


Perhaps irony is the highest form of humour, while punning is the lowest. I love a good pun, so what does that say about me? I enjoy satire, but I have my doubts about it, so I don't write any.

Irony shows the distinction between appearances and reality. This is also the foundation of classical philosophy and Medieval science, so irony is quite profound.

I think it is easy to explain why irony is lost on those with a modern scientific 'logical-positivist' mindset. Under their (false) philosophy, appearances are reality, which is why scientists are so easily fooled by charlatans.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

I thought irony was the cheapest form of humour going. It's easy, it's sharp, it takes almost no thought. Not that impressed with irony really.

It is certainly easy to figure out why our post-modern nominalists don't really get irony. But the reason - that they don't really get reality - is the explanation for them not getting humour in general.

Mark S. Abeln said...

I don't know if it is the cheapest, but then again I can't tell a joke if my life depended on it: I don't have the timing. Physical humour I do get, and I think that is quite cheap.

Zach said...

Q: How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb?


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Ah, an excellent example of the non-sequitur creating a wide juxtaposition gap.

I laff.

ha ha.

Unknown said...

Arthur Koestler's 1967 book, The Act of Creation, is what you are looking for. He deals extensively with humor in it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting analysis. I'm afraid I don't want to be in the Simpsons in-crowd. I like its zaniness at times.

The version of the surrealist lightbulb joke I know is:

Q. How many lightbulbs does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. Two: One to hold the giraffe and the other to fill the bathtub with power tools.

Less of a gap? I found it hysterically funny at first.

Anonymous said...

It's quite good.

Less gap, but good.

I laughed.

Anonymous said...

There's the one about the mice, but it's very vulgar. - Karen