Steven Wright, Bill Cosby, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud on the philosophy of comedy

I’ve written about comedy before. A column entitled “Why is that funny?” started with the following three lines:

A man walks down the street...
falls into a manhole...
and dies!

The column went on to consider the necessary attributes of a joke, a familiar opening, an unixpected twist, and a crescendo followed by the punch line. But the last line above hits too hard to be a punch line.

“If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it’s not funny,” wrote a blogger on Yahoo Answers.

This time I figured I’d run my theories by the professionals. Do jokes depend upon these three ingredients: a familiar premise, a surprise or unexpected shift in the plot and an uplifting release at the end?

Bill Cosby and Steven Wright weigh in with a little help from Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud.

Philosophers Kant and Schopenhauer said surprise was the chief ingredient in a joke.

“Yes, that’s definitely a major part of it because the element of surprise is what the joke really is,” said jokester Steven Wright, in an interview.

So there’s agreement that a familiar premise followed by a sudden shift constitutes the majority of jokes. But stogie chomping Sigmund Freud offered an alternative setup. He said laughter was a reaction to “incongruity.” Then, in true Freudian style, he took it a bit further. Freud added that the laughter that followed jokes was the result of fear of repressed feelings.

And there you have it, the icky feeling that lingered in the air anytime Freud left the room.
Personally, I think jokes need to be good-natured. Given some thought, most jokes have positive aspects to them, like the bond that comes from telling jokes to others.

Jokes can also shine light on prejudices that usually stay tucked away giving people a chance to work through their feelings.

But not everything has to be deep. When you don’t want to think, there is always the one-liner: A man walks into a bar... Ouch. And what is even quicker than a one-liner? A pun. “Have an apple,” the serpent said fruitfully (badpuns.com).

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the pun is the shaggy dog story.

According to Wikipedia, “a shaggy dog story is an extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punch line.”
Shaggy dog stories aren’t always jokes, and even the ones that are meant to be funny pull at the very fabric of what a joke is.

Their long and winding narra- tives can be relentless in direct opposition to the economy of a joke. Sometimes they fizzle out long before the storyteller realizes he’s forgotten his punch line.

But what makes jokes work are the insights that make us groan if not laugh out loud. And it’s these insights, the recognition of “I’ve been there!,” or even, “Wow! Who would have thought...?,” that give us pleasure.

Ever notice the feeling you get when you have a smile on your face? Research shows that even a fake smile has a positive effect. Just going through the motions of putting a smile on your face will brighten your mood.

Maybe this is why many take comedy so seriously. Of the interviews I’ve done with comedians, Bill Cosby stands out. Our conversation veered back and forth between very serious and very funny. He’s given a lot of thought to comedy and its effects on people.

“I think that laughter raises the spirit, puts out fantastic hormonal, very positive changes for the heart, for the organs, etc. I think it’s medicine,” said Cosby.

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