My siblings and I had more or less unrestricted access to the television when we were growing up. There was no parental oversight; we watched whatever we wanted, regardless of age-appropriateness. I have memories of sitting in front of the television with my little brother watching stand up comedy. When we heard that there was going to be a cable channel devoted entirely to comedy, we were thrilled. We consumed sketch shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the Kids in the Hall with the same voraciousness that some of our peers reserved for teen dramas. We watched stand-up without any discerning palette. We took in everything… from Gallagher all the way to Emo Phillips. We were ravenous, and we were learning.
I still watch a lot of comedy, but I have more discerning tastes now. A lot of what I consume now comes in the form of podcasts. If you’re not listening to podcasts already, you should be. It’s an incredible, free, portable source of both information and entertainment. This is why is has been a common and continuing facet of human entertainment since the ancient greeks, and possibly earlier. Aristotle claimed that the beginnings of comedy came from Phallic processions, but that since it has never been treated as a serious subject, the origins are poorly documented.
How wonderful to think that comedy came about from a parade that centered around penises.
We’ve seen comedy grow from these beginnings, through elizabethan times, into the early modern day, when films, radio, and eventually television gave comedians access to larger and larger audiences. We’ve seen the slapstick of the Three Stooges, we’ve seen lounge acts and short-bit comics, we’ve seen prop comedy, and with each iteration the whole seems to become more complex and yet also more refined. But it’s always been there, and that’s because people need it.
One can simply say that comedy makes people laugh, and that laughter makes people feel good, and this is why it has stuck around, but like most things that make us feel good, comedy has a purpose… over the course of my short life I have come to understand that comedy plays a very important role in human society. Comedy releases tension… and this is why the taboo is so popular, and indeed so necessary, in comedy.
Think about it. We feel social tension around taboo topics. We feel uncomfortable, we experience tension, this tension builds as the joke is set up, the punchline happens, we laugh, and the tension is released. Hypothetically, the greater the tension build-up, the greater the potential laugh. I think we’ve all experienced cases of nervous laughter, when something strikes you as particularly funny in an inappropriate situation, and maybe later you can’t even remember exactly why that thing seemed funny… it was because a release of tension was needed. I experienced a lot of this during the two delirious weeks I spent in the hospital in the spring of 2012, watching my mother die. My sisters and brothers and I laughed a lot during that time. I think it was the thing that kept us going.
Steve Martin, who could arguably be called a forefather of so-called “alt comedy,” pioneered comedy without punchlines. He theorized that, much like the comedic experience among friends in which there are no defined jokes or punchlines (responsible for the “you had to be there” effect), without that structure, the listener would simply choose their own place to laugh.
That’s the thing about comedy… the tension has to go somewhere. They’ll either laugh at your jokes or they’ll laugh at you.
This effect of comedy can be used to defuse tension surrounding certain topics as well. A comedian that I enjoy and respect very much once commented that penis jokes relieve the social tension surrounding sex and specifically for men, that surrounding penis size. This is why audiences (also notably mostly male) respond to jokes about rape… they feel societal tension surrounding the subject, and so they want to hear jokes that will help relieve that. Comedian Anthony Jeselnik says that people at his shows will go so far as to request rape jokes. I’m not going to specifically opine on rape jokes here… if I do, that will be a whole different post. Even though racial comedy has fallen mostly out of fashion, it has served an important purpose in diffusing the tension surrounding racial issues… though it’s important to note that there can be and indeed has been some very destructive comedy about race. There still is, in fact.
According to a small poll on badoo.com, Americans were voted the funniest people on earth… and we do have a tradition of comedy unlike any other, although the british can certainly hold their own in my opinion. We also rank as the 54th most stressed out nation, which isn’t a bad ranking, but does make use more stressed than most of the first world. Maybe we’re so funny because we need to be.
Comedy has a tremendous ability to convince people; to grab attention and to persuade. My younger brother is now a teacher, and he uses comedy in the classroom to engage his students. Political comedy has the power to influence people’s views, which accounts for the wild popularity of comedian Jon Stewart, and occasional calls for him to run for office. Laughter triggers a serotonin response and also releases endorphins in the brain. Serotonin, among many, many other things, makes us feel good. It’s referred to as the “happiness hormone,” because it contributes to feelings of well-being and a reduction in aggression. Laughter also releases dopamine, which, along with serotonin, function in the behavioral reward system, which motivates behavior perceived as beneficial to the organism, such as eating and having sex.
I don’t know exactly why laughter is tied into the reward system in our brains… I don’t know what the evolutionary benefit could be that would encourage humor through natural selection. Perhaps it is a trait that tagged along with a different successful trait. Whichever it is, comedy and its accompanying laughter has great power to calm, to please, and to persuade, and I don’t know if you could’ve guessed, but comedy is definitely one of my favorite things.