Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Flirtation, mean jokes, and some observations on humor

I noticed something the other day. Flirting and mean jokes are very much alike.

In both cases, the talk is presented as playful. Tossed off lightly, as it were, intended to make people smile if not laugh. In each case, the talk is aimed at a borderline of discomfort. In the case of flirting, the borderline of discomfort is that of invasion, though the message of the talk is usually positive. In the case of mean jokes, the borderline of discomfort is that of insult, and the content is negative.

In both cases, the speaker who uses flirtation or mean jokes is protected by their status as "deniable" messages. If the person receiving the message feels invaded or insulted, the speaker can always say, "I was just kidding." What I've found in the case of mean jokes, though, is that people aren't usually joking. They're using the convenient deniability to protect themselves while delivering negative messages that they really mean.

Humor is difficult.

A lot of humor is based on borderlines of discomfort. These borderlines are culturally defined, which means that humor doesn't necessarily translate well.

I admit I laugh at "Wait, wait... Don't tell me." And Jon Stewart gives me quite the chuckles. The hardest I've ever laughed was at The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Monty Python - English humor. Some of the jokes, of course, went right by me. They didn't make me groan, but instead made me go, "Wha...?" The ones that got me, on the other hand - whoa! Monty Python's parrot sketch brought tears to my eyes.

I think a lot of humor is like that, because if humor didn't tread borderlines, it wouldn't be funny. My preference is for humor along the random/weird borderline, because if I don't get it, it just leaves me behind. I laugh at some types of uncomfortable/taboo borderline humor, but when I don't get it, I can hardly stand it. With Mr. Bean, for example, I have to leave the room after about five minutes - same with Mike Myers at his worst. Profanity generally leaves me cold, but it "fits" well with certain types of humorous content. Seinfeld was always firmly on the borderline of inanity/pet peeves, and I couldn't stand it.

But in English generally, even if I don't "get" the humor, at least I understand what it's trying to do. Humor in a foreign language is much tougher.

French humor was always a rewarding effort for me. I thought Asterix and Tintin comic books were hilarious - Tintin went more for the physical slapstick humor that was relatively familiar, while Asterix added a dimension of puns that is difficult to describe. I think puns in English are often considered to be low humor, though they are used constantly in the area of sports, and often in news headlines. The puns in Asterix were so thoroughgoing that you just had to love them. And the cultural borderlines they played with were somewhat familiar.

Japanese is harder. I've studied a heck of a lot of Japanese, lived there three years, watched a lot of Japanese television shows, and I have yet to get it completely. Some stuff I've figured out. The physical humor - I can understand the ridiculing/embarrassing/fooling/injuring people borderline to some extent. It was a little like America's most sadistic home videos. The humor satirizing extreme elements of Japanese culture, I could also get - like a sitcom-style show that depicted a number of families going to extreme measures as their children passed through rigorous testing to enter kindergarten. Or like Juzo Itami's The Funeral - a great movie - which satirized the societal expectations of behavior surrounding a funeral for a man whom everyone in the film disliked. But some of it, especially comedy-dialogue, left me totally bewildered.

So what about in writing stories?

Well, as I've told all my critique friends, I can't write humor. Not jokes, at least. So I don't try to go for ridiculous situations or funny twists or wild over-the-top comedy. On the other hand, I love to have my characters be funny just because of who they are. Like the gecko Allayo in "Let The Word Take Me" (Analog, July/August 2008), who because of her cultural background drew the utterly serious and sensible conclusion that the young Human man David Linden was possessed, simply because he talked so much.

When I started writing this post it made me wonder what an alien or fantasy society would look like if it were designed with its own particular brand of humor - or have humor take a different role, maybe a larger role, in society as a whole. I'm not sure if I've ever seen anyone do something like that - not having the entire story be a comedy, so much as having the people in it make humor an important and integral part of their lives. If any of you have encountered such a thing, do tell me where, because I'd love to see how it was done!