Like the previous post, this is an (edited) article that I wrote on the subject of the nature of humour (no laughing matter!) for Foghorn, the journal of the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation, of which I am a member. The articles are best read together (previous one first, naturally).
Humour as a Weapon
In the previous post I expounded on the theory that the feeling that we experience as humour evolved in prehistoric times as a way of dissipating tension that had built up in threatening situations. You may recall the scene that I described: of your stone-age ancestor being worried by the approach of the local dominant male, your ancestor’s adrenaline levels rising as the fight or flight impulse kicked in. When the approaching dominant male slipped on a banana skin (real or metaphorical) and skulked away, pride hurt, everything changed. The threat had gone, but the adrenalin was still there and had to be dispelled. It had to have somewhere to go: that place was through the release valve of humour.
So it was that we developed the capacity to see situations as humourous – to have an appreciation that we define as humour.
If you’re slightly discomfited by the fact that the origins of our appreciation of humour seem to be linked to situations involving potential aggression, such as the approach of an unwelcome dominant male, just wait until you hear about the part that aggression plays in our creation of humour.
Having developed an ability to appreciate humour it was only a matter of time before we exploited that ability by actually going out and deliberately creating the stuff ourselves, rather than just hanging around waiting for it to happen accidentally in front of us (such as when a dominant male slips on a banana skin).
Naturally, this whole subject has been studied extensively by scientists.
A recent study was carried out by Professor Sam Schuster of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, who conducted research into humour by cycling round on a unicycle and noting the reaction of members of the public.
The difference between the reactions of the male and female passers-by was interesting. While most of the females who reacted to the vision of the unicycling academic expressed admiration, wonder, or encouragement, most of the males (75% of them in fact) made their feelings known by deploying humour, a lot of which was mocking, sneering or snide – intended as put-downs. The exact opposite of the females’ responses in fact.&Boys up to the age of about ten showed wonder and admiration, just like most of the females. However, between the ages of 11 and 13 things changed. As puberty kicked in the boys’ reactions became gradually more aggressive and jeering. As the youths progressed further into their teens the inarticulate jeering ‘matured’ into the form of jokes (often of the ‘Oi – you’ve lost a wheel!’ variety).
The intensity of the aggression (and probably the low quality of the humour) was particularly marked in the case of young men in cars, who would wind their windows down to hurl an abusive remark that masqueraded as wit.
This unseemly type of behaviour decreased among older men, who tended to offer more admiring and supportive comments, much like most of the women.
The theory goes that the testosterone-fuelled young men felt threatened by the pedalling professor, who’s unicycling prowess may have mysteriously impressed any attractive young females who happened to be in the vicinity. The young men had to neutralize the impact of the display of cycling skill with a counter display of their own. Their deployment of humour to this end would conveniently both put down the pedaller by mocking his feat and at the same time divert attention towards themselves and their verbal and mental dexterity (‘Oi – you’ve lost a wheel!’ – very witty if you’re a woman who goes for that sort of man).
Of course hurling a joke at a unicyclist is a preferable way of neutralizing this perceived threat to your manhood than knocking him off his bike or throwing a stick into his spokes, but when it comes down to it, the joke is still a display of aggression, camouflaged though it is in the acceptable mantle of humour.
The theory that humour is cloaked aggression is often put forward as an explanation of why men tend to use humour more than women do. Because, essentially, humour is a weapon (A custard pie, after all, is nothing less than a missile that’s armed to wound by humiliation).
This is one reason why there are more male cartoonists than female ones. It seems that cartoons are a perfect medium for men to channel attention towards themselves and to be subtly aggressive without anyone disapproving.
Indeed, the more I think about it, the less I want to do with this whole aggression-masquerading-as-entertainment cartooning business. In fact I’d change careers right now if only I had another way of showing off.