Consider Yourself Pranked

Borat (2006) depicts a well-intentioned-but-oblivious tourist as he stumbles his way through American customs and culture. The characters he meets are played by real people, not actors; they have no idea that the man committing egregious faux pas is himself just an actor, as opposed to an actual Kazakh tourist. The film was met with critical acclaim. “ ‘Borat’ is so gut-bustingly funny it should carry a health warning,” glowed Tom Charity of CNN Entertainment. But I don’t think I actually laughed throughout the entire movie.

I made a noise that resembles laughing. But it was more of a reflex, which was borne out of discomfort, and which imitated laughter, than it was true laughter, which is borne out of humor. True laughter comes from the belly, not from the squirming mind.

Borat was uncomfortable. But it wasn’t funny.

Borat, at the dinner table with hospitable Southern Christians, acts so rudely that his hosts become increasingly uncomfortable, and eventually remove him from the table when he brings in a prostitute.

Borat, at the dinner table with hospitable Southern Christians, acts so rudely that his hosts become increasingly uncomfortable, and eventually remove him from the table when he brings in a prostitute.

The entire genre of prank humor doesn’t actually evoke true laughter, in me, or in anyone for that matter. True humor, as I’ll often call it, occurs only when two parties simultaneously achieve an understanding of new information. In prank humor, the information balance is one-sided. The perpetrators of the prank, and the viewers, possess information that the victims of the prank do not. So, when we laugh in our theater chairs, we’re laughing at their ignorance, and not at some shared new knowledge.

So, before we talk in-depth about what humor is, let’s establish what it’s not: humor does not arise from placing people in scenarios in which information is withheld from them.

Let this not be confused with humor at another’s expense. Humor at another’s expense can be perfectly funny, as long as the butt of the joke has access to the same information as does the deliverer.

At The Roast of James Franco:

Seth Rogen: Can anyone tell me why we’re here today? [Looks at James Franco] I can tell you why I’m here. Because every time you do something without me, it sucks!

The crowd laughed heartily at this joke. Why was it funny? Because everyone knew exactly what was being laughed at, including James Franco himself, who also laughed. New information—the idea that James Franco is so dependent on Seth Rogen that even his roast wouldn’t be funny without the latter—is reached by everyone, without discrimination, at the same time. The joke pokes fun at James Franco, but it doesn’t leave him in the dark.

Of course, the butt of the joke need not be present. Joan Rivers said of Tom Cruise:

“He’s been in the closet so long, I’m going to take him to Goodwill!”

Mr. Cruise almost certainly wasn’t present at the joke’s delivery, but nevertheless, it’s harmless fun. That’s because, at least hypothetically, Tom Cruise could have had equal access to the information. Most importantly, the humor doesn’t rely on his lack of possession of information.

PigeonI’ve spoken badly about pranks, but even some prank shows manage to produce true humor. Trigger Happy TV aired the scene shown here. As this elderly man nonchalantly feeds the pigeons, a giant, life-sized pigeon approaches and starts pecking him. Incensed, the man fights back.

The reason I still find this funny is that the man is instantly aware that he has become part of a joke. In this way, he resembles James Franco from the earlier example: the joke is at his expense, but at least he gets the joke. The man is aware enough of the absurdity of the situation to exchange blows with the giant pigeon.

Since good pranks do appear to exist, we’ll say that most prank humor, including Borat and the like, belongs to a more general category of false humor. The giant pigeon prank may remain in the realm of true humor, since the victim is aware of his participation.

Of course, not all pranks in which the victim is aware of his participation are true humor. I wouldn’t consider a stranger getting pied in the face funny, even though the stranger would learn pretty quickly that he had fallen victim to a prank. So, we see in this example that, while the sharing of relevant information is necessary for a joke or prank to be true humor, it’s not sufficient.

pie-in-face

Consider yourself PRANKED!

My point from earlier still stands, though, which is that the withholding of information is sufficient to render a joke’s humor false.

So why did we all laugh at Borat?

It may be that laughter is a nervous response to discomfort. This was my experience. Or, there may be something more insidious going on.

Withholding information quickly exposes a power differential. When Borat withholds information from the Southern Christians, he exerts his own status, as the in-the-know, over their status, as the oblivious. False humor seems to be more about power than it is about humor.

It harkens back to the schoolyard, where the bully breaks the nerd’s glasses, and then he and his cronies laugh. They’re certainly not laughing at any sort of true humor. They’re laughing to drive home the point that their position is superior than his.

Similarly, the Borat audience laughs to establish its position as powerful. Audience members see the spectacle on the screen in front of them, and then turn to each other and laugh, just like the bullies do.

Why do the schoolyard bullies laugh in particular, though? Why don’t they frown, or jump up and down? It seems strange that recognition of humor and recognition of power should produce a similar physical response.

Shared recognition of new information seems to be the common element behind all cases of humor, whether true or false. In both the Seth Rogen case and in the bullies case, new information is achieved by those who laugh. In the former case, that information is an unexpected remark regarding Rogen and Franco’s relationship. In the latter case, that information is that the bullies are powerful.

Further, both humor and power feel good. Laughter seems to be a mechanism for showing another that one feels good. If two nerds were beaten up by a group of bullies, they would hardly laugh about it, either truly or falsely, even though both had simultaneously received new information (the information that they are powerless). Similarly, the victim of the face-pieing would not laugh, either truly or falsely. So, new shared information and a good feeling that comes with that information unite true and false humor.

The difference, then, between true and false humor, is that only in the latter is new information often not shared with third parties (as is the case in most pranks). More generally, only in false humor is the realization that harm has been done the sole and complete content of the new information. The bullies, the Borat audience, and witness of the face-pieing are all laughing explicitly at harm done, and at the fact that, in the safety of their theater chair or their group of big friends, they are immune from said harm, and therefore powerful.

Contrast this with the James Franco and Tom Cruise examples. In these cases, harm may be done as a result of humor. But harm isn’t the source of the humor.

Laughter from humor looks like laughter from power, and it often feels like it. But they are completely distinct, and, if the conscious can’t tell the difference, the subconscious can. True laughter comes abruptly and spontaneously, from deep within the belly. And it seems to be produced by a shared realization among the laughers of an unexpected-but-surprisingly-apt connection (perhaps more on this in another post). False laughter, on the other hand, comes from the mind, and it’s produced by the realization that power has been gained by harm done.

Pranks aren’t the only way to do harm. Punching a geek or pieing a stranger also does the trick. But pranks are a good way to do harm. In fact, they might be even more nefarious than physical violence: the victim of a prank can’t fight back, since he doesn’t yet know he’s a victim. Best of all, pranks are a socially-accepted, widely-lauded form of “humor.”

I know I’m not laughing.

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This entry was posted in Culture.

6 comments on “Consider Yourself Pranked

  1. Ben says:

    This evokes Baudelaire’s 1855 “On The Essence Of Laughter”, in which the writer argues that, indeed, all humor is “caused by a misfortune or a weakness, some inferiority.” Quoting:

    “[W]hat is there so particularly diverting in the sight of a man falling on the ice or on the road, or tripping on the edge of a pavement, that his brother in Christ should promptly double up uncontrollably, that the muscles of his face should suddenly begin to function like a clock at midday or a mechanical toy? The poor devil may at the very least have damaged his face, or perhaps have broken a vital limb. But the irresistible and sudden roar of laughter was unleashed. It is certain that if we want to explore this situation, we shall find at the very heart of the laughter’s thought a certain unconscious pride. That is the start of the thing: “I don’t fall, I don’t; I walk straight, I do; my footstep is steady and assured, mine is. You won’t catch me being stupid enough not to see where the pavement ends, or that there is a pavingstone in my way….

    “Laughter is satanic; it is therefore profoundly human. In man it is the consequence of his idea of his own superiority; and in fact, since laughter is essentially human it is essentially contradictory, that is to say it is at one and the same time a sign of infinite greatness and of infinite wretchedness, infinite wretchedness in relation to the absolute being, of whom man has an inkling, infinite greatness in relation to the beasts. It is from the constant clash of these two infinities that laughter flows.”

    More good discussion here.

  2. Richard says:

    1. “True humor, as I’ll often call it, occurs only when two parties simultaneously achieve an understanding of new information … humor does not arise from placing people in scenarios in which information is withheld from them.”

    What about suspense? Withholding information in the form of a punchline isn’t always contrary to the humour of a joke. In fact, usually, it’s essential to it. I think a large part of humour comes from the creation, heightening and eventual satisfaction of this anticipation, an orchestrated ignorance, as it were.

    2. Concerning the pigeon prank, you say: “The reason I still find this funny is that the man is instantly aware that he has become part of a joke.”

    Is he instantly aware? Doesn’t the pigeon come at him from behind? Would it still be funny if it turned out that, briefly, the man believed he was being attacked, pigeon costume or no? That he only realised that it was a prank after the few seconds of fear in which he was defending himself? I think a big part of the humour of this prank relies on the obvious confusion that descends when the pigeon attacks. And that confusion is certainly a form of ignorance.

    3. “The withholding of information is sufficient to render a joke’s humor false.”

    The reason I think that this is false is because it can be unclear when (and to what extent) the ‘victims’ of the prank are in the know about the prank. Yet the appearances, the form of the joke, if you like, remain the same. The people in Borat’s film all probably became aware that they had been pranked, at least when the film came out. Is that too late for it to become funny? Or suppose, for example, we found out that, actually, all of the people in Borat’s film were paid actors, would we suddenly start laughing having found out that part of the universe we previously thought unfunny actually was funny all along? Suppose someone told you that the Southern Christians were actually paid actors and you laughed the whole way through. Then imagine that, later, someone told you the truth, that they actually weren’t actors. Consider how ridiculous it would be to say, after a bout of laughing, that the joke wasn’t funny after all, you only thought it was while you were laughing at it. This strikes me as a bit like saying, when you are subjected to pain, that it’s not really painful, you only think it is. My worry is that, with humour, as with pain, thinking makes it so.

    4. “When Borat withholds information from the Southern Christians, he exerts his own status, as the in-the-know, over their status, as the oblivious. “

    It is no part of Borat’s character to appear self-satisfied when subjecting others to his stupidity or ‘cultural’ errors. In fact it is vital to the entire persona that he not appear to be some capable deceiver. If anyone is having his status asserted it’s the observer, the audience member.

    5. Regarding, the Tom Cruise joke and the Roast you say, “But harm isn’t the source of the humor”.

    I think in the case of the Roast, this is not quite true. It is true that no harm really seems to be done to the willing Roast participant, but the idea of saying offensive things in a witty way is certainly part of the humour. The audience and Roast participants are making fun of the subject, saying things which, under normal circumstances would constitute offence or harm. There’s a reason that it’s a Roast and not a serenade.

    6. “False laughter, on the other hand, comes from the mind, and it’s produced by the realization that power has been gained by harm done.”

    I’m not quite sure if I understand how one laughs with one’s mind. But even taking your metaphor less seriously, you surely do not want to deny that the mind is a crucial part of apprehending and participating in ‘true’ humour, correct? I think what you mean is that there is, in false humour, a recognition that something is being done which is not quite right, which is why the laughter is, as you say, ‘nervous’. There are two reasons why that’s probably wrong. One is that it underestimates the capacity people may have to wittingly enjoy the crueler side of prank humour. I imagine people guffawed at Borat (‘gut-busting’ right?). So as an empirical claim about the actual subjective experience of the humour, it’s probably wrong to say that false humour amounts to something substantially different in feeling.

    The second reason concerns whether or not people really think of the prank as cruel. I imagine that most people were too busy already laughing to have decided whether or not it’s okay to laugh at the pranks. This, admittedly speaks poorly of people. But if it’s true, then this may not be false humour. People may simply not consider the prank to be of any harm. Treating somebody as a sport can obviously have very negative connotations, but it doesn’t mean that expecting people to be a good sport for minor pranks is a bad thing.

    7. Some more general thoughts: what you’ve been doing in this piece is attempting, vicariously, to monopolise the word ‘humour’. You recognise that people do use the word to refer to things which you do not think are very funny though, so you introduce the distinction between true and false humour, in an effort, it seems, to assert your own humour-related tendencies as being in some way superior. Now it is true that there are different types of humour. In particular, different levels of required intellectual refinement mark distinctions between different types of jokes. Thus we distinguish wit from mere slapstick. But this sort of distinction isn’t at issue here. It wouldn’t matter how cleverly the deception were carried out in the prank, all that would matter for the resulting humour to be ‘false’ is that the deception be successful. At least, that’s how I interpret you. But then, why should it be called false? Is it not true that people laugh heartily at Borat-like pranks? It is. So, what I think you are really trying to get at is a moral point. You think either that because the prank is cruel or because it is, at the very least, perceived to be cruel, it shouldn’t produce enjoyment. Or that if it does produce enjoyment, this enjoyment is inferior in some way to other cases where we laugh. Given that the Borat reviews and simple experience tell us that this sort of comedy does produce some form of enjoyment, however, we must look to the questions of whether this enjoyment is inferior and whether or not this comedy should produce any enjoyment at all.

    So, by what standard is the enjoyment inferior? Describing it as an enjoyment of power over the powerless, and thus an enjoyment of harm, sounds like a moral standard of inferiority. As I have said, though, it’s empirical whether or not the viewer’s consider the prank a harm. If they do not, then you have to argue that it actually is a harm despite what they think. And we can take this task as tantamount to arguing that this sort of comedy should produce any enjoyment in us at all.

    A while back, around Halloween, my much younger cousin (he’s around five and a Scooby-Doo fanatic) tried to prank me by making noises in the house to make me think there was a ghost. Naturally, I knew it was him, but I played along, pretending to be scared. Later his parents told me how he had come to them, delighted at having ‘pulled one over’ on an adult. Was it wrong of me to indulge his behaviour? Was I playing the complicit nurse to a sinister, nascent instinct which should really have been discouraged from the outset? No. I was playing along. Because, whatever his intentions, I knew no harm was being done. Moreover, it would have been a failing of character, on my part, not to indulge him. To take oneself so seriously that humility and the ability to laugh at oneself are impossible is a failing of character. I would even say that it is a moral failing. Though the peculiar details of the prank might determine the extent to which it constitutes a harm, merely being an unwitting subject is not sufficient, I think.

    Suppose, in response to discovering that they were being pranked, the Southern Christians drew their firearms and shot the actor who plays Borat. Why would this be wrong? Why would it fail as an act of just retribution (if there can ever be such a thing)? Because it’s an overreaction. The Southern Christians would have failed to realise that a minor, non-personal infringement of some aspect of their dignity is not so serious a thing. “So you were the subject of a minor prank, one in which you were made to look foolish and in which it is incidental that it was you who was made to look foolish. Who cares?” we might say. “Anyone in the same situation would have looked foolish, the prank is nothing personal, really. And what’s more, you haven’t really been harmed”.

    In sum, I think the line you’re pushing in this piece relies upon fairly dodgy distinctions, and ultimately seems to be more of an attempt at moralizing. But, considered as an attempt to repudiate certain types of pranks as wrong or cruel or immoral, it doesn’t really cut the mustard, in my view. Pranks can be harmful, but not merely as a result of the criteria you have offered. More needs to be said about the nature of the supposed harm being done.

    • Josh says:

      1. I agree that suspense can be quite funny. Information is withheld from the “victim,” and then it’s restored. And we laugh.

      The important part is that we laugh when the information is restored, and not when it’s withheld. As you mention, humor comes form the satisfaction of the anticipation, and not from the anticipation itself.

      2. As before, I believe that the prank would only be funny if the victim knew he was a part of a prank. And, frankly, the longer it took for him to realize, the less funny it would become. That’s because harm is done during the victim’s time of ignorance, and the key point I want to stress is that harm done should not constitute humor.

      3. Perhaps it was incorrect for me to say that “The withholding of information is sufficient to render a joke’s humor false.” Because, as we mentioned in 1, information can be withheld and then restored to produce humor.

      Still, though: as I stressed in 1, we ought to laugh at the resolution of ignorance, and not at the production of it. In the Borat case, it doesn’t matter that the victims found out they were such once the movie came out. At the time we were laughing, they certainly hadn’t found out. And so we were laughing at their victimhood, and not at their emergence from victimhood.

      4. Of course Borat doesn’t act self-satisfied, since this would be to act out of character. But we certainly can’t rule out the fact that he might feel self-satisfied, although, as an actor, he hides it well. And I believe you’re correct in mentioning that the audience certainly achieves status as an observer, even if Borat doesn’t.

      5. Maybe harm is a slight part of the humor, I’m not sure. But it’s certainly not the mainstay. It’s also true that maybe a little more harm than normal is allowed, since the target of the roast agreed to participate. “You agreed to this,” said Seth Rogen in the clip I included, after issuing a particularly offensive barb.

      6. I agree that people found Borat to be gut-busting, but I argue that their laughter came from a sense of power, not from the cooperative and egalitarian element seen in other sorts of humor. Of course, some people might enjoy the former source of humor as much or more so than the latter. The crux of my argument, though, is that these types are fundamentally different.

      You mention that expecting people to be a good sport for minor pranks isn’t a bad thing. I agree. It would certainly be an overreaction for the Southern Christians to shoot Borat. Ultimately, not a huge amount of harm was done, and the victims may move on with their lives. The important part, though, was that harm was done, no matter how small. The fact that any harm is done, and that this harm is the source of the humor, relegates this prank to what I’ve called false humor. Sure, some pranks are more egregious than others. Behaving rudely at a dinner party isn’t as bad as setting someone’s house on fire. In the former case, we could expect good sportsmanship; in the latter we might not. But the shared element in both pranks is that harm is done, and that it’s the source of whatever humor may arise. And I argue that laughter at harm done is fundamentally different than laughter at harm avoided (although I will refrain for now from arguing that one is better or truer, to avoid issues of moralization).

      7. Perhaps I was wrong in calling these two types of humor true humor and false humor. I actually anticipated this counterpoint. I really just wanted to distinguish between two fundamentally-different types of humor. I may as well have called one “blue humor” and the other one “green humor”. I shouldn’t need to establish the superiority of one type in order to make the argument I seek to make.

      If you must ask, though, I actually do (as you certainly predicted) believe that what I’ve called true humor is morally superior. But it doesn’t seem too controversial to condemn humor that stems from the doing of harm. Many people, as empirical evidence shows, felt that the harm done in Borat was gut-bustingly funny. But analyses like mine might decrease the prevalence of laughter at harm, and therefore the profitability of harm, and therefore the frequency of harm.

      I agree that you would have been wrong not to play along with your cousin’s harmless prank. Yes, If I’m to remain consistent, you may in fact have encouraged his will to gain power over you. But at just five years old, this will could hardly be considered sinister, and it could hardly be expected to develop into something sinister. Meanwhile, you also encouraged his childlike imagination, instead of subjecting it to the less-magical realities of adulthood. The benefit of the latter greatly outweighs any harm done by the former.

  3. Richard says:

    I won’t labour over this too much, Josh, but three significant issues still remain. 1. It remains to be said *exactly* what constitutes the harm you claim was done in Borat’s prank and why this constitutes harm. (Yes you’ve mentioned one-sided ignorance and power differences, but, if you think about these carefully, both are insufficient, as stated, to establish harm without saying more.) 2. The question of the extent of harm caused (on some intuitive scale), relative to the intended comedic consequences, hasn’t been answered. 3. It remains to be seen whether (given an answer to the previous question) the costs of the harm involved outweigh the benefits. This last one may seem an ugly consideration, but at its minimal extremes, it is relatively fair of face.

  4. Nancy says:

    The core source of humor may be hyperbole, irony, or just plain absurdity. But there is a common thread. What makes us laugh is the disparity between what we see or hear and what we expected to see or hear.

    Dramatic irony is a plot device in which the reader or audience knows something that a character does not know, with the result that words take on a meaning for the reader or audience that the character does not understand or appreciate. Sometimes other characters are “in” on the information; sometimes they, too, are in the dark. Dramatic irony can create suspense; suspense is the tension that results from wondering when the character will discover the facts. Dramatic irony can also be used to comedic effect, the humor stemming from the gap between the character’s misimpression and what the reader/viewer knows to be true. Shakespeare’s plays, both tragedies and comedies, are full of plot twists of deception and mistaken identity. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom is under a spell that gives him the head of a donkey. Bottom does not see his own head, but the audience does. In the Comedy of Errors two sets of identical twins are accidentally separated at birth. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio of Syracuse travel to Ephesus, which is by chance the town where each man’s twin lives (Antipholus of Ephesus with his servant Dromio of Ephesus.) It is because neither character knows of his twin’s existence that the resulting mishaps are funny. In the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, a common theme was that Lucy, sometimes with the assistance of her neighbor, tries to trick her husband; he is fooled long enough to create complications for Lucy as the scheme unravels and she scrambles to keep the hoax going, but it inevitably backfires. In the end Ricky always forgives her. Knowing Ricky will not be hurt gives us permission to laugh.

    Last week Benjamin and I watched We are the Millers. In this 2014 comedy, a small-time drug dealer, a stripper, and two homeless kids pose as a wholesome family on vacation in Mexico, in order to avoid arousing suspicion while they smuggle drugs across the border. Just when they think they’ve made it — they’ve escaped detection and there have been no complications — they encounter a married couple with a daughter, who, believing that the unlikely group is in fact the Miller family as claimed, and, assuming they have more in common with the Millers than they actually do, want to befriend them. Meanwhile the “Millers” are unaware that the husband/father of the family seeking their friendship is a DEA agent. Most of the humor is based on the mismatch between the Millers’ assumed personas and their actual identities, the inaccurate assumptions that their new friends make about them, and the Millers’ shared discomfort when cracks erupt in the artifice. The humor depends on each family being ignorant about the identity of the other.

    This is good-natured dramatic irony, what Joshua calls “real” humor.

    The prank scenario also depends on dramatic irony. The difference between a practical joke (a prank) and its non-prank equivalent is that the lack of knowledge in a prank is real, not simulated; for example, the plot unfolds in a Reality TV setting rather than in a traditional sitcom setting. The fact that people are actually being deceived – that they are not actors pretending to be deceived — explains Richard’s observation that there is a moral judgment inherent in our distaste for this art form.

    At whatever point in time we learn that the deception is real (in Richard’s example, that knowledge may come after having already laughed), the joke is suddenly not funny any more because we understand that what we are laughing at is the ignorance of a real person, a person who, upon closing the information gap, may feel humiliated. The same phenomenon occurs with slapstick humor: it may be amusing to see a person slip on the ice and tumble, but the same scene is distinctly un-funny if it depicts a real person falling and we may regret laughing if we learn after the fact that somebody actually got hurt during the fall. There is an apt analogy in other forms of entertainment. Take the horror and detective genres, for example. In both violence is common and apparently many people enjoy the spectacle. But their enjoyment depends on the assumption that the victims are actors feigning pain. A much smaller population (only sadists, perhaps) watch snuff videos, which capture real murders on film.

    It is also interesting that slapstick gags never result in serious injury; if they did, they would not be funny, despite the fictional setting. That is not to say that there is no interest in actual violence. People choose to watch the news, with its real-life hostage dramas, car accidents, and savage crimes. But, though the news captures our attention, it is typically more for information than for entertainment value.

    Something may be entertaining at the time and become less so once the audience is made aware of the underlying facts. For example, car chase scenes in films are fun and exciting, but most people would be horrified if they learned a stunt person had been injured or killed on the movie set (a special effects technician was killed shooting a stunt for Batman sequel The Dark Knight, and a Harry Potter stunt double was paralyzed while practicing flying scenes for the film.) Apparently it is standard practice to destroy any footage that captures a real-life injury because it is well understood that if somebody got hurt in the creation, the work product is no longer appropriate as a source of entertainment.

    From all this it might be tempting to draw the conclusion that jokes are not funny if, in their telling, a real person gets hurt. That rule would exclude too much. A joke may target a real person, making him or her appear ridiculous or even worse — corrupt or immoral — and still be funny. See Joan River’s joke about Tom Cruise (Joshua’s example). Or jokes about Catholic priests and the child abuse scandal, which might embarrass the Church but which are important social commentary. The point is, these jokes derive their humor from some other source; it’s not the ignorance of the target, per se, that makes them funny.

    A practical joke is one in which the source of humor is the fact that a real person (as opposed to a fictional character) has been ridiculed without his or her knowledge. Here’s a true story from my childhood. One day when I was 7 years old I was spending the afternoon with my friend Nadya at her house. Nadya suggested that we go to the backyard to play a new game: archaeology. After a few minutes of digging Nadya discovered an arrowhead. And then another. I don’t remember whether I was skeptical or not. If I was, I suppressed it. I demonstrated the interest and enthusiasm that politeness required: I asked her which tribe she thought had made the arrowheads (Cherokees, among others, had lived in North Carolina) and how many centuries old she estimated they were. We talked about the discovery for days. But the following week Nadya told me that she and her friend Todd had carved the arrowheads and planted them in the yard as a joke. Note: the joke was not funny until a gullible person arrived on the scene to serve as its butt. There was no word play, no irony, no hyperbole. The humor derived solely from my unawareness of my own stupidity, and you had to be either Nadya or Todd to get the joke. I had been set up, and I fell for it. I did not feel angry but I should have.

    The movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan features many types of humor. They include exaggeration (e.g. the home country of the fictitious Kazakh journalist is so primitive that it strains credulity); social inappropriateness (e.g., Borat proudly announces that his sister is “No. 4 prostitute in all of Kazakhstan” unaware that a typical American would feel shame if his/her sister were a prostitute); childish ignorance (e,g. Borat is so naive that he thinks Baywatch star Pamela Anderson might agree to marry him); and just plain gross-out humor (Borat chases a naked man through a hotel). Finally, the film purports to expose hypocrisy (Borat’s hysterical fear of his Jewish hosts illustrates the absurdity of extreme anti-Semitism), and the exposure of hypocrisy can be a form of humor due to the disconnect between the pretensions of the hypocrite and his or her true nature. One may or may not find these particular conceits to be funny. However, none of them rests on what Joshua calls “pranking.”

    There are other scenes, though, in which the basis of the humor is the fact that the people interacting with Borat are not actors who had been briefed in the movie plot and who understood that Borat was just a role being played by Sacha Baron Cohen; rather, they are “real people” who had been lied to. At the time of filming they believed they were taking part in a documentary. This genre of film has earned the name “mockumentary” because the person who is being filmed was unaware that the scene was being staged, and this makes him/her appear foolish.

    In 2004 Sacha Baron Cohen interviewed the late Andy Rooney (of 60 Minutes fame) for Cohen’s satirical television show, Da Ali G Show. Cohen conducts the entire interview in his alter ego of Ali G, a boorish British youth who imitates rapper-style speech, full of vulgarities. Rooney, apparently unaware that Cohen is in character, looks extremely uncomfortable. He appears to be afraid he is being taken advantage of, so he tries to shut Cohen down. Rooney is abrupt. He corrects Ali G.’s grammar. Watching this interview is exceedingly painful. I squirmed. The audience knows that Ali G. is an act, but Rooney, like the man at the podium speaking to a large crowd without noticing his zipper is down, or the celebrity on camera not realizing that we can see spinach on his teeth, does not. Why is this experience so uncomfortable for the audience? Because we identify with the real person who is being mocked in real time. We know that if Rooney knew, he would be embarrassed. This is where the moral element comes in.

    The only way to prank somebody is to lie to him or her. In this sense, it is a form of bullying. It is distinctly un-funny because cleverness and imagination are not prerequisites. It is easy to ridicule somebody by withholding information. Too easy. It is a cheap form of humor.

    • Josh says:

      Yes, these are all excellent points, with which I agree completely.

      I’d also drive home a few points further. When we watch a stunt, and later learn that the stuntman died: we don’t say “Dang; that scene was and still is entertaining, but now I feel bad about feeling that way.” Rather, we say “I no longer find that scene entertaining.” Likewise, when we see a funny prank on TV, and later learn that it was true, in that the butt of the joke was actually fooled: we don’t say “Now I’ll feel bad next time I watch that scene and laugh.” We say, “If I were to see that scene again, I would simply not laugh.”

      It’s quite clear to me that there’s no moral component to humor. It’s not that Borat is funny, but immoral. It’s simply not funny.

      What this shows is that humor comes not from the appearance of someone being fooled, whether or not they’re acting; rather, it comes from the appearance of someone being fooled, when we know that they’re acting. It’s precisely the acting that’s funny. It’s not the act of being fooled. This is why laughing at the pranks in Borat seems so antithetical to what I consider to be humor.

      As I’ve mentioned before, new shared information is key to true humor. Ricky’s actor and the audience both share the knowledge that Ricky is being tricked.

      Going further, part of the reason this scene is so funny is that Ricky’s actor is so good at pretending to be tricked. This is why good actors are funnier than bad actors. I haven’t fleshed out this theory too much, but I think part of the reason good acting evokes true humor lies in the physical skill required to act well.

      Have you ever chuckled at an amazing sports play, or at a virtuosic musical performance? There’s even a giddy feeling that comes with hearing an expert lecturer discuss a topic you don’t fully understand, but recognize the complexity of. Recognition of frank skill, whether mental or physical (and they may be one and the same) could form the basis of at least some types of laughter.

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