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.
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.
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.
I’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.
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.