As someone born without a funny bone, I’ve long been curious about humour: what makes some things funnier than others? Are jokes little more than dumb digressions, or can the sidetracks of humourous stories lead to punchlines that have deeper meaning?

How can jokes be used to tell truth or lies, to be helpful or harmful?

Why do we laugh at all?

I’ve noticed that a truly serious point is often better expressed as a joke. Many people, when confronted with a serious thought, use the wrong means of addressing the idea and either become needlessly afraid or egotistically defensive. Humour can stimulate thinking in those who are amenable to it, while allowing everyone else the graceful regression to a good laugh.

At some point, I might write in more detail and with references to other materials, experiences, etc. For now, the notes below form a quick synopsis that just bubbled up and took form a few minutes ago. Any instances of humour in this post are, at present, purely accidental (although I never begrudge a happy accident).

This post addresses paradox, irony, sarcasm, wit, and snark along a continuum of approaches to humour.

Sometimes, a joke is (not) just a joke: Ten-Second Taxonomy of Humour

It’s just a joke… except when it’s not.

“True” Humour – Expressions of incongruity, surprise, and ultimately, acceptance

The Macroscopic Level: Universal Shift of Perspective

Paradox

Paradox is the expression of wonderment at the trap-doors of the mind.

A paradox can be defined as “acceptable premises leading to a [logically] unacceptable conclusion”. For example, the frenetic activity and endless search for purpose in life inevitably leads to the non-blissful, non-terrifying, sleeplike repose of natural death. Another example is the self-evident fact that personhood itself is fictional, provable via thought experiment: if you are the person “behind the scenes” controlling yourself, who is the little person behind the scenes (as we like to imagine, hidden away in the control room of our brains) controlling that little person? And so on.

Irony

Irony is paradoxical thinking with a sense of resignment. “Isn’t that ironic”, said with a sigh. In irony, acceptable premises lead to a [personally] unacceptable, yet inescapable, conclusion. Gallows humour — recognizing the paradoxical nature while waiting for the trapdoor to open below your feet — is an example of irony.

Existential meaning and personhood are inherently impossible, yet we’re singularly unable to shake these illusions — indeed, we build the fiction of ourselves often in direct opposition to various aspects of reality. That ceaseless construction process frequently gets us into no end of trouble and misery (or ecstatic creativity, or escapist delight, depending on the fiction). Paradox and irony can help us cope with — or at the very least, to describe — the human predicament in amusingly palatable ways.

“False” Humour – Social aggression pretending to be humour

The Mesoscopic Level: Interpersonal Control Tactics

Sarcasm

Sarcasm can be thought of as the use of irony in a more aggressive manner. It pushes back against inevitability — it is “rebellious irony”. Sarcasm can be used against the universe, other people, or oneself.

Wit

Wit is a weapon of social aggression that turns irony against another person, while using the shield of humour to disguise the aggression. Someone who is “witty” is ultimately concerned not with humour at all, but rather with winning. More precisely, with making the other person appear to be a loser. The degree of aggression varies and is visible in the reaction of the “loser”. The winner forces the loser to defer at one end of the spectrum by laughing at their own helplessness and inability to respond. At the other end of the range of reactions, the loser is shamed to the point of being expelled from the group by the laughter of everyone else at their deficiency of instant cleverness.

A person who is caught bullying another using wit typically reacts by saying something similar to “it’s just a joke”, or “don’t be so serious/’negative’/sensitive/etc.”. These tactics are deployed if the interlocutor takes personal insult at being rhetorically stabbed by the other’s poison-barbed wordplay. The key to wit is twofold: first, the aggression is disguised as humour when it truly is not humour at all (laughter is a signal of dominance or submission rather than mirth). Second, the aggression is designed to align nearby listeners to the side of the witty person at the expense of the dullard.

The non-humorous nature of wit is clear in that wit can be funny, but often if you listen to the witty comment itself, it’s actually quite cruel and unfunny outside the social context.

Wit is both clever and mindless, as it is a primary tool of social control in socially competitive groups. More about that later, perhaps.

Satire and parody are “wit writ large”, i.e. extensions of wit to encompass the form [satire] and content [parody] of social structures, norms, rituals, and the like.

The Microscopic Level: Self-Indulgent Egotism

Snark

Perhaps the lowest recognizable form of humour, comprised of passive-aggressive complaining poorly disguised as wit. Snark is among the most widely-wielded humour-based social weapons because anyone can complain at length and everyone likes their own sense of humour.

Snark is self-justifying and self-reinforcing. Anyone who doesn’t get the attempt at “humourizing” a whiny opinion [by re-framing it as a “snarky” remark] becomes simply another target for snark. This makes snark both the weakest form of humour-based social aggression and the most pervasively intractable one, as the Internet proves in droves.

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