The other night I had a dream. An old friend of mine and I were sitting in a dingy bar, reminiscing about our collegiate days together, with a projected film ahead of us. She and I were both facing the same way, toward the projector screen, when an ad made me slightly uncomfortable: a woman, attempting to sell her latest comedy routine, was dressed somewhat scantily, cheaply attempting to lure my attention because her jokes were sub-par. The attempt failed.
I turned to my friend, rolled my eyes and complained. Surely, the saleswoman doesn’t think I’m so stupid, that I’d buy her comedy album — or whatever it was — because I was sexually attracted to her. My friend agreed, turning to me and taking a sip of her mixed drink, when I suddenly noticed a portly woman, appearing to be drunk, walking back to her bench in front of us. Kicking her leg up in the air, twirling for a brief second, and trying to not spill her drink, she plopped on the floor and attempted the same seductive pose modeled on screen. I laughed, and, turning to my friend, I mocked the woman for being absurd.
My friend shared none of my amusement, though. Turning to me with a somewhat disappointed look, she — being a regular at that establishment, revealed a bit of information intending to embarrass me.
“You know she can’t help it.”
“What do you mean?”
“She can’t help being that way. She’s got mental issues.”
As I leaned back and pondered her statement, reassessing the situation and reining in my amusement, pretending no enjoyment from the suddenly pitiful circumstance, I “masterfully” initiated my defense by stating that I wasn’t aware of her problems. My answer, of course, didn’t work: my friend was unimpressed, and pretending a sort of moral superiority, she questioned why I laughed and couldn’t simply assume, from their behavior, that something was wrong.
Upon second glance, I realized she had something of a point. Both the jester and her company possessed certain outward manifestations of mental disorder — disheveled, extremely unstylish clothes, a bizarre manner of speech, childish behavior, etc — and had I been more cautious, perhaps I might have tied all these signals together, and made an impolite but altogether correct assumption.
“But,” — I said “–but, if I’m to make such an allowance for them, what am I to make for others? We’ve all seen people who behave strangely, and is there something wrong with finding their behavior comical?”
“Well… no, but if you go on laughing like this, you’ll eventually make fun of someone who can’t help themselves.”
“Of course, and that’s something I’d like to avoid. But isn’t there always generally a reason why someone behaves in a certain way? Couldn’t we just as likely attribute their bizarre behavior to another cause — say, being raised in a certain kind of environment, or drinking too much alcohol, or maybe some sort of nervous inclination to entertain their fellows, at the expense of their own dignity? All are reasons, one or the other, aren’t they?”
“Well, yes. But there are many kinds of reasons, and some which we can control more than others.”
“That may be true. But does the reason make the behavior any less absurd? Let’s say these women were simply raised by negligent and rowdy parents, who didn’t train them to be proper. Would that excuse them from being considered absurd?”
“But why? According to your previous logic, they still suffer from environmental factors, making them worthy of our pity.”
“Yes, but they would still maintain some authority over their own minds.”
“So then, the moral nature of our laughter depends upon whether or not the other person has the capacity to understand what’s absurd?”
“I would say so, yes.”
“Well then, certainly we would be able to exclude the drunk from this category.”
“No… I don’t think that’s fair. We can make fun of drunk people, because their incapacity is temporary, and entirely a product of their own foolishness.”
“But what is a fool?”
“I guess a fool would be a person who lacks or avoids sense.”
“And what of the person raised in an environment in which foolish behavior is considered normal?”
“I see where you’re going with this. You would say that all absurdity — all behavior — is impacted by some prior condition.”
“Not to say that behavior is entirely mechanical, but yes: we must act, and we act from something. Just like a lonely person who’s simply nervous, looking for a way in which to entertain his friends. Would his embarrassing behavior then exist beyond the reach of mockery, seeing as how, even possessing his mind, his behavior proceeds from emotional conditions or environmental factors, over which we can assume his control is impaired, or perhaps simply made more difficult?”
“I see. Then what can really be absurd, if absurdity is lost upon understanding?”
“But that’s just it: understanding has nothing to do with comedy. Much of the time, comedy revolves around the absurd, a collision between what we know is sensible, proper, and aesthetic, and their polar opposites. We take a general mode of behavior, and then someone tramples it knowingly or unknowingly, and we get a good laugh out of their poor behavior, usually because the behavior is so far beyond the sensible or normal mode of operation, it baffles our senses. The behavior is then absurd, worthy of ridicule. We judge the absurd not by understanding what is, but by comparing what is to the ideal.”
“And, also, we have to agree that all comedy requires living beings: we can get a good laugh from a stupid, mischievous dog, because we as humans recognize his stupidity from a human standpoint; or perhaps we laugh at a mischievous or bizarre boy. Either way, comedy requires some sort of action: knowledge of previous circumstances may impact our perception of whether the absurd is pitiable or comical, but without any previous knowledge of the human participants and their mental conditions, we assume their reason and normalcy, and thus find their behavior comical.”
“But that’s just it; you can’t just assume that everyone’s normal.”
“My dear friend, I believe I must assume that everyone is normal. What would be the point of such skepticism, to consider every encounter to be with an autistic person, or to give little-to-no behavioral expectations for our exchanges? Should I consider every abnormal act to originate in some uncontrollable environmental factor, relegating the reason of the human being to surroundings, and losing my own perception of what is human? Should I simply expect the socially unexpected, and throw away all manners, morals, and sensibility? Would that make me a moral person?”
“Of course not, that would be ridiculous.”
“On the other hand, our concept of absurdity can serve a very valuable purpose, indicating when sense is lost, and needs to be regained, if possible. It calls men to act like men, and threatens them with derision should they neglect their duties – a far lighter punishment than living in insensibility forever, wouldn’t you agree?”
“So, back to the matter at hand. This woman rolling on the floor, attempting the seductive pose while trying not to spill her drink on her sweatpants, is she absurd?”
“Yes, because her behavior contradicts everything we know to be sensible, as well as contrasting the picture of sensuality we saw on screen. It shows that humans have an appreciation of beauty and an understanding of what’s sensuous, and that adults must behave in a proper manner.”
“Exactly; so we may safely say that she is humorous, that we have a right to recognize the absurdity, though our knowledge of her circumstances lowers mockery below decent behavior.”
“Yes. But how should we know, then, when public laughter is acceptable?”
“As far as I can tell — and forgive me if I’m wrong — the concept of absurdity can be rooted in two different matters: custom and the eternal. The first is entirely malleable, though not entirely amoral, and relates to our upbringing — whether we shake hands, or shave our armpits, etc. The second has a basis in our eternal nature, and is necessary to our understanding of law and anarchy, of wisdom and folly, of goodness and evil, of logic and the illogical, of maturity and childishness.
“The first, I would say, is something we should be more lax about: we shouldn’t make fun of the Middle-Eastern man for wearing that dress-like outfit, even though in our culture, his outfit pertains to women’s clothing. But a man who actually wears women’s clothing violates an eternal principle, that men and women should dress themselves differently, and he becomes absurd. So if we’re to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable humor, we need to start by distinguishing between eternal truth and cultural happenstance. And I would also say that we may morally laugh at eternally absurd behavior when it’s encountered — say, the illogical. But if we become aware that a person, through actual incapability to understand eternal matters, violates our sense of what is sensible, he becomes worthy of our pity. A person who can safely be said to understand eternal matters, such as logic, the Golden Rule, etc, or is assumed capable of understanding those matters, isn’t naturally exempt from derision when he violates those concepts, though Christ and His apostles teach that one should be restored lovingly. But to never laugh at the absurd, out of a desire to be understanding – that would be to throw away society itself.”
“So what you’re saying is, our understanding of proper comedy lies entirely in our understanding of the divine? I can’t say I agree, but I admit it’s far more difficult to laugh legitimately without it. I have to ask, though: you said that other cultures can’t be judged according to the ideal. But can’t cultures at some point become absurd in themselves?”
“Yes, I was hoping to avoid this one altogether, as it’s an incredibly extensive topic, but I’ll try to make this brief. Would you say there’s a difference between cultural differences in showering, and the Golden Rule?”
“I would say yes, but I’d like to hear your answer.”
“Consider that showering is hygienic, and that our proper understanding of bacteria and safety correlates to our very survival.”
“Well, this pertains to the eternal reason by which humans must live; but the frequency of showering is an entirely different matter altogether. One can skip showering for a couple of days, and be nothing but a nuisance. Perhaps in societies where people hadn’t any access to showering water, the unbathed could be culturally excused; but our noses are designed to love and detest certain smells, and when we refuse to shower, we offend those around us, particularly those who are accustomed to being clean.”
“So, is showering really a matter of culture? If we know that hygiene is a matter of sense, and we know that clean people are universally offended by cheese breath and unwashed underarms, then our hygiene is a matter of concern for the comfort and joy of others. Therefore, we may say that certain cultural standards aren’t simply cultural, but take human reason and apply it to our circumstances. Politeness is almost exactly the same. In Italy, the old women push and shove and cut in line in the marketplaces; but though this behavioral standard may be assigned to culture, it violates the eternal. Therefore, we may say that the most superior cultures adapt their mannerisms to the universal, and not the local. Cultural acts which offend the universal, such as certain acts performed in the Borat film, may be recognized as backward, and can be morally subject to derision. To do otherwise, to protect such stances under the guise of understanding cultural divergences, would portray ignorance and uncivilization.”
“I think we’re going to disagree on this issue the more particular our discussion of culture becomes, but I think our disagreement has far less to do with your division between the cultural and the universal, and more to do with our disagreement on what the eternal really is.”
“I think you’re right. And this is why I believe that our understanding of the divine predicates a universal sense of moral humor. We can leave God out of the matter, but where would we be left?”