There’s a memorable passage in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land in which the main character “discovers” that humans don’t laugh at things because they’re funny, but rather because they’re tragic. Every incident of humor he describes occurs at someone’s expense, a recognition of physical or emotional suffering. We laugh, he says, at the “wrongness” of the situation, at the subversion of our expectations and the upending our shared social reality. It is an acknowledgement of our tenuous existence, the realization that, but for a bit of chance, the same misfortune could befall any of us.
Laughter, then, is both an act of “bravery” and a “sharing.” We laugh because to do otherwise would ignore our basic humanity and deny the collective nature of our experience. Heinlein gives “death” as an example of a “wrongness” that affects all human beings. When a character tries to argue death is not funny, the protagonist quickly counters by asking why there are so many jokes about death if that’s true.
It’s been almost twenty years since I read Stranger in a Strange Land, but the novel’s musings on humor made a strong impression on me. I think about the nature of humor quite a bit, actually. We spend a great deal of time asking “why” something is funny, but we often can’t answer that question accurately without also asking “who” finds it funny in the first place. If laughter is a response to “wrongness,” as Heinlein asserts, then someone has to be suffering an indignity or an injustice somewhere along the line.
And that’s where things can take a dark turn. The idea of laughing at “wrongness” is all well and good when we’re talking about universal experiences like death or accidental injury. But what about racism? Or sexism? Or even physical violence? In many of these cases, people are able to erect barriers between their own lives and the “wrongness” inflicted upon others. The danger here is that humor can actually cause us to lose touch with our basic humanity. If we forget “who” we are laughing at or with, we suddenly fail to acknowledge the “wrongness” of the situation, which can be incredibly dangerous for a society.
As an extreme example, think about blackface minstrel shows from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s no question that these performances drew laughs by tapping into the fundamental “wrongness” of society’s deeply ingrained racism, but there’s something profoundly sinister about the fact that the people actually suffering from that injustice remained invisible to the audience. As a result, audiences lost sight of the “who” in the “wrongness” equation, which made it impossible to understand the nature of the “wrongness” in the first place. Deployed in this fashion, humor served to reinforce injustice by obscuring its presence.
Incidentally, this is why well-crafted satire is so powerful. Rather than deflecting the question of “who” has suffered a “wrongness” and why, satire leans into the injustice and dares you to laugh at it if you can. And it’s an uncomfortable laughter, the kind that stirs a wide range of emotions and sparks new lines of thinking. This is the sort of laughter Heinlein meant when he described the response as a “bravery” and a “sharing.”
To my mind, there is nothing more inhuman than the act of denying others their basic humanity, of denying their fundamental right to exist. As a writer, I believe it’s vitally important that we think about how we utilize humor in fiction. Humor allows readers to relate to characters and situations much more readily than inundating them with dry, pontificating exposition (and yes, I’m well aware that this essay might have benefited from a little humor itself!). More importantly, it’s important for writers to understand the “dark side” of humor. There is a tendency to make evil humorless. In some situations, this might be a good choice because it might convey a lack of interest in “wrongness,” which would suggest an indifference to or an acceptance of suffering (such as The Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian). More frightening, however, is the character who uses humor as a means of inflicting or perpetuating injustice without even recognizing the “wrongness” of it (Calvin Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from Django Unchained, comes to mine here).
Then, of course, there’s somebody like The Joker, who is perhaps more keenly aware of the humorous dimensions of “wrongness” than any character in fiction. But that’s a whole separate essay…