What makes something funny? John Morreall has been studying humor for more than 25 years and, as well as being a professor of religious studies at the College of William & Mary, he is the author of Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor. We were lucky enough to catch up with John recently, and he told us about his long term interest in the subject, and explored some of the themes in his book.
The Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to write Comic Relief?
John Morreall: I’ve been teaching and writing about humor since the early 1980s. My book Taking Laughter Seriously came out in 1983, and then my anthology The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor in 1987. Since then my thinking about humor has matured, so I wanted to refine old ideas and articulate new ones. The big idea I wanted to work out in this book is that humor is a kind of play. Play is an essential part of life, but it gets very little attention from philosophers. Analyzing humor as a kind of play generates insights into its value and also fits well with current scientific thought about the evolution of laughter. According to many who study the great apes, laughter evolved as a play signal—a visual and auditory cue to the group that what’s happening is for fun, not part of ordinary experience where practical and theoretical concern are called for. Making the humor-as-play analysis even more appealing was that it answers basic questions about humor in aesthetics and ethics. Many philosophers have analyzed what’s wrong with racist and sexist jokes, for example, as if such jokes were assertions equivalent to, say, “Women are stupid.” But I argue that jokes and other kinds of humor don’t work like that. Until we understand how playful language works and how playful actions work, we won’t see what’s wrong with objectionable humor, or what’s right with good humor.
In this book, too, I wanted to work out philosophically ideas I’ve been talking about for twenty years in the humor seminars I do for medical and business groups (www.humorworks.com). How humor promotes critical and creative thinking, for instance, and how it serves as a social lubricant.
PE: What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?
JM: To borrow a phrase from Rodney Dangerfield, over the long history of philosophy, humor didn’t get no respect. Chapter One gets into the standard prejudices against humor and their links to traditional theories of laughter and humor. From Plato till the 18th century, the only widely accepted account of laughter was the Superiority Theory. It treats laughter as an emotion that’s essentially anti-social—Hobbes called it “sudden glory.” Kant, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer had a new understanding—the Incongruity Theory—in which humor is a response to something that violates our conceptual patterns and expectations. That deflected the charge that humor is anti-social but opened humor to a new criticism—that it’s irrational.
Where both these theories went wrong was in overlooking the playful nature of the thinking, communication, and action in humor. To correct that error, I devote Chapter 2 to the psychology of humor–as a kind of play. There I argue that the standard classification of amusement as an emotion is mistaken. In emotions we have beliefs about some object and we’re motivated to do something about it. To laugh about something, on the other hand, we don’t have to have any beliefs about it or motives to do anything about it. While fear and anger motivate flight or fighting, laughter is disabling. When it’s intense, we may fall on the floor and wet our pants.
Having worked out the psychology of humor as play, I then explore the aesthetics and ethics of humor in detail. I close with two chapters on humor and philosophy, showing the strong affinity between philosophers and stand-up comedians. The last Chapter on “Comic Wisdom” goes through Robert Nozick’s list of fifteen things that wisdom includes, showing how a good sense of humor overlaps with many of them. Wisdom, for instance, is knowing “when to take a long-term view,” “what limitations are unavoidable and how to accept them,” and “how to cope and deal with the major tragedies and dilemmas of life, and with the major good things too.” One of the great lessons we learn from comedy, I argue, is “ When you face a problem, avoid anger, resentment, and self-pity. Keep your cool and think.” The book closes with the dying words of Oscar Wilde: “This wallpaper is atrocious. One of us has to go.”
PE: And what is it that draws you to this topic?
JM: Since I first started thinking about humor at age 15, I’ve been struck by how underrated it is, especially in education, philosophy, and religion, the three areas I’ve spent my adult life in. I agree with Gandhi that “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.” Once my first book on humor was translated into Japanese, German, and Turkish, I knew that Gandhi and I were not alone. That—and some good coverage in the New York Times–inspired me to take my philosophy of humor on the road to non-academic audiences. Since 1989 I’ve done over 500 presentations for clients like IBM, ING, and the IRS.
PE: What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?
JM: I hope it will inspire more of my colleagues to teach courses in the Philosophy of Humor, and to add to the literature. There are so many good philosophical questions about humor—in philosophical psychology, aesthetics, and ethics—and this book gets into most of them. If all those hopes are vain, I hope that readers will at least enjoy the three laughing orangutans on the cover and the New Yorker cartoons that start off the chapters.
PE: What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?
JM: I was thinking of students taking courses in Philosophy of Humor, and colleagues in organizations like the International Society for Humor Studies. The tone is light and accessible, but the scholarship is solid. The Bibliography has 400+ items.
PE: Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?
JM: Yes–Irv Copi’s Introduction to Logic—it’s made him a fortune in royalties.
PE: What’s your current project? What’s next?
JM: My wife, Tamara Sonn, and I just finished a textbook for Wiley-Blackwell: The Religion Toolkit: A Complete Guide to Studying Religion. As in Comic Relief, each chapter starts with a New Yorker cartoon. My next book is half-written: it’s called Questions for Christians, and explores 55 beliefs I’ve been thinking about since 1972, when I started teaching Philosophy of Religion: Is God up? Is God Lord? Did Jesus teach doctrines? Could Jesus die for our sins? Did the human race start out perfect? Are babies born depraved? Am I a soul? Is dying going somewhere? Did Jesus believe in Yahweh, Lord of Hosts? Did Jesus or early Christians go to church? Would Jesus join the Marines? Would Jesus shop at Harrods or Saks? Did Jesus work hard? Did Jesus have fun?