At the star-studded Golden Globe ceremony this year, host Ricky Gervais treated the cream of Hollywood to his unique brand of lighthearted ribbing. The transatlantic comic, known for his acerbic and anarchic wit, peppered his opening monologue with such jibes as “It was a big year for 3D movies…It seems like everything this year was three-dimensional, except the characters in The Tourist”, and introduced actor Robert Downey Jr. with the words “Many of you in this room probably know him best from such facilities as the Betty Ford Clinic and Los Angeles County Jail.” The media coverage of Gervais’s performance focused in the main on whether he “went too far”, but, when it comes to comedy, perhaps philosophers ought to have more fundamental questions on their lips.
Humour is not a terrain that has been very thoroughly explored by philosophers. Historically, tragedy has been seen as the worthier subject of analysis, from Aristotle’s Poetics to Nietzsche’s famous The Birth of Tragedy. One reason may be that the tragic hero illustrates a journey through hardship, pain and suffering that is relevant to human experience and development, whereas the life of the comic fool consists merely of disjoined episodes of mirth, giving us a superficial sheen of periodic joy but no deep message. However, as recently noted by Joshua Shaw in Philosophy Compass, the philosophy of humour is slowly gaining more of the attention it deserves, and one of the current debates, as listed by Shaw, may be of particular relevance to the Gervais (who is, incidentally, a philosophy graduate) and his performance at the Globes. The debate, put simply, is this: do moral flaws amount to comic flaws?
Philosophers of art will be no strangers to the question of whether or not immoral art is bad art, but now some of the distinguished proponents on either side of the argument have come forward with theories on humour to match. Berys Gaut, Professor of Philosophy at St. Andrews, gives his considered view the name “Ethicism”, which claims that moral defects will necessarily constitutes aesthetic/comic defects. The reason he gives, in essays such as The Ethical Criticism of Art, is that in any successful work or performance, if the audience is prohibited from adopting the view prescribed by the artist or performer, for reasons such as finding that particular view morally noxious, the overall output is undermined artistically. We can’t laugh with Ricky, that is, if we find ourselves unable to share his views. On the other side of the debate, Matthew Kieran, Professor at Leeds University, adapts his view of “Cognitive Immoralism” in art, which argues that entertaining immoral views, such as we might do while watching a gangster movie, is both possible and pleasing without us ever actually endorsing those view. Having a better knowledge of morally dubious attitudes might actually be beneficial to us, hence the ‘cognitive’ qualification. Kieran is convinced that not only do moral defects not necessarily detract from the aesthetic/comedic experience, but that in some cases they can in fact enhance it. Here we have a view that certain comics who are known to push the limits of taste and decency, such as the controversial Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle, may sympathise with.
Or, perhaps it is not in the interest of a comedian to sympathise with any philosopher of humour, without being pushed. It may be a fair point to say that analysis is inimical to the purpose of the comic, or in the words of Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh when giving an interview for Jonathan Ross; “If you dissect a frog, you kill it.” (Note also the opening comment of comedian Mark Steele in an interview concerning Gervais’s Golden Globes behaviour). Have we found, then, the nub of why humour has eluded philosophical scrutiny for so long? Are we too afraid that we might break its spell?