If We did not Laugh…
By Justine Graykin
Humor is mysterious. What we laugh at varies from person to person and from culture to culture. But that we laugh is well-nigh universal. Babies start within months of birth. Even primates seem to enjoy a good joke, generally at someone else’s expense. Why did we evolve this capacity for humor?
It may well be that, as we developed the ability to understand the world around us, we needed a sense of humor to survive. How else could we deal with concepts like death, futility, and hopelessness? Once we began to realize how nasty, brutish and short life was, we needed something to get us through the day. Finding our situation (or somebody else’s) ridiculously funny may have done the trick.
We tend to take our art seriously. Think how we talk about it. Important works discuss serious subjects. Other books are just for fun. Shakespeare had a delightful, often naughty sense of humor, but that is considered gravy. The meat of his work is the profound, dark, serious commentaries on the human condition.
There’s a value judgment here which skews our perspective, and inclines us to dismiss humor as frivolous and unnecessary. There’s a certain puritanical pathology in this dismissal that does us all a disservice. It conjures a vision of scowling men dressed in black writing up prohibitions on music and dancing because it takes people’s thoughts away from the proper contemplation of higher things.
No wonder depression is epidemic in our culture.
Humor is critical to human mental health. It is the sugar that makes the medicine go down. We can deal with a lot of tension if we just get to release it all now and then with a good belly laugh. The most grim and oppressive enemy loses a good deal of his power over you if you can but contrive to drop his pants.
But humor can be difficult. It can be overdone, it can be inappropriate, it can be, well, just not funny. It takes a skillful hand to coax the right
tone and balance between the serious and the smile. It’s a bit like cooking. Consider humor to be a spice or a condiment which must be used wisely, and with a certain restraint, otherwise it overpowers the other flavors. There’s many types of humor, some sweet, some spicy, some bitter, some subtle and some strong. The choice of what humor you use depends on the effect you want.
And, like cooking, it’s largely a matter of taste. Humor evades analysis. Making a serious study of humor is almost a contradiction in terms. It is like trying to understand why a fresh peach is delicious by studying its chemistry. You may get some insights; you may even be able to duplicate the flavor in a laboratory. But the best way understand the flavor of peaches is to eat lots of peaches.
The best way to understand humor is to immerse yourself in it. Read lots of it and notice what works. But also listen to comedians and comedic actors. Groucho Marx, Robin Williams, the acerbic exchanges of Spencer Tracy, Kate Hepburn and Carey Grant, anything by Mel Brooks. (Okay, I’m showing my age here, but you get the point.) This is how you get a feel for humorous dialog. If you watch hours and hours of it for years it begins to come naturally to you. You get an instinct for it. And it will begin to merge effortlessly into your writing.
Life is too important to take seriously, and even the finest dish benefits from a touch of seasoning.
Science Fiction doesn’t have to be cold to be hard.