Monthly Archives: November 2011

Getting the Joke…not!

Ancient humor has been on my mind lately.  Or it hasn’t.

What I mean is, I’ve been thinking a lot about the epistemology of ancient humor.  How can I know or even achieve a somewhat firm grasp on what was ‘funny’ in the ancient world [1]?  Can I achieve knowledge of ‘the funny’ either in some essential way, like Bergson and Freud imagined, or even in particular cases of ancient Greek humor, like Stephen Halliwell suggests in his relatively recent study of Greek Laughter?

Anyone who has read a great deal of the Socratic dialogues of Plato feels compelled to respond to the problem of Socratic irony.  When is Socrates making a joke – and thus, apparently, not being ‘serious’ about what he is saying – and when is he putting forward a philosophical idea that is genuinely ‘Socratic’?  And where does Plato fit in?  Who is writing whom?

The Original Comedy Duo: Socrates and Plato in the Amanuensis-Plot

The stakes might seem lower for Aristophanes or even some of the tragicomic parts of Euripides’ plays (I leave out Menander, who simply isn’t funny), but I wonder if they’re not.  After all, a comprehensive interpretation of those playwrights’ writings requires us to imagine what would have been funny to the authors, or to their contemporary audiences, or to the judges, or to Dionysus.  This interpretive work is made more difficult by the very ‘instability’ of laughter and the comic, as Halliwell argues early in his book (against Bergson and Freud) [2].

A significant part of the problem is that at least some aspects of ‘funniness’ are culturally and linguistically contingent.  Allegedly, Americans tend to combine ‘stupid’ and ‘dirty’ jokes in ways that the British or French will not.  That is because, according to C. Davies, Americans place a high value on hygiene, whereas that is not the case in Britain or France [3].  Hmmph.  Even in the case of a serious scholarly article, we want to ask ourselves: can she really be serious?  Is it really true that the British or French don’t care as much about hygiene, or is that ‘observation’ itself just another joke?  Perhaps has she imported an assumption about British and French people directly from the sorts of cultural stereotypes that jokes help to reinforce in the first place?

Now there seem to be some structural bases for what is ‘funny’ for human beings in general.  Many modern cultures, for example, recognize comedy tropes.  A classic in film, television, and even on the stage is the fish out of temporal water (which, incidentally, is what I feel like when I’m trying to grasp ancient humor).  We can see, for example, Roberto Benigni and Bruce Campbell as playing funny people of this sort.  Obviously, time-travel continues to fascinate modern audiences, and philosophers who have sought to reconsider personal identity, such as Derek Parfit, have turned to it in order to help with thought-experiments.  But it wasn’t a common theme in early Greek comedy.

But what *is* a classically funny topos in ancient Greek comedy and modern film of various cultural backgrounds is the duo of fools (or the ‘double act’).  This requires two befuddled interlocutors who try to communicate with one another successfully but either fail to do so, or succeed with humorous effects, thanks to paralogisms in language (such as puns and wordplay, as we might see, for example, in this brilliant amanuensis-sketch from Totò e Peppino) or broader semantics (such as this bit by Carrey and Daniels, in which intellectual sympathy between the characters flies in the face of common sense).  ‘Dumb and Dumber’-style duos are funny because no matter how much each jockeys for intellectual superiority over the other, the audience is always smarter than both.

All of this makes me wonder: if I find myself laughing at something Socrates says or does, is it because I know more than Socrates knows…about what’s funny?


[1] I prefer ‘funny’ over ‘comic’ here because of the etymological kinship between ‘funny’, a word that developed in the South of the United States in the late 19th Century, and ‘fun’, which apparently was a verb in the 1680s and meant ‘to cheat/deceive’.  ‘Comic’ derives from the komos, a drunken procession that took part in the light of some sorts of festival in Ancient Greece, and it is related to Dionysiac activity, but I seek a term that can embrace non-institutionalized and non-ritualized forms of humorous engagement between as few as two people.

[2]  Halliwell, S.  2008.  Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity.  Cambridge, pp. 10-11.

[3] Davies, C.  2005.  ‘Searching for Jokes: Language, Translation, and Cross-Cultural Comparison of Humour.’  In T. Garfitt, E. McMorran, and J .Taylor, eds., The Anatomy of Laughter.  London, pp. 70-85.

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Filed under Ancient Philosophy, Classics General