What’s So Funny About That? Relating Social Deconstructionism as a Theory of Humor
By David Metcalfe
July 12, 2018
There are few things that I can truly say have been a central part of my identity for any length of time. Soccer, Xbox, superhero movies, and skateboarding are just a few of the many casualties of maturity; relinquished and replaced. But three things have persisted (and grown) through everything: philosophy, sociology, and comedy.
It might seem odd that someone would go from thinking about the origins of the universe to racial injustice and then, remaining in the same headspace, find something incredibly funny in all of it. But as I’ve come to discover, these three fields of thought are hardly separate. In fact, they operate in the exact same way. What I’m going to suggest throughout this article (and hopefully convince you of by the end) is that no joke has ever been made without innumerable aspects of philosophy and sociology at work. And upon analysis, we can actually see exactly what makes something funny, and the implications it has for our life today.
Aspirations of a Class Clown
My career as a class clown began when I was 11 years old, when I came to love a show on Family Channel called “Dave the Barbarian”. I still remember the theme song:
“Dave the Barbarian, huge but a wimp,
His sisters, Fang and Candy, are a princess and a chimp,
Their mom and dad are the queen and king of the land of Udrogoth,
They left to battle evil and now Candy is the boss.
Dave, Fang and Candy, brave and bold- or not!
They ain’t the greatest heroes, but they’re the only ones we’ve got!”
The main character is a huge, muscular barbarian named “Dave” who looks tough, but gets scared very easily. The older sister, Candy, has a “princess complex”, and gets put in charge when the parents leave. The younger sister, Fang, is a chimp like creature with no manners and no care for appearance (a stark contrast to Candy). The story follows them through various misadventures as they try to maintain the kingdom while their parents are away.
At age 11, I could relate perfectly. I was finally at the age where my parents could leave me alone at the house so they could go out on their own from time to time. However, my sister, nearly two years my senior, was often the one left in charge. My younger siblings sometimes did resemble a chimp, in the sense that children, absent of the forced manners imposed upon them by adults, often regress into more primitive behavior. It was the first show that really related to me, and I came to feel almost a sense of friendship with the characters. The show started at 4:30pm, and the bus dropped me off at 4:25pm. If heavy traffic was slowing us down, I would be anxiously staring at my watch, praying that we would get home on time. And thankfully, we always did.
This imaginary world of comedy began to manifest itself in real ways. I realized that juxtapositions created humor. At first it was almost directly from the show, like acting tough when we started playing dodgeball and then cowering in fear when someone threw a ball at me. That was a guaranteed laugh from my grade 6 classmates. But then I realized this juxtaposition could be applied to nearly anything. The contrasting of confidence and incompetence in social behavior was always good for a laugh. Once our teacher asked a question to the class, and I raised my hand eagerly, yelling, “I know! I know!”. Then when the teacher addressed me, I said, “Never mind, I forget”. And for grade 6 students, that’s an intelligent and consistently funny joke to make.
Throughout my early teens, I came to love a myriad of comedic shows, including “Even Stevens”, “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”, “That’s So Raven”, “Drake and Josh”, “Malcolm in the Middle”, and “Fairly Odd Parents”. They presented situations that I could relate to, but they were dealt with in a way that I found funny, even when the characters in the actual show didn’t. When Drake and Josh would get pranked by their sister and end up trapped in a tree fort or covered in slime, or when Mr. Moseby would catch Zack and Cody in one of their hijinks and get mad in his typical, silly way, I found it hilarious. But I would never want to be in that situation myself. When my friends played pranks on me, or my teachers got mad at me, I felt bad. Seeing it happen to others, however, felt funny.
In my later teens I was privileged, honored even, to be able to witness two of the greatest shows ever made: “Corner Gas” and “The Simpsons”. “Corner Gas” taught me about dry wit and sarcasm, something my parents weren’t impressed with upon its inevitable manifestation into my own interactions. “David, did you do your homework?” “I left it at school because I’m too lazy to do it.” “David, that is not acceptable, you are going to be groun-“ (I take my completed homework out of my backpack and show it to them) “Oh, umm, ok then, I guess you did do it.”
“The Simpsons” was an incredible lens into society, and was one of my most pivotal, ground-breaking escapes from the confidence and assuredness of authority that I was raised to believe in. In Springfield, the cops were overweight idiots who ate donuts and let criminals escape with ease. The teachers were insecure, socially dysfunctional weirdos with mediocre intelligence who taught as a way to fulfill failed personal ambitions and claim a higher status than they were able to achieve as losers during their own grade school experience. And the father, the acclaimed and respected patriarch of the typical American family, was anything but. He strangled his children when they outsmarted him with subversive wit. He sat on the couch watching tv, gorging himself with an array of junk food, until his wife eventually cleaned up and made him do something. He was a fat, stupid, bald alcoholic with anger issues, and the show’s central theme was making fun of him.
Both of these shows told a fictional narrative that resonated strongly with my reality. Attending a school in small town Alberta, life was fairly boring, but we had stronger social capital than you might find in larger schools. Sarcasm opened the world, and turned the banality into a joke. All of a sudden, chemistry class was not an admission to be bored out of your mind for an hour, but rather an opportunity to find something worth subverting. In the conversations at lunch, I was like a joke machine. Nearly everything I said was sarcastic. My two best friends and I lived in our own world through much of high school; one where nothing was serious, and even the worst parts of life could be set aside and made into something fun.
My family tried very hard to present their image well. My parents would sometimes argue the whole way to church, and then upon arrival, they would magically forget the argument and be completely happy and tell everyone how great their life is going. In the car ride home, there was no one around to lie to, and the argument resumed. Seeing a family like “The Simpsons” live out their troubled lives for all to see was comical to me. My dad wanted to be more than respected, he demanded a sycophantic adulation free from any criticism, self-expression, or free thought. He had kids who were Baptist, heterosexual, athletic, academic, and well behaved. And by God, you better not deter from it, unless you want to be put in terror from his relentless yelling and threats (sometimes realized) of violence. Homer Simpson was my dad, but the same force that made my dad scary made Homer funny. Being grabbed and shoved against the wall as my dad yelled at me was not funny, but seeing Bart being choked was. It was a type of detachment from my own experience that placed it onto someone else.
Since then I’ve ventured into all kinds of comedy. I came to love shows like “Family Guy”, “Portlandia”, “Louis”, and “The Office”, and movies like “Step Brothers”, “Nacho Libre”, “Napolean Dynamite” and “The Other Guys”. All of my presentations in university included jokes. When I traveled around the United States speaking at conferences and schools, several of my speeches were indistinguishable from a stand-up comedy routine. To this day, I always find a way to make a joke out of any situation I’m in. But through it all, I never smile, and I almost never laugh. I’m as close to dry comedy as you can get. For me, it’s about the kind of wit you can only draw from a very sharp analysis of humanity and culture.
I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to see many comics live. The best I saw were John Mulaney, Tim Hawkins, and just last week, David Cross. But Netflix and YouTube have given me more comedy than anything. Just in this last year, I’ve seen stand up routines from Sarah Silverman, Louis CK, Tod Barry, David Cross, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Fred Armisen, Jim Gaffigan, John Mulaney, Tim Hawkins, Natasha Leggero, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Judah Friedlander, Jerry Seinfeld, and many more. And although I read sociology journals on a weekly basis, I feel as though these comedians have taught me more about our culture than any other source.
I feel that my aspirations to be a class clown were realized, and I love to find opportunities to continue expressing comedy when I can. And I’m never annoyed if I don’t get laughs. I know what’s funny, and if others don’t appreciate good humor, then it’s all the funnier to me. But most of the time, I do get some laughs.
A Bunch of Weirdos
I have an ongoing ranking of my top ten favorite comedians. These are people who, when they come up with new material, I am one of the first to watch it, and while laughing, I analyze the crap out of it. The current list, along with their central theme, is as follows:
1) John Mulaney: Peter Pan syndrome
2) Stephen Colbert: the incompetent, overly opinionated news anchor
3) Bill Maher: calling out crap from political authorities
4) Tim Hawkins: the sac religious pastor
5) Fred Armisen: eclectic, eccentric, neurotic, overthinker
6) Louis CK: the anxious, nihilistic wreck
7) Natasha Leggero: pretentious, upper class, diva
8) David Cross: stressed about life and politics
9) Sarah Silverman: socially insensitive would be an understatement
10) Ricky Gervais: intelligent, pessimistic, British
I guess we don’t have time to go through all of these (although I’d love to), so I’ll just pick out a few highlights. First, let’s take a look at John Mulaney, and how he encapsulates “Peter Pan syndrome” (a child who never quite grew up) in a relatable way.
He goes right into “Peter Pan” mode right from the start. After seeing that joke, I made a similar one at a conference when I was introducing myself to the audience. I said something like, “Hi my name is David. I was not born as a full-grown man, so as you may have guessed, I was once a child.” It’s a stupid joke, but if you say it right, it can come across very funny, especially since no one is expecting it.
Anyway, he communicates the feeling of inferiority that one commonly experiences at the first realization of their own limited academic ability. Because, in 1st grade, any kid, in theory, could feel like they are equal to their classmates, but in 7th grade, things get real, and you get separated very harshly based on your ability. Being in the “dumb” group can be very hard on kids. Mulaney uses that difficulty to his advantage by making light of it.
He then addresses the show “Law and Order” and hones in on the absurdity of the ubiquitous scene featuring some guy with a Boston accent unloading crates while being questioned by the cops. Because, of course, if you were really being questioned by the cops for murder, you would obviously take it very seriously. And finally, in one of my favorite bits of monologue from Mulaney, he goes for a solid minute without getting any laughs, which I think is unfortunate. Setting up a totally typical rom-com in the way he does it is extraordinary.
“He’s an average guy, who only likes sports. ‘Dude, you sold your grandmother’s wedding ring?’ ‘What, it was for season tickets!’. She’s a busy business woman, who only likes business. ‘Mam, could you turn off that Bluetooth? We’re at a baptism.’”
He’s clearly making fun of the fact that rom-coms have incredibly shallow character development, and even shallower ways of depicting love. Add in a scene with the guy rushing to the airport to stop her from leaving just in time, and he’s covered about 90% of them. Unfortunately, the crowd doesn’t seem to appreciate it. But the thing is, Mulaney knows when he’s making a good joke, and he knows enough to power through it. Eventually they’re going to laugh at the obvious ones. They’re going to find it funny when he presents the name as being “love at first sight”, because it’s a different meaning than what people are used to, and it’s absurd enough for them to think it would not be a real movie, and that we’ve now agreed together that this is a fantasy. This is why when he says, “I’ve thought about this a lot” the crowd laughs. It’s what they were thinking, and now they’re sure that they are “in” on the joke.
Americans have a unique combination of worry and annoyance when flying on airplanes. They are somewhat worried about terrorism, but also about all kinds of weirdos and random occurrences that can mess up a peaceful flight. These include the mentally ill, babies who won’t stop crying, turbulence, wait times, etc. Louis CK flies on a weekly basis, and has experienced it all. He relates his experiences in an exaggerated way to convey important social meanings that we can all relate to.
In one part he says,
“So I was on a plane with two babies…well, there was other people. It wasn’t just me and two babies. That would be weird. Get on the plane and there’s just two babies. ‘Come on, we’re leaving soon. He’s the pilot baby. I’m the other baby.’ Nah, it’s alright, I’m not gonna…you babies have a good flight.”
That is one of the most hilarious lines I’ve heard. It’s just so absurd that two babies would be flying a plane, and he addresses it like it’s a real, potential concern, since he says it right in between addressing things that really are concerns. It’s a sharp detour from reality, and in this case, the crowd follows him all the way through it.
A Brief History of Comedic Theory
The researchers at Stanford did a fantastic job with their entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the “Philosophy of Humor”. They begin with “Humor’s Bad Reputation”, because for most of human history, humor was actually considered a stupid and bad thing. It meant a lack of self-control, arrogance, ignorance, and buffoonery. They then trace the three leading theories of humor. They are as follows:
This theory suggests that humor comes from a feeling of being better than other people. For example, you see “The Three Stooges” or “Dumb and Dumber” acting like idiots, and believe you are better than them. This could also include when you see bad things happen to people, like when Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff.
The problems with this theory are numerous, although it still does retain some degree of merit for specific things. The theory can be very easily contradicted. For example, why don’t we laugh when we see a “sponsor child” commercial, or a relative dying in a hospital? Obviously, we see them and feel superior to them, but there is nothing funny. It doesn’t explain why laughing is a social phenomenon, and why tickling makes people laugh.
This theory suggests that humor comes from a feeling of pent up psychological energy suddenly being released. During the set-up of the joke, you become worried that something bad is going to happen or was said, but then the punch line relieves that energy. For example, a sarcastic remark worries the hearer into thinking that a certain thing has happened, and then upon realizing it was sarcasm, the worry is gone and laughter is released. The other good thing about this theory is that it offers an explanation for tickling; it is part of the same physiological response of relieving pent up energy.
The problems with this theory are also numerous, most notably in the fact that it suggests humor to be a subconscious manifestation of pent up ideas. But if this were the case, people who suppress feelings of sexuality should laugh more at sexual humor, since it remains in their subconscious more than their conscious. However, the opposite has been found to be the case. People who are consciously and freely expressing sexuality are more likely to laugh at sexual jokes. It also fails to properly explain the social phenomena of laughter, and the physiology is very outdated.
This is the best theory of the three. This theory suggests that humor comes from an incongruity between our expectations and reality. This is why comedians will build up the expectation (the set-up) and then deliver the reality (the punch line). The sharper they deliver the punchline, the more noticeable the severity between the expectations and the reality, and thus the funnier it is. Basically, we need to see some kind of contrast between what we think ought to happen, and what actually does happen. When I laughed at “Dave the Barbarian”, it was because the expectation, based on his physical appearance, was for him to be tough, but then in actuality, he was a wimp. This also explains the humor behind the incompetent police officers, teachers, parents, pastors, etc. in “The Simpsons”, or that John Mulaney still thinks and acts like a child despite being a full-grown man in a suit, or that two babies would fly a plane.
Slapstick humor would be explained by the idea that we suppose violence and pain to be bad and serious, but it is expressed in a way that detours from the assumed consequence. For example, if Wile E. Coyote actually got horribly injured, and the rest of the show followed his hospital stay (surgeries, physiotherapy, laying in bed for hours), it would not be funny. What allows it to be funny is the fact that he gets horribly injured and is totally fine by the next scene. This way, we see what we expect to be tragic, but it really is not.
While incongruous juxtaposition does offer one aspect of humor, it is not complete, and fails to account for many variables. The mere presence of incongruous juxtaposition is insufficient for humor. If I expected to pass my exam, and found out I failed it, I would not be laughing about it. Or if I expected my wife to be faithful to me, and I found out she had an affair, I would not find that funny. So there needs to be an enjoyment of the incongruity, and it needs to be sharply juxtaposed through a punch line of some kind. More so, this theory still fails to account for the social phenomenon of laughter, as well as tickling.
Relating Social Deconstructionism
Laughter as Play
The researchers at Stanford posit, based on the work of Jan van Hooff, that laughing is an evolved trait that came from the “mock-aggressive” play of our primate ancestors:
“According to many ethologists, mock-aggression was the earliest form of play, from which all other play developed. In mock-aggressive play, it is critical that all participants are aware that the activity is not real aggression. Without a way to distinguish between being chased or bitten playfully and being attacked in earnest, an animal might respond with deadly force. In the anthropoid apes, play signals are visual and auditory. Jan van Hooff and others speculate that the first play signals in humans evolved from two facial displays in an ancestor of both humans and the great apes that are still found in gorillas and chimps. One was the “grin face” or “social grimace”: the corners of the mouth and the lips are retracted to expose the gums, the jaws are closed, there is no vocalization, body movement is inhibited, and the eyes are directed toward an interacting partner. This “silent bared-teeth display,” according to van Hooff, evolved into the human social smile of appeasement.
In the other facial display, the lips are relaxed and the mouth open, and breathing is shallow and staccato, like panting. This vocalization in chimpanzees is on the in-breath: “Ahh ahh ahh.” According to van Hooff, this “relaxed open-mouth display” or “play face” evolved into human laughter. The relaxed mouth in laughter contrasts with the mouth in real aggression that is tense and prepared to bite hard. That difference, combined with the distinctive shallow, staccato breathing pattern, allows laughter to serve as a play signal, announcing that “This is just for fun; it’s not real fighting.” Chimps and gorillas show that face and vocalization during rough-and-tumble play, and it can be elicited in them by the playful grabbing and poking we call tickling.”
This theory accounts for a huge number of variables, and all three earlier theories fit into it in some way. Laughter comes from what seems serious, but is communicating the fact that you know it is not serious. For example, if someone hides and jumps out and scares someone, we find that funny. However, if it was an actual murderer, it would no longer be funny. It is a type of fake aggression, that upon realizing it is not real, we laugh.
Tickling comes from the physical play fighting that occurred in our primate ancestors. Upon realizing the touch was not an actual attack, laughter was expressed to communicate the knowledge of it being play. The social phenomenon is explained by the necessary communication of play to all members of the group. After all, we are thirty times more likely to laugh in a group than by ourselves, according to one study (Provine, 2000).
Social Deconstructionism Implicit in Humor
Helen Eigenberg teaches sociology at the University of Tennessee. She offers a very good definition and explanation of social constructionism:
“A social constructionist perspective suggests that daily events are infused with a variety of social meanings which are organized by people to make sense of the world. ‘Common knowledge’ is the label given to these embedded assumptions. In other words, all social interactions produce and reflect social meanings that rarely are acknowledged. These assumptions are understood to represent reality; although, most people never stop to think about how or why the assumptions become accepted as common knowledge.”
Basically, in order to live together in a society, we make up all kinds of rules through which to conduct our lives in harmony. These rules we make up are called “social constructs”. For example, all humans have sexual desire that they wish to express, but we can’t have everyone expressing their sexuality however they want, whenever they want. So, societies make up certain ideas, like that you can’t masturbate or have sex in public. These social constructs get more elaborate as they develop, like dating rituals, marriage expectations, gender roles, media representations of sexuality, and more. Eventually, these social constructs are taken as common knowledge, and can even become inseparable from innate social interactions. It’s just common knowledge that children go to school until age 18, get a job, a family, and a mortgage. But many cultures, of course, do not do this, and it exposes the fact that these are social constructs, rather than socially innate.
The study of these social constructs is known as deconstructionism. Eigenberg goes on to explain this:
“Examining the social construction of a social problem allows one to examine everyday events and processes in a different light by highlighting things that often are taken for granted and/or overlooked. The process of examining these assumptions is called deconstruction. By working backward, one is able to gain insight into the social processes and social structures that produce taken-for-granted assumptions about society. Deconstructing a social problem makes the embedded assumptions visible.”
This next quote is the biggest connection to comedy:
“Most social constructionists present their work, their truth, through the use of narrative- telling a story.”
What do comedians do? They tell stories. And what do these stories do? Expose social assumptions.
Relatability in Humor
Comedy is by nature a criticism of a societal structure that is being communicated to the audience. When people get offended at a joke, it is because they do not accept the criticism being offered. For example, when Kathy Griffin pretended to decapitate Donald Trump, people did not find it funny, because we hold murder to be very serious, and the mock-aggression was not effectively communicated. We do not like deconstructing the idea of celebrating the murder of authority figures, even if we have opposing views with them, so the joke would need to be very detached, so there is no real harm intended from anyone. The result did not seem at all detached, and there was no punchline to relieve the tension.
David Cross, on the other hand, made a similar style of joke in his comedy routine for his current tour. He said that he would like to nominate a violent thug to lead the Democratic Party, so that during debates he could just forget about arguing and instead physically beat up Donald Trump. He made the whole thing so absurd, it got major laughs. We were very aware that this was mock-aggression, and we were clearly all in on it. No one thought that David Cross was seriously promoting violence against Trump. Kathy Griffin’s stunt, on the other hand, was not so clear.
When Adam Sandler tweeted, “I don’t believe in beating my kids. So I make them wear a Justin Bieber shirt and crocs to school so the other kids will.”, most people found it funny. It’s making fun of a very serious thing (fatherhood abuse), but we are very aware that he’s not actually abusing them. It also offers some jabs at how “Justin Bieber” and “crocs” are considered uncool in our culture. He is communicating several insights into our social structures that we relate to, including our dislike of child abuse, and the fads of pop music stars and fashion.
In order for a joke to make someone laugh, they have to be “in on it”, and the only way to be “in on it” is to have knowledge of the subject being made fun of, to care about the subject being made fun of, and to be at the right level of detachment from the subject that you can be ok with it being made fun of. When there is a comedian who effectively does this, we not only laugh, but we connect with the comedian. For me, it’s John Mulaney more than anyone. But just because I like John Mulaney doesn’t mean others will. There is no comedian in the world who can get laughs from every person at every place they go to. When I saw Tim Hawkins at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, there were several people who didn’t laugh at all. Some said he was offensive to their religion, and others simply couldn’t relate to the stories he was sharing.
I can’t help but feel I’ve only scratched on the surface of this theory. I could do analysis for all ten comedians I mentioned, as well as analysis on tons of quality (and not so quality) comedic shows and movies. I don’t know, perhaps it will turn into a book someday. Anyway, I suppose I should wrap up this article.
Humor is one of my favorite things in the world. It allows me to detach myself from life in small ways and create my own little world, free from the exasperating monotony that everyone wants me to take so seriously. It helps me to be ok with my shortcomings, and the shortcomings of the world around me (which are many). It has given me wonderful insight into many aspects of culture and helped me communicate important social meanings to others. But most of all, I believe that humor binds us together in the type of solidarity that comes from a mutual understanding of the world we live in, and the fact that, in the end, most things really aren’t that important.
I think that one of the greatest things we can do is learn to laugh at ourselves, and find the humor in the otherwise banality of our existence. Many comedians talk about how disappointed their parents are at their career choice, but I couldn’t disagree more. Comedians have brought joy, community, and unfiltered truth to millions of people. Comedians are some of my best friends in the world (albeit, imaginary friends), because laughing along with them allows a unique type of connection that transcends, I suppose, even reality. And after all, that’s what comedy is. It takes our minds beyond reality, for just a moment, and let’s us peak in to our society in a way that’s simply not possible by being serious. It’s relatable, it’s social, and it deconstructs our society, and that’s why relatable social deconstructionism is hopefully on its way to becoming a leading theory in the sociology of humor.
Provine, R. (2000). Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, Harmondworth: Penguin.
Stanford. (2016). Philosophy of Humor. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/
Eigenberg, H. (2003). Defining Social Constructivism. Sexuality and Culture.
Does anyone really want me to reference every single media example I used? Nah, just take my word for it.