This article appeared in MIT’s “The Tech” on Friday 19th November 2010 and is available at the following location: http://tech.mit.edu/V130/N55/mcgovern.html
Who are those late night orators, keeping real and YouTube crowds from falling asleep? What work do they do and is it worthy of our respect? Should we succumb to the musings and quips of these observational scientists, irrelevant to our culture and irrelevant to our science? Beyond its cackles, laughs, chuckles and giggles, is comedy but an irrelevant escapade into obscurity and inconsequence?
There aren’t all that many ways to truly engage an audience. Oratory, by its nature, is quite a uni-directional means of communication. Great orators will tell you how engagement requires emotion; often pride, fear or anger. Humour too, is a product of emotional interaction, but is crucially different in that it provokes thoughts which can promote, rather than obscure, rationality. There is no way to appreciate a joke, other than to listen and engage with the words you hear. Once your mind wanders, you hear others laugh as you fall into isolated confusion. Then you fight to re-engage until you’re once again involved. This is the power of humour, an oratorical tool to be dismissed at one’s peril.
Once upon a time, that age old adage involving road crossing poultry was a joke of meaningful hilarity. Indeed, humour’s attention-grabbing quality has often been attributed to surprise; unlikely parallels between remote ideas and objects. Then again, sometimes humour is simply the realization that human beings have more in common than in difference. Still, it would be an oversimplification to think of comedy solely as a form of surprise and eccentricity. Comedy is both, and more. Of all oratorical styles, comedy is one of the most subtle and yet honest means of communication. What comedy is, is a license to spill the truth, to reveal one’s honest opinions. We struggle to evaluate the opinions of businessmen and politicians from their well kept public personae. Evaluating comedians is easy. Their stereotypical views are not hidden, their preconceptions are laid bare and they have more incentive to harden rather than soften their truths.
What comedy is not, is accurate. In fact, one of the basic tricks up a comic’s sleeve is exaggeration — the inflation of all proportions to effectively convey an idea. This, you might suggest, is one of the major downfalls of comedic presentations. However, the truth is that formal speeches made by politicians or businessmen do not contain more accuracy than those of comics. Instead, they contain less inaccuracy; a subtle but important difference. Politics seeks consensus, which through its cautious and vague wording avoids inaccuracy. Benign statements serve as a protective layer, hiding from us true thoughts and opinions. Comedy, by contrast, involves the most utopic of aspirations, which at the cost of accuracy, employs the most stereotypical of narratives. A libellous concoction it may be, but the freedom afforded by humour is of immense illustrative value. In a sense, by the virtue of inaccuracy, comedy reveals a different truth — the truth of the orator’s own opinions. The honesty of humour simultaneously offends and brings others closer, which, in our world of disguise, provides a rare opportunity to uncover our glossed-over preconceptions.
Over-exaggeration, when done judiciously, is a technique of great utility, allowing one’s thoughts to be conveyed with great conviction. Interestingly, exaggeration and oversimplification are not unique to the comic world; one only has to consider our science. We have no qualms when it comes to making assumptions in science or approximations in engineering when clarity is at stake. Why might different standards be applied to communication? Of course, just as scientists must qualify their equations and engineers their calculations, orators too must qualify their theories, by their flaws and limitations.
Humor may seem liberal and rebellious, but is paradoxically more reliant on doctrines than any religion could be. Built on preconceptions, humour is nothing in the absence of context. In a world of libel and slander, humour liberates us from and yet ties us to a society of social norms.