What's So Funny?
An article about humor seems an obvious choice for April. After all, what other month has as its gateway holiday an occasion so obviously named as “April Fools’ Day”? Bear in mind that writing about humor is not the same thing as actually being funny, so we should be able to uphold the usual staid and academically rigorous tone of this column despite the subject matter.
There are lots of different ways to get a laugh, and over the years, Revels has explored many of them. From witty elocution to pants-dropping slapstick, we’ve tried pretty much everything. For example, at the subtle end of the spectrum, our Elizabethan show tried eliciting laughter by means of a clever shift from prose to iambic pentameter verse in Will Kemp’s portrayal of Pluto, King of the Underworld (missed that joke, did you?). On the less subtle end of the spectrum are several instances that come to mind where goat droppings provided the fuel for our comic exploits.
In between these extremes, Revels foolery has taken many forms. We’ve done music hall-style comedy, Commedia-style comedy, line humor, sight gags, pratfalls, rhyming jokes, singing jokes, juggling jokes, and eyeball pokes. We’ve done japes with capes and takes with snakes, and even careless steps on rakes. Not to mention the pie in the face. We even indulge in the earthy humor of Mummers’ plays, which some (many) might argue is not really comedy at all.
I expect the Revels hijinks that stick most firmly in the minds of audience members (probably because they are involved directly) are jokes that involve audience members directly. They work like this: at some point in most Christmas Revels, we announce that it’s time for the Feast of Fools, or some local variant thereof. We send the teen choristers to ferret out a few audience members who are either too good-natured or too slow to escape. Then we deliver them onto the stage and into the tender mercies of Geoff Hoyle or some other purveyor of indignities, who then proceeds to put them through a series of antics such as reading doggerel verse, miming animals doing rude things or attempting archaic forms of folk dance. The rest of the audience invariably finds this very funny. Partly it is because they feel a connection with their peers on stage and partly, I’m sure, because they are relieved that they are not up there themselves.
As anarchic and unforced as these moments seem, they are in reality the result of a Careful Comic Calculation (CCC) by the joke-meisters behind the scenes. You see, there is a science to all of this and the CCC is the formula that guarantees good fun for all. Here’s the secret: our random selection of “volunteers” isn’t really random at all. We purposely try to identify individuals who will be seen as possessing “status”. That is, the trappings of authority as expressed by physical stature, fashionable dress, a well-trimmed beard, dignified carriage – things that cause us to look up to and respect an individual. This is necessary because the loss of status is inherently funny and the effort to retain it even more so.
Allow me to illustrate by citing a simple yet scientifically rigorous experiment – one that you can perform in your own suitably equipped and properly precautioned home. You’ll need a dog, a cat, and one of those funny conical party hats with an elastic chinstrap.
Now it is fairly well known that maintenance of dignity is crucially important to a cat, but for a dog, not so much. That is because a dog is an inherently lower status animal. His or her main purpose in life is to seek your approval. Whatever delights you, delights the dog, and if the dog can actually be the source of that delight, so much the better.
A cat on the other hand is unconcerned with what delights you, but is highly aware of the behavioral trappings that guarantee it a status higher than yours, e.g. napping undisturbed on the dining room table, sharpening claws on the easy chair, relieving itself among the kale seedlings – things you’re not allowed to do.
So here’s how to perform the experiment. First, call the dog over and have it sit or do whatever it does when it is paying attention to you. Then, holding the party hat, pointy end up in your left hand, and carefully stretching the elastic with your right, nestle the hat on the dog’s head. Slowly remove your right hand, being careful not to let the elastic snap (that’s not funny!), and observe the dog. One of two things will likely happen. Either the dog will reflect your pleasure in his suddenly festive appearance and wag his tail, sharing the moment – and your status- with you, or he will seem crestfallen, put his chin on the floor, and gaze up balefully. One outcome is pleasant, but not particularly hilarious and the other is definitely a downer. A low-status creature has had his status lowered even further. No prospects for comedy there.
Now follow the same procedure with the cat. Once you release the elastic, slowly count to fourteen. This is the time it will take the cat to evaluate what has happened and decide upon an appropriate response. (Note: I don’t know why it takes a slow count of fourteen, but it seems to be the same from cat to cat. Animal behaviorists call this the “denial delay”.) Observe the cat’s behavior. It will probably not rest its chin and gaze. If it does wag its tail, it will not be a positive thing. More likely it will start to back away and swat at the hat, perhaps vocalizing its annoyance while doing so. The subtext here is, ”This is not supposed to happen to the likes of me, and if I move quickly enough with just the right display of indignation, it will not have happened to me.” This is funny. Although your laughter will not please the cat, who has probably left the room by now anyway.
It is the loss of dignity, or even better, the denial of the loss of dignity that is the secret of the Careful Comic Calculation. It is a truth rooted in natural history, a behavioral pattern embedded deep in the animal genome, somewhere between the humerus and the funny bone. Remember it this way:
For every creature, great or small,
Just as a winter goes before a spring…
So goes pride before a fall.
- David Parr, Artistic Director