The History of Humour

Terry Eagleton—

Perhaps the single most contradictory political phenomenon of the modern world is nationalism, which ranges from the Nazi death camps to a principled resistance to imperial power. In terms of sheer political ambiguity, however, humour runs it fairly close. If it can censure, debunk and transform, it can also dissolve essential social conflicts in an explosion of mirth. Mutual laughter can be a form of mutual disarming, as the physical dissolution of the laughing body signals that it is incapable of inflicting harm. ‘He who laughs cannot bite,’ observes Norbert Elias. As such, it can furnish us with a utopian image of a peaceable domain to come. ‘Perhaps, even if nothing else today has any future,’ writes Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘our laughter has a future.’ Yet the helpless, uncoordinated body is hardly in a state to construct that social order. In this sense, comedy represents no threat to a sovereign power. Indeed, such powers have a vested interest in the good humour of the populace. A dispirited nation may prove to be a disaffected one. Yet rulers also require the common people to be diligent and dutiful, to exercise self-discipline and take their jobs seriously, and all this may well be jeopardised by a wave of gloriously irresponsible euphoria.

Like art, humour can estrange and relativise the norms by which we live, but it can also reinforce them. In fact, it can do so precisely by estranging them. To inspect one’s everyday behaviour through alien eyes is not necessarily to alter it. On the contrary, it might yield us a keener sense of its legitimacy. In typically liberal spirit, Jonathan Miller sees humour as a free play of the mind which loosens up our routine conceptual categories, relaxes their despotism and prevents us from becoming their slaves. We can now envisage different forms of classification, redesigning our everyday frames of reference. But there is no reason to believe that all this will inevitably result in a more enlightened state of mind. Why should we assume that all of our current categories are in need of reconstruction? Is a belief in gender equality a conceptual hindrance we need to break free from? And why should Miller’s liberalism not itself be subjected to such a critique? The anthropologist Mary Douglas regards all jokes as subversive since they expose the essential arbitrariness of social meanings. ‘A joke,’ she writes, ‘symbolises levelling, dissolution and renewal.’ In a classic earlier study, Purity and Danger, Douglas runs a similar argument about dirt, seen as unclassifiable, out-of-place material which marks the limits of our social constructions, a case which lends a new meaning to the term ‘dirty joke’. It is hard, however, to brand Jay Leno or Graham Norton as subversives.

In contrary spirit, Susan Purdie argues in an attractively ambitious study that jokes transgress authority only to end up reinstating it, though this overlooks the fact that not all forms of authority are oppressive. There is the authority of veteran dissidents as well as of those who hound them, of civil rights movements as well as of despotic governments. Noël Carroll also holds that in alerting us to certain social norms, humour helps to reinforce them. The rather more tedious truth, however, is that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. In any case, there are social norms that urgently need reinforcing. It is normative in British society that working people have the right under certain conditions to withdraw their labour. Norms are not always sinisterly coercive devices. To see humour as always and everywhere a reinforcement of power is too functionalist a standpoint, overlooking its manifest contradictions.

Alenka Zupančič writes with rash generality of how comedy ‘sustains the very oppression of the given order or situation, because it makes it bearable and induces the illusion of an effective interior freedom’. Konrad Lorenz also treats the comic as essentially conservative, remarking that ‘laughter forms a bond and simultaneously draws a line’. He means that the solidarity humour breeds is inseparable from a sense of one’s difference from others, and may thus breed a certain antagonism towards them. In this sense, it is both bond and weapon. Lorenz also thinks in Whiggish style that humour has progressed historically – that we are funnier now than we were in antiquity, and that contemporary humour is in general subtler and more searching than that of our ancestors. Not much before Dickens, he comments curiously, is likely to raise a laugh. He also maintains that the human being is a ‘self-ridiculing’ animal, though this may be truer of English liberals than of US Republicans.

If the solidarity humour generates is indeed dependent on exclusion and antagonism, then humour is at odds with the cosmic sense of the comic, which embraces the whole of reality in its tolerant, benevolent style. Noël Carroll believes that where there is an Us there is also typically a Them, but Francis Hutcheson, for one, would have demurred. The utopia of which laughter is a foretaste has no fixed bounds. The audiences of comedy shows do not feel bathed in a tide of collective euphoria only because they have some other bunch of men and women to feel ill-disposed towards. Humour may be conflictive or communitarian, denigratory or celebratory, but the two need not be sides of the same coin. There is a problem for the political left, even so, in reconciling humour as utopia with humour as critique; and to cast light on this and other questions, we may turn now to Trevor Griffiths’s classic drama Comedians.

In a school classroom in Manchester, a bunch of aspiring amateur comics are being put through their paces by the once renowned but now retired comedian Eddie Waters, a man who has thought long and deep about the nature of humour. His students include Ged Murray, a milkman, his brother Phil, an insurance agent, Sammy Samuels, a Mancunian Jew who runs a third-rate night club, George McBrain, a Northern Irish docker, Mick Connor, an Irish labourer, and Gethin Price, who drives a van for British Rail. Trapped in dead-end jobs, all six men see success as professional comedians as the only route out of them. They are shortly to be auditioned for such careers by Bert Challenor, a London-based show-business entrepreneur and long-time adversary of Waters. A slick, cynical operator with a thin veneer of charm, Challenor is on the hunt for comedians who keep it simple, avoid deep thought, give the public what they want and offer them a momentary refuge from their everyday lives. ‘We’re not missionaries,’ he warns Waters’s students, ‘we’re suppliers of laughter.’ Comedy in his view is a commodity sold to yobbos who neither want to learn nor are capable of doing so, and its practitioners need to sell their wares dear rather than give them away. ‘All audiences are thick,’ Challenor declares, ‘but it’s a bad comedian who lets ’em know it.’ If they can be led, he insists, it is only in the direction they wish to go.

From Humour by Terry Eagleton was Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Terry Eagleton is distinguished visiting professor of English literature, University of Lancaster, and the author of more than fifty books in the fields of literary theory, postmodernism, politics, ideology, and religion. 

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