“Laughter is an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing”

In response to interest on this topic, I’m posting a copy of a procedural essay I wrote last term, under mock exam conditions in about an hour. It’s about the incongruity theory of humour, and I hope it demonstrates a little of what I do at university i.e. Read books and write about them. Yeah. Not my best work but not too bad considering the time limit, I think the feedback was borderline first. Yay.

Of all the theories of humour that attempt to explain the place of comedy, and by extension laughter in society, one of the most written about is the incongruity theory. This is the idea of humour arising from the appearance of objects in relation to a concept or situation to which they should not necessarily be related: or in brief, things being out of place. German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his 1790 publication Critique of Judgement, believed that “whatever is to arouse lively, convulsive laughter must contain something absurd” (203), thus extending the humour of the incongruous to include the absurd or the grotesque and removing the requirement for a specific situation or location in order for objects to become funny. Yet something which is absurd is not by definition humorous, and can often cause discomfort or repulsion. This essay will attempt to explain the link between the incongruous and the absurd, illustrate both the comic and tragic potential of such objects, and thus discover to what extent one can relate incongruity and comedy.

In his 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Dominican author Junot Díaz presents us with a character both tragic and comic in the eponymous young writer and science-fiction aficionado Oscar. As a reader, we laugh at Oscar mainly because he is unaware of his own amusing nature: as Henri Bergson puts it in his 1911 essay Laughter: An Essay On The Meaning of The Comic: “a comic character is generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself” (16). This is mainly shown through his archaic diction when conversing with other characters. In a scene with the book’s narrator Yunior, he refers to him as “You have experience in these matters”, and describes his off-putting personality as “lamentably, all I have” (Díaz 174). Oscar’s complete lack of code switching, and by extension his unawareness of the inappropriate tone of his speech, portrays Oscar as a very self-unaware, incongruous character, whom we can all laugh at. Despite this, at times his tendency towards serious, even dark actions, juxtapose with his humorous character to disturbing effect. When Oscar goes to the house of his friend’s abusive boyfriend, with the intention of killing him, the absurd image of a fat nerdy kid with a “Colt .44… [stuffed] down the front of his pants” (Díaz 46) and rehearsing the line “Come on motherfucker… I got a nice eleven-year-old girl for you” (47), as if he were in some kind of gangster movie, is laughable. But the utter seriousness in his intent to kill Manny, implied by the line “Luckily for the future of American Letters, Manny did not come home that night” (47) turns our incongruous image of Oscar from funny to worrying, presenting him as both comic and funny. Whilst Oscar is undoubtedly funny in his absurdity, he is also disturbing, and thus Díaz presents us with a key example of the fine line between comedy and tragedy, at least as far as absurdity is concerned.

Another example of this idea of ‘incongruous tragicomedy’ is present in the apostolic novel Fight Club, written by Chuck Palahniuk and published in 1996. As well as raising questions concerning gender and identity, the character of Bob gives us a portrayal of the grotesque at its finest. The hormone support therapy that Bob is on as part of his testicular cancer treatment causes him to develop “sweating tits that hang enormous” (16): this image of the well-built ex-bodybuilder sporting a large pair of secondary female sex characteristics is naturally incongruous, and obviously amusing. Yet the fact that the cause of this is a potentially life-threatening once again provides a different perspective on this once funny picture, rendering it disturbing and pitiable. This tragicomic theme is extended through the character of the Narrator. On the one hand, we all laugh at the picture of “Big Bob” and his “bitch tits” as he “pancaked down on [the Narrator]” or when his “big arms wrapped around [the Narrator]” (21), and yet the Narrator is only there to try and cure his insomnia; he does not himself have a life-threatening illness. Thus the use of physical contact, obtained through deceit, in order to provide a cathartic experience for the Narrator, is humorous as an image alone, but violating in its emotional manipulation of Bob. Whilst Kant claimed that “in all such cases the joke must contain something that can deceive us for a moment” (204), the extreme situation in which this scene is presented gives more of a feeling of repulsion or disgust than amusement or laughter. Again, whilst there is an obvious link between something incongruity and comedy, there is always a spectre of repulsion when the image becomes absurd or grotesque.

It is apparent that, when discussing incongruous humour, it is necessary to highlight both the comic AND tragic elements of certain cases. With both Oscar and Bob, their incongruity is, at least in part, a result of their absurdity of grotesqueness, and thus their situation becomes not just comic, but also tragic. Ergo, whilst anomalies and incongruities can often be read as related to comedy, in the case of the absurd or the grotesque, reactions of disgust, repulsion, or abhorrence, are also possible. What determines these reactions is a story for another essay, but certainly in these cases seems to come down to the context in which the image is presented, and also personal taste: the subjective nature of comedy will always lend itself to a varied response vis-à-vis incongruity, absurdity, and humour.

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