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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Shockingly un-funny

For no particular reason today, I've been thinking about shock humour. You know the type, where a "comedian" does something shocking, or says something shocking, to get a laugh. (You can probably guess by my use of quotes that I don't find this kind of person to be funny.)

It seems to me that people who rely on shock humour do so because they think it's funny. Simple idea, really -- I imagine most people who are trying to make people laugh do what they think is funny.

(This gives me an idea for a story, about a wildly successful comedian who doesn't think that anything she does is funny, but is very good at figuring out what other people think are funny. The conflict of the story relies on the tension between her success -- money, fame, etc. -- and her tedium that comes from always doing schtick for other people, but never herself. Now, all I have to do is figure out how superheroes fit into it.)

However, I think that people who use shock humour because they think it's funny do so for sadistic reasons. Specifically, such people think the shocks they deliver are funny because of the effect they have on the audience. In other words, what these shock jocks are laughing at is not the joke, but the squirming they provoke in others, the reaction to the joke. Really, it's a lot like laughing at a guy after you kick him in the nuts.

(Right now, approximately 50% of my readers are cringing, or bending slightly at the waist, or covering their genitals with their hands, in response to the above statement.)

Interestingly, there seems to be a not-insignificant audience for shock humour. Consumers of comedy do so because it makes them laugh. (I don't think it takes much to support this statement, so I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader.) Since there seems to be continuing, profitable production of shock humour content, we can only assume that there must be an appreciable body of consumers out there who enjoy it. So what about them?

Well, I think people who get a kick out of shock humour are motivated by the same responses that drive the shock jocks. People who laugh at shock humour are laughing at other people's discomfort, whether they're witnessing the shocking, or performing it. They're all sadists.

But wait, isn't there another kind of response to shock that produces laughter, beside the "I get off on other people's pain" kind? Yes, there is. It's commonly accepted that many people will laugh at something that shocks or disgusts them, as a way of lessening the horror of the situation. "Oh my god, what did he just do? Ha ha ha." It's a form of nervous laughter. Honestly, though, the only kind of person who repeatedly exposes him- or herself to something unpleasant as a form of recreation is a masochist.

Either way you look at it, in humanist terms, shock humour ain't funny.



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