Humor is poorly understood—and frequently misunderstood. Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor for The New Yorker, posted an article yesterday that touched upon play and humor. And that episode of Seinfeld. Whether we find a comic funny or not, he says, is determined by the degree and nuance with which the author digresses from reality.
Play is not the default mode of life, seriousness is. But play is the default mode in cartooning. What cartoonists do is play with incongruities along a continuum that stretches from reality-based humor to nonsense, and invite you to play along with them. The place on the continuum where the invitation is placed often determines the response.
In only a few words, Mankoff revealed something important about humor when he said that its ‘default mode’ is play. A joke or comic is funny because it’s framed as such. You’re probably familiar with the dysphoria of being outside of (or the butt of) someone else’s joke. The effectiveness of comedy—such as Louis C.K.’s standup routine—relies on the ‘invitation’ for play, the voluntariness of the act. Whether it’s presented in a comic strip, film reel, game, or stage, all play is framed in some demarcated space and time that is entered willingly.
Some types of humor brush against this rule, making it difficult to determine what’s intended to be funny. The jokes my friends and I tell are often lost in labyrinths of sarcasm and deadpan that no one, including us, can navigate properly. But this type of humor is no less playful; rather, it makes a game out of joketelling where the goal is to identify what is true and what is false. In this sense, a joke itself can be an invitation to play.
Humor in the form of satire carries real social criticism, of course, but it avoids the bite of a direct insult. Humor almost always falls back on some inconsequence: You’ll laugh when your friend trips and falls—but not if they break their neck (well, if you have tact).