Afternoon Inqueery

AI: Humor II

There were some great comments on last week’s post, and several people mentioned the aspect of surprise or violation of expectation – plays on words and unexpected connections between concepts.  References and the sense of being ‘in’ on a situation were also mentioned, and both those themes were identified in my previously-mentioned mini-workshop on the subject. 

When I was keeping a journal, in particular, I noticed something that kept cropping up was that among my friends, simply making an observation of some particularly strong/characteristic trait of someone ended up being funny.  The humor was not that we were surprised, but that we weren’t, and that came with a strong sense of belonging.

Something that did not pop up in my own journal or much (if at all) in the rest of the groups’ was slapstick, ‘awkward,’ or humor involving people getting hurt, even though we all agreed that sort of thing was quite common.  (I, for instance, know several people who used to send me Youtube clips on a frequent basis of people tripping, clotheslining themselves, or otherwise getting injured in dramatic fashion – these were apparently hilarious.)  So!  For this week’s questions –

What is it about slapstick comedy or awkward situations that makes them funny (if you do in fact find them funny or understand why someone else does)?  What other categories of humor can you think of that don’t involve the surprise or insider themes discussed above?  And if you think I’m missing a surprise/insider aspect of the aforementioned exceptions, where is it?

The Afternoon Inqueery (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Queereka community. Look for it every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 3pm ET.

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Dae is a chemical engineering graduate student who aspires to become a mad scientist, but is prepared to settle for being a professor. Her extracurricular academic interests are an ever-shifting list, but currently include temperament psychology, philosophy, transhumanism, and pre-modern literature. She identifies as a bisexual cis-woman, as well as a feminist, humanist, atheist, and roleplaying game enthusiast.


  1. March 21, 2013 at 2:25 pm —

    Awkward humour is a hard one for me. The most important thing I think is that the embarrassment of the subject. If the people involved are being unjustly embarrassed it makes me very uncomfortable.

  2. March 22, 2013 at 11:56 am —

    I have been tossing around two different ways of thinking about this. One is to try to stretch the definition of “violated expectations” far enough to encompass random comments about people’s characteristics, or awkward humor, or pratfalls and other physical comedy. There’s a general sort of social understanding that we don’t highlight people’s shortcomings, and all of these violate that in some way or other.

    (And yes, if you just happen to mention a characteristic of a person without specifically highlighting it as a positive, it comes across as negative by default. Imagine Star Trek’s Data “observing” something about another character, completely neutrally, to their embarrassment- and the other characters’ amusement.)

    But that might be stretching that definition past the breaking point. Another way of looking at it is to break laughter up into different categories: “delight” vs. “distancing”. Delighted humor is when you see that your expectations have been violated, e.g., by a new use of a word in a pun, and you figure out that a new set of understandings applies by the end of the joke. It’s a bit like solving a puzzle, with delight at both the solution, and at your own ability to solve it; to be “in” on the joke. Distancing laughter, conversely, is a way of both empathizing with the subject of the joke, and signalling to others that “I’m not like that”. Laughing at the adolescent awkwardness of the characters in “Superbad” and “Napoleon Dynamite” tells others that you would, of course, NEVER be that gauche, but also suggests that you can understand what it would be like. (The extent to which you feel those two very different emotions tends to come across in the level of viciousness in your laughter.) It’s certainly easier on the subject than outright attacks, as it gives them some opportunity to laugh along, redeeming themselves a bit.

    Of course, all this comes from very little actual academic study of the subject, and before I’ve had any coffee, so forgive me if this is all a bit… laughable.

  3. […] about slapstick comedy, awkwardness, or other negative situations that made them funny.  There was a really excellent comment on that post that made the point that people seem to use laughing at other people’s awkwardness […]

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