“A Sudden Glory”: A Thought Or Two On Humor

By Jack Canfora

Talking about the nature of humor or laughter is about as fun as stepping on Legos in bare feet. I get it. But hear me out. For the few of you who can recall essays I have written for this esteemed blog, I tend to try to levin somewhat serious topics with occasional stabs at humor (some hits, some misses, to be sure). Comedy and seriousness can often make for strange bedfellows, as anyone who has tried to sleep with comedy can attest to (an S.J. Perelman homage), but I happen to think they are largely inseperable. Most of life, I contend, makes it so. 

Anyway, I was recently asked to write about the nature of humor, despite my conviction that talking about comedy is as useful as swimming about Keynesian economic theory. Like anything else humans are or do, humor is equally equipped to salve or savage, to poison or purify, to nurse wounds or grudges. Please, be assured I will in no way attempt to explainthe nature of comedy, or what makes something “funny.” Dear Lord, nothing is less funny than that. Besides, who the hell am I to think I know?

Want an example of how awful explaining humor is? For that, let us turn to some of the great Western minds. One in particular.

If you’re ever in the mood to find nothing funny ever again, read the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. For a sheer eat-your-angst-ridden- heart-out-Morrissey level of humorlessness, he is tough to beat.  He tackles humor with all the sunniness of Sophie’s Choice. Like most philosophers, and some of the rest of us, he makes the critical error of confusing humorlessness for seriousness. 

“Observing the imperfections of other men,” he writes, “causes laughter. Much Laughter is at the defects of others.” In other words, humor is sometimes cruel. When I read this, I made a roll of my eyes so strenuous I needed to be rushed to an ophthalmologist. But I challenge you, not so gentle reader, to think of many things that aren’t.  

Viewing humor like that is to miss the point entirely. It is like looking at the Sun and focusing entirely on the fact it causes melanoma and provides Florida with so many electoral votes. Hence Hobbes’ nihilistic gem, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.” 

Yes, life can be all those things (imagine what Hobbes would have had to say about life in the 17th Century had he been an Englishwoman). And humor is often cruel. But my God, who’d want to go a day without it? Who could? No one I’d ever trust. I believe that humor binds us because it reassures us that, despite evidence to the contrary, we’re never as alone as we think we are. 

The world is indeed sometimes as Hobbes described it. The world is also contains gelato, Side Two of Abbey Road, puppies, and the living poetry of great athletes. The world is home to playgrounds surrounded by green, rolling hills, as well as playgrounds with glass sharded over its asphalt like sprays of diamonds on black cloth. It’s also home to innumerable flowers struggling and blooming through cracks of that asphalt. Most importantly, the world also contains laughter. 

Hobbes called laughter “A Sudden Glory,” but he was a philosopher, so I cannot assure you he meant it as a compliment. Maybe the idea of momentary joy – perhaps, in the end, the only kind of joy there is – as a pure good eluded him, as it often eludes most of us. But, every now and then, it catches itself on the ragged edge of a laugh. And that has to be enough. It is enough. We should be unashamedly greedy in our pursuit of it. Let’s try to recognize each other in our laughter. Let’s try to recognize ourselves. Those moments are our best hope of it, I believe. Such moments are indeed “sudden glories.” I wish you, and all of us, many of them. 

23 thoughts on ““A Sudden Glory”: A Thought Or Two On Humor

  1. My dear, the only Hobbes you should ever allow near your sharp eyes, is the one that’s preceded by ‘Calvin &’. What a super post! Great imagery, and you had me laughing like a donkey. Thank you! 🙂

  2. Writing funny is hard. I tend to the dry which is desperately hard to translate to the pixel page (or the papyrus type and stop me before I alliterate again). I enjoyed the read: it’s true – a shocking number of people confuse the ability to laugh with a shallow or uncomprehending approach. I’ve always rather considered it “whistling in the dark.”

  3. As I wrote my father’s eulogy, and my mother’s before that, it was the points of humor that brought home the joy their lives brought even in the difficult times and revealed the deep love and great sadness they left behind. Humor is a great revealer, mender, and binder of souls

  4. “Most laughter as at the imperfections of others” good thought, but such laughter doesn’t have to be cruel. There’s a difference between laughing at someone because of a physical deformity beyond their control (not funny at all) or clumsiness (can be funny) it’s all subjective and dependent on the intent. We don’t have to be cruel if we choose not to be.

    1. True, there are gradations. But you are making fun of the fact that person’s clumsiness. Granted, it’s pretty gentle teasing, but l think, on some level, all humor is based on cruelty, except puns, which for many is among the cruelest things of all!

  5. I often think, in all seriousness, that the secret to a healthy life is being able to laugh at oneself and not take ourselves too seriously. That’s it!

  6. One must always be ready to laugh, most often with others or at ourselves! My default setting in many situations is facetious; at work, playing ultimate frisbee, watching a movie with friends – but I always make time to be serious. (Or was it I always make time to try and be funny but end up sounding confused and unsure of what I meant?)

    Anyway, I thank you for these momentary insights into what it means to be human, and give something to those around us, even if that is slipping on a purposefully placed banana peel once in a while.

  7. Great post and topic. I’ve been wondering if humor is like the difference between a back scratch and a painful scrape. A light touch is pleasurable while too much is painful. Likewise, a minor departure from the expected is funny while a large one is offensive or crazy. Think there’s any truth to that?

    1. Interesting. Humor generally depends upon shock – in the sense that it often requires an unexpected turn. But the nature of the shock is often bound to offend some people. And then again, some people yearn to be offended.

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