The Sneak Attack


I’ve been thinking about the role that humor plays in a narrative. We often regard humor as an end in and of itself, something that adds entertainment – who doesn’t like to laugh? This approach is natural and worthwhile, but is insufficient as the end-point of our understanding: As inherently desirable as laughter may be on its own merits, treating it as the end disregards what it can be used to achieve within the greater structure of a piece.

I hypothesized in an earlier essay that a large part of what humor does for us is reassures us that something that might seem scary or threatening is harmless. Someone fell down, but they’re okay; this person is strange, but they seem to be harmless; there was a weird sound, but it was just a fart. The unexpected is terrifying unless it’s funny, and that’s a thin division, but one that can, usually, easily be manipulated by a skilled artist.

So, then, when you create humor, you are telling your audience that everything is alright, that they are safe. You are lowering their guard, whether that’s your intent or not. Chuck Palahniuk’s short story, Guts, made audience members pass out at readings, which he attributes to its sudden shift from humorous to grotesque. Catch-22 captures the horror and absurdity of war better than a realistic portrayal by casting the silhouette of tragedy against the light of hilarity. Steven Universe alternates so rapidly between sharp physical and character comedy and brutal earnestness that it’s earned a reputation for bringing its audience to tears. It’s the one-two punch, the sneak attack. It’s not that it’s impossible to resist, but it’s extremely difficult to resist partially: Either you can completely shut out the work and refuse to interact with it in any way, or you can open the door to the laughter and, inevitably, to the tears that follow.

Thus, adding humor to a piece of art isn’t just about making something funnier: The humor is a flavor enhancer. It makes the tense bits tenser, the tragedies more tragic – it makes the case that this is a world that actual people can be in, that you could be in. If you make no room for humor, you’ve ceded your control over the intensity of the piece and made it monotonous. It also forces you to understand your world in ways that you might not otherwise: Physical humor demands you understand the physical behavior of your world, situational behavior forces you to consider the circumstances you create, character humor can only emerge when you really understand your characters, and even standard setup and punchline jokes require you to consider both the culture that would create this joke and the personality that would tell it.

We don’t describe humor this way though. We talk about adding a joke ‘to lighten the mood’, rather than it being part of the mood, the humor to pair with the gallows. The truth is that you can draw more tears with an impeccably timed joke than the longest and harshest string of tragedies. The truth is that making us laugh doesn’t distance us from the tragedy or lessen its impact, but by casting it in the stark relief of better times and places it forces us to confront it. The truth is that laughter is a defense, and the funniest and bitterest joke of all is how little it may ultimately protect us.


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