Picture a cow standing next to a barn. That’s not funny. Picture the cow on the roof of the barn. That is funny. You know it is. But why? The answer will shock you in its tedium. For one thing consider the Benign Violation Theorem proposed by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner in The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, which says, “humor only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling or threatening (i.e., a violation), but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable, or safe (i.e., benign)” which itself is only funny insofar as the authors assume we don’t know what benign means, and we do.
Online, humor works better than almost any other rhetorical tool. Look at the numbers: last year, the average monthly readership of the New Yorker online was 12.9 million unique visitors. At Cracked.com, which runs fake lists, such as the “Six Things No One Considers Before Starting a Monkey Business,” they get 16 million a month. The math: Monkey gags are more popular than Angela Merkel think-pieces, even though the name Angela Merkel in itself is arguably hilarious, given Mel Brooks’s theory that K-words are inherently funny (say “salmon,” say “turkey,” judge for yourself). According to marketing blogger Neil Patel, 62 percent of images posted on Twitter are “humor-based,” although he doesn’t say what that means, and nine percent are about food. Corporations like Charmin, the toilet paper people, have been jamming Twitter with what they’ve decided is comedy (“That awkward moment when you use the work bathroom and the seat is warm #shudder #tweetfromtheseat”), as have Denny’s, Oreo, and Old Spice (“Every day is abs day when you’re a snake”).
We all make mistakes
One reason for this may be the democratic nature of the web which, like a house party, hosts a range of content from the serious to the professorial to the insufferable to the pithy to the possibly-unbalanced, but it’s always the funny person people gather around. Humor is a draw. According to the New York Times, market research by Comedy Central has revealed that “more than music, more than sports, more than ‘personal style,’ comedy has become essential to how young men [the sole subjects of this study] view themselves and others.” Eighty-eight percent of respondents said that humor was “crucial” to their self-definition. “One big takeaway,” said the executive vice president for research at Comedy Central’s parent company, Viacom, “is that, unlike previous generations, humor, and not music, is their No. 1 form of self-expression.” Where once young men aspired to be athletes or guitar-shredding rock godlets, they now want to be as funny as the funny people on TV or social media, who wield similar influence and, in some cases, boast the same kind of audience. Even the New Yorker sugars the more substantive cereal of reportage and analysis with satire, topical cartoons and parody to make them more popular at a very crowded and very competitive gathering.
Humor offers instant gratification, the sudden weird thrill of the cow on the roof. And to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, asked to explain her grotesque stories: For the hard of hearing you must make a loud noise. Earnest analysis is quiet, but humor snaps. And there’s more: the funny guest at the house party draws a crowd because, by definition, she runs the risk of not being funny at all. The funny guest has to master delivery, timing, Aristotelian poetic structure, performance, and gesture, or the alchemy fails to produce gold, and she flops. Every joke presents the opportunity to bomb, and every successful joke suggests its mirror opposite. So it’s not just that we like the gag. We applaud the very idea of courting failure, especially in a tough room, which is what the internet looks like from the consumer’s side of the glass: cynical, exhausted by rhetorical trickery, tired of lazy prose and the commercial imperative, or just plain tired. Daring to break through this psychic wall is to risk yet another yawn, or worse.
Humber College in Toronto offers a four-semester diploma program in Comedy Writing and Performance at $28,400 tuition for international students, albeit in Canadian dollars (which are more colorful and therefore funnier than American dollars). Andrew Clark, who heads the program and writes a humor column for the Globe and Mail newspaper, tells me his students are particularly interested in print and online humor, which he says is inherently “deadpan.” To extend this theory, online humor is riskier than stand-up or TV sketch comedy, and rewarded proportionally, because it has no scaffolding: no performance cues, laugh track, visual framing, or sympathetic buzz of the club to aid the gag. It’s naked, daring you not to laugh. The stakes are not exactly akin to base jumping, but a badly landed joke can lead to backlash or social quarantine, which is what happened to Gilbert Gottfried in 2011 when he thought it would be a good idea to make fun of the Japanese tsunami in which 15,894 people died. The insurance company Aflac dropped him as the voice of their animated duck mascot. In that case, the violation was not benign, but in 2013, Bryan Donaldson (@TheNardvark) tweeted, “When you’re cutting wrapping paper and your scissors start to glide is what I imagine heroin feels like.” Heroin qualifies as distractingly “unsettling,” but the joke was about the feeling, not the perils of the drug, and thus safe enough to garner 15,315 retweets.
Online humor is riskier than stand-up or TV sketch comedy because it has no scaffolding: no performance cues, laugh track, visual framing, or sympathetic buzz of the club to aid the gag
It’s an odd paradox, but we appreciate (and reward, through laughter, applause, online traffic and retweeting) those we expect to fail but somehow, through skill and invention, don’t. Risk turns a nothing into a something: A man walking a straight line on a road is nothing, but a man walking a straight line on a wire suspended over a circus ring is something. Turning nothing into something is one definition of art. One reason we applaud risk-takers is for doing the impossible; another is that we aspire to be just like them. Think of the 2008 economic crash, when the guilty class, the billionaires, emerged neither wounded nor blamed for the mess. They shoveled their wealth offshore. They got bailouts. And instead of getting angry, the thick bell curve of mainstream America applauded them as heroes, champions of a utopian ideal: cornpone, homespun capitalism. As Thomas Frank writes in Pity the Billionaire, leaders in commerce and the political hysterics who backed them were seen as risk-takers who deserved reward. In America, the middle-class aspirant (if there are any left) can become captain of industry, through applied bootstrap-ism and gumption unrelated to the blind luck or straight-up privilege that define wealth. The fact that the whole economy collapsed like a busted lawn chair did not detract from the honor of risk. In the same way, we admire the funny person at the party, or her online surrogate. We admire, and imagine we could have her power.
Ironically, most of us are risk-averse. Behavioural calculations are based on best outcomes. The best outcome results, usually, from the safest choices: an education, a job, a sensible pair of shoes, a pension, to die quietly in a darkened room with good air circulation and flattering light. Risk offers the possibility of better outcomes, but we like it when other people take risks and confirm that possibility without disturbing our safety. The young Comedy Central research subject may fill his Twitter feed with banal material, the stuff designed not to raise hackles or attract the trolls. But he’ll work on his material. He’ll study the best, the way previous generations listened to Cream and worked out the chords until their hands cramped. He can go to Humber, study the K-words. Then he’ll do it again, and the aversion to risk will give way to a strange hunger for it, provided the audience, his followers, reward him for it, which they’ll do, if he’s any good.
Or if he’s arrogant enough not to care. That’s where I get hung up. Humor, as with any kind of risky activity, is a look-at-me venture. Humor online is grandstanding and I don’t like to stand grand. One of the great pathologies bred by social media is the amount of time we spend worrying that complete strangers will find us either arrogant or limp, and by “we” I mean me. This worry is more than aversion to risk; it’s aversion to judgment by people who are smarter, and probably funnier, than you (me). So I can relate to humor like Cracked.com writer Kristi Harrison’s knock-knock joke, which goes:
Me. Kristi Harrison.
What do you want?
The UPS guy accidentally delivered your package to my house and I brought it over.
Thanks, can you leave it on the porch?
Kristi Harrison gets a pass on the grandstanding issue because the gag says, I actually don’t know what a knock-knock joke is, and that’s funny, because we all make mistakes. I aspire to Kristi Harrison’s humor. Failure is built into the joke, and it’s very sophisticated. One day I’d like to write a knock-knock joke where the knock never happens because I’m afraid of confrontation.