I see humor as having levels. We talk about low-level humor correctly — it’s the bottommost level in the humor heirarchy. And while I don’t have time to collate all my thoughts on the other levels, I think that low-level humor is stimulus-response. We make funny faces at babies, they laugh. We make it again, and they laugh again. We all become conditioned to laughing at certain things.
But that’s a digression, right smack-dab in my first paragraph. What I wanted to talk about is the HIGHEST level of humor.
Everybody makes jokes. Some are better at it than others. Satire — making fun of something — is almost the last level of humor available. Note that I said ‘almost’. Take anything that others deem important, sacred, or special. There’s a line drawn around those things, and crossing that line is considered going “too far” by the more tactful folks. But in terms of humor, it’s the final frontier — that which should not be laughed at is the last area that hasn’t been made fun of.
Or so the jokers would believe. It’s certainly the last area that SHOULD be made fun of, but crude humor and jokes that resort to shock-value to get a laugh, are ubiquitious. If the heart of humor is surprise, then there’s no easier way to surprise someone than to go where it’s forbidden.
(Of course, the self-composed can often resist laughing at such things, but a vast number just cave in and laugh. Hence the proliferation of humor now that would have been taboo twenty years ago, and that would have caused coronaries fifty years ago.)
For the record, satire in general — taking something serious and making a joke out of it — is not as loathsome as satire of that which is holy or reverenced. It will often get the same response — some audiences will be offended, others will laugh — but satire is certainly the penultimate level of humor, with Satire of the Holy being the sublevel at the highest point in that region.
Note that I’m using ‘high’ in terms of ‘the most surprising or shocking,’ not in terms of higher quality of value.
But there’s one level higher, and fortunately, it doesn’t cross any lines to gain its surprise. That is meta-satire, or satire of satire. A person who makes a racist joke is making one attempt at humor. A person who makes fun of a person who makes a racist joke is the farthest you can go. You can’t satirize any farther.
Why? Because, while you could try to make a joke about someone making a joke about someone making a racist joke, you’re still just indulging in satire of satire. It’s just that the satire you’re mocking is, itself, satire of satire.
This is probably pretty dry, but I’m almost done.
Take a noun. “Trust.” “I have trust in him.”
Make it a verb. “I am trusting you on this one.”
Make it an adjective, by gerunding it. “He is a trusting person.”
Now make it an adverb. “He trustingly shook hands.”
An adjective describes a noun. An adverb decribes a verb. But an adverb can also describe an adjective or another adverb. “He was trustingly gullible.” “He trustingly, gratefully, accepted the gift.”
You can’t go any farther out than adverbs. You can have an adverb that describes an adjective or verb, but anything describing it is just another adverb.
You can have satire that mocks something good or something bad, but anything mocking it is just more satire. Meta-satire. Satire of satire.
Hence, I can make a joke about somebody making a dumb joke, and it gets a different response than any other type of joke I might make, but if anybody tries to make a joke about ME making a joke about somebody making a dumb joke, they’re at best trying to elicit the same response. At worst they’re falling and crashing and burning, because there’s just no ground to joke from at this height. We’ve gone out as far as we can go.
Now, it’s pretty hard to make a good joke about a good joke. It can be done, but it’s much easier to make a good joke about a bad joke. Or, more specifically, a bad joker. That’s my favorite form of humor these days — pretending to be the guy who tells bad jokes, than laughing at him with everyone else.
Anyways, just some thoughts I had here at work and decided to share.