The king of pain

Ward E. Jones explores the theory of comedy with The King of Comedy

It is common for recent philosophers to begin their writings on comedy by introducing two or three “rival theories of humour” – the usual suspects are the “incongruity theory”, the “superiority theory”, and the “relief theory”. The author then proceeds to defend one of them against the other(s).

This, I think, is a mistake. These alternative “theories” are best seen from the outset not as competitors but as each being concerned with a different aspect of humour. That this is true becomes clear once we realise that the fundamental focus of a theory of humour should be a state of mind. This state of mind, which goes under various names in the philosophical literature – “mirth” (de Sousa), “funny experience” (Feinberg), and, more commonly, “amusement” (Clark, Morreall, Scruton) – should be used to explain other phenomena in the realm of comedy. The behaviour of comedians, for example, should be conceived as an attempt to generate the mental state of amusement in their audience members. Amusement also differentiates genuine comedic behaviour, like laughter, from other, apparently similar behaviour; laughter without amusement is not laughter at all.

The fact that a theory of humour is, at its heart, a theory of a mental state, tells us at least some of its features: a comprehensive theory of humour will account, among other things, for the content and the function of amusement. While I do not know what a complete theory of humour would look like, it strikes me that each of the so-called “theories” of humour makes plausible claims about certain basic features of amusement, that is, that each will have a place in a complete theory of humour.

I will look at two of these features, a candidate for the content of amusement (the incongruous) and a candidate for its function (to generate partiality). I will ground each of these features of amusement in Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy, a film which invites and explores amusement in particularly complex ways. As with many of our mental states, amusement plays a large role both within narratives and in our engagement with narratives. Looking in some detail at these roles in a particular narrative has the potential to teach us a great deal about amusement. Proceeding this way may be especially fruitful when we have a mental state as ill-understood as amusement and a film as thoughtful as The King of Comedy.

The Incongruity Thesis (as I will call it) is a claim about the content of amusement, about what we find funny, about what we laugh at. The claim that the incongruous is what we find funny was given its first extensive airing by Francis Hutcheson in 1750. As a recent defender of the Incongruity Thesis, John Morreall, described it, the thesis states “We … come to expect certain patterns among things, their properties, events, etc. We laugh when we experience something that doesn’t fit into these patterns.”

The claim that incongruity is the object of all amusement has its critics, and there is clearly a great deal of work that needs to be done in making more precise the notion of incongruity involved in humour. However, there is no shortage of support for the thought that humour is a response to, at, and about incongruities or something closely related to them. From childish laughter at physical differences and deformities, to laughter at embarrassments, to sophisticated puns and wordplay, amusement seems to involve a response to a juxtaposition that one does not anticipate or an expectation that is violated. As one indication of this, we can look at the kind of challenges to which the amused person is susceptible: if I disagree with someone who found a performance amusing, I might explain to her that I found it “obvious”, “predictable”, “old” or “monotonous”. Each of these responses fits nicely with the thought that the content of amusement is the unexpected or incongruous.

It has often been noted that we do not always respond to incongruities with amusement. Some incongruities simply surprise us or make us curious; others, such as monsters, frighten us; still others offend us or make us angry or lead us to pity, for instance, immoral actions. An indication that amusement is a response to a certain kind of perceived incongruity lies in the fact that an agent’s laughter can be taken (or used) to signal a specific (e.g. comic) incongruity in the situation at hand.

This kind of signalling appears in the most complex scene in The King of Comedy, in which Rupert and Rita arrive at Jerry’s home. Their uninvited and unexpected appearance surprises and angers Jerry; indeed it stuns him into a seething silence for some time before he starts hurling abuse at Rupert. For Rita, Jerry’s response is incongruous, as she believes that Jerry invited them to his house. In a remarkable and unexpected shift, Rupert starts to laugh at Jerry. His laughter is intended to indicate to Rita that Jerry’s incongruous response is a joke, that Jerry is pretending that he did not invite Rupert and Rita to his home, pretending to be angry. Once recognised, such behaviour would, of course, be the basis for laughter, as a (pretended) incongruous response to invited guests. Rupert’s ruse (or delusion, I am not sure which) cannot last for long, of course. But in that brief moment, one appreciates how Rita is uncertain, how she might follow Rupert’s comedic signal to interpret Jerry’s behaviour as unexpected pretence rather than unexpected anger.

The close relationship between different kinds of incongruities makes possible so-called “dark comedies” like The King of Comedy. Dark comedies invite us to laugh at something which is, at least ostensibly, not funny at all. Like all dark comedies, The King of Comedy takes an act or event that would, under most descriptions or presentations, invite pity or anger, and gives it characteristics that invite amusement. A kidnapping is not a humorous event; kidnapping someone with the aim of getting onto his television show and being famous, however, may be. The darkness in The King of Comedy derives from immoral acts – not only kidnapping, but also extortions and invasions of privacy – lurking behind the film’s invitations for us to laugh. However, even this image of darkness “lurking behind” humour does not capture the intimacy between the immoral-as-incongruous and the amusing-as-incongruous. Dark comedy does not just layer one incongruity on top of another; on the contrary, it is essential to the humour of the kidnapping in The King of Comedy that it is a kidnapping. The immorality of this event is crucial to its humour. What is so funny is that Rupert and Masha do this in order to achieve their ends, that what they do is itself a violation. The humour here derives, we might say, from the morally incongruous being incongruously used.

Thomas Hobbes pointed to a second feature of amusement when he claimed that it is “a sudden glory arising from some conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” Hobbes’s claim is pretty clearly not true of a great deal of humour; it is hard to believe that our laughter at puns, for example, involves a comparison between ourselves and other persons. Nonetheless, Hobbes was right to draw our attention to the role that amusement plays in interpersonal relations. Those who have recognised that he was onto something – mostly social psychologists – have expanded his thought into what I will call the “Favouritism Thesis”. The Favouritism Thesis holds that S’s being in the state of amusement is correlated with S’s partiality towards or away from features of the humorous situation.

One influence described by the Favouritism Thesis is that being amused affects one’s partiality towards people or things in the humorous situation. This is perhaps most obviously illustrated by the use we make of humour in our attempts to garner someone’s favour or agreement. Particularly crude examples occur among schoolchildren: think of a child ridiculing another child in order to ostracise the latter and be popular himself. Of course, we need not attempt to disparage anyone (else) in order to use humour to win someone’s favour: think of the lecturer who makes jokes – perhaps about herself – in order to make her students like her. In these cases, leading someone to laugh with you inclines them to be partial towards you.

It is a small step from the Favouritism Thesis to the thought that at least one of the functions of amusement is to encourage social grouping. My becoming amused leads me to form biased attitudes toward other people, and in doing so it leads me to bond with certain people and to separate myself from others. The mental state of amusement, says the Favouritism Thesis, is one of the complicated mechanisms by which we form social groups. “Those who laugh together,” the thesis reminds us, “stay together.”

The Favouritism Thesis leads us to expect that, in a group of people who do not get along well, humour will be more or less absent. This expectation is borne out in The King of Comedy. With the exception of Rupert’s dream/delusion sequences, the interactions between characters in the film are fraught with anxiety, and as the Favouritism Thesis predicts, there is very little humour among them. Jerry, the professional comedian, is dour and serious in all but his first appearance in the film. In most of her scenes, Masha is either bickering with Rupert or professing her fanatical love for Jerry. While Rita tries a bit of light humour at dinner with Rupert, he does not return it. Rupert never uses humour in his interactions to gain favour with the other characters. Rather than attempting to woo Rita with comedy, Rupert is uncomfortably straightforward in expressing his unhealthy feelings for Rita, speaking of a future in which she is his “Queen”; similarly, Rupert never uses humour to impress Jerry or calm Masha. Astonishingly, for a film with this title, none of the main characters in The King of Comedy is able or willing to create affability in their companions by engendering amusement.

For most of the film, the same is true of us, the film’s viewers. While we have plenty of opportunities to laugh at Rupert and Masha, we are never invited to laugh with them. One of the central ironies in The King of Comedy is that its lead character, the self-styled “King of Comedy”, is extremely unfunny. Our amusement never leads us to be fond of him, to be partial towards him, to have any sympathy or connection with him. Not, that is, until the end of his monologue on the Jerry Langford Show, where he tells his audience that he has kidnapped Langford so that he could be on the show. The audience, of course, does not believe him, and taking him to be pretending, they laugh just as they had been doing throughout his monologue. We laugh, as well, but this time we laugh not at Rupert but with him; unlike his studio audience, we are privy to the truth of what he is saying. There is incongruity in that, of course, and a source of amusement for us. More deeply, however, Rupert is revealing to us that, contrary to what we expect of him, he sees the humour in what he has been doing; he sees that we have always had reason to laugh at him. In other words, we see Rupert, for the first time, truly and genuinely making light of himself. As the Favouritism Thesis predicts, we are led to feel, for the first time in the film, a bit of softness for him.

Immediately, however, our feelings for Rupert are thrown back at us, for as the film ends it reveals just how calculating Rupert’s kidnapping and monologue were. Vincent Canby, in his 1983 review of the film for the New York Times, wrote that the film is “full of laughs, but under all of the comic situations is the awful suspicion that our laughter is going to be turned against us, like a gun.” The suspicion that Canby describes is an apt description for what actually happens in the film, for just when we feel we are connecting with Rupert, just when we feel something other than bewilderment and condescension, the cynical, scheming nature of his plan is revealed to us. The darkness of The King of Comedy turns out, in the end, to involve ourselves. Our finally laughing with Rupert, our finally feeling a little fond of him, shows us that we are not exempt from being complicit as his fame-making fans. Our partiality towards him, generated by our laughter with him, ultimately attaches us to him and his deeds.

Jerry Lewis once made the intriguing claim that “Most people fear comedy. Because the truth of it is like a bone coming through the skin.” Whatever danger we might see in humour, it seems to me, must lie in the realm described by the Favouritism Thesis, in the social binding and ostracising that results from the play of humour. Lewis may have been thinking of being made fun of or being laughed at when he said this; being laughed at can be a difficult and painful experience, especially when the target is a sensitive, embarrassing feature of oneself. Watching The King of Comedy, though, reveals another, more complicated way in which comedy can be painful, namely when humour leads one to side with a character who, ultimately, turns out to be a nasty piece of work. The comedy at the end of The King of Comedy targets the audience by pulling the audience members in, by getting them to ultimately side with its main character; our eventual partiality towards Rupert Pupkin, mediated by his humour, means that, in the end, his dirty character besmirches our own.

Ward E. Jones is associate professor in philosophy at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa

  1. Rupert’s ‘comedy-as-deceit’ (or at least as described herein) seems a disfigurement of the Favoritism thesis’ social grouping function, a distorting of amusement being able to healthily express this.

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