Andrew Snowdon

On Grisly Humour

In crime, humour, Ottawa on Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 8:55

So somebody sent a human foot through the mail to the Conservative Party of Canada’s headquarters on Albert Street in Ottawa, and police later found a human hand still in transit in the postal system.  Montréal police found a torso.

While investigators gear up to play a grisly game of Sesame Street Mix and Match, Twitter and certain sectors of the print media have taken to rather macabre humour.  Most of it consists of puns, and I wish someone had taken the trouble to Storify it (or hope that someone has?).  Because it’s fascinating.

But is it funny?  There’s a foot and a hand and they came from someone.  They didn’t grow in a vat.  Someone is likely (at this writing) dead, or at least maimed, and that can’t possibly be funny, can it?

Well, it certainly seems to be, to some people.  Or at least it’s fuel for comedy.  But for how long?  How far is too far?*  Leaving aside the hocus-pocus of “coping mechanisms” and such efforts to analyze, and thereby desiccate, human glee and mirth, when does the ha-ha run out?

I found this gem excerpted from J. Berg Esenwein’s Writing for the Magazines, in Writing for the Photoplay, which he co-wrote with Arthur Leeds.  I think it is germane to the discussion:

“Good sense is at once the basis of and the limit to all humor. He who lacks a fine perception of ‘the difference between what things are and what they ought to be,’ as the always-to-be-quoted Hazlitt expressed it, can never write humor. All the way through we shall find that mirth is a matter of relationships, of shift, of rigidity trying to be flexible, of something shocked into something else.

“Let us think of a circle on which four points have been marked:

circle diagram

“Beginning with a serious idea, we may swiftly step from point to point until we return to the serious, with only slight variations from the original conception. Take the perennial comedy-theme of the impish collar, and visualize the scenes:

“1. A man starts to button his collar. Nothing is less comical, as long as the operation proceeds normally.

“2. But the button is too large and his efforts begin to exasperate him, with the result that his expression and movements become incongruous. We see, and laugh—though he does not.

“3. He begins to hop around in a mad attempt to button the unbuttonable, and soon rips off the collar, addressing it in unparliamentary language. He is ludicrous, ridiculous, absurd.

“4. In his rage he violently kicks a pet dog that comes wagging up to him. Our laughter subsides, for the fellow is more contemptible than amusing—a deeper feeling has been born in us.

“5. The little dog limps off with a broken leg—we are no longer amused, we are indignant. What is more, not only have we gotten back to the serious, but there is no amusement left in any of the previous scenes.

“Still applying the test of the extent of the variation from the normal as shown in the effects, we conclude that serious consequences kill humor. The mere idea of such consequences, when we know that in the circumstances they are really impossible, may convulse us with merriment, as when we see a comedian jab a long finger into the mouth of his teammate and the latter chews it savagely. In real life this might sicken us with disgust—I say ‘might,’ because we can easily conceive of such a situation’s exciting laughter if the victim were well deserving of the punishment. It is human for us to laugh when the biter is bit; indeed, variations on this theme are endless in humorous writing.

Sympathy also kills humor. The moment we begin to pity the victim of a joke—for humor has much to do with victims—our laughter dies away. Therefore the subject of the joke must not be one for whose distress we feel strong sympathy. The thing that happens to a fop is quite different in effect from that which affects a sweet old lady. True, we often laugh at those—or at those ideas—with whom or with which we are in sympathy, but in such an instance the ludicrous for the moment overwhelms our sympathy—and sometimes even destroys it.”

(Ha ha, those poor fops.  They certainly got the short end of the stick at the beginning of the twentieth century.)

Given the dual tests of “serious consequences” and “sympathy,” I would advance that no capacity for humour remains once we know whose parts they are.

Or was it never funny in the first place because the parts had always belonged to someone?

What do you think?


* Measured in feet, of course. And this is a footnote.

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  1. “ARRGH! THIS COLLAR BUTTON WON’T FIT! I’M GONNA KICK ME SOME DOG!” lolololol… Well, I think humor depends on how you look at things…if you can see absurdity, you can laugh…Firstly, I would tend to laugh more at the thought processes of the guy who’s sending body parts to political parties (“ok, let’s see..Moderates on Monday, they get a foot, Conservatives on Tuesday, T’s for torso…”, etc.). And once we find out whose body parts they are, it doesn’t really change much humor-wise…the only reason it would stop “being funny” in the news is because the press’ job isn’t to make you laugh (but they do it anyway)…Don’t get me wrong, I think there are conditions that everyone has sensitivities to, but humor is a coping mechanism for some people, it’s not the enemy–any more than a painting, a jazz composition, or a journal entry is…

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