Today”s Dance:”Can”t You Take a Joke?” and the Nature of Humor

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Charlie Chaplin (Photo credit: Leo Reynolds)

For me,”can”t you take a joke?” translates roughly as”Shut up so I can belittle you for my amusement”. The words”disparage”,”mock”, and”malign” might be substituted for”belittle” here.

The moment I saw that Seth MacFarlane would be hosting the Oscars this year, I knew that not only would I not be watching, but that I would be avoiding news of the Oscars later. When I discovered that he made a”joke” mocking female members of the Academy (especially Oscar winners) because part of their job includes sometimes showing their breasts for the role, I felt justified. Nothing I have heard about the”humor” displayed that night has changed my mind.

Robert Heinlein stated in Stranger in a Strange Land that “Man is the animal that laughs at himself”. It”s a pretty good description. Sometimes the sort of humor that belittles people or ideas is valuable humor, particularly when it is pointed at those in power and the power structures they sustain. Kings and dictators fear satirists for a reason. When it is pointed at people weaker than the speaker in the hierarchy of society, however, it is nothing short of bullying.

Certainly the sort of humor that laughs at oneself can be a lot of fun, and serves a useful purpose. I laugh at myself a lot during therapy sessions. It serves to humanize me and to help the people I”m interacting realize that I am not perfect, nor do I expect them to be. It breaks the ice and encourages people to relax and talk about themselves in safety.

Two other common forms of humor are physical humor and wordplay. Physical humor, if done well, can be among the funniest of humor. Certainly Lucille Ball, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were amazing to watch. More modern physical comics include most of the original Saturday Night Live crew, Martin Short, and Benny Hill. Physical humor is genuine”laugh at yourself” humor, with rare bits of”laugh at others”. It can be a guilty pleasure, because it is often the first humor we learn as children, and it often relies heavily on farts and sexual innuendo and pratfalls.

Buster Keaton montage set to modern music

Wordplay has its fans and detractors. Some people say that”puns are the lowest form of humor”, but those people have never been at a gathering of geeks (whether in person or online) where a”pun war” is going on. The sophistication and complexity can be amazing. I may never forgive Spider Robinson for writing Callahan’s Con, which turned out to be one long setup for a pun.

Gilda Radner as Roseanne Rosannadanna

Other forms of wordplay include spoonerisms, alliteration, and rhyming, all of which can have elements of humor in them. I’m sure if you think about it, you can think of more forms of humor, especially if you have an academic background in literature or film (which I don’t). Today’s dance explores the many forms of humor and how they enrich or aggravate your life:

  • What do you think is the funniest book or story ever written? The funniest movie or television show? Why?
  • What do other people find funny that leaves you cold? How do you account for the difference?
  • How do you feel about humor that relies on belittling others? Is it always okay? Sometimes? Never? Why?
  • How funny do you think you are? What sort of humor are you good at?
  • Have you ever been humiliated by something that other people found hilarious? Was it directed straight at you, or was it directed more at a thing or group that you identify with?
  • Has humor ever uplifted you and greatly improved your mood? When did that happen? What was the funny thing that happened or was said or which you encountered?
  • Is there a humorous web page that you visit regularly? What is it? What do you find funny about it?
  • Is there something you find funny that you feel guilty about finding funny? Can you share it? Do you suppose other people also have “guilty pleasures” when it comes to humor?
  • Do you consider videos of babies giggling to be humor or something else? Why? If “something else”, what else are they?
  • Do you laugh easily, or is it hard to get you to laugh? Why? What never fails to get you to laugh? Is it something that most people consider to be humor, or something else?
  • What is the relationship between humor and joy? Humor and merriment? Humor and happiness? Is that universal, or personal to each person?

As always, feel free to like, share, and pass this on. I look forward to comments and discussion, so long as it stays respectful. See you on the flip side!

  • Women Are Not a Punch Line (
  • Some Practical Ways to Developing Our Sense of Humor (
  • Laugh Together (
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