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Comedy in Context

Around 4 o’clock on a weekday afternoon in an empty elementary school parking lot, I saw someone doing donuts in a Ford Taurus. Immediately, I laughed hard enough to hold up traffic while witnessing this in my car. I imagine reading the description of that event wasn’t probably that funny to you.

Does that make it not funny? Of course not. The subjectivity of humor should be well established enough for people to know that people laugh at a wide range of things. Categorizing something as funny or decidedly not funny is an individual process, as opposed to it being black and white. Nothing is ever objectively funny.

For instance, John Cage is one of the most controversial composers ever, but he was never a comedian. In fact, his most famous piece, “4”33,” is completely silent, having all the musicians merely sit and do nothing. That, along with several other of Cage’s works throughout his career, do not have the makings of comedy.

Yet, Cage made an appearance on the sixties game show I’ve Got A Secret and got laughs. Yes, he performed one of his highly experimental and confusing compositions and got the type of laughs many comedians, sketch groups, and shows would want.

Watching it now in the present day, the performance isn’t as laugh out loud funny as that live audience thought it was. You probably think that Cage’s pushing of radios off a counter isn’t funny at all.

This is all probably overwhelmingly obvious, but what is important to this instance of unintentional humor is its context. The audience came to see a silly game show where contestants try to guess the secrets of the show’s special guests, then saw an odd looking man perform music via the seemingly unrelated banging of objects and pouring of liquids. To them back in 1960, Cage’s “Water Walk” was unexpected in just the right way to elicit laughter the whole way through.

From this, I’ve gleaned that context is what makes something funny. The circumstances which surround us all and bring a set of stimuli in a very specific way, coupled with a person’s personal beliefs, his or her stage of life, and how he or she is feeling at that specific moment will determine whether they will cackle or stay quiet.

Almost at an opposite extreme, there are plenty of laughs to be had during rap battle. A mass of people group around two rappers going head-to-head saying some of the most vile, bigoted, unflinching things that could possibly said about each other and yelling at each other repeatedly, then people judge how great their rhyming hate speech was and determine a winner. To many of the people there and some of the people watching on YouTube, some of the insults are so ridiculously offensive that the people in attendance laugh and laugh hard. Taken out of this context, yelling a gay slur over and over and demeaning someone by just the way they look would be those “fightin’ words” from Western movies.

When it comes to telling the funniest story ever to someone and have to end it by saying “I guess you had to be there” because no one laughed, does not disprove the story’s comedic value. Perhaps the right details aren’t included or the wrong ones or being kept in. Essentially, the story of the weekend when you lost your phone isn’t unfunny (that is, if it’s funny to you), you’re just probably telling the story the wrong way.

I should mention that when I saw that Ford Taurus doing donuts, I was listening to “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber, arguably one of the saddest pieces of music ever composed. I was attempting to further being depressed after thinking that I’ll probably die alone without ever making any money because the only jobs I’m getting are ones that don’t pay. Then I saw some random person burning rubber in broad daylight at a school. In that context, there’s no way I couldn’t have thought “life is beautiful” and just bust up laughing.

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Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero in THE DARK KNIGHT Interrogation Scene


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  1. Christine says:

    I think the funniest thing I heard was in the John Cage video when the host said “A few hours before air time, a jurisdictional union dispute arose, between 2 unions, as to who had the jurisdiction of plugging in the five radios.” lmao. That’s funny stuff. 😉

  2. Erin says:

    The last paragraph made this story jump the contextual hurdle into universally funny. Nice!