the theory of everything funny

Gabriella Green
5 min readMay 27, 2021

I love thinking about why we laugh at certain things. I’m not sure where my perverse fascination with giggles vs. gasps came from exactly, but I found the actual words to talk about it after reading excerpts from John Wright’s Why Is That So Funny?: A Practical Exploration of Physical Comedy.

In the book, he talks about various “types” of laughter:

  • The Recognized Laugh
  • The Visceral Laugh
  • The Bizarre Laugh
  • The Surprise Laugh

In the introduction of the book, he discusses laughter as a kind of social contract. Something unexpected happens (or is uttered), and the laughter is a signal to let everyone know that no irreparable harm is done. The act of laughing is a way of telegraphing, “I’m okay, you’re okay, we are sharing a moment of surprise and it’s pleasant!” It’s like that moment in Willy Wonka when a seemingly-frail Gene Wilder slowly tips to the ground: the audience holds its breath, and if he were to fall to the ground and lie there, unmoving, it would obviously evoke sympathy, concern for his well-being, etc. But he gives that audience permission to laugh, with the flourish of his hat and cane, and we delight in being caught off-guard.

It’s a really interesting book, so I won’t try to reanalyze what he so artfully does, but I have been brought back to this text recently, thinking about the relationship between comedy and political correctness.

What’s been occupying the penthouse of my brain is the role of the Recognized Laugh, and the art of the Roast. A few weeks ago I rewatched the roast of Alec Baldwin on Comedy Central, and while I myself was rolling and wheezing, I couldn’t help but wonder how the sensitivities of modern cultural awareness might engage with that kind of material. In other words, I know that the “social justice warriors,” “oversensitive fourteen year-old girls,” “Gen-Z snowflakes,” whatever you want to call them, would likely take issue with some of the rude, bawdy, borderline-offensive jokes so easily spouted by (majority) cis, white comedians. Worth noting I can’t really make any Gen-Z jokes, considering I am one. (While I was raised alongside a Millennial and obviously feel a sort of kinship with AIM/Dunkaroos/LimitedToo generation, I can’t disregard the fact that I spent the majority of the 1990s shitting in a diaper and eating puréed peas.)

But I think that I wouldn’t go so far as to say that roast-style comedy is an outdated art form. I love a good roast! But why do I love a roast? Is that problematic of me? Is it a privilege to be able to let obscene humor and marginalization roll off my consciousness like water off a duck’s back? Examining why I like this humor (and if I should at all) has brought me to thinking about the very foundations of comedy and laughter. Comedy can be such a powerful rhetorical tool, but it’s useless if it alienates, commodifies, or objectifies the most marginalized communities in our society.

Here’s my thesis: I think with roasts (or any comedy for that matter) what it all comes down to (besides the fact that everything’s gonna be fine, fine, fine) is discerning whether humor subverts or upholds the harmful societal inequities it addresses. Is the joke playing the rigged game, or pulling back the curtain on its audience?

I think a great example of this concept comes in Nikki Glaser’s roast of Alec Baldwin, specifically when she turned her attention to Caitlyn Jenner.

“You’re a Republican. I don’t know why. You’ve already gained control over a woman’s body. What does that party have to do to lose your support? Be your son?”

That sound-byte was met with a mixture of groans, gasps, and raucous laughter. You might wonder how it’s okay for Nikki, a white, cisgender comedian, to capitalize on laughter about a marginalized identity, in this case, Caitlyn’s transness. But this joke is a perfect example of the subversive/edgy joke that incorporates a marginalized identity, without being exploitative.

She doesn’t go for the obvious, unfunny, low-hanging fruit of “look at Caitlyn, she’s trans, isn’t that hilarious?” She’s taken that personal-public detail about Caitlyn, related it to a societal inequity (Republicans and their insistence on policing women’s healthcare), and in doing so, has exposed a clear hypocrisy in the “roast-ee’s” character. Caitlyn’s identity is not the punchline; it’s the lens through which the joke is contextualized (and through which our gaze is drawn to this “unexpected” or surprising realization). The butt of the joke is Republicans and their deeply-rooted sexist beliefs and policies.

The next question becomes: how do we measure this, and actually put it into practice? Well, generally a good rule of thumb is: Would a white supremacist “well, ACTUALLY” this joke, or would they laugh and clap? Would a bigoted person feel uncomfortable at being the butt of a joke, or would they feel validated in their beliefs through someone speaking it aloud? Does your humor call-out, or does it give permission?

In the case of Nikki’s joke, a Republican would not likely laugh. In the case of my unfunny straw-man’s joke, an anti-trans advocate would likely find relief or humor in it, something that says, “Yes, you were right! This thing is weird and unnatural and deserves to be scrutinized and discarded.”

What I hope writers rooms and comedians will understand is that this is one of the many reasons it becomes vital to have minority writers and writers of marginalized identities present in the writers room. It can get hard to tell the line between subversion and permission when a large segment of society (and by extension, the entertainment industry) is still learning how to recognize the blindspots of privilege. There seems to be this unspoken fear/panic over getting cancelled, and on the audience side, a frustration that boils down to “Why can’t people just get this right for once?” Minorities are just as tired of being hurt and laughed at as comedians are of having to write iPhone Notes apologies.

But I really believe comedy is the ultimate tool in progress. Everyone loves to laugh, to be entertained, to giggle at situations they recognize and at the absurd. Any good comedian can use their performance to shine a light on a corner of existence that everyone would rather not see, can hold up a mirror to our ugliest parts, and can reveal that it is in fact all of us who are the fools.

tl;dr the pen is mightier than the sword, but neither are as effective as a squeaky rubber chicken.