On SchadenfreudeDo other people make us laugh, or are we laughing at other people? A comedian offers advice on where to draw the line.

On SchadenfreudeDo other people make us laugh, or are we laughing at other people? A comedian offers advice on where to draw the line.

Slipping on a banana peel has been a joke for over a century, having first appeared on film in Charlie Chaplin’s By the Sea in 1915.

"Laughter can ease people’s pain and raise their spirits; it happens every day."

Sorry, but I’m afraid this is one of those articles that starts off with a quote by a famous person. Here it is: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

Mel Brooks said that, and I think we immediately understand where he’s coming from. The misfortune of others has been part of comedy forever. It’s like that expression: comedy equals tragedy plus time.

The idea is that laughter comes when there’s enough distance between you and a Bad Thing for it not to seem like a threat—either because it happened long ago, or because it happened to somebody else, or both.

But does Brooks’ quote hold up? Let’s look at some classic jokes and see. An obvious one is the Three Stooges’ entire oeuvre, in which the guys thumped, slapped and knocked each other into comedy history. That’s not to say that violence is the only reason their act has endured—we can’t discount those great high-pitched squeals, for example—but the infliction of pain played a vital role.

And then there’s one of my favorites: Gary Larson’s immortal The Far Side cartoon series, which statistics suggest is sitting in your office as a daily calendar at this very moment. Larson’s work is influential for its economy, its absurdity, and its earthy, dismal take on middle-American life. But what a lot of people don’t recognize about The Far Side is that somebody is often in imminent mortal danger.

Take the one with two deer talking to each other in the woods. One has a red bulls-eye on his chest. The other deer says, “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.” Sure, it’s funny, but the whole subtext here is that Hal is probably going to die very soon. Then there’s one where a rescue pilot is flying over a man stranded on a desert island with the word “HELF” written in the sand. Since it doesn’t say “HELP,” the pilot cancels the rescue, leaving the guy to starve.

There are plenty of variations on this traditional equation of Bad Thing + Happening to Somebody Else = Funny. For example, the snobs-versus-slobs dynamic of movies like Animal House and Caddyshack arguably makes it even easier to laugh at other people’s bad luck, since the people who end up suffering are elitist bullies and twits.

But things get more complicated as the Bad Thing gets closer to us—when the protective barrier of comedy begins to disappear. Look at legendary stand-up George Carlin. Lots of his jokes were centered on one stomach-churningly hilarious idea: that humanity’s tendency toward self-destruction is entertaining. As he explained in an interview with Dennis Miller: “I have no stake in the outcome anymore. I don’t care what happens to you. I don’t care what happens to your country, I don’t care what happens to your species.”

The result of the recent US election has thrown this sentiment into cruel relief. When danger, or the threat of danger, is suddenly made more immediate—does that change anything about comedy? Should it?

It’s easy to concede that, given the amount of global suffering, the whole enterprise of comedy is somehow unfair. We’ve all heard someone say, “Who could laugh at a time like this?” And if you think long enough about what routinely goes on in the world, it can become hard to think of any laughter as something other than a cruel distraction.

But comedy is an art, and there are plenty of touchy-feely, probably super-unfunny sentiments frequently expressed about art: that it heals, that it opens the mind, that it brings us together, that it’s anti-fascist. Laughter can ease people’s pain and raise their spirits; it happens every day.

Whether that laughter stems from experiencing a Bad Thing—be it distant or immediate, person- al, second-hand or global—probably depends on the listener. If we all laughed at the same thing, it would be boring. But comedy is a sprawling community, and there’s room for everyone.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 23

Want to enjoy full access? Subscribe Now

Subscribe Discover unlimited access to Kinfolk

  • Four print issues of Kinfolk magazine per year, delivered to your door, with twelve-months’ access to the entire Kinfolk.com archive and all web exclusives.

  • Receive twelve-months of all access to the entire Kinfolk.com archive and all web exclusives.

Learn More

Already a Subscriber? Login

Your cart is empty

Your Cart (0)