The Humor Spectrum

When I was young I couldn’t stand British humor. I just didn’t get it. That left me feeling as if I were not in on the joke, and naturally I didn’t enjoy that. I avoided British humor for years.

About a decade ago, though, I decided to give it another try, and now I love it. The difference between British and American humor, I often find, is that British humor assumes you’re intelligent and goes from there. American humor often seems to assume you’re stupid, and therefore goes for the lowest common denominator. British humor forces you to think, and American humor spoon feeds you as if you were a baby in a high chair. (Of course there are exceptions.) I think that says a lot about our respective cultures and our general expectations in life.

Last night I was introduced to, of all things, Finnish humor, in the form of a movie called Ariel, by Aki Kaurismäki. Many Americans might not view this as a comedy, because no one in it laughs or even smiles. Not once. But once you get used to that, you realize that in actual fact the film is hysterical. All these strange and, frankly, tragic things keep happening to the main character, and everyone, including him, seems to take it as commonplace. It’s life, you know? What are you gonna do? No, this film did not make me laugh out loud, but inside I was ROFLMAO. And in the end, I came away still smiling. You can’t say that about many experiences these days. I highly recommend this movie.

This got me thinking about the many forms of humor that are out there. I absolutely despise humor at the expense of others. If the only thing that makes you laugh is humiliating someone else, then I think there’s something seriously wrong with you. I don’t particularly enjoy practical jokes for that same reason. It takes sophistication to toe that line without lapsing into cruelty, and most people aren’t that sophisticated.

I once saw a viral video that everyone seemed to find hilarious. This guy unscrews the railing on his stairs, greases the top step, and piles pillows up at the bottom. He then does something to his sleeping wife (I can’t remember what because I was so horrified by the aftermath) that causes her to leap out of bed and chase him down the stairs, and sure enough, she flies down the stairs and winds up in a heap at the bottom. She’s clearly hurt, and he’s clearly remorseful. But she’s lucky she wasn’t killed, and could very well be in some form of pain for the rest of her life. That’s funny? Here’s a useful rule of thumb: if when setting up a practical joke you say to yourself, “What could possibly go wrong?” Don’t do it. Just… don’t.

Puns, on the other hand, generally don’t hurt anyone. I love a really, really bad pun. I think they appeal to me because they poke fun at my favorite thing on earth, the spoken word.

My favorite form of humor by far is the self-deprecating kind. I think it takes a very confident person to be able to poke fun at himself, and I find that to be extremely attractive. But again, this requires a certain level of sophistication. I dated someone many years ago who lacked the necessary amount of subtlety. He would insult himself brutally, thinking people would find this funny. In fact, it made people uncomfortable, and caused them to pity him. It’s one of the many reasons we broke up. Frankly, people felt he was weird, and it’s hard to remain in a relationship with someone you feel sorry for.

Humor comes in all shapes and sizes. Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate a wider swath of the spectrum. You gotta love variety.


The deadpan humor that is Ariel.



Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

8 thoughts on “The Humor Spectrum”

  1. It might not be a spectrum so much as a color-solid. I wouldn’t like the Finnish movie you mention: tragic or unfair stuff hits just too close to home, but agree with you about the other forms. Putdown-type humor is okay if the victim did something to deserve it, for instance the epic stinging comeback to an insult, but otherwise I too prefer some sophistication.
    A pun is a bargain, you get 2 meanings for the price of one. I never could figure out why so many people look down on them, unless jealousy.
    As for practical jokes…One time some years back at work, we had this radial-arm saw for wood, basically a skill-saw on a cantilever, and one day some guys were re-doing the parking lot outside. Later, I chanced to find a rock that had almost been sawn in half with that diamond saw they use to cut pavement, and the kerf in it was just the same width as what our own saw did to wood. So I snuck in and put it on the saw’s table. Well, that one almost backfired. Some of the guys there weren’t exactly the sharpest drills in the index, and one of them started to try to finish the cut…It was just a good thing one of the smarter ones caught him in time.
    Another of these not too deep types was having some trouble with a game on his computer and finally he yelled “This game is GAY!” And I said “So how come YOU’RE playing it??” You could have heard a pin drop…

  2. I use self deprecating humor as a defensive tool, and it serves me well. I used to love Benny Hill, then I realized that humor disguised as a 2×4 to beat down women is not humor. I’ve realized that almost any comment on sex and sexual acts gets by critics and most men if it is cloaked in a joke. Yet, I do think of myself as having a sense of humor, even though in a million years I do not know what people see in The Three Stooges.

    1. If you applied for a job at Blockbuster Video once upon a time, they’d give you a psychological test. The only question I remember is: Yes or No: I like the Three Stooges. I have no idea which answer is the right one, or what it says about your mental health, but I don’t like them either, and I didn’t get the job. Who knows. And Yeah, Benny Hill does require a bit more tolerance than I’m willing to give.

  3. You are the only other person I know that has seen Ariel, I loved it too, but then I’m into road movies & black comedy but I really hate mockery of other people if they have an accident or maybe different from all the sheeple about. Self deprecating humour, very British 🙂

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