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is it really humor?
getting a laugh at others expense
by jon douglas lastra

I must become more conscious of not making broad general statements such as, "people like to laugh at other people".

I tend to think in the empirical sense about many subjects because my mind likes to categorize things. Like the concept of the 'bell shaped curve' and the 'law of averages'. Let's say your trapped in a huge elevator with a random sampling of people, none of whom you have met. I would say the majority of people would at first think this is a funny experience. More than likely most people who did experience this would laugh about it afterwards. No doubt there would be some who would be terrified, some would be outraged and others would be ambivalent toward the experience. If you have never experienced being stuck in an elevator, more than likely you won't know how you'll react until it happens to you.

If you were to relate the story, chances are the majority of people would find it funny. The truth is there is nothing funny about being stuck in an elevator. The fact that your not going up or down indicates there is something mechanically wrong. How wrong is it? Well, that remains to be seen. The fact is that either way, good or bad, you don't have a choice in the outcome. You will have a choice in how you deal with the experience as it happens or how you relate the experience afterwards.

This brings me to my point. Why is it that people tend to laugh about other
peoples peril & pain? Look at 'funniest home videos' how much longer must we endure this worn out 'reality TV' gig ? If you pay attention to these little celluloid vignettes, you will find the majority of them are about something unpleasant & painful happening to someone.

If you carry this to another level you will find there are comedians who make
a living at getting a laugh at someone else’s expense. I ask you, is this really
humor? Has our society reached a level where another’s pain & discomfort is cause for a hearty laugh?

I will admit that slap stick humor is a universal language that does not need words. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd are still funny. Stepping on a rake and having the handle hit you in the head is funny unless it is happening to you. Somewhere recently I heard the statement “It's not funny unless someone gets hurt, then it's hilarious”.

I call it the Don Rickles Syndrome. I have a real problem with Don Rickles. Is this guy really funny? There seem to be many out there who think so, he's been making a living at it for quite some time. Why is it that a majority of comedians single out a set or group of people and make them the target of their humor. Take for instance the 'blond joke' trend or the height impaired or weight challenged people. There are those who take it to the next level and distinguish a group by their color, religion or ethnicity. How does singling out a sector of society to make fun of be come someone’s vocation?

In my opinion Don Rickles is the most 'unfunny guy' who has ever had the nerve
to call himself a comedian. He takes cheap shots and gets cheap laughs.
He must be on the top of the invite list for any celebrity roast. Those are
really fun, right? To be ridiculed and lambasted by your ‘friends’ who will
say afterwards, "if we didn't love you we wouldn't say those things". Well
maybe, but I think I would prefer a different type of friend.

I think in general people like to laugh. It's unfortunate that we like to laugh at other peoples misfortune. Perhaps if there were more creative and original comics out there that we could enjoy then they could offer us more choice.I think Mike Myers creation of Austin Powers is funny. He's making fun of himself and poking fun at the 70's culture. The clothes, the language the popular trends of the time. Judy Tenuta, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Carol Burnett, Dennis Miller are funny. They ‘create’ humor but not a someone’s expense. The next time your drawn in to somone's attempt of laughter at anothers expense, stop and think, is this really humor? Who know's the next time the subject may be you.


OK, I'll admit it upfront, I'm a BabyBoomer...but I'm young at heart. Maybe one day I'll be a music critic. Maybe more of a music appreciator. Don't really like the implication of the word 'critic'. Music is powerful and I have a deep appreciation for the creative aspects of it. It's a real phenomenon how music has made an impact on our culture at all levels. I grew up during the Woodstock era, it made a big impact on me.

more about jon douglas lastra


mike julianelle
7.16.02 @ 10:32a

What about Myers' using midgets and obese people as punch lines?

Most humor is based on pain. My pain, your pain, anyone's pain. Mel Brooks (I think) once said something like, "When I get a paper cut, that's tragedy. When you fall down a manhole, that's comedy." Very loosely paraphrased. My point is that a large amount of comedy has ALWAYS been about "at other people's expense." When it comes to your roast example, I doubt there's a guy here who doesn't take part in roasts every single time he hangs out with his buddies.

erik myers
7.16.02 @ 10:45a

Hey now... midgets are funny. And monkeys. Especially midget monkeys.

Oh wait.. you're not talking about me.

I think that most comedy is going to be offensive to somebody. Somehow, someway, it's making fun of someone, and that's just the way it goes. I'm sure that the earliest form of comedy was one caveman walking up behind another caveman and bashing him on the head with a rock. To everyone else it's funny, and to one person it isn't... suck up and deal. Comedy happens at other people's expense. If it's not something you can remotely relate to, it won't be funny. Someone's gotta suffer. So at some point it will be me (and often is). I'll take my medecine, and I'll like it, because when I can turn it around and make fun of someone else, it's all fair.

adam kraemer
7.16.02 @ 10:51a

My application essay for college was actually about just this topic - we were asked to describe a funny experience from our own lives. And as I thought about stuff that happened, nearly all of it was at someone else's expense. So I wound up writing about a moment in my life that had nothing to do with another's pain. And I got in.

That's not to say that I don't think "directional" humor isn't funny. Dennis Miller's "Yeltsin is an Alcoholic" or Robin Williams' recent "Texan" jokes make me laugh out loud. I think the intent has to be taken along with the joke. If someone's telling a joke to be deliberately mean or to hurt, that's not the same as playing off of stereotypes solely in order to amuse.

I don't find Don Rickles funny, either, but not because he's mean; because he's not funny. There are plenty of commedians whose acts contain no invective, but who aren't funny at all. But when Jeffrey Ross says about Jerry Stiller, "He's so ugly, I wouldn't fuck him with Bea Arthur's dick," that's funny.

daniel castro
7.16.02 @ 1:34p

Jon, you said it yourself, "Stepping on a rake and having the handle hit you in the head is funny unless it is happening to you." Every comedy act, movie, etc. is about someone else's expense. Look at every "good" funny movie and you'll see what i mean. Take American Pie for example. I love that movie. Everyone liked it cos the main guy fucked a pie (self=humiliation) or cos he came when a girl was with him. one of the other guys drank a beer with semen in it, and the other one had the runs, and went to the ladies room. See, its all about pain, humiliation, etc. I haven't heard of comedy that doesnt involve someone else's pain.

jon lastra
7.16.02 @ 3:00p

I guess I'm missing it then. So humor is making fun of anyone who is short, fat, tall or thin a different color, religion or ethnicity, in short anyone who is different from me?

That seems so easy. Maybe thats the appeal, the path of
least resistance. Rather than
exert the grey matter to create something unique and original I can just cast
negative dispersions on my friends.

That's it, yeah baby, yeah !

erik myers
7.16.02 @ 3:17p

It's not negative dispersions on your friends. You're not out to laugh at them, you're out to laugh with them.

Not to mention, chances are, comedy will take the form of making fun of people you identify with very well, or making fun of people whom you know nothing about.

Make fun of yourself before you make fun of other people. It's safer. Black comedians make black jokes. Jewish comedians make Jewish jokes. Old white comedians make whatever the hell jokes they want because they're all going the way of Bob Hope, anyway.

adam kraemer
7.16.02 @ 3:23p

Well, it's not just about making fun and it's not just about the object of the joke being "different." How many Jewish comedians do you see telling Jewish jokes (most of them)? It's not about racism or sexism or xenophobia. It's about being clever, or saying the unexpected (or sometimes the obvious), or even making fun of yourself.

To couch it in PC terms like "making fun of of anyone who is short, fat, tall or thin..." is missing the point, overstating the case, and leaving no room for intelligent insults or clever plays based on people's differences. For example, when Eddie Murphy said, "Chinese people got rice dicks," it's funny because a) it plays along with a common stereotype, but also b) it cleverly associates a staple of Chinese cooking with said stereotype. To simplify it to just casting "negative dispersions on my friends," is both naive and closed-minded.


jon lastra
7.16.02 @ 3:35p

You've got a point, the only
time I ever hear the 'N' word
is when I'm watching BET
or a soulful comedian on another cable channel.
I guess the bottom line is
that I really can use the
general statement 'people like to laugh at other people'.

heather millen
7.16.02 @ 3:49p

See, now I don't find slapstick funny. Mo, Larry, Curly... not funny. I guess I'm more into humor that requires wit. And witty observations about people... funny.

Many times this sort of humor, "picking on people" serves to lighten a situation. There have been plenty of instances where someone has poked fun at me, whether it be a silly trait or something I did, that lightened the situation.
Yes, there is a point where people are just being mean. But the bottom line: People are funny. Life is funny... laugh on.

jon lastra
7.16.02 @ 4:38p

Mike J. I think your on target there with the paper
cut thing. Thats why I now
use the on-line bill pay feature with my bank. I was
at work one day and needed to
mail some business correspondence. I addressed the envelope, placed the document inside and licked the
envelope. I wasn't really paying attention and got my tongue on the edge of the envelope flap. Needless to
say it was darn painful. I didn't laugh, but rather let
out a yell. Several curious co-horts rushed to my office to see what had happened. There I was, holding my bleeding tongue, trying to explain what had happened.

They thought it was funny. I thought it was tragic. It was several weeks before I regained full use of my tongue.


matt morin
7.17.02 @ 12:47p

My dad used to always lament that cartoons were only funny because someone else was getting hurt. And it's true. They're only funny when Wiley Coyote falls off a cliff, or Foghorn Leghorn falls into the de-feathering machine.

But if you want one comedian who does comedy that's not at someone else's expense - Steven Wright.

mike julianelle
7.17.02 @ 12:52p

Well, cartoons are in a league of their own. Slapstick is in a league of its own. Being the object of verbal insults is more offensive comedy-wise than hitting someone with a 2 by 4.

And Steven Wright rules.

daniel castro
7.17.02 @ 1:14p

Cartoons are definetly a league of their own. They exaggerate the fun, but also the "pain" the characters go through. Wiley Coyote always failing in getting his meal. And he always failed in a really funny way, but what happened to him every time? he got hurt. And that's why we laughed. Because he fucked up, and those were the consequences. Humor is not making fun of anyone who is short, fat, ugly, thin etc, etc, No. Humor is making fun of everybody and everything, including yourself! Otherwise, it would not be humor at all.

jon lastra
7.17.02 @ 2:13p

Steven Wright is funny. He's one of those original creative comics that doesn't
get a laugh at someone else's
expense. At least the material I have seen does not
portray that.
At one time I liked George Carlin. He had original material, witty & clever. I had occasion to catch him on an HBO special recently and I think the man has become more cynical in recent years, moving into the Don Rickles Synfrome.
Dana Carvey is funny, so is Jim Carrey. Rodney Dangerfield is getting on up
there in age but the man is a classic comedian.
Where are the fresh new comics? It just doesn't seem
like there is emerging talent on the horizon with fresh new material.

juli mccarthy
7.17.02 @ 6:03p

I adopted my definition of humor from Robert Heinlein, who noted with some accuracy that laughter is the only cure for the pain of being a human. I know it sounds esoteric and high-handed, but sometimes, all you can do is laugh, because let's face it, humans can be ridiculous. Being able to laugh at YOURSELF and your own foibles, being willing to be the butt of the joke - that's the humor fine-line that makes Dana Carvey funnier than Don Rickles.

jon lastra
7.18.02 @ 8:10a

juli - I totaly agree that laughter is a good thing, a feeling, an emotion that is healthy & positive in many ways. Your right, human behavior is ridiculous and worth of laughter. The fine-line that you refer to is
not much different than the bully at school who makes fun of the kid with glasses. In fact I bet Don Rickles was that guy in H School. I submit that we become more aware of those around us who seek to solicit our involvement while they seek to get a laugh at someone else's expense in a mean spitited fashion. Especially comedians or entertainers that we pay to watch or listen to. I'm not talking about good natured ribbing, I see that as different.

mike julianelle
7.18.02 @ 8:22a

I'd bet dollars to donuts that Rickles was the guy that got picked on, not the guy who did the bullying.

adam kraemer
7.18.02 @ 11:32a

Besides, it's not like Rickles is the most popular comic these days.

jon lastra
7.18.02 @ 1:28p

And that's a good thing. Let's hear it for Cyber Sanitation, boycott mean & angry comedians:George Carlin;
Don Rickles,Roseann, Andrew Dice Clay. Boycott random meaness & hate.
Do you value innovative,c reative comedy & humor in our culture?
Jerry Seinfield, Catherine O'Hara, Julia L Dreyfuss.

russ carr
7.18.02 @ 2:23p

Seinfeld, innovative? What's up with that? Observational humor is nothing new; it's probably the most common, in fact. It takes little skill to kvetch about something for laughs. You want innovative, see Stan Freeberg. Monty Python.

Dice and Roseanne don't even have careers anymore. But I'll say this -- Don Rickles has been on Letterman a couple of times, and the two of them together are hilarious.

mike julianelle
7.18.02 @ 2:30p

Sitcom stars and stand-up comics are entirely different. And cynical, negative comedians are a result of the times. And variety is good. If you don't like them, just stick with Cosby and Seinfeld and others. Good in their own right, but not good only by virtue of the fact that they aren't negative.

adam kraemer
7.18.02 @ 4:03p

Maybe it's just because I'm kind of cynical myself, but I think it's kind of a childish view that "mean" humor is not innovative. For example, Dice, for all his posturing, did something that no one else was doing at the time. Now you might not like what he was doing, but humor doesn't have to be "nice" to be funny. That's what satire is about. "Boycott mean and angry comedians"? Why? Sometimes people are mean and angry. Doesn't the humor go a long way in mitigating that - taking the teeth out of it, so to speak? Not that I don't find Cosby and Crystal funny, but I think the world would be a severly boring place if everyone was only allowed to tell "nice" jokes. (Picture it - Letterman: "Boy that George W. Bush, he sure is president. Sorry, that's all I'm allowed to say."

robert melos
7.20.02 @ 12:19a

Rickles isn't funny. Okay, that's my opinion, but I still remember watching CPO Sharkey (I think that was the name of it) when I was a kid. He's okay for a couple of minutes, but longer than two and he doesn't keep my interest. Now I do laugh at most Presidents, Democrats or Republicans. And G.W. is hilarious. I'm more of a Dennis Miller fan, although my favorite funny men were the Marx Brother. For outright humor you can't beat Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo.

jeff wilder
7.21.02 @ 11:17a

I think it depends on what kind of audience the humor is intended for. It's my contention that Adam Sandler is never going to be very funny. But millions of people think he's hilarious.

As far as humor being mean-spirited, a lot of times humor is used as a means of making a point. It's called Satire (Not to be confused with the more encompassing Parody). George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" seems somewhat dated in these more cynical times. Back in those days, it was intended as a satire of a society that in one sense was a great deal stiffer (for lack of a better word) than it is today.

That rule can be applied to all types of humor, whether it is written for the stage (Carlin, Dennis Miller) or the page (P.J O'Rourke, Dave Barry). Some of Barry's funniest stuff is when he takes pokes at himself.

About the humor based on pain principle: That's very accurate. Some of the best humor I've ever read is humor that is directed at what is in reality a very serious situation (See "Holidays In Hell" by the aforementioned O'Rourke as a good example). Any humor that is grounded in reality (Twain, Mencken, Perelman etc.) will most likely have a certain amount of darkness to it.

jeff wilder
7.21.02 @ 11:45a

Humor as a whole is "just one of many tools writers use" (P.J O'Rourke again) and it's the tool that many of our writers commonly use. Consider that America's preeminent writer Mark Twain was essentially a humorist. Current novelists like Michael Chabon (author of Wonder Boys) and David Foster Wallace use humor in varying ways. Hell, Geoffrey Chaucer had a sense of humor as anyone who has ever read The Canterbury Tales will attest.

Whether or not a piece of humor will last and be remembered down the line is questionable. When one considers Topical Humor vs. General Life Humor, you can find lasting examples of both as well as some not-so-well-lasting examples. We still read the likes of Twain, Mencken, Benchley, Perelman and Parker today. On the other hand, a lot of people quote Will Rogers quite often. But does anyone actually read him nowadays?

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