Is this New Yorker cover funny? How about this mock Time cover of Bush?
I was reading the new edition of the New Yorker on the M15 bus this morning, going down Second Avenue. It was the New Yorker with the depiction of Senator Obama in Muslim clothes and his wife as a terrorist--a source of much controversy this week. The article I was reading was the leader in which Hendrik Hertzberg defends Obama's flip flopping on policy issues. Hertzberg ends the article with a joke: Flip-flops are preferable to cement shoes, especially in the summertime (is that funny?). Across the isle from me on the bus was a man wearing a button that read: NY (HEART) OBAMA. A pro-Obama publication in a pro-Obama city is trying to defend the candidate from the ridiculous suggestion made by a Fox News reporter that his "fist bump" with his wife was some sort of terrorist symbol. (If this cover were a true New Yorker cartoon, the caption might ironically read: So Fox News was right all along.") In trying to defend Obama, the New Yorker published an "inappropriate" cover. But isn't that the essence of humor? It just so happens that the current issue of the New York Review of Books has an excellent article on the history of humor titled "Isn't It Funny?"
It turns out that Plato and Aristotle were into the chortle and feeling that one was superior to others. I think the cover might fit in this category: Those who know better than to believe that Obama is a "secret Muslim." Here is an excerpt:
Most ancient theorists, from Plato and Aristotle on, saw jokes as an expression of superiority, humor as "mockery and derision," and laughter, therefore, as "a slightly spiritualized snarl." This is fine, argues Holt, for a range of unpleasant jokes at the expense of the other races and religions, of the poor or otherwise unfortunate ("How did Helen Keller burn her fingers? She tried to read a waffle iron"). It also works for the kind of temporary triumph we might feel if we saw "Bill Gates get hit in the face with a custard pie." It does not seem up to the task of explaining why we might laugh at puns, for example. You might conceivably argue that we are there enjoying a sense of superiority over language itself. "But now," as Holt observes, "the superiority theory has become elastic to the point of meaninglessness."
But more appropriate is the more accepted notion that humor derives its power from the inappropriateness of mixing symbols or meaning:
More popular among modern theorists is the "incongruity theory" of joking, which sees humor and laughter stemming from the inappropriate mixing of categories or registers of meaning ("Work is the curse of the drinking classes," as Oscar Wilde quipped). Or, as Kant put it more opaquely in the Critique of Judgment, a joke arises "from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing." Kant's own example of this was a story of an Indian who looked astonished when an Englishman opened a bottle of beer and the contents frothed out. When asked why he was so surprised, the Indian replied, "I'm not surprised at its getting out, but at how you ever managed to get it all in." The problem here is not that jokes trade on incongruity, for almost all of them in some way do. It is why incongruity should give us pleasure, and why some sorts of incongruity prompt laughter and others (such as Oedipus' parenthood) do not. Besides, as Holt goes on to ask, why should the reaction either to incongruity or to a feeling of superiority be "a bout of cackling and chest heaving"?
Reasonable people should know that Obama is a patriot and therefore see the humor in the cover. Right? Well, maybe not. I did a quick poll in my office: No one found the cover funny. I guess there is a fine line between inappropriate and offensive. If I have to ask if it is funny, it probably isn't.