Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 14
27 September 1999

K A L E I D O S C O P E:
A Time to Laugh

Vaclav Pinkava

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven... (Eccl 3:1)

Laughter has long been a riddle to social scientists. During times of oppression, dissatisfaction and difficulties, jokes multiply exponentially. One of the signs that the economy of Central Europe is not all it should be is the resurgence of pub humour. Even the once seriously aspirational Czech national daily Lidove Noviny features cartoons on the front and back pages. Despite being drawings, both sets of jokes rely on captions, wordplay, knowing the circumstances. This is exclusive culture-bound humour.

Speaking of culture-bound visuals and wordplay - one of the funniest 'artistic happenings' of my youth was The Monty Python Instant Record Collection. Bundled with an LP of Monty Python humour came a flat-folded self-assembly cardboard box, whose edge looked exactly like a row of record sleeves. Once assembled, the box took up an impressive amount of shelf space on your bookshelf. The LPs themselves were fictional, with catchy titles like "It's all over my friend by L K Vomit and the Metabolic Processes." The pack came with instant rave reviews, too. One fictitious reviewer was quoted as saying "I laughed and laughed, until I stopped."

Stop laughing.

What do we laugh at? Why do we laugh? Why do we laugh when the going gets tough? Who with?

In the space age, isn't it time we knew the answers to such basic questions about ourselves?

A 'new' theory of laughter was publicised recently which goes like this: Laughter is a social signal among primates, that the danger is over.

Just as in the jungle social primates howl and shriek with their version of laughter once the predator has moved on, our loud guffaws are there to make light of a situation which is potentially threatening. It is an expression of relief, the release of pent-up uncertainty. The feeling of release, the unburdening of tension is so rewarding we create it proactively, laughing to belittle a threat. Laugh in the face of adversity, and show you do not consider it a threat. It might go away.

Prima facie, this theory seems to have merit. There is vicarious pleasure in slapstick humour. The banana skin is the other guy's problem, I'm glad he bought it instead of me. Even being ticklish is compatible with this explanation. To let someone get close enough to tickle you puts you at risk. The ticklish areas of the body are the unprotected ones. The danger is far from over. Laugh, to show you're not afraid. OK, OK, let's be friends.

But what about laughing at verbal jokes, or wordless cartoons? Where is the potential threat-avoidance in those?

Well, the argument goes, a joke is a threat to our social standing. It is a test, to show how much we know about what is going on. The punchline is generally something requiring contextual knowledge, and intellect. Not getting the joke is a threat in social terms, because if you don't get the connection between something and something else, perhaps you are stupid. That is a threat, if the others find out. There is another threat. If you don't find the given joke funny (because for you it is a stupid joke for stupid people, or because it is about an ethnic group you happen to be a member of), you might get a punch on the nose for not laughing. Maybe that's how a punchline gets that name. Cross the timeline without laughing, and the punch will materialise. Laughter is a tool for enforced social conformance, for coercion. Laugh at my jokes, or else.

Laughing at the punchline (whether you got the joke or not) is like saying. "I belong. I share your tribal assumptions, prejudices. I fit in. I recognise your protective power." The threat is over, for you, for the group, for all concerned. That might explain the endless supply of racist jokes, which emphasise the given group by picking another group as the target of the joke. If you laugh with us you are not against us. There is the more abstract version of this principle, self-deprecation. The best Jewish jokes are Jewish. "Nobody understands us like we do. Don't try to laugh at us, we do that much better. We laugh at punchlines you don't even know are there." Jewish humour is dark and sad humour, but very funny.

In much the same way that the gatekeepers of an encampment ask you for a password, the inhabitants of the encampment you share like to tell you jokes, to make sure you are not an interloper. Laugh, and the world laughs with you. It's hard to be liked if you don't have a sense of humour, because that means you are impervious. Nothing scares you enough or everything scares you all the time.

Jokes break down barriers, and it is one of the cliches of business conferences to start with a joke. Some jokes translate very well, like this one:

In the far distant future, when replica body parts are nothing remarkable any more, a man goes to a brain boutique with a bundle of web credits (money, it used to be called) in his wristwatch. Being a fan of the 20th century, he asks for a themed brainswap - somebody remarkable. The salesman offers him Albert Einstein, at a cool 1 trillion dollars. The man declines, because of Albert's low sex appeal, and because it is too cheap. The next suggestion is Elvis Presley, at double the price, which the man turns down - some say he is not dead so there might be copyright problems. (embellish at will) Finally the man comes clean and says: "Look, I've just won 10 trillion dollars, and I want something special, OK?" So the delighted salesman takes him to the back room, where he offers him a glass of champagne. Then he presses a button. The velvet curtains part to reveal an ordinary looking brain floating in a fishtank with the appropriate life support and blue lighting effects. A small brass plaque carries the inscription "Vaclav Pinkava, contributor to CER, latter part of the 20th Century" (personalize this bit) The visitor gets up in disgust, challenging the salesman to justify such an exorbitant price tag for the brain of a complete Nobody. "Ah, but do consider sir," says the salesman soothingly "this brain's hardly been used!"

Some jokes do not translate well. I helped to organise a business conference where my Czech guests were relying on the interpreters I'd arranged. So I listened in to the interpreting on their channel, to see how well the messages were getting across. At one point, an Englishman on the podium started telling a joke, which was so culture-bound and language dependent that nobody could have translated it, certainly not in real time. "The joke's all over my friends," I thought.

The interpreters behaved like true consummate professionals and timed their rendition to perfection. "The gentleman is telling an excellent joke, which, unfortunately, does not translate, - but, to be polite, now would be a good time to laugh."

The resulting illusory meeting of minds was indistinguishable from the real thing.

To be safe, purely pictorial cartoons can be most effective to break down communication barriers. You might discover you have something in common with aliens, even. Some purely visual jokes rely on their graphical treatment for effect. Somewhat paradoxically, many captionless cartoons can be paraphrased.

I particularly like visual jokes which take a cliche theme and give it a new twist, find a new angle within the paradigm. It is a bit like writing yet another sonnet, or like composing another minuet. Creativity within a self-imposed established genre, not being an iconoclast revolutionary out of impotent desperation.

Let me give a couple of examples. Long before he became an Oscar-winning computer animator, my brother Jan helped pay for his studies by submitting cartoons to a few journals. These two have stuck in my memory, having become more apposite, for me, here and now.

  • As a warmup, imagine a forest, as far as the eye can see. The lumberjacks come, axes in hand. The forest is gradually logged to make rollers, to transport huge stones, which are being assembled to become the awesome pyramids - surrounded by a desert, of treestumps.
  • Now, the finale. Imagine the shipwrecked sailor on his one palm-tree island, throwing his message-in-a-bottle into the sea - and waiting. One fine day, help arrives over the horizon. A clipper, in full sail. A beautiful ship, in an extremely large bottle.

I find it odd how some cartoons from the early eighties can symbolise and relate to the Central European scene of today.

Do you see any threat in that?

Go on. Laugh.

Vaclav Pinkava, 27 September 1999




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