Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

And, In the End.....

AnotherAbby's picture

“Everything that’s difficult you should be able to laugh about.”-Louis CK

“Yeah, my finals had me laughing. Laughing until I had no tears left to laugh with.”-Abby ACK

.           Play and humor are two concepts that go together hand-in-hand. Levels of humor easily find parallels in the levels of play: simple, critical, and deep.

Simple play is the first step in the spectrum of play. In terms of humor, simple play to the least thought provoking forms of humor. The jokes are funny, but this humor is not characterized by biting satire and sublime revelation. It’s not "lesser”, in the sense that it should come secondary to the other forms of humor, but it is the only genre that includes fart jokes. I can’t say I’ve ever heard a fart that made me reevaluate my beliefs and the truths of the universe. I have never, and will never, use flatulent humor as the lens through which I view the world. However, farts are just a small part of humor in simple play.

Simple play humor is the baseline upon which other forms of humor grow. It is the bare essential elements of comedy, rather than the concepts that can sustain a story. Take, for example, the Monty Python sketch The Funniest Joke in the World.



The beginning of the sketch is simple. A man writes the funniest joke in the world, and then dies of laughter. Then, his mother reads the same joke, and dies of laughter, all the while being narrated by a very official and matter-of-fact sounding voice. The joke even kills a police officer, who courageously ventures into the house to retrieve the joke and prevent further humor-related deaths. The first two and a half minutes of this sketch are funny because of their incongruities, but do not extend beyond simple play. It is funny that a joke can kill people, because we know jokes cannot do that, and it’s funny that something that’s clearly ridiculous would be taken so seriously. However, the rest of the sketch transitions into the story of how the military tried their best to weaponize the joke in order the help them win World War Two. That shift takes the sketch from a nice little example of simple play to a satirical piece of critical play. The first two and a half minutes could stand alone as a sketch that would be remembered as silly and moderately funny, but the addition of story through satire is what takes the sketch to the next level, in terms of humor, and sustains the sketch for another seven minutes or so, through the way it aims to provoke thought in the viewer.

Critical play probably encompasses most professionally created humor. If simple play is jokes, then critical play is concepts.  A joke a child tells its parents seldom gets into critical play; however, every episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” lives there. Critical plays aims to be more than a joke: it wants to be a subversive concept, a satirical story, or a statement that makes people laugh, but then forces them to think in order to truly understand it. And, in order to achieve that, critical play relies on deep-rooted truths as the foundation of its story.

A close friend and spinoff of “The Daily Show”, “The Colbert Report”, has mastered the technique of deadpan satire in encouraging critical play. The host, Stephen Colbert, presents each news story as if everything he says and every point he makes is a truth he wholeheartedly believes, even when what he says is obviously ridiculous, as opposed to Stewart’s style of openly pointing out the hypocrisy in whatever news story he’s dissecting. Colbert’s style relies more on the viewer’s ability to play critically than Stewart’s does. Where Stewart spoonfeeds, Colbert implies.

The Colbert Report, 12/10/13

This style of critical humor encourages viewers to look within themselves and their societies to figure out why the jokes are funny. Yes, the joke is good. But what about the meaning of the joke? Critical play, when used correctly in humor, should unsettle the viewer. In this clip, Colbert seems to advocate the stagnation of the middle class and the Brave New World-esque appeasement of Americans through television and luxury time. The point is not for the viewer to agree with what he’s saying: it’s the opposite. Colbert is trying to get people to question what they’re laughing about, because, although he himself is saying things satirically, these is danger in those who believe the points he’s ridiculing. It also goes even deeper, to the point where the presentation style is forcing the viewer not just to question Colbert, but to question other serious news outlets as well. Colbert presents his satirical material in the same manner as serious newscasters, making statements and calling them facts, even though what he says is obviously ridiculous. However, his style encourages people to approach “serious” news with the same critical eye they take to his work.

This leads into the concept of deep play in humor, the toughest level of play to explain in this context. When simple play and critical play are the joke and the concept, respectively, deep play deals more with the reaction humor garners from its audience. In Clifford Geertz’s Notes on a Balinese Cockfight, the act of deep play is the betting system in place around cockfights, one that transcends all social status and reason in order to profit bragging rights, if nothing else, from the fowl battle. So, in humor, deep play is all about the audience’s ability to play the Believing Game with what the comedian or show is presenting. In order for a person to deep play with humor, they need to believe that what’s happening is true. The viewer needs to believe that yes, there is a capuchin monkey named Annie’s Boobs living in the air ducts of Greendale Community College, in order to be able to play deeply with the NBC show “Community”. It’s nigh on impossible to play deeply in humor when one won’t suspend disbelief, however briefly. 

However, it’s not just the suspension of disbelief that allows people to play deeply with comedy. It also requires the humor to speak to who the viewer is as a person: their background, their preferences, their job, etc.. It is necessary be able to connect with the joke in order to play deeply with it, and that connection will come out of the viewer’s experiences in life.

Diane Ackerman, another writer on the subject of deep play, describes it as a more metaphysical way to experience life, one that happens outside any system of being. Ackerman’s definition, while lofty and difficult to grasp, does fit within Geertz’s definition in regards to deep play in humor. To play deeply with humor is to accept the incongruities, then connect and empathize with the message. Humor that invokes deep play will make someone laugh as easily as it will make him or her cry, no matter how ridiculous the situation.

Now, maybe, I think I could have experienced deep play.