It Is to Laugh

I took my daughter to see the new live-action film of Cinderella last weekend (Capsule Review: Yep. It’s Cinderella all right.), and during the trailers we were shown (I am so trying to be neutral here) a preview for Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.  I saw the original Paul Blart: Mall Cop during its theatrical run in 2009.  It wasn’t by choice.  My then-wife and kids had picked the movie. 

Something changed that day.  While I’m hard pressed to name my favorite movie (There are so many that I love for different reasons.), I could easily tell you the worst movie I’d ever seen in a theater: Mr. Wrong.  Released in 1996, Mr. Wrong appeared at a time when star Ellen DeGeneres was still in the closet about her sexuality.  The movie follows her misadventures dating a character played by Bill Pullman, and it hurt.  I hated it.  It’s been almost 20 years now, so I can’t even specifically say why anymore.  Maybe if I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I will watch it again to find out.  Probably not.

Back to that day in 2009, as I sat in that theater watching Paul Blart: Mall Cop, I quickly discovered, to my horror, that I was going to have to endure a film that was even worse than Mr. Wrong.  The humor was weak, the slapstick was way overplayed making Home Alone look like a subtle film, and every single moment was utterly predictable.  I wanted it to stop.  I was ready to go hang out in the lobby until it was over.

But then I realized something: the audience around me, including my own family, was laughing hysterically at this movie.  It’s an odd feeling to be the only one not laughing at a movie in a theater.  I’d had a similar experience a few years earlier in RV, a film that, while not as outright terrible as Paul Blart: Mall Cop, I felt really wasted Robin Williams’ talents by shoving him into the “dunderhead dad” type-role that Steve Martin took on in “Cheaper By the Dozen” and Eddie Murphy sleepwalked through in a number of films in the 2000s.

As I sat silently among the sea of cackling moviegoers, I started wondering if something was wrong with my sense of humor.  I considered myself to be a fairly funny guy.  I spent a great deal of my free time writing comedic science fiction stories.  I loved a good comedy, and it’s not like my tastes were all for highbrow works that might be considered more witty than comedic.   Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which can hardly be considered elitist fare, is to this day one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.  I thought Eurotrip and Hot Tub Time Machine, neither of which are likely to enter the pantheon of classic comedies, were both very funny films to me. 

And that “to me” is really what it all comes down to.  Apparently I have a different sense of humor than the vast majority of people in that screening of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which makes complete sense when you consider than most of them were there because they actually wanted to see the movie.  The watched a trailer or TV commercial, thought it looked good, and went to see it.  Who is going to spend the amount of money a movie ticket costs just to go sit through something they know they aren’t going to like?  Parents and people on dates, mostly.

I find our differing senses of humor to be interesting, but, rather than delve into that particular topic, I want to go one step farther:

Why do we find things funny at all? 

Now there’s a difference between humor and laughter.  We all laugh.  No matter where we live or what society we come from, we laugh.  There are also indications that other animals laugh.  Gorillas do, and, based on some of the articles I read about the subject, even rats may laugh.  These responses, though, tend to be related to physical stimulus. 

You are not going to run across a rodent comedy club, and if you see a monkey in a funny outfit, odds are a human dressed the poor guy.

Laughter may have developed as a kind of social cohesion mechanism, but why do we find things humorous?

I’m starting to sound like the opening of a VSauce video.  Oh wait.  He already did one on this subject: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddV6jyDeCKA

Honestly, I don’t find any of the theories of comedy, such as humor arising from an unexpected outcome, to be truly satisfying.  And even if they do explain why we find something funny, they don’t address why we developed senses of humor in the first place. 

I have a theory on that, though.  Laughter seems to release tension, and life for our early ancestors must have been very tense indeed.  There was the constant struggle for survival, during which people inevitably were harmed or killed.  Maybe Og took a bad fall.  Or Throg was almost taken out by a sabretooth tiger.  There would be tension.  But if Og and Throg are fine, that tension could be released with laughter.  I imagine that this is how the first humor developed, which, based on these circumstances, would have been slapstick. 

This development would be useful to the weaker early humans, just as it is today.  Perhaps Krok isn’t so good with a spear and isn’t strong like Og.  But if can cause laughter by faking slapstick falls and such, the tribe might protect him because he makes them feel good.  And once humans began laughing at things, the fart joke couldn’t have been far behind.

From there, the development of humor would be somewhat self-perpetuating.  Whatever new area humans moved into, there would be the inevitable development of related humorous activities until we had full-blown senses of humor.  And now we have so many different varieties of humor that inevitably not all of it will appeal to every person. 

Millions of years of evolution have given me my taste in humor, taste that does not include Paul Blart: Mall Cop.  

- Alan Decker

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