Saturday, January 07, 2012

The magic of false alarms

I rarely choose comedies when going to the movies or renting/borrowing DVD's. They usually are not useful stories except for the chance to laugh, while I find you can get more laugh-out-loud moments just by hooking up with friends for 90 minutes and shooting the bull.

Those comedy films I do love: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Bird Cage, Road to Wellsville, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, they are infinitely re-watchable because they do not laboriously build toward cheap punchlines; the Hollywood standard. Instead, they are genuinely funny because they are off-beat throughout. They are stylishly funny.

And I think I finally know why this is. My own first attempts at written humour, in the form of short stories, failed, I must presume. They were read by friends and no one offered any feedback which itself, is valuable feedback! But the novel I just completed; I suspect it will succeed because I think I stumbled quite innocently upon the secret. I did not set up any punchlines. I necessitated comedy because I set up characters and environments that would necessarily react chaotically when they mixed. All I had to do then, was write with enough integrity to allow the characters' own voices to emerge freely.

I didn't build any jokes, you see. I built a humour-machine and sat back and watched the jokes manufacture themselves.

Several years back, I went on the Youtube web site for my very first time, with no particular agenda in mind and clicked on a random video which featured three teenagers; two girls and a boy, hamming it up with some ridiculous skit. It was under-produced. The acting was sloppy and more than half improvised. Costumes and lighting were each given little-to-no consideration. The budget must have been under five dollars and the duration under five minutes. And yet I laughed more at that than I have at any multi-million dollar Jim Carey movie before or since. What the hell was going on here? These kids seemed to totally understand the essence of humorous storytelling! They weren't even setting up punchlines. They were adapting humorous styles. They were, I now realize, building humour-machines.

Over time I watched a great many of their skits, each having attracted a couple hundred hits. So they weren't Internet stars by any means but they'd certainly gathered a following. Myself not grasping yet, the unwritten rules around adult-child Internet interaction, I naively began commenting and messaging them about the theories of humour, and praising them for their fine work. They certainly gave the impression that they all appreciated our exchanges and found them motivating and useful. I was intrigued they'd never engaged in humour theories or training of any kind. They just had brilliant instincts. I've since discovered that this is not so unusual. It seems many kids have brilliant humorous instincts which generally appear to dissolve as they age and, I suppose, become inhibited by societal calculation and reputation-guarding.

The Youtube "channel" was called JKL Productions; each letter the first initial for each of its members. The boy eventually left the group and became a solo Youtube hit by running full time with one of his JKL-born characters, the chipmunk-voiced "Fred." I have not followed him in this endeavor. He has much support now, globally. I prefer to give my support to little-known creators, be they in comedy, music or what not. I'll decline to go on too much a tangent here today but some day in this space I will explain the great harm in our global habit of fame-worship while we go out of our way to ignore our local creators. The phenomenon is linked, in the poetic view, with all of mankind's problems from murder to global warming but later for that.

What is more pleasant than laughter? I find it is a fundamental joy, like music; a fundamentally good and useful thing. I would say that humour has a legitimate place in all human endeavors although with different guidelines in terms of tactfulness for different situations.

I once shared a harmless chuckle with a dear friend while at his mother's funeral. My friend was later venomously chastised by his sister for it. Must funerals have a strict no-humour policy? I don't see why.

With the reading/writing groups I run at the Princess of Schools, there are rules. There are consequences should a student choose to be disruptive and derail a group endeavor. But the rule has a loophole. Where the interruption is humorous enough to make me laugh, there is no "consequence." Even school has a place for humour. We talk about the use of humour in novels and have yet to find a novel, no matter how serious, we believe to have no room for humour.

The first time I ever coined a phrase and liked it enough to record it as a quotation of my own origin, it was this:

Of all the wonders in the known universe, it is music and laughter that most enchant. And they are human creations.

It was in essence a crack against god and religion but it was naively flawed.

Recently I came upon this quote by the very wise Friedrich Nietzsche of the later nineteenth century:

Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.

Oops. How dull were each of us at those moments when we thought of laughter as a human creation or human invention? Obviously no man ever sat down and drafted a blueprint for his eureka idea of a thing called laughter. It is clearly an instinctive thing and yet, in terms of evolution, how could that make sense?

Easy apparently. And I tip my hat to the science community who appear to have totally beat the poets to the punch on this one: The testimony I absorbed in longer form than that with which I will now summarize it, struck me as quite useful. Apparently the roots of human-style laughter are believed to be quite present in other mammals! It is a type of communication, it's audible nature varying by species, which basically means "false alarm." It is widely accepted that animals have an "alarm" communication device; a sound which that particular species will make when an individual spots a possible sign of danger; evidence of a nearby predator. It is instinctive that this message is contagious. This way the message spreads rapidly through the community.

The laughter theory keys upon the exact same phenomenon for a subsequent "false alarm" message. A chimpanzee discovers that the apparent tiger was only a trick of the eye; grasses moving in the wind. He ceases the alarm message and "laughs" instead. The contagious laughter message then spreads through the community.

It makes an awful lot of sense to me. We've all observed the contagious nature of laughter. A man enters a room too late to hear the great joke but chuckles as he observes everyone else splitting a gut. And what is human humour if not false alarms? Jokes contain apparently serious matter which inevitably dissolve into nothing.

Interesting stuff.

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