What Koestler Knew About Jokes

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Arthur Koestler, 1947

If you leaf through the pages of one of the tall, puffy black leatherette volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Macropædia (a portmanteau made from the Greek words for “big” and “education), you will find Arthur Koestler’s long essay on “Humour and Wit,” which is the only laugh-out-loud-funny encyclopedia entry anyone is likely to encounter anywhere. You can’t read the whole thing online, it has been abridged; to see the genuine article, you have to hold the actual book in your hand. Koestler wrote the essay for the maiden edition of the Macropædia in the 1970s, adapting it from his capacious books Insight and Outlook (1949) and The Act of Creation (1964), which break down the various manifestations of creativity, talent, originality, and genius. The six pages in the Britannica provide, if you will, the gist.

The purpose of his essay is to demonstrate how and why humor works. Koestler begins by listing jokes that illustrate distinct comic principles. My favorite, #5, appears under the heading “The Logic of Laughter.” It’s a joke Freud liked to tell as well, about a Marquis in the court of Louis XV who enters his bedroom to find a bishop making love to his wife. After observing them in flagrante, the Marquis calmly steps to the window, opens it, and extends his arms, blessing the people on the street below.

“What are you doing?” cried the anguished wife.
“Monseigneur is performing my functions,” replied the Marquis, “so I am performing his.”

This joke works, Koestler explains, because the Marquis’s behavior is “both unexpected and perfectly logical—but of a logic not usually applied to this type of situation.” The reader expects the Marquis to respond with moral outrage, or even to draw a sword; instead, in an absurdly literal-minded way, he reevaluates his job description on the spot, and acts accordingly. The listener feels relief as humor transforms humiliation into hilarity. “It is the sudden clash between these two mutually exclusive codes of rules—or associative contexts—that produces the comic effect,” Koestler writes. “The tension that was felt becomes suddenly redundant and is exploded in laughter.” As Immanuel Kant put it, Koestler observes, laughter is “the sudden transformation of a tense expectation into nothing.”

In February, the comedian Trevor Noah unleashed the “comic effect” of Koestler’s joke #5 on The Daily Show, when he lampooned the black, gay actor Jussie Smollett, a regular (until recently) on the Fox musical drama Empire, who stood accused of staging a phony hate crime against himself in Chicago in January. (Smollett has proclaimed his innocence; last week, prosecutors dropped the charges for unclear reasons, and confusion still surrounds the case.) According to Chicago police, Noah said, the actor had “wanted his hate crime to be caught on camera,” and had failed only because a rotating security camera that could have captured the allegedly staged attack wasn’t facing the right direction.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” joked Noah. “He wanted to be caught, but he didn’t get caught on camera because he didn’t know which way the camera was pointing?” Noah paused: “You’re an actor! That’s your only job!” Like the Marquis in Koestler’s joke, Noah upset comic expectation by making a professional jab instead of a moral dig. He had achieved Kant’s “sudden transformation of a tense expectation into nothing.” (And so, a few weeks later, would the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, when they dropped all charges, but this time, no one was laughing. Koestler might have relished the irony.)

Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about Koestler, as politics, which is to say, this presidency, has turned a spotlight, a searchlight even, on humor and on humorists. Humor is not innocent, Koestler knew; its roots lie in “aggression and apprehension.” Small children “mock people with a stammer or a limp and laugh at the foreigner with an odd pronunciation,” he observes, but find no mirth in nuanced wit. Aristotle thought laughter was linked to “ugliness and debasement”; Descartes that it “was a manifestation of joy mixed with surprise or hatred.” Given the insult implicit in laughter, Koestler suggests, it was not surprising that powerful men would seek to thwart those who inspired others to laugh at their expense. “Under the tyrannies of Hitler in Germany and of Stalin in the Soviet Union, humour was driven underground,” he writes. “Dictators fear laughter more than bombs.”

Koestler, a world-roving Hungarian-British journalist (and in his youth, the author of a pseudonymous French encyclopedia of sex), is best known for Darkness at Noon, his novel about an old Bolshevik once considered loyal to Stalin (identified in the book, with lawyerly euphemism, as “Number One”), who is put on trial during the Great Purges. That book was published in English in 1941, while Koestler himself was imprisoned in Britain, where he had arrived from North Africa as a deserter from the French Foreign Legion, which he had joined shortly before the Nazis occupied France.


Following his release, Koestler joined Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information, an organization that produced propaganda to fight totalitarianism—the opposite function, more or less, of the “Ministry of Truth” in George Orwell’s 1984. In the years before the publication of that book, Orwell and Koestler became close friends. They shared a gift for using anecdote and anthropomorphism to expose hidden systems and abuses of power. Koestler’s Britannica essay on humor does for comedy what Orwell did for syntax in his essay “Politics and the English Language”—it illuminates the underlying architecture.

I thought of Koestler’s perspective when President Trump lost his cool last month after watching a rerun of Saturday Night Live, tweeting: “It’s truly incredible that shows like Saturday Night Live, not funny/no talent, can spend all of their time knocking the same person (me), over & over, without so much of a mention of ‘the other side.’” In particular, I recalled the remark in Darkness at Noon that the “most conspicuous trait of the Neanderthal character” was “its absolute humorlessness.” This was not the first time Trump had gone off on SNL. In February, too, he had denounced the show. “Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC!” he tweeted. “Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution?” In his March SNL tweet barrage, he renewed the call for payback: “Should Federal Election Commission and/or FCC look into this?”

The president’s cry for punitive action reminded me of the words of the feminist political comedian Jena Friedman, who, two weeks earlier, had visited the “Facts/Alternative Facts” class I teach at the New School and talked about the increasingly hostile environment comedians face at this fraught geopolitical moment. Only a couple years into Vladimir Putin’s presidency, a popular Russian political satire show called Kukly (“Puppets”) was shut down, reportedly because of Kremlin pressure. The show, similar to Britain’s Spitting Image, featured dolls of politicians, including, of course, the Russian president, and Putin didn’t think it was funny. In intervening years, this stony-faced attitude has spread in repressive lands, including, this January, Saudi Arabia, whose government stopped Netflix from airing in the kingdom an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s show Patriot Act that mocked the official Saudi explanation of the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

“Comedians are canaries in the coalmine of democracy,” Friedman said. She urged the class to watch a new Netflix documentary series, Larry Charles’s Dangerous World of Comedy, which travels to war zones—Iraq, Liberia, Somalia—interviewing courageous comics who mock oppressors, putting their liberty, and sometimes their lives, at risk in the process. 

Cueing up that show, I watched Charles interview Ahmed Albasheer, the Iraqi answer to Trevor Noah. Albasheer was imprisoned in Iraq in 2005, when he was barely twenty, and had launched his comic career, he said, by making his captors laugh as they led him off for torture. A segment of Albasheer Show plays in which the host interviews an animated avatar of an ISIS spokesman. “Executions, drownings, explosions—who comes up with these concepts?” Albasheer asks, adopting a tone of reportorial curiosity. The ISIS avatar responds: “We watch cartoons such as Tom and Jerry, Road Runner, Mickey Mouse. For example, Tom blows Jerry up, Jerry retaliates with dynamite, burns him, cuts him in half, drowns him. We are influenced by them.” That segment jogged my memory. One of the most disturbing forms of humor Koestler addresses in his essay is the seemingly sadistic mirth provoked by “fake” suffering—a subject the Jussie Smollett incident also brought to mind. 

Koestler explains that when one group regards another group as subhuman, as if they were, say, merely cartoon characters, the suffering of that other group can be perceived as hilarious because it is seen as not-real. As evidence, he relates the experience of an American anthropologist, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who lived among the Bushmen of the Kalahari in the 1950s, citing a passage from her 1959 book The Harmless People. (Decades later, Marshall Thomas would write the bestseller The Hidden Life of Dogs.) She describes a hunting incident:

On the way home we saw and shot a springbok, as there was no meat left in camp. The bullet hit the springbok in the stomach and partly eviscerated him, causing him to jump and kick before he finally died. The Bushmen thought that this was terribly funny and they laughed, slapping their thighs and kicking their heels to imitate the springbok, showing no pity at all, but then they regard animals with great detachment.

Why did they find the animal’s pain funny? Was this not sadistic and cruel? No, Koestler explains:


[The Bushmen] do not regard animals as sentient beings; the springbok’s kicking in his agony appears to them funny because in their view the animal pretends to suffer pain like a human being, though it is incapable of such feelings.

The Bushmen, in Koestler’s telling, believed the springbok was displaying—to borrow a contemporary idiom—“fake pain.” Like children who laugh at sparring Punch and Judy puppets, “artifacts that masquerade as humans,” the Bushmen were responding to the “coarsest type of humor,” whose roots lie in the physical mechanisms of the practical joke. When Trevor Noah drew on the logic of Koestler’s Joke #5 to poke fun at a botched masquerade of victimhood, he was deploying a more advanced type of humor, and one with a socially constructive goal: to use the weapon of ridicule to attack those who would jeopardize public empathy for actual victims.

Historically, it hasn’t only been springboks and puppets that sometimes have struck human eyes as unreal: some Ancient Greeks felt the same way about foreigners, Koestler notes. They thought that these “barbarians”—the word comes from the seeming gibberish of foreign languages to Greek ears: “bar-bar” evoked the bleating of sheep—were just pretending to be human. The non-Greeks were aliens, others, unfurnished with human dignity and undeserving of compassion. In America today, such othering is deployed with increasing frequency, not only in alt-right web forums, but also by the White House. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump caricatured Mexicans as “rapists” and mocked the physically impaired with hand gestures. He has sought to find new ways to prevent people from “shithole countries,” a term that dehumanized entire populations, from coming to the United States. His favorite “othering” insult for African-American lawmakers who oppose him is to call them “low IQ.”

Objectification of human beings is a contagious and dangerous animus. There was something of this dark impetus at work when Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and host of Infowars, accused student survivors of the 2018 Parkland school shooting of being paid Democratic operatives, or when he called the grieving parents of the children murdered at Sandy Hook in 2012 “crisis actors.” Jones’s attitude exhibits the objectifying process Koestler identifies as “the coarsest type of humor” that turns suffering into a joke. But in this case, the entertainment was not ingenuous, as it presumably was for the Kalahari hunters who thought the springbok was putting on a show, but cynical, turning people into caricatures, real lives into “fake lives,” for political ends. To give himself cover, Jones caricatures himself: his lawyer, Randall White, has reportedly said Jones was “playing a character” and that his online persona did not reflect his real self. This is similar to the tactic alt-right bloggers and commenters use, masking provocation and bigotry as “only joking.” Tell it to the springbok. 

In the Macropædia, forty-five years ago, Koestler wrote that “Humour today seems to be dominated by two main factors: the influence of the mass media and the crisis of values affecting a culture in rapid and violent transition.” He drew a division between the two factors: “mass media humour” was responsible for “commercialized and “conveyor-belt” gags, whereas the “crisis in values” produced “a sophisticated form of black humour larded with sick jokes, sadism, and sex.” In our time, as the Internet has both multiplied and fragmented modes of communication, that division has blurred, and those two strands of humor now operate in mash-up form.

The essential function of the comedic act remains the same: to produce laughter through the “mental jolt of a sudden leap from one plane or associative context to another.” What is changing is not the nature of laughter but the range of its accepted targets. “As laughter emerged from antiquity, it was so aggressive that it has been likened to a dagger,” Koestler notes. Traditionally, comedians used the dagger of wit to stick the powerful, exposing hypocrisy and abuses that threatened the public good. Now, abetted by the abundance of online platforms, other actors have seized that dagger to attack the weak, not the strong. Meanwhile, the powerful, online and off, demand a coercive loyalty that sees laughter as sedition, and seek to disarm and suppress would-be comedic assailants.

At this contentious national—and global—moment, when authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, it’s important to keep humor above ground. Comedians who twit presidents or kings are in the firing line because they are on the front line. They are the advance guard of the war against those who treat human beings like cartoons. If we don’t defend them, the joke will be on us. 

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