Laughter and Civility

Our last discussion was about attachment theory, and I had been considering writing a post about that, but I have found a different reason to take up my “pen” again. Recently there was a review in the NYT of several books that have been published on the subject of civility. Therefore, I was moved to write about that. (I’m sure some of the current public behavior we have been witnessing had something to do with this urge, but, the fact that laughter has sometimes been connected to civility also made me want to write about it.)

Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes had written about his theory of laughter. I think I remember it because of the example he used. Hobbes’ theory revolves around those who laugh because they feel superior to someone else as when we laugh at someone who slips on a banana peel. To Hobbes, a society built on laughter would be a society built on mockery, or people laughing at the misfortunes of others.

It surprised me to learn that Hobbes was one of the few philosophers who gave laughter much consideration. Aristotle, for example, wrote more about tragedy and how tragic characters were generally of average or better than average standing. In his view, in comedy individuals of lesser virtue are the norm and we look down on them. The bottom line seems to be that humor is often a consequence of denigrating someone.

I confess to being guilty of this, and suspect most of us are. Moreover, Doc Martin is rife with humor based on this model. Whenever ME walks into a door frame or low ceiling, slips in mud, or drives his car off the road; whenever Penhale attempts anything resembling actual police work; whenever Louisa dangles from a hospital bed or says something that is misinterpreted, we are in the arena of Hobbes’ Superiority Theory of laughter. We could add other characters, e.g. Mrs. Tishell, Bert, and Janice. Each one of these characters has been depicted in comedic settings that would be categorized as a pratfall. A pratfall is basically a stupid and humiliating action. It is something that has been a part of comedy for as long as we can remember. And the remarkable thing about it is that it often involves a perceived highly-competent individual who becomes more likable after committing a blunder, according to something called the pratfall effect. I would venture to say that all of the above characters benefit from the pratfall effect. Thus, we can summarize that we laugh because we recognize how inept these characters are while we also find them more appealing as a result.

Furthermore, I then came across a recent article by Emily Nussbaum, TV critic of The New Yorker Magazine, on jokes article It seemed perfect that the accompanying picture is of a golden banana peel with the potential that there could be a tangential connection to Hobbes’ Superiority Theory. Nussbaum lists Mel Brooks, Rodney Dangerfield, and Don Rickles as practitioners of a type of humor that she calls insult comedy. (I would put Dame Edna in this category as well.) In the process of being rude, these comics also reveal some very incisive points about society and politics.

Indeed Nussbaum comments that the political journalist Rebecca Traister described this phenomenon… as “the finger trap.” “You are placed loosely within the joke, which is so playful, so light—why protest? It’s only when you pull back—show that you’re hurt, or get angry, or try to argue that the joke is a lie, or, worse, deny that the joke is funny—that the joke tightens. If you object, you’re a censor. If you show pain, you’re a weakling. It’s a dynamic that goes back to the rude, rule-breaking Groucho Marx—destroyer of élites!—and Margaret Dumont, pop culture’s primal pearl-clutcher.”

Isn’t that exactly what happens to ME when Bert sets him up with his fake injury using ketchup? Nothing ME did at that point could have salvaged his dignity. Another time this trap appears is when Pauline takes a picture of ME sleeping with the dog on the floor and then shares the picture around town. ME gets comedically “punished” regularly, either with pratfalls or with irreconcilable humiliations. His most prevalent rejoinder is one of superiority towards those who are discourteous to him. There’s almost a “tit for tat” element played out.

I am not saying that laughing at such situations is malicious, even if Hobbes would make that argument; however, I am proposing that we should step back and think about what it is that makes us laugh.

The Superiority Theory leads us to a discussion of the subject of self-esteem, which is how one views oneself or one’s attitude towards oneself. Self-esteem has been the subject of much study with prominent psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, placing it in an important position in human development. I think we can leave it at the place where we recognize that there are people who have anything from high self-esteem to low self-esteem, and each of those markers is associated with particular personality characteristics. (We have already analyzed ME and LE on the MMPI, and we could get into where they fall on the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale, but that is not what I want to concentrate on in this post.) More important is whether our own self-esteem is implicated in why we laugh, or accept without much reservation, that it’s admissible to laugh when comedians are uncivil to others.

First we need to agree on what it means to be uncivil. Civility goes beyond mere toleration, but may inherently imply a mutual co-existence and respect for humankind. It may interest you to know that George Washington wrote Rules of Civility as a teenager. It is a list of 110 ways for how to behave civilly. Obviously he felt compelled to set down some guidelines during his youth, and we can only imagine he had a reason to think society needed to know them. More recently there have been articles in psychology journals that address this concern as well. In the mentioned article, civility is defined as “awareness, self-control, empathy and respect…It requires us to treat others with decency, regardless of our differences. It demands restraint and an ability to put the interests of the common good above self-interests.” Even though I have not tried to find the statistics on current uncivil behavior, I think we can agree that between the online bullying and the overt impolite conduct too many young people exhibit towards adults (not to mention the name calling and other forms of belittling practiced by adults), we can come to the conclusion that uncivil actions have only increased. Should we be troubled by the expression of uncivil comportment in our comedy?

The controversy about civility and how to deal with it has been long standing. In that same recent book review in the NYT mentioned above, Hobbes is noted as having “feared that strident expressions of disagreement would threaten the diversity of views in society (much as hate speech is now thought to do), so he advocated an ethic of ‘civil silence,’ or public discretion: People could differ privately in their opinions as much as they wanted but should not openly dispute one another. Locke, by contrast, wanted to preserve public debate, but worried that too much diversity of opinion might jeopardize productive disagreement (the sort of concern campus speech codes now reflect). So he urged an ethic of ‘mutual charity,’ which required people to cultivate at least a minimal appreciation for the views of their opponents, or else be disqualified from debate. Both thinkers, in other words, imagined bringing about a tolerant society via suppression or exclusion — the very forces you would think a tolerant society would want to avoid.”

The review goes on to note that Roger Williams, a 17th C religious radical, “asked not that everyone keep quiet or respect his or her enemies, but merely that everyone not do anything to stop the conversation from going. Williams’s ‘mere civility’ demands more of us than Locke’s or Hobbes’s civility, in that it requires we have thicker skins about other people’s rudeness or disrespect; but it also demands less of us, in that we no longer have to muster respect for, or mute our criticism of, views we abhor.” In other words, he contrasts forbearance with tolerance.

Who is acting uncivilly in Doc Martin? Topping the list is the group of girls who regularly walk past ME and call him a tosser amongst other things. They are particularly bad when they mock him after Louisa leaves him and suggest he might want to date one of their mothers. Actually I have trouble thinking of any teenager in this show who isn’t disrespectful. From the boys on the beach who tell off ME to the delinquent Eleanor engages to watch James Henry to Becky Trevean and her cohort, they are all extremely impolite and disturbingly combative. Then there’s Becky Wead who writes the critical article of him in the school newspaper and Kelly Sparrock who tells him off and treats him with disdain even while he’s trying to diagnose her seizure disorder.

Apart from these members of Port Isaac’s community, we can include many others who speak disparagingly about the doc, often reflecting an obvious contempt for him. This group would include Allison, Danny and his mother, Mark’s sister, and Caroline (the radio Portwenn personality).

Among the people who are uncivil we can’t leave out Martin Ellingham himself. Could there be a more derogatory and insolent person than him? He is pugnacious towards his patients, generally suspicious of many of the motives of the townspeople, including Louisa, and, of course, has no social skills at all. His character is deliberately constructed in this manner, but we shouldn’t overlook this aspect of his personality. He cannot even restrain himself from giving the people of Portwenn a lecture on diet when he is delivering a eulogy of his beloved aunt.

The fact that these are offset by quite a few people who admire his medical ability and who manage to appreciate him despite his own uncivil behavior redeems him and provides sufficient agreeableness to his character. And Martin Ellingham is himself recuperated by some of the kindnesses he is capable of displaying.

I have previously argued that we don’t want to “fix” ME, or probably any of the characters. I would still maintain that though comedy may stem from uncivil behavior, it is rather harmless in this show. Still, the more we tolerate uncivil treatment of others, the more we may be accepting creeping incivility in our world.

Originally posted 2017-01-22 12:45:51.

21 thoughts on “Laughter and Civility

  1. Amy

    Reading your post made me think more about the current incivility in our political dialogue (and by our political leaders) than it did about DM, but I assume that is not where you wanted this discussion to go. But is there really a big difference between the type of incivility that lies behind the pratfalls and humor on DM and the actual incivility I experience every day on Facebook and elsewhere in the public arena?

    Maybe it’s just degrees of difference between laughing at someone who hits his head on the door frame to laughing at someone who insults someone else (whether it’s the teenagers or Martin himself doing the insulting) to using foul language and hate speech to attack another person or that person’s opinions. Maybe if we accept the more benign forms, it’s just a slippery slope to accepting the more malicious forms of incivility.

    As a viewer, I don’t laugh when Martin hits his head or falls down the stairs. I don’t find it funny. I wince. I’ve never liked slapstick humor. I also was very uncomfortable with the practical joke Bert played on him. I bet all viewers disliked Adrian, the doctor who set him up for that joke by revealing his hemophilia. But I admit that I still laugh when Martin insults some of the patients. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe laughing at the idea that someone else is stupid or that someone is clumsy or that someone has a disability is just making us less human. Maybe Hobbes was right.

    But isn’t there another view that we laugh because we see in the humor our own shared humanity? Are we really laughing AT Martin or AT his patients, or are we laughing at ourselves and our own social and physical clumsiness, our own impatience with the stupidity of others, our own frailties and flaws? Don’t we learn something about ourselves when we laugh?

    Maybe it depends on the type of humor and how it is expressed. Maybe if we are laughing at ourselves, not at another, it is a much more civil form of humor.

  2. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    I very much appreciate your reaction to this post and see in your comments that you exactly got what I was shooting for. I do think that we laugh at some of these pratfalls because we can relate on a personal level. For example, in high school my husband was called into the head guidance counselor’s office and nervously arrived at her doorstep. It turned out that she invited him in to introduce him to a visitor from a prominent college so that she could tell the visitor what an excellent student my husband was. He was relieved to know he had been invited for a good reason and entered the room to shake the visitor’s hand only to promptly turn around and walk into the wall on his way out. He had misjudged where the door was. At the time he was humiliated, but now we laugh about it. Who knows what the two adults in the room did?

    So we can’t help putting ourselves in the places of the comedians/recipients of the humor whenever we watch this sort of humor. For that reason I can’t take that step of finding the humor malicious, although sometimes it certainly is. What Bert did was, and Adrian was deliberately malicious and vindictive.

    But then there is that slippery slope, and now I can’t help wondering if we should be more concerned about it.

  3. Amy

    Of course, Bert realized when he heard Martin’s anger and hurt that what he did was hurtful. Even the other villagers seemed ashamed of themselves. Maybe that was the writers’ point: that humor like that is not funny because it does hurt, even if Bert thought Martin would just “go with the flow” and see the humor. I wonder if any viewers found that scene funny or whether they also saw it as a lesson in NOT mocking others.

    And don’t we laugh at Martin when he is rude, not at his victims? We are not conspiring with him in thinking his patients deserve to be treated poorly, are we? Aren’t we laughing because his behavior is so outrageous that we find it a bit bizarre and thus funny? Aren’t we laughing because we recognize that we often would be thinking the same type of thing, but we know rules of civility don’t allow for that type of behavior? So maybe we are learning what it means to be civil when we laugh at Martin’s rudeness.

    Your husband’s experience is one most of us have had at some point—or a variation on it. We’ve tripped or burped or worse in a situation that is embarrassing. It’s human to be anxious and distracted and have bodily noises. Would we ever laugh if we saw a real person fall down the stairs or hit their head on the door? I doubt it. But seeing an actor do it when we know he’s really not hurt just makes us realize that we are all a bunch of clumsy oafs.

    So maybe comedy is not uncivil. Maybe it’s truly just a lesson in how to be human and how to be civil.

  4. Santa Traugott

    My thoughts about this are pretty random.

    But it does remind me of how much I dislike Elaine. The humor of her character is so often derived, it seems to me at least, from her being mean, or obtuse, or selfish. I think, e.g., of the time she was relishing watching from the surgery woman, the spectacle of Caroline Bosman stumbling around and her husband berating her.

    And what to make of the emphasis on poor Mark’s manhood? or the fact that two episodes dealt with diarrhea? I just think the scatological is more often associated with juvenile humor.

    At least some of the humor stems from people doing unexpected things, for their character. To me, the funniest scene in that regard was Melanie’s father showing up and instead of berating Martin, this huge man gave sophisticated words about “transference” and such, and was quite sympathetic to Martin.

    A lot of the humor is just cleverness — astutely taking on the pretensions of people who deserve to be taken down a peg — for example, Anthony Oakwood’s pomposity and Molly the midwife’s feminism that overrode her duty of care.

    In fact, it seems to me that a lot of the appeal of the show is not so much a play for jokes or laughs, as an appeal to an audience to laugh, usually gently, along with the writers, about the foibles of all of us, and to enjoy role reversals. For example, the fishmonger or drycleaner giving marital advice.

    Martin Clunes has often spoken about how much he enjoys “being rough” with the elderly and children, and, saying out loud what one really thinks instead of politely substituting some anodyne and meaningless courtesy. I have to think that is part of the appeal of the show also – — that a lot of us sympathize with that impulse!

    Mrs. Tishell is the great comic character, of course. Even here, what is most funny about her pretense that her special role as pharmacist gives her claim to a special relationship to Martin. And her very dignified manner. And every once in a while we see that facade slip, when she yells at Clive or lasciviously eats peas. So again, it’s a play on what you expect which is suddenly reversed. A sort of intellectual pratfall. (BTW, I don’t find those physical pratfalls very funny anymore. )

    So I think there is a running theme of poking fun at pretentiousness, including of course, Doc Martin himself, who is so ordered, meticulous, brilliant, and at the same time, physically clumsy, an incompetent though pretentious DIY-er (think of him going on about “heat sinks” while forgetting to open the damper, or his “cowboy plumbing”) and above all, completely clueless about what he and others feel. I think also that this is something that resonates with Martin Clunes — as far as I can tell from public comments, he doesn’t like pretension.

    But I don’t really think that there is much incivility in the series. Martin is forthright, direct, and abrasive, sometimes snide, often unfeeling, , but he is seldom really cruel. Whether it’s his deeply-felt duty of care, or not, he usually tries to cope with whatever real issue his patients present to him. He doesn’t set out to deliberately wound or denigrate, or attack on an ad hominem level, which to me is what characterizes the uncivility of current discourse, as exemplified by the comments sections in most public spaces.

  5. Santa Traugott

    This is from an op-ed that appeared in the NYTimes, today and it struck me as relevant. (I have cut out all the political references.)
    I guess I might take the position — see below — that expressing anger at someone for something they have done is not nearly as uncivil as expressing contempt for who they are. Although Doc Martin as a series and Martin himself express more anger than contempt (although his attitude toward Danny is definitely an exception).

    “Immanuel Kant once remarked that “no man in his true senses … is candid.” It wasn’t that Kant didn’t value truthfulness and sincerity in our interactions with others; he did. He realized, however, that the stability and progress of moral and political community depends on our being able to restrain ourselves from expressing publicly whatever we happen to be thinking or feeling. This is especially pressing when our inner thoughts and attitudes reflect contempt for our fellow human beings. Contempt, Kant recognized, is a very dangerous thing. The danger lies in contempt’s peculiar ability to dehumanize its target. Widespread public contempt has the potential to undermine the moral basis of all human relationships and, indeed, of human community itself.

    A fundamental feature of contempt is that it is globalist, meaning that it is directed at the entire person, rather than just some aspect of that person. It is thus unlike other negative attitudes, like anger. If I express anger toward you, I am engaging with you. If I express contempt toward you, I am dismissing you. The distinction is crucial.

    In his essay, “Freedom and Resentment,” P.F. Strawson described it as the difference between a participant attitude and an objective attitude. When we view others with a participant attitude, we regard them as fellow moral agents, accountable for what they say and do. When we view them with an objective attitude, we see them not as agents, but as objects to be managed or perhaps obstacles to be overcome. Contempt functions by shifting the targeted person from a participant relationship to an objective relationship. It aims to alter someone’s status by diminishing their agency. This is how contempt accomplishes its dehumanizing work — by marking its target as unworthy of engagement and thus not a full member of the human community.” “

  6. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Thank you for adding this quote from the op-ed. I am reacting here to both of your comments.

    One thing I was trying to do in this post is examine what makes us laugh and how laughter has been viewed by deep thinkers throughout the centuries. That laughter has mostly been assessed to be a result of feelings of superiority and a position of mocking another person is revealing. You and Amy do not consider pratfalls as funny, but there used to be a lot of humor based on them. Clearly MC still considers them amusing enough to include plenty of them in this show.

    As I tried to express in the post, I do not look at the humor in Doc Martin as designed to be malicious, and I agree that much of the humor exposes the absurdities of life and human behavior. We ought to laugh when Martin mistakenly runs over Mrs. Wilson’s Yorky, then wraps it up and takes it to her to dispose of. It’s especially funny that he sits in her front lobby holding the dead animal first before he has a chance to present it to her. And we laugh when she slaps him for being so insensitive. But…when I try to look at what makes this show a comedy, and what works as humor, I am struck by how much of it comes from digs and epithets.

    Amy mentioned that when ME yells at his patients, we laugh at him, not at his patients. I think it’s both. We laugh at his bravado, and secretly wish we would be bold enough to say some of these things ourselves, but we also laugh at the stupidity of the patients. I laugh when the woman he tells to stop smoking sits on his doorstep and lights up a cigarette. I laugh when the Flynt brothers won’t follow his orders; when the young woman with a mole takes it off herself; when Aunt Joan won’t take his advice; etc., etc. Sure he’s frustrated that he’s the expert and they aren’t listening, and many times doctors deal with exactly that and have a right to be angry. That he actually tells them they’re idiots and stupid is rude while also being absolutely true. We laugh at his forthrightness out of embarrassment as well as envy.

    Does he show contempt for patients and others? Of course he does. He slams the door in people’s faces all the time. He tells off the doctor’s friend, Penhale, the deviant Sawle sister, and many others. Is it funny when he does it? Yes! Sometimes it’s funny because they deserve it, but other times it’s just funny because he is mocking them. This post is wondering if we should be aware of that side of our sense of humor.

    Would we laugh if someone slipped on a banana peel? Doesn’t it depend on whether they truly hurt themselves? Today I was working out when someone slipped off a stability ball and landed on her butt. Did I laugh? You betcha! Should I be ashamed? Maybe a little, but she laughed too and only her pride was hurt a bit. Where should being civil enter the equation? If we accept the definition as including empathy and respect and treating others with decency, where do we draw the line? Sometimes it’s not that clear.

    I don’t want this post to end up being a contest of examples we can each dredge up from the show. My objective was to recognize how laughter and civility can be connected and that many comedic writers, including the ones working on this show, use lack of civility as a generator of humor. The question is, if that’s true, then shouldn’t we think about that?

  7. Amy

    Maybe there’s something warped about my sense of humor, but I don’t find myself laughing at a lot of the things that might have intended to be funny and that perhaps many viewers do find funny. Not just the pratfalls, but also some of the things Karen listed—the girl taking off her own mole, the TB woman smoking, etc. It just doesn’t make me laugh. It makes me nod in recognition of how stupid we patients often are, but not haha, funny, in anyway. Maybe that’s why the show to me is more drama than comedy, a point Karen and I have differed on before. I don’t find myself laughing very often—just smiling, maybe a chuckle here or there. Or an OMG, I can’t believe he just said that. More often, I am empathizing with a character rather than laughing at or with him or her, whether it’s Martin or a patient or even Penhale and Mrs Tishell. And when they act stupid (the last two in particular), I feel annoyed with them and with the show.

    Every time Martin talks about Louisa’s smells, is that funny? To me it makes me squirm and feel bad for her and bad for him. The only emotion I felt watching those scenes was discomfort and dismay. Oh, no, he’s not going to blow it, is he? Yikes, shut up, Martin. But not laughing. Am I alone? If one laughs, isn’t it more at the absurdity and the discomfort than at Martin?

    That made me think about what does make me laugh—and it’s usually cleverness. Word play, a Jon Stewart comment, an SNL parody. I stopped finding Seinfeld funny when the humor got too dark—when George’s fiancee died from licking envelopes and no one cared. What the hell was funny about that? I still don’t know. As for DM, as I wrote earlier, I am more likely to laugh at Martin and recognize and empathize with his frustration than I am to laugh at his patients.

    FWIW, I do think Martin shows contempt for his patients in some cases—calling them stupid, idiots—how can that be anything but contempt? It may be out of frustration, not anger, but it’s contempt. He certainly treats the doctor’s friend with contempt calling him a sniveling eunuch (or something like that). Is that funny? It certainly is understandable and a feeling we as viewers likely share. Maybe we laugh because it is so shocking to hear someone talk like that. Maybe it’s a laugh of embarrassment or discomfort more than laughing at the doctor’s friend or at Martin.

    Also, one aside to Santa: wasn’t it Pauline who laughed at Caroline and her husband fighting? I am pretty sure it was S2 since Danny and Louisa go visit her in the hospital, and Danny was in S2, not S1. And Elaine was only in S1.

    Sorry for rambling on, but the comments have really made me wonder about my sense of humor!

  8. Amy

    We all have those. And I am not laughing at you. OK, yes, I did! 🙂 But only in self-recognition, the best type of humor if you ask me.

  9. DM

    I believe that what underpins much of humour and is manifest in the humour of Doc Martin, is vulnerability. Whether by the Superiority Theory (think schadenfreude), or Freud’s Relief Theory (the release from suppressed psychological angst), or Incongruity Theory (e.g. deadpan, wherein there is something “funny” about people without a sense of humour)– humour, and no less British humour, stems from a recognition of our own and others mutual vulnerabilities. Likely the “civility” or “aggressiveness” of the humour relates to its degree of mutuality, that is if and by how much it is reciprocated (wherein Social Comparison Theory would have much to say about such exchanges).

    Considering that babies can laugh already at 1-2 months of age (or 3-4 months to specific stimuli), well before they’re able to do much of anything else or otherwise express themselves other than via (all too often) non-specific crying, it’s not likely to be from a sense of superiority. Consider a typical British pub, not unlike Portwenn’s Crab & Lobster, where mates gather to make one other the butt of their jokes or skewer each other with humourous stories which counter-intuitively draw them closer together as mates. Or consider the playful teasing that most couples engage in (alas, not so much Martin and Louisa) with gently humorous banter that exposes and recognizes their mutual vulnerabilities in a non-threatening manner and forms the very basis of intimacy. There may be no animal analogue for the telling of jokes, but many (non-domesticated) animals seem to enjoy exposing their vulnerabilities through humour in its root form- play or playfulness. Try watching a nature programme featuring the antics of a litter of lion cubs “at play” (and try not to laugh) as they challenge and become aware of one another’s vulnerabilities with pouncing and toppling long before such acts become a matter of life and death. Or try tickling a rat (as scientists are wont to do) as it welcomes human fingers to its vulnerable soft and prone underbelly with peals of (high-frequency) rat laughter.

    For most of us there is no greater common exposition of our own vulnerabilities than by paying a visit to our local doctor. We bare our bodies, warts and all, and have to explain that weird spot on our leg that for months we’ve done nothing about, or that odd pain when we urinate that comes and goes but have been too embarrassed to ask about. This is highlighted in Doc Martin by every manner of eccentric patient with every imaginably eccentric medical complaint. Anonymity is typically both a blessing and a curse in a small town or village but it rarely serves as much of a shield to an individual’s true vulnerabilities– in fact it’s a sense of shared vulnerability that tends to bind such inhabitants of a small village together. Yet in Portwenn, Dr. Ellingham refuses to play along and reveals nothing from behind his sole one-dimensional persona.

    Martin Clunes seems to understand the role of vulnerability in comedy wherein he asserts that following his character’s excessive bouts of vile and deplorable behaviour, he feels compelled to walk him into a door or to come a cropper into a pool of mud– he is attempting to rebalance the character’s vulnerability and thereby restore to him a measure of empathy. As most of those pratfalls of late fail so miserably and yield so little if any humour, that is likely due to the character’s persistent failings over time to come to terms with his vulnerabilities. He has yet to develop any greater intimacy toward his wife that might be depicted with furtive longing gazes, heedful touches, or desperate gestures of affection. His beloved son still only knows a stony, impassive, and unyielding visage. Even the character that once responded to his patients’ vulnerabilities with surreptitious gestures has not shown himself from the earlier series. Perhaps that is because the intention is to drive the character further and further to an extreme before he can possibly turn back to its opposite and finally become truly vulnerable when we viewers can again begin to laugh.

  10. Amy

    Wow, DM, this is so insightful and helpful. And yes, it makes sense to me that our humor is so often about seeing and exposing our own vulnerability—our mutual vulnerability. We are indeed often laughing at our own foibles and teasing others about theirs. I am not familiar with all the theories you mentioned, but from your brief description, I got the sense of what they are about. I am sitting right now watching my two cats “box” with each other and thinking about your comment!

    As for how it applies to DM, your comment about couples teasing each other and the lack of it between Louisa and Martin made me think of the few times Louisa does try to tease Martin—about the morning after pill in S2 or about the wedding plans in S3 or the few times in S7, e.g., when she teases him about “breaking in” to the house or having to give a speech at a party. Each time she is teasing him about his vulnerability in some way—pointing out something that he would be embarrassed about—but he doesn’t get the humor until she tells him that she is joking. In S7, we see how that exasperates her. The one time he makes a joke—in S6E1 about the pirate cure for her glaucoma—she is delighted. Humor is so important to a relationship. If we couldn’t joke with our partners and friends and family about the things they do that drive us crazy, we would just be annoyed and resentful or harping and nagging instead.

    I do disagree with some of your characterizations of Martin in your last paragraph. I don’t think JH has only seen his father as stony faced; Martin looks at him lovingly all the time. He may not break into a big smile, but his face is always soft and kind-looking when he gazes at JH. And I think the same is almost always true when he looks at Louisa—every time he sees her at his door or hears her voice on his phone, his eyes change expression, his whole face softens. I think it’s one of the best part of MC’s acting—to see him shift expressions whenever Louisa is near. And he does make furtive glances and affectionate touches in so many of the episodes, though not in S6.

    I am hoping that in S8 we will see a softer version of Martin as JH gets bigger and as he is more secure with Louisa. And maybe he will even learn to tease—but don’t count on it!

    Thanks again for such an insightful comment!

  11. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    It’s very nice to hear from you again DM. As always you add a unique perspective to our discussion.

    Despite acknowledging your totally valid observations about laughter in children at a young age along with our ability to laugh joyfully at simple pleasures as adults, I have to figure that Hobbs developed his theory based on a more global picture of when humans laugh. I would hate to think that he was too serious to notice that we all laugh lightheartedly at all sorts of things, and kids more than adults. I would say that for me it’s a joy to see the innocence of babies and young children giggling spontaneously.

    But what happens as we grow older and experiences of all kinds contribute to our inclination to laugh? Your recognition that people are at their most vulnerable when they are being examined by a doctor is absolutely true. But that only means that using a doctor as the main protagonist makes it even more likely that we viewers will be voyeurs in the exam room. Aren’t we supposed to laugh when we watch Dr. Ellingham check several men’s testicles, do a gyno exam, check an armpit and find it smelly, etc., etc.?

    Doctors don’t laugh in front of patients, of course, but we’ve seen some outtakes that show how hard it is to keep a straight face when it’s actors checking out a male’s breasts or whatever. We do feel a kinship with the patient and his/her vulnerabilities, and I agree that the humor depends on that. However, I can’t help thinking that it is just this sort of humor at the expense of someone’s defenselessness that Hobbs used to form his ideas.

    In this show we also laugh at ME when he comes close to vomiting or when he faints from the sight of blood, or at least I believe they expect us to. That is why your position that this character currently suffers from failing to come to terms with his vulnerabilities makes a lot of sense to me. The very brief segment we see of his session with Dr. T where he confides that his parents were cold and he has trouble forming attachments was a start in S7. But then they dropped it. I suppose we could say that he also reveals vulnerability in the final scene of S7 when he tells Louisa that he can’t stop loving her, and we don’t find that funny at all. It will be something to laugh at again, though, if they find ways for Louisa to poke at him without appearing at all mean spirited to the audience. There are also a lot of ways JH can expose his vulnerabilities.

    Perhaps humor being related to vulnerability is at the root of laughter appearing to lack civility.

  12. Amy

    Once again, my sense of what is funny is different. I have never once laughed when Martin vomits at the site of blood. I instead feel sorry for him, empathy. Well, except when he vomited on Penhale. But that’s because I find Penhale so annoying, not because I find Martin’s hemophobia funny.

    When I watch episodes now, I think about what makes me laugh in a particular episode. Yesterday I watched the episode when Aunt Joan comes to the surgery and learns from Pauline that Louisa is pregnant. The scene where Martin says, “It’s not my fault, well, it is my fault” and flusters around, that made me laugh. Why? I don’t know. Some of it was the wordplay and miscommunication it engendered, and some of it was Martin’s vulnerability—his embarrassment that he’d gotten Louisa pregnant, that he hadn’t yet told his aunt, etc. I laughed at his discomfort because it was so unlike him to get flustered like that.

    That was the only time I laughed in that episode. Maybe I am just more civil than the rest of you! 🙂 At any rate, I am finding the whole discussion of what makes something funny quite fascinating and revealing about human nature and the nature of comedy.

  13. DM

    Hi, Amy. I hadn’t intended to deny or discount Martin’s wonderfully minute and nuanced facial expressions which Louisa seems to evoke from him and the significance we viewers can recognize from them. The point was that they remain furtive, largely concealed from Martin’s own conscious as are his other vulnerabilities and not merely a matter of undemonstrativeness or shyness (which is not to say that Louisa has no sense of what she evokes in Martin, regardless of the precious few occasions she’s been able to “catch him in the act”).

    Likewise, I too have no doubt that John Henry is beloved by his father, from all the subtle and delicate softening of his father’s face. Yet I imagine it’s our wishful thinking that that will suffice for his son to know and feel and understand that he is loved by his father, without genuine interaction, self-disclosure, and actual dialogue (and I do mean long before John Henry becomes a defiant teenager). Like Karen, I too hope Martin can learn to expose his own vulnerabilities to his son, but of greater importance is that he learn to help ameliorate whatever vulnerabilities his son experiences as part of growing up– hopefully with the use of humour and laughter.

    Apparently there still is no grand unified theory of humour notwithstanding the three cited main theories. Taken together or apart they seem to be universally regarded as wholly inadequate at present to define the phenomena of “funny”. Interestingly, my conjecture about mutual vulnerability underlying much of humour (then unbeknownst to me) is the subject of a fairly recent book espousing an idea entitled (strangely enough), Mutual Vulnerability Theory. There’s not much to be found about it except for a book review available online from the The European Journal of Humour Research (yeah, apparently that’s a thing) but I have no way of knowing whether the theory has gained any traction or has inspired meaningful research on the subject.

  14. amy

    Thank you, DM, for your clarification. I see your point that there is a difference between what we, the viewers, can see as Martin’s vulnerability and what he himself recognizes and perhaps even what Louisa and JH perceive (though I think children are much more capable of reading faces and touches than we think and that a baby living with a father like Martin would know from how he is held and touched and gazed up that his father loves him even if he isn’t smiling broadly).

    I am finding myself these days stopping and thinking every time I laugh at something—whether in real life or on tv—and asking, “Why did I find that funny?” So far, no unified theory, but I do find that it’s usually something that points our humanity and its flaws and foibles and how we fail to understand each other.

  15. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Amy, I am much more aware of what makes me laugh too these days. Not only that, but what shows expect us to laugh at, especially comedies. It often does relate to flaws, both physical and mental.

    What are memes and trolling without laughing at something someone did or said? It’s not always mean spirited either. We should be able to laugh at ourselves and at our mistakes, right?

  16. amy

    Yes, we certainly should. In fact, we’d better laugh at ourselves! It’s when we laugh at others that we need to step back and wonder whether we are acting in an inappropriate way—and mocking someone for a disability, e.g., would certainly fall into that category.

  17. DM

    I was thinking of the nature of humour with the recent passing of Mary Tyler Moore, recounting the perhaps most popular and acclaimed episode of her eponymous programme. In “Chuckles Bites the Dust” her television station colleague, a kiddie clown show host, is tragically killed by a rampaging elephant whilst dressed as a giant peanut. Mary is mortified by her co-worker’s relentlessly vicious laughter and joking, castigating them severely for their insensitivity right up to the funeral where they are finally chastened to solemnity. As the eulogy begins Mary finds herself unable to stifle her own laughter to the shocked dismay of others until her laughter becomes uncontrollable. Rather than being called out for its impropriety, the minister encourages her laughter since Chuckles would have found such somberness deeply offensive, to which Mary begins sobbing just as uncontrollably. The most satisfying way to understand that humour, it seems to me, is that it acknowledges the rather universal and ultimate vulnerability we all share, that of death and the tenuousness of life.

  18. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    I don’t remember that episode as well as you do and should go back and watch it again. Reading your comment made me think about the emotional centers in the brain and what stimulates them. But even more it reminded me that we can cry when we’re happy and feel like laughing when we’re sad.

    Perhaps that episode is just as much about the tangle of feelings we experience when someone dies. Representing the mixture of conflicting emotions with Mary in a comedy is a fascinating way to explore that combination, and I bet it was funny to the audience because it shows the emotional volatility we all deal with.

    Without having seen the episode recently, I am not sure I can say this, but don’t you think they put it together to show the sort of thing Hobbs was getting at? If the rest of the office was laughing and making jokes at the Clown’s expense, then they were behaving just as expected, no?

  19. Amy

    I remember the episode very well because it made me so uncomfortable. I remember thinking that Mary was probably blocking her real feelings when she scolded the other characters for their laughing. She was probably trying to figure out the “right” thing to do whereas the others were laughing not at Chuckles necessarily but as a release of emotion. It seemed crass, but also quite human. Mary’s transition from laughter to tears at the funeral felt real—we deal with death and sadness at first with possibly inappropriate feelings and behavior because we are so uncomfortable. Then we get in touch with our real feelings of sadness and loss.

    We push away the sadness with laughter. Hence, the phenomenon of gallows humor. It always feels wrong, but maybe it’s just a defense mechanism.

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