How to deal

June 25, 2008

Let me start my contribution this week by saying that I think there is something to the “antifunny.”  There are plenty of things that are inherently not funny (like tragedy), but when you’re tempted by the promise of something funny, and let your guard down, the antifunny is what punches you in the gut.  So, to avoid being taken advantage of, I hereby advocate a doctrine of cynicism.  If all goes well, we’ll never expect anything to be funny or good, and we will thereby be both immune to the antifunny, and even more amused when something really is funny.

While modern definitions of cynicism cast it as simply assuming the worst, the original cynics lived like dogs.  Some might balk at the idea of abandoning bathing, but if everybody did it, we would simply lose our distinction between dirty and clean, and we would never be disappointed when stains didn’t come out in the wash.  After all, we wouldn’t be wearing clothes, which would provide incentive for both physical fitness and save us hours of chore-time every week.  Perhaps the greatest proof of this is the fact that dogs are always happy, all the time. Ergo, were we to live like dogs, we would be happy.  All the time.

For those who aren’t quite ready to abandon society just yet, realize that studies have shown that disappointment is actually hardwired in the way we think.  When monkeys were given tasty food as a stimulus, pleasure centers in their brains didn’t have their maximal activity when they ate the food; rather, they were at maximum when the monkeys secured the food and were anticipating eating it.  So, if we are to court any positive expectations at all, it will be better than what we experience. Therefore, by having positive expectations, we actively cause our disappointment.

Were that not enough, abandoning expectations has the potential to take what is legitimately funny and make it funnier. Many theories of humor, such as Freud’s, include surprise as an essential element.  This is borne out experimentally, as the comedian Buddy Hackett demonstrated on the Tonight show.  Hackett instructed Carson to ask him “What’s the secret of comedy?”, and when Carson dutifully complied, saying “What’s the secret of-“, Hackett screamed in his face, “TIMING!” and the audience erupted into laughter.  By itself, no permutation of “What’s the secret of comedy?” and “Timing.” is funny; instead it is the surprise itself that is capable of rendering it humor.

In sum, the position of cynicism might look like the best of bleak options.  While it safeguards one against the antifunny, and might make for the best vehicle to experience the funny, it appears to offer little hope for actively seeking the funny.  If you can’t form an expectation, you can’t actively seek the funny.  But perhaps there is something to be found in enjoying expectations independently of fulfillment.  As Rousseau discovered,

“This vice, which shame and timidity find so convenient, has a particular attraction for lively imaginations. It allows them to dispose, so to speak, of the whole female sex at their will, and to make any beauty who tempts them serve their pleasure without the need of first obtaining her consent.”

Thus, the expectation or fantasy of pleasure itself can be cultivated or enjoyed, free from the banality of disappointment.  Indeed, the great father of Cynicism, Diogenes, understood this very example.  Living out his life in the public square, Diogenes attended to all of his needs in full view of his fellow citizens.  When confronted by friends who were horrified to see him gratifying himself unabashedly, he replied, “it’s a pity that I can’t simply rub my belly when I’m hungry.”

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