I am not a naturally funny person. Try as I might, I’m hopeless at telling jokes or coming up with a brilliant off-the-cuff quip. J.A. Konrath, I ain’t.
But I do know how to laugh, and I certainly laughed when I came across this recent article:
Police say a 24-year-old man is missing a chunk of his right ear that was bitten off by a woman who didn’t like being called “fat.” Police spokeswoman Katie Flood said officers were called to a Lincoln hospital around 3:25 a.m. Wednesday to talk to the injured man.
He told them that he’d been bitten at a party.
Flood said officers later learned that the injured man and two others had been arguing with other people at the birthday party. Flood says the man told 21-year-old Anna Godfrey that she was fat.
Officers said Godfrey then tackled the man (after chasing him for half a block) and took a bite.
Flood said the ear chunk was not found.
Godfrey was arrested on suspicion of felony assault and remained in custody Wednesday. Case records don’t yet list her attorney’s name.
Did you laugh? Why?
If you dissect the incident, the elements of what happened are not particularly funny:
— A drunken man insults a woman and calls her fat. What a jerk.
— A man is attacked and sustains permanent damage to a body part. That’s tragic.
— A woman is arrested and will probably be convicted of felony assault.
Yet add all those elements together, and suddenly you’ve got prime fodder for Dave Letterman. What makes a story about assault and mutilation funny? Is it funny to everyone — or just to a few sick minds (like mine)?
First, let’s consider a definition of humor, and for this I turn to Wikipedia: “Humor: The tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement… Though ultimately decided by personal taste, the extent to which an individual will find something humorous depends upon a host of variables, including geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, intelligence and context.”
What strikes some people as funny will not be funny to others. And I’m betting that there are some people who don’t see any humor at all in the above woman-bites-man story. In fact, some may be outraged that I think it’s funny and they’ll accuse me of a double standard when it comes to violence. “What if this were a man mutilating a woman?” they’d ask me.
No, I would not find that funny.
So am I operating under a double standard where it’s okay for women to abuse men, but it’s not okay for men to abuse women?
I don’t think the explanation is as simple as that. Nor do I think that I’m alone in finding humor in woman-bites-man stories. Think back to Lorena Bobbitt, who lopped off her philandering husband’s you-know-what. Remember how all the comics (most of them male) went to town on that story? Obviously, they saw the humor in a story about spousal mutilation. But if it were a man who lopped off his wife’s breast, no one would be cracking any jokes. Instead, there’d be outraged demands to put the jerk behind bars.
Let’s go back to that Wikipedia article, which tries to explain what makes something humorous. One theory has to do with the “Incongruity Theory,” where an expectation comes to nothing. Another is “the perspective twist,” where there’s an unexpected shift in perspective. Finally, the article mentions a theory proposed by Arthur Koestler, who argues “that humor results when two different frames of reference are set up and a collision is engineered between them.”
Now, back to the woman who bit the guy. Analytically speaking, it’s funny because it’s incongruous as hell. You don’t expect a woman to beat up on a man. You certainly don’t expect her to chase him half a block and tackle him.
But the part that makes it truly hilarious? She’s so angry about him calling her fat that she … eats his ear. Which I suppose would be called a perspective twist: the guy’s hurtful insult turns out to be absolutely accurate. She really will eat anything.
Being alert for the incongruities in humor helps us understand why a big dog attacking a kitten isn’t funny, but a kitten attacking a big dog is. Why an adult spouting profanity isn’t funny, but we’ll laugh when a five year old does it.
Sometimes, though, we’re better off not thinking too hard about why something’s funny and just enjoy the laughter. Because, as E.B. White once warned, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.”