Humour and Subversion

By Derek Newman-Stille

How many people take humour seriously?

Can humour say things that we wouldn’t say in polite society?

Can humour ask us to think about things that we normally wouldn’t?

Humour has a subversive potential. Good authors of humour can wield it as a microscope on society, a lens of the absurd through which we can see how the things that we take for granted as “normal” can actually be quite ridiculous. Humour has historically been something to be wielded by subaltern groups (those people who society’s power structures disempower and devoice). Disempowered groups have often found the power of their voice in humourous critiques (being often forbidden or discourages from voicing their critiques directly).

Humour CAN be subversive, but it can also reinforce social norms and power structures. It has been historically applied both to oppress groups as well as used by those oppressed groups to give themselves as sense of liberation from oppression, to comment on the society that casts them out.

So, why don’t we take humour seriously? The great thing about humour is that it is precisely because it ISN’T taken seriously that allows it to make deeper social comments. Humour contains the potential to mock society, to raise speculative questions about what we consider normal without necessarily producing solutions. Humour and the speculative genres can often work well together, challenging and questioning the barriers of the “real”, the “normal”, the “expected”.

Historically humour has had a place in the speculative genres, those moments of comedy that heighten the emotional experience. It can allow science fiction and fantasy to poke fun at itself, mocking their own tropes to point out that they are being used intentionally and to attract the reader’s attention… but I have always felt that humour speaks best with the horror genre. There is something about fear that evokes those bubbles of laughter, the inability to contain the sustained feeling of terror without our own bodies betraying us, bubbling out awkward giggles or frightened chortles. Humour and horror can mutually support each other. The contrast between these two states of being can push one another into elevated positions – things seem more funny when they are a break from the atmosphere of fear, and things seem more horrifying when terror intrudes on a comic scene.

So can horror and comedy coexist? Can seriousness and mockery speak to each other? As far back as the Ancient Greek world, there was a recognition of the mutual dependency of the tragic and the comic. Ancient Greek tragedies were performed in groups – three tragedies followed by one satyr play. Satyr plays are not the same as satires (a word that derived from them). They were performed with a group of satyrs as the chorus -> complete with fuzzy goat legs and erect phalloi (penises)… and that chorus of satyrs interacted with similar scenes to those of tragedy, but brought in images of heightened sexuality, drunkenness, and general tomfoolery. They were brilliant intrusions into the set of tragedy, into the tragic space, adding a counterpoint to the seriousness of the tragic performance.

Seriousness and humour have been in conversation for a long time, each having something to say to the other, each forming an outlet and expressive space that bursts forth, inserting itself into the world… and yet humour and seriousness are not mutually exclusive. There is something funny about being serious… and something serious about being funny. Emotional experience can be part of a commentary, and emotions can say things that words may not be able to encompass.

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