I’ve always had a peculiar affinity with the word “strange”. Maybe it’s because I don’t like being “normal”. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been seen as a stranger in my native country. I don’t know. Anyway, one of the things I was interested in is how people place the word “strange” in its context: The classmate that had strange pastimes, the colleague who makes strange remarks or the man with the strange clothes. To me it seems as if a slightly bitter taste lingers on the tongue when the word is spoken out. It seems to indicate rather eery or distasteful things. How do things get labeled as such?
‘Strange’ means out of the ordinary, something that is unfamiliar. To me that seems like a good thing. We use the term ‘extraordinary’ in a praising manner. An original writer, a unique voice, an innovative product, it are but some examples of things that are not normal, but higly appreciated. Yet I don’t think the word is normally associated with positive things. Isn’t that strange? Well, let’s try to dissect this.
What is viewed as normal depends on the person it’s asked to and in many cases also the group that the person is associated with (nationality or political view, for example). Introducing unfamiliar things to a group can be tricky because the group already has an established notion of what it accepts. Therefore they will more easily admit to things that are closely linked to that what they already know. People find security and comfort in groups and this is easily found by either joining those that voice a similar belief or ambition or conforming to the view of a group. This will reinforce your confidence for that what you believe in as it will be acknowledged by others. Introducing new concepts that stray far from what the group has already accepted (and thus can be considered strange) may challenge and disrupt the status quo of the group. This can be very discomforting for the group as the status quo is something that connects the people in the first place.This is amplified by the fact that one doesn’t usually want to fall out of the group.
Considering this I think you can say that no, it is not strange that the word “strange” tends to voice a negative association. However, there is a special kind of people who get paid to magnify the strange and serve them on a silver platter to whomever wants to hear it, or might not want to hear it. They are called comedians.
Humour is a wonderful thing. I know there’s a quote floating around somewhere claiming that analysing a joke is like dissecting a frog; few are interested and the frog dies along with it, but I like analysing too much to let this one pass. There are different theories about where humour’s origins lie and what its function is. My personal view on the subject was greatly enhanced by a video about the development of humour in evolutionary context, but sadly I can’t find the video to show you. Anyhow, this is my current theory in a nutshell:
Humour is a biological mechanism that occurs when the body (brain) recognises that your initial anticipated frame of reference differs from the correct one and it rewards the brain for noticing and correcting this mistake.
Let’s try to illustrate this. Behold.
What makes humour universally perceived as funny or not depends on whether we have the same understanding of the initial framing of the joke and the same shifts of perspectives. Creating expectations is an important component of most jokes. The comic illustrates this nicely. Besides the literal meaning, “doing one’s business” is also is a term coined to tastefully communicate the word “shitting”. It’s not unusual for a dog to poop in the grass, so we naturally make this association. However, in this case we see that the dog is not pooping, but actually doing business work. The realisation that we misinterpreted the use of the euphemistic expression triggers the tickling of our funny bone. Anti-jokes are another good example of setting up expectations. They are based around the betrayal of our anticipation of a funny punchline – in turn making it funny by being not funny.
– Why did little Timmy drop his ice cream?
– He was hit by a bus.
Context and background information is essential as well. We need to know both meanings of “doing one’s business” for it to be funny. Looking at the comic once more, the setting seems to be your normal neighbourhood. In this context, the reader is probably impressed by the fact that the dog seems to be highly intelligent, far more so than the pooping on the lawn kind of dog we all know. However, the man doesn’t seem too pleased by the sight of it and even complains about the repetition of its behaviour. This need to shift the context wherein we must view the comic to one that’s pretty much the opposite of our own situation can also bring a smile. Racist jokes illustrate the need for background information rather well, too. In fact, they only work if you know the stereotyping of a particular race. the Dutch joke:
“- Why aren’t Moroccans worried when their bike gets stolen?
–It stays within the family
is based on the assumption that a relative large percentage of bike thieves in the Netherlands are Moroccans. In the joke this assumption is greatly exaggerated and the extremity of this prejudice makes it funny. If you don’t know that this prejudice is apparent, the joke is lost on you as it comes across as nonsensical and rude.
There is one last element involved in humour that is quite, quite essential. Namely, both the realisation of the mistaken frame and the forming of the new one must happen in a harmless manner. If you think the teller of the joke is trying to put Moroccans down by forcing his prejudice on you, for example, you might take offense in the joke and it then loses its playful touch. When someone slips on a banana, it’s funny. If you slip on a banana, it hurts. And when your friend slips on a banana, it’s only funny as long as he isn’t in pain. So something needs to be harmless to the observer for it to be funny, or have happened in the distant past long enough so that it no longer brings out painful memories. That’s why we may make jokes about the second World War today, but it might still be unwise to tell them to a Jewish holocaust survivor. It’s worth mentioning though that the humour of some jokes are partially derived from their rude, shock-value loaded, possibly harmful nature. Racist and sexist jokes are obvious examples as they clearly belittle a group, but let’s not forget dead baby jokes.
– What is funnier than a dead baby?
– A dead baby in a clown uniform.
What makes good comedians special is their ability to play with these conventions of humour. They are masters of setting up a certain frame and then reaching a conclusion that at first seems strange (different from what the audience expects), but when the audience realises the rationale behind the conclusion and is able to shift his viewpoint the earlier mistaken anticipation is discharged in the form of laughter, or snickering, or smiling; the punch-line has done its work.
Comedy is the celebration of the strange, the realisation of the strangeness of things and ideally making it unstrange. It’s about giving the strange a place in our minds and broadening our acceptance of the foreign. For something can only be funny when the new, before unknown frame is accepted. That is what I can appreciate about comedians. They are constantly poking, questioning and challenging everything that we had long thought was normal. And boy, is it fun to reach these epiphanies. I believe that in an ideal world we are able to joke and laugh about everything with each other. For everything can be normal, yet strange, logical, yet ridiculous. But I do believe there’s one thing that will forever stay normal: humour’s ability to connect people. For a joke can only work when two people reach the same standpoint.
And now, knowing all these things about humour and then some, it’s time for you to practice! The following joke probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I like it because it’s a great play on humour’s conventions. Even if you don’t find this funny, try to ask yourself how this joke could be perceived as such and why you aren’t tickled by it. It might just improve your sense of humour.
– What is black and yellow and makes you laugh?
–A schoolbus full of black people going over a cliff.
P.S. I know my offered analysis of humour isn’t conclusive. I haven’t touched things like puns, slapstick or sarcasm much for example, but I think I’ll leave it to your analytical prowess to dissect those areas. Just browsing Wikipedia gives a long list of different humour theories, of which this was just one. Okay, two (detection of mistaken reasoning combined with incongruity theory). Another one I find worth mentioning is the ‘benign violation theory’. Peter McGraw, a researcher of humour and probably a smarter man than I am has a slightly different and more elegant interpretation of humour that’s quite smart, but I do think it is a slightly limited explanation. His TED-talk can be found here.