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Fran Lebowitz and Theories of Humor at the Rubin

Last week I went to see Fran Lebowitz in conversation with Harvard psychology Professor Steven Pinker as part of the Rubin Museum's Brainwave Series. Fran is an icon of the New York curmudgeon variety, and she's known for her observations. In introducing her, Tim McHenry mentioned that Fran had been to the museum before it was the Rubin, back when it was Barney's. She seemed skeptical of the museum's Buddhist roots, but only because she is skeptical of everything. "I don't believe in anything you have to believe in," she said to a woman who asked her about whether she believed in telekinesis. "Well, there's one place the Buddha would agree with you," Tim McHenry fired back.

 
Of course, since Fran is seen as a "humorist," the subject of humor theory came up quite a bit in the question-and-answer period. People seem quite interested in what exactly is going on in the brain when we find something funny. What is the evolutionary purpose of laughing? Fran, of course, said, "I have no idea." She saw her sense of humor a natural response to the absurdity of being a person. The psychology professor talked about the way he has to use humor as a gimmick to compete with Facebook for the attention of his students. Already we have two completely different types of humor on one stage, and yet everyone thought they could talk about "the essence of comedy." Some said it was timing, some said it was the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate parts, the professor said that comedy "always" revolves around a deflation of dignity. For Fran, like me, comedy was a process of zooming out and looking at the way we as humans cause so much of our own suffering. Yet I wouldn't say that any one of these things is "the answer" to what makes something funny.
 
Meditation is a technique. It is not a magic bullet that will solve all of our problems. We sit, and we may start to notice some benefits, such as reduced blood pressure and increased ability to focus. But meditation itself is not "the answer." In fact, one need only to read a history of Zen meditation to learn of its use for militaristic purposes among the samurai. Maybe we could say that meditation itself is a tool that is empty of any inherent goodness or badness, and that those things come into play with the ethical framework, or intent, of the practice.
 
I would argue (in possibly the least funny blog post I have ever written, as tends to be the case when one writes about "humor theory") that comedy is similar. It can heal, and it can harm. I wanted to point out to Dr. Pinker, when he argued that comedy is always used to challenge authority, that it can also be used to maintain power, and to remind those in positions of less power where they belong. I also wanted to point out how deeply rooted his opinions about comedy and prestige were in his position as a tenured Harvard professor. It was an interesting reminder to always speak from my own experience and not try to extrapolate my findings onto the entire world at large.
 
Comedy, like meditation, is a technique that, with practice, can be an entire perspective, almost like a way of life. But we have choice in how we wield it. Are we meditating to go to some blissed-out transcendental plain, or are we meditating to become more present and aware of the room and environment in which we find ourselves this particular moment in time? Are we telling jokes to be cruel to a person, or a group of people? Or are we telling jokes because laughter feels good, and we want to connect with people? Or more likely are these binaries false because experience tends to be more messy? Do these things we think of as opposites tend to seep into each other? Does reality operate in more of a "both/and" fashion than an "either/or?" I ask these questions not because I have a definitive answer for you, but because I think training in asking these questions can open up experience to the point that we will never be wagging a finger at someone telling them we've got it, we've got the definitive and ONLY answer to what makes people laugh. Because whenever someone says that, I can't help but laugh. And maybe that's the point?
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