Some Thoughts on Culture, Humor and the Platypus

“Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

E.B. White

I’m surprised at how this post turned out. Surprised because I set out writing this piece to do a cross-cultural analysis of the Rakugo story Okechimyaku (translated in the previous post). But it soon dawned on me that it makes more sense to first look at humor–then at black humor–in a broader context, then from there work my way down to the specifics of the story. So we’ll tackle the most basic questions in the next few posts, and revisit Okechimyaku when we’re darn ready to.

What is Humor?

Let’s start by “dissecting” humor linguistically. Where does the word come from? The answer is not only discouraging, it’s not for the squeamish. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:


mid-14c., “fluid or juice of an animal or plant,” from O.N.Fr. humour (O.Fr. humor), from L. umor “body fluid” (also humor, by false association with humus “earth”); related to umere “be wet, moist,” and to uvescere “become wet.” In ancient and medieval physiology, “any of the four body fluids” (blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy or black bile) whose relative proportions were thought to determine state of mind. This led to a sense of “mood, temporary state of mind” (first recorded 1520s); the sense of “amusing quality, funniness” is first recorded in 1680s, probably via sense of “whim, caprice” (1560s), which also produced the verb sense of “indulge,” first attested 1580s. “The pronunciation of the initial h is only of recent date, and is sometimes omitted ….” [OED] Humorous in the modern sense is first recorded 1705.

“Fluid or juice of an animal or plant?” “To be wet or moist?”

You have to wonder about the etymological association with bodily fluids, and if it has anything to do with the same bodily fluids popular in adolescent humor. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine cavemen laughing at farts. (Can’t speak for the cave-ladies, though.) In fact I know “evolved” grown-ups today who still laugh at bodily fluids.

Whatever the linguistic origins of humor, it comes in many colors, shapes and sizes. It can be black or blue or off-color. It can be highbrow or scatological. It can overstate, understate, and even offend. But if there is a common thread it’s that humor always contains the element of surprise.

Why do we laugh?

Laughter is a mechanism everyone has; laughter is part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same way.

Robert R. Provine, Ph.D.

Laughter is more primitive and encompassing than humor, a universal human expression with strong social underpinnings. Some researchers believe that tickling and laughter may have evolved, at least in part, to help humans relate to each other. (Even chimpanzees playfully tickle each other.) German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel saw humor as an evolved version of tickling, what he called “psychological tickling.”

John Morreall postulates that laughter might have biological origins in the “shared expression of relief at the passing of danger”.

When I read this I envisioned a terrified group of Neanderthals who had just escaped a pack of hungry lions. Eventually the prehistoric dimwits realize they’re safe, joyfully grunt in unison, and laughter is born!

No surprise Friedrich Nietzsche had a much heavier take on laughter: he saw laughter as the human reaction to existential loneliness and mortality. In Nietzsche’s own words, “Man alone suffers so excruciatingly in the world that he was compelled to invent laughter.” And with that attitude it’s no surprise Nietzsche didn’t do stand-up. No sir, you don’t find Nietzsche and laughter in the same neighborhood very often. And yet back in my Navy days (some 30 years ago) I actually saw the following Nietzsche joke scratched on the wall of a bathroom stall:

“God is dead”–Nietzche, 1885

“Nietzsche is dead”–God, 1900

In retrospect it’s amazing there were guys in my detachment that knew who Nietzsche was, because I was totally clueless.

Not much more to say on Nietzsche, except that it’s about all the humor I can milk from the dead Prussian philosopher. But the existential-loneliness-mortality angle is interesting, a connection usually reserved for the blackest kind of laughter. Admittedly it’s tough for the average guy to connect the dots intellectually. But if Nietzsche is right–that laughter is a product of our existential loneliness and mortality–then it makes perfect sense that all humans would “speak laughter”. (As George Carlin liked to remind us, we’re all gonna die someday!)

Not to be outdone by Nietzsche, Freud’s take on laughter is equally unfunny. And leave it to Freud to find a sexual angle. He came up with the notion that an important function of laughter was to deal with sex (traditionally a taboo subject) in a socially acceptable way. He believed that laughter “frees us from embarrassment”, and underneath it all lay certain primitive emotions of human nature like infantile animality, malice and lubricity. And yes, I had to look up the word lubricity–“a propensity toward lewdness”. (That word, my friends, would’ve come in real handy back in my Navy days.)

Other theories on why we laugh center around the concepts of “relief”, “conflict” and “incongruity”. I like the “dualistic” theory because it underlies all the theories mentioned. Dualistic theory is pretty straightforward (for excruciating detail google the likes of Bergson, Leach and Wilson): it’s based on the assumption that dualism is one of the most basic characteristics of human thought. Within this framework the theory states that jokes straddle our binary division of nature by combining incongruous features of both halves, where we see a clash of the world as it “is” with what we think it “ought” to be.

Philosopher Robert Pirsig uses humor to point out the shortcomings of subject-object dualism, by poking fun at early zoologists’ reaction to the discovery of the platypus in 1798:

“…Early zoologists classified as mammals those that suckle their young and as reptiles those that lay eggs. Then a duck-billed platypus was discovered in Australia laying eggs like a perfect reptile and then, when they hatched, suckling the infant platypi like a perfect mammal.

The discovery created quite a sensation. What an enigma! it was exclaimed. What a mystery! What a marvel of nature! When the first stuffed specimens reached England from Australia around the end of the eighteenth century they were thought to be fakes made by sticking together bits of different animals. Even today you still see occasional articles in nature magazines asking, ‘Why does this paradox of nature exists?’

The answer is: it doesn’t. The platypus isn’t doing anything paradoxical at all. It isn’t having any problems. Platypi have been laying eggs and suckling their young for millions of years before there were any zoologists to come along and declare it illegal. The real mystery, the real enigma, is how mature, objective, trained scientific observers can blame their own goof on a poor innocent platypus.”

You can always count on Pirsig to inspire deep thoughts and still put a smile on your face. The platypus is such a great metaphor for humor, because its very existence mocks the limitations of our subject-object dualistic take on reality: a clash of how the world is (an egg-laying creature that suckles its young), with how we think it ought to be (mammals suckle; lizards lay eggs). And stating the obvious, it’s hard not to laugh–at least crack a smile–when you see an egg-laying, baby-suckling, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed mammal-lizard waddling around. No human alive had the imagination to make this animal up, although to their credit, the zoologists gave it an appropriately funny name. (From Greek, meaning “flat-footed”.) This folks, is entertainment at its best.

And while dualism may indeed be a universal human thought process, it doesn’t logically follow that any given kind of humor is accessible to all cultures. Finding humor that does and does not cross over is the challenge. And while I’m personally interested in humor that can be used to connect cultures, it’s just as important to understand humor that can drive people apart.

In the next post we’ll take a look at humor that gets lost in the culture gap.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2010


8 responses to “Some Thoughts on Culture, Humor and the Platypus

  1. Tim, I especially love the idea of duality as a driver of humor,and can surely relate to it. Those of us with a ‘warped sense of humor’ are walking the tightrope, twisting and contorting the two opposing sides you describe – ‘what ought to be with what is.’ Hard to resist!
    On another note, I think the relief aspect of humor figures particularly largely in cultures where shame and embarrassment are salient cultural features (yes, of course I’m thinking of Japanese culture, among others). The fusing of laughter and feelings of ‘hazukashii’ have always been vexing to Westerners not familiar with Asian culture. Perhaps this explains some of that. What do you guys think?

  2. Thanks for chiming in, Sue-san! I often wonder if multi-cultural folks might have an advantage in straddling incongruity. We’ve certainly got enough material to draw from! That’s why I always thought someone could build a good sitcom around a cross-cultural workplace. Think “Gung Ho meets The Office”…

    Your comment about laughter/humor in shame cultures is spot on. Often wondered if slapstick is so popular in Japan because it openly–sometimes mockingly– shatters all those strict Japanese social taboos that define what it means to be “hazukashii”. I see the silly, over-the-top comedy on Japanese TV as a kind of social pressure valve that alleviates (somewhat) the stress of another day in the Japanese pressure cooker. On the same “hazukashii” theme, I once heard a story about a Japanese guy who was pulled over for speeding in America. The whole time the cop is talking to him, the Japanese guy is grinning from ear to ear. Unfortunately the American cop is looking at the situation through his own cultural filters, and concludes that the Japanese guy is showing no remorse. The reality is the Japanese guy is embarrassed, terrified and doesn’t speak a lick of English. Obviously a big gap there that works against the poor Japanese guy.

    Then there’s that long-standing taboo in Japan that says you’re not supposed to “show your teeth”. Again, the shame/hazukashii theme? Even today Japanese ladies cover their mouths when they laugh. (Although Samurai Wife now laughs like an American, and without remorse! lol)

    Any other comments?…Grif, Joe, Darren, Jay, others? Lay ’em on me, especially if you’ve got some good jokes.

  3. Aloha Tim! Whoa…very well written…very deep. Took me back to grad school days.

    Your comment about Japanese covering their mouths when laughing made me think about (quite naturally neh?) not showing your teeth to a dog if you get into a stand-off (I have been running a bit and have had some dog challenges so did a bit of Googling).

    Evidently showing your teeth is “challenging” the dog to a fight…not sure if Japanese covering their mouths is related at all but…

    Or maybe the poor Japanese driver stopped by police should not have shown his teeth? Maybe there is something to this…

    Hmmm…thanks for deep thoughts Tim!

    Definitely looking forward to the next post!

  4. Tim — am on Eastern Standard Time and about to crash, but laughing all the way, thinking of Kurumi-san tossing off the ‘hazukashii’ cloak. Way to go!! I totally agree, being multicultural gives us a leg up on wacky humor. Blogger in a Nutshell wasn’t lost on us.

  5. Here’s one that my co-worker who sat next to me in the teacher’s room at a Japanese high school (while all the while fake air-typing to look busy) told me:

    This guy decides to commit suicide, so he decides to end his life by jumping off a bridge into a river.

    He jumps into the water, and shortly after, gets his shirt collar snagged on a tree limb lying in the midst of the river.

    So the guy starts yelling for help.

  6. Hehe Darren,

    Now there’s a joke with crossover potential. Was your coworker Japanese? It sounds like a story you might hear in Rakugo.

  7. Indeed he was — the sort of guy who, in his well-behaved existential crisis, only added to the punchline irony.

    Hearing that one while riding the train on the Chuo line (apparently a suicide river all its own) might have been too much irony.

    Suicide humor. Dark stuff indeed. I still recall teaching a high school ESL class to a surly bunch of 16 year-old Japanese boys. When we got to the little picture-hint of the substitution-drill that portrayed, “He went scuba diving”, the boys just had a ball with their interpretation that the man with the bubbles in the pic, committed suicide last weekend. (Truly some past-tense usage, no?)

    Anyway, I think my Japanese co-worker had mentioned that he heard the said suicide joke from Beat Takeshi — to properly give credit. Who knows? He could have kept a lot of folks from offing themselves with such a nutty joke. (Well, at least stalled them…)

  8. Speaking of the Chuo line, I took an advanced Japanese writing class in my Junior year of college. An American student in the class wrote about his experience on the Chuo line waiting for the police to “clean up” a suicide scene that had stopped all trains on the line. Another student commented how sad it was to end your life that way. But the Japanese teacher’s response surprised everyone, actually made me laugh (a very dark laugh). He said (in Japanese), “it makes me angry that the guy inconvenienced so many other people. If he’s going to kill himself, he should at least have the courtesy not to inconvenience so many people.” (Meiwaku wo kakenai yo ni shite moraitai…laughing darkly)

    You have to wonder if the Japanese are so de-sensitized to suicide that they can joke about it more freely than Westerners? Or maybe Westerners actually joke about it MORE because it’s so taboo in our culture? Hmmm…Does anyone reading this ever hear suicide jokes made by Westerners?

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