What's so Funny?
The Comic Conception of Culture and Society
Drawing on a vast array of jokes and the work of dozens of comedians from Jay Leno and Lenny Bruce to Steve Allen and Billy Crystal, Davis reminds us of the extraordinarily subversive power of comedy. When we laugh, we accept the truth of the comic moment: that this is the way life really is. The book is in two parts. In the first, Davis explores the cultural conventions that even simple jokes take apart—the rules of logic, language, rationality, and meaning. In the second, he looks at the social systems that have been at the root of jokes for centuries: authority figures, power relations, and institutions. Whatever their style, comedians use the tools of the trade—ambiguous meanings, missed signals, incongruous characters, unlikely events—to violate our expectations about the world.
Setting comedy within a rich intellectual tradition—from Plato to Freud, Hobbes to Kant, in philosophy as well as sociology—Davis makes a convincing case for comedy as a subtle, complex, and articulated theory of culture and society. He reveals the unsuspected ways in which comedy, with its spotlight on the gap between appearance and reality, the ideal and the actual, can be a powerful mode for understanding the world we have made.
Part One: The Comic Attack on Culture
Wit's Weapons: Incongruity and Ambiguity
1. Unstable Meanings
2. Irrational Logics
3. Indistinct Beings
Part Two: The Comic Attack on Society
Wit's Weapons: Anomaly and Actuality
4. Atypical Actors
5. Atypical Actions
6. Incompetent Functioning
7. Inauthentic Presentations
8. Incompatible Selves