Okay so Humiliation Humor is the type of humor I cringe at seeing examples of on television or elsewhere. First let’s talk about what I mean by humiliation humor. Some would say most humor is humiliation of either people, places, situations or things. That’s a pretty broad definition but they’re possibly right – watch the French film “Ridicule” to see some of the examples of classic types of “wit” which is critical to the characters in the film for their success or failure at the 17thcentury royal court.
For me the humiliation has to be of people and usually they are being humiliated by the fact that they are being seen inadvertently embarrassing themselves. A classic example can be found in the British television show “Coupling” where one of the characters unaware that there is a bunch of people about to jump out and wish him a happy birthday, proceeds to do a strip tease for the attractive coworker who had lured him into the room for the surprise party. It was especially bad because as a viewer we are in on the surprise and are made to feel even more culpable when we see the luring Co-worker say absolutely the perfect set of lines to put the hapless victim at ease and ready to strip. It feels like deliberate bait –though it’s just that she was his current crush.
This scene in coupling is possibly an extreme example; however, my empathy for him was over developed by being teased as a child in front of groups of other people. This has probably made me more sensitive to the humiliation one would obviously feel in such a situation. This type of humor is common in British comedy (there’s another example in “A Fish called Wanda”) and that makes me wonder what is it like to grow up and go to school in Britain? Bullying there may possibly be even worse than my own experiences. Then again, in “A Fish Called Wanda” John Cleese’s character hangs a lantern on his characters incipient nude humiliation scene by talking about how English people walk around petrified that they’re going to say the wrong thing and embarrass themselves. *shrug* - perhaps this was to prepare his audience? Or was it the influence of the Americans in the cast and on staff?
So why does this humiliation type of bullying happen? And why does it happen in front of other people? It’s probably just another facet of our social behavior. In the movie “Ridicule” the skillful display of wit evoking humor increases people’s reputation and speeds them to that so coveted personal meeting with the king. In the more humdrum world of school, well it’s used to impress other people there too, and to deflect attention away from the would be comedian. Yes, there is a fine line between comedian and bully.
Still don’t believe in the fine line I’m talking about here? Well I have a personal example. When my husband and I were on our honeymoon he decided it would be neat for us to go to a comedy club. The opening act, or warm up guy for the audience, was one of those comedians who drew his comedy from interactions with the audience. He asked questions such as “who here is married?” Then – “how long?” My husband, sweet fellow that he is, innocently volunteered answers for us to this warm up guy who found ready meat, in his opinion, of our newlywed status. This supposed professional not only wanted to make fun of our newlywed status but when he picked up on the fact that I was not cool with it, and was trying to discourage my husband from giving him any more material, I then became the focus of his speculative brand of humor. Then my feelings became the subject of laughter and disrespect.
Now you may think, just suck it up!, who cares? And sure I don’t sweat it that much, and my husband and I are both children of divorced parents, so we know very well that most marriages end in divorce. We know ridiculing the institution seems natural, but I submit to you, no one entering into marriage goes into it wanting it to end, even if they happen to have a prenuptial agreement. Otherwise, why would anyone get married in the first place?!
Interesting thing to note, Comedians start their routines this way often, asking questions of the audience, even if they don’t wait for the answers. Is this because they want to show that they’re good at improvising? Do they think it shows more talent? They obviously think their audience will forget that they are still directing the way the show goes by the questions they choose to ask. I challenge these comedians to try it the other way around, try true improv and ask their audience to ask them questions or ask the audience to direct their act in some other way instead. On our way out of the comedy club we had an opportunity to ask a question of the guy who was the main act, and well I wasn’t particularly surprised that his response was kind of testy. Comedians seem to be a rather defensive lot to me.
So what were my unfortunate and humiliating experiences that caused me to distrust comedians and in particular dislike humiliation humor? There’s a certain age among girls where they know just enough about sex to be curious but not enough about people to understand motivations. At that tween age I was approached by some girls who were mostly strangers, so I didn’t know what they were about. Their leader asked me to tell them about sex, like it was a big mystery and I was the only person who could explain it to them. It was done in some ways to try and make me look impressive, but it was also presented as if it was a test that if I passed, would impress them.
Except the thing about frank discussions of sex and sexual things at that age is you know that it’s a naughty topic, so if you profess not to know or worse not to want to know in answer to the questions, then you’re a prude and if you actually answer the questions or show that you do know about sex, then you may have some initial signs of respect but ultimately you will only be asked more questions as an “expert” then when you don’t know an answer as invariably you won’t, then you become an ignorant idiot and a slut.
This sophisticated ploy by the bully is to seem to pass the torch or center of attention to their unwitting victim and to set them up for a fall by being the interviewer. Since the leader is the one asking the questions, they hold all the power in the situation, and this is something most kids take a while to figure out. Then the bully commentates on the answers to their questions and the victim finally realizes what the game is about.
Still don’t think interviewing someone can be used to bully? Watch Bill O’Reilly interview someone, and you’ll see it’s clear he knows how to do it. You’ll see especially what I mean if the issues in the discussion are controversial and he disagrees with his guest’s stance on the issues. And of course that is one of the reasons why the comedian Stephen Colbert has chosen to profess admiration of “Papa Bear” and emulate O’Reilly with his character on the Colbert Report. Colbert in his parody does a good impression of O’Reilly’s interview style for our amusement. It’s one of the most genius aspects of his act because every time he does an interview the subject of his humorous parody isn’t even on screen, and yet everyone who’s seen both shows, knows exactly what Colbert is doing.
O'Reilly Show - check this and many other interesting clips out on youtube: http://youtu.be/2IwIRNM5noY
Some other good articles about humiliation humor: