Lesson Plan: Henri Bergson’s Theory of Humor

Ian here—

The following is a lesson plan for a day spent discussing Henri Bergson’s theory of humor in my course “Comedy and the Moving Image.”[i] It’s admittedly unusual, but I found it to be wonderfully productive.

The first third or so of this course was spent discussing some major philosophical theories of humor (Hobbes, Kant, Bergson) and watching silent slapstick comedy shorts. Knowing that devoting a solid block of class to silent cinema came with the danger of alienating students, I also spiced things up by showing a lot of contemporary YouTube videos in class, which kept them engaged. (The “fail video” genre makes a terrific pairing with Hobbes’ theory of humor!) You’ll see some of that back-and-forth in this lesson.

The Basics of Bergson

After providing a very short run-down of Bergson and his historical moment, I start with the basics: getting students to enunciate what Bergson thinks we find funny, and why.

The first step is the “what.” With a little cajoling, and a little luck, I found that students were able to isolate a cluster of related ideas and terms: “mechanical inelasticity,”[ii]something mechanical encrusted upon the living,”[iii] and the idea that the “attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.”[iv] (It helps that Bergson’s writing style in Laughter is highly redundant, circling around similar ideas for long stretches of prose.)

The second step is the “why.” Bergson proposes that laughter has a very practical function. What is it? You may have to prod students here with some re-phrased follow-up questions, but generally they can get to the point that humans have evolved to be social beings, and Bergson thinks that laughter serves a social function. In our social dealings with others, it’s important to be adaptable. Laughter, for Bergson, is our way of socially shaming those who show poor adaptability, which Bergson characterizes as inelasticity.

To warm things up, I start with clips of things we’ve already watched in class. These form sort of the “classic corpus” of Bergsonian humor in cinema, brought up by critics such as Alex Clayton and Noël Carroll. I emphasize to students that since Laughter was originally published in French in 1900, Bergson wasn’t inspired by any of these films when he wrote his theory. Reciprocally, there seems to be no evidence that either Chaplin or Keaton were aware of Bergson’s writings. Nevertheless, there seems to have been something “in the air” in the first three decades of the 20th century, with all things mechanical being prominently mined for humor.

I start students off with a clip from The Circus (Charlie Chaplin, USA, 1928), as a sort of stretching exercise for conversation, since it’s the most overt and obvious:

Chaplin’s bit here is so overtly Bergsonian that it can be a little difficult to drag out discussion: students immediately “get it,” and don’t know what else to add. So I quickly move on to two more clips. First, I show them Chaplin’s factory floor mental breakdown in Modern Times (USA, 1936):

Then, I move on to what has proven to be one of student’s favorite gags in Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, USA, 1924):

Here, students gravitated towards discussing how the differences between Keaton and Chaplin’s comedic personas lead to different manifestations of Bergson’s ideas. Keaton here is the very manifestation of Bergson terms the “rigidity of a fixed idea.”[v] Noting the role that doctors and lawyers play in comedy, Bergson suggests that they are susceptible to ridicule because of their “professional automatism”—that is, their constant attention to form and the mechanical application of rules.”[vi]  Keaton’s aspiring detective shows this same professional automatism. He remains entirely focused on his task, honing himself into a mark-tailing machine. This renders him highly responsive to the movements of his mark, but he utterly fails to adapt to the larger context of his environment.

Students contrasted this to Chaplin. Yes, in the Modern Times clip, Chaplin becomes fixated on the task of tightening bolts. But Chaplin’s character is far too puckish to ever fall completely into “professional automatism.” Even when he’s nominally fixated on the tasks of his job, he is still an agent of chaos, bringing work on the factory floor to a halt, quite literally jamming the gears of the industrial system his repetitive actions are supposed to contribute to.

Who are we allowed to laugh at? Pt 1: People


As I mentioned above, this lesson on Bergson comes after prior lessons on the philosophies of humor offered by Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant. At this point, I steer conversation into a comparison/contrast, seeing where we should place Bergson’s ideas on the spectrum of philosophies of humor we’ve looked at thus far.

I start by prodding at Bergson’s relation to Kant, because it’s a bit simpler. I ask students: Is Bergson’s theory of humor an incongruity theory of humor, like Kant’s? Students generally get that yes, it is, at least sort of. It’s not based on the incongruity between build-up of expectation and the thwarting of that expectation, as Kant’s is. But it is based on the incongruity that cleaves along the line of the mind-body division. Or, as Bergson puts it, the body, a “heavy and cumbersome vesture,” and the soul, “eager to rise aloft.”[vii] Humans’ propensity to be rational, graceful, intellectual beings is sometimes thwarted by the fact that we are tied to these fleshy machines we call a body.

Next, I turn to Hobbes. When we initially discussed Hobbes in the course, we dwelt quite a bit on the moral implications of his proposal that “that the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.”[viii] Hobbes’ idea of humor seems not only cruel, but also anti-social.

Where does Bergson fit in here? Does Bergson suggest that we laugh at the failures of others? Students here acknowledge that, yes, he does. But I try to push them further, to point out that Bergson’s ideas of the social function of laughter give him more of a moral fig leaf here. Bergson doesn’t suggest, as Hobbes does, that we like laughing at people because we cruelly like to have it confirmed that we’re better than them. Instead, he frames it as a necessary form of shaming that ultimately contributes to a more flexible, and healthier society for everyone.

Still, though: is there something in Bergson that can make us uneasy, much as many students expressed uneasiness with Hobbes’ ideas on humor? Undergraduates are often eager to prove their moral upstandingness, so this can be a rich area to pick at.

Here, I turn back to Louise Peacock, a figure that I first brought up when we were discussing Hobbes. Peacock acknowledges that we can laugh at the real pain of others (as Hobbes would have it), but goes on to argue that physical humor (for instance, slapstick) usually trades heavily on our awareness that what we’re watching is a performance. Peacock defines slapstick as “a mode of performance … often derived from performed violence and comic pain.” But she insists that “in order for the audience to be free to laugh,” we have to focus on “the skill of the performer in being able to carry out unusual physical feats,” which “contributes to the emphasis of the performative nature of the act.”[ix] (This differentiation between real and performed pain proved to be very useful as I was interrogating students on their range of reactions to silent slapstick comedy and YouTube fail videos.)

The question is: does what Peacock says apply to Bergson’s theory of humor? That is, are we more likely to laugh at performances of people breaking down and being revealed as mechanisms than we are at such moments in real life? We’ve already looked at plenty of comic performance, of course, but here I take a sudden turn to a more recent decade of American cinema, and show a clip from Bruce Almighty (Tom Shadyak, USA, 2003):

This particular bit turned out to be a breakout moment for Steve Carrell, who was just riding his way toward stardom at the time. It’s an alarmingly successful bit of physical humor, entirely based on the idea that a human body can become a sort of a puppet, its reflexes and mechanisms controlled by a nefarious interfering force. Carrell’s fantastic stream of gibberish directs our attention to the way in which human speech, often thought of as the basic building block of our evolutionary superiority, is in fact just built upon the basic physiological mechanisms of the tongue and voicebox, which here rebel against the intellect of their owner, becoming broken and uncooperative.

So, basically: it’s funny. Students laugh. It’s funny! But then I ask: would you laugh at the same kind of verbal breakdown if it was happening to a real newscaster? This is not, in fact, a hypothetical question. Such things happen, and are sometimes recorded and later uploaded onto YouTube. I show my students a particularly famous one, and chart their reactions:

When I showed this, some students giggled, but by no means all. I put it to the class: Do we find this funny in the same way we find Bruce Almighty funny? Or is it sort of … creepy? Is it unsettling to see an actual person break down in this way, revealing that our competencies of intelligence are in fact based on basic physiological mechanisms that can spectacularly fail? Does it feel morally icky to laugh at this? (Originally, there were theories that Serene Branson had had a stroke on-air. This turned out not to be true—Branson later reported simply experiencing a severe migraine—but still, it should give us pause, if our first reaction was to laugh.) Does this maybe point to a blind spot in Bergson’s theory? Are their some type of “mechanical” behaviors that go too far, and are no longer funny to us?

We should keep in mind that there’s a range at work here. We might shy away from laughing at Branson, because we have serious concerns about her health, and because her breakdown is so startlingly uncanny in its revelation of the rush of syllabus hiding beneath language. But few people would shy away from laughing at, say, the over-rehearsed politician who “short circuits” and repeats himself, too rigidly caught on a fixed idea:

Who are we allowed to laugh at? Pt 2: Robots

So, Bergson’s not as cruel as Hobbes. But there still might be some instances in which some of us hesitate to laugh at those moments when a person’s body “reminds us of a mere machine.”

But now, another question: It’s okay to laugh at machines … right? I show students this promotional clip of Simone Giertz’s “shitty robots”:

And this “robot fail” YouTube compilation video:

With those two videos providing the hors d’oeuvres, I shift over to my main course: two videos highlighting recent, state-of-the-art robotics. There’s a range of emotional reactions that people might have to these sorts of machines, one separated from Giertz’s “shitty robots,” and very far removed from the conception of the “mechanical” that Bergson had access to in his day.

First, a promotional video circulated for the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals (cut to a piano score inspired by silent comedy, which lends the lesson a nice continuity!):

And secondly, a parody video celebrating the accomplishments of Boston Dynamics:

“Laughter,” Bergson writes, “is incompatible with emotion.”[x] It’s an idea that’s common in philosophies of humor, also expressed in Nietzsche’s dictum, in book II of Human, All Too Human, that “witticism is an epigram on the death of a feeling.”[xi] If we take it as a given that laughter serves the purpose of defeating or otherwise warding off emotions, what emotions are being “warded off” in DARPA and Boston Dynamics videos?

Most students agree that fear is the emotion that’s being warded off in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals. People fear contemporary robots. They are uncanny. They’re threatening to replace workers worldwide. We don’t know if hard AI might eventually break from, and turn against, humankind. For just a few minutes, the DARPA video allows viewers to laugh, and to dissipate that fear. These robots aren’t going to take over the world (or your job) just yet. Look, they can’t even take a few steps without falling over! Even though we have the mechanical in play here, the humor on display is less Bergsonian than it is pure Hobbesian. We’re laughing at these robots because we feel some eminency in ourselves, in comparison to their infirmity. And we better enjoy it while it lasts, because deep down, we’re nervously unsure of how long this comparison will work in our favor.

Next, to the Boston Dynamics ASPCA parody video. What emotion does this video serve as a talisman to ward off?

Here, I provide a little bit of background. Boston Dynamics, which has been acquired by Google, is famous for their Big Dog robot, and its smaller companion Spot (seen in the header image for this post). One of the things that Boston Dynamics frequently do in their testing of robots is kick them, to see if they maintain their balance. This is a necessary step in the testing process … unless you want robots that fall down without the slightest provocation, such as those seen in the DARPA Challenge video. But when video images of the kicking-tests began to circulate, they inspired a public backlash, with many people comparing the testing to animal cruelty.

The emotion being shut down in this video, then, is pity. Some people are feeling pit towards machines, and the ASPCA parody video attempts to stifle that, insisting that to feel pity for machines is to commit a category error, and mocking people who might be prone to committing it.

Students are very talkative on this point. We seem to be very far from Bergson now—in fact, we’re at a point where Bergson’s whole view of the world has been turned topsy-turvy. There’s something about the organic qualities of Big Dog and Spot’s movement, students agree, that puts them in a different category from our usual understanding of machines, far closer to our conceptions of animals. And we don’t laugh at animal abuse. Our moral universe has shifted: whereas once machines’ inorganic inelasticity made them the lowest of the low, their newfound liveliness makes them much harder to ridicule.

It’s a fascinating development, and it will be interesting to see what further changes to the moral universe Bergson inhabited the next century will bring!

[i]. The assigned reading for this week is portions of Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. I assign students to read part II, part IV, and part V of Chapter I, as well as part IV and part V of Chapter III. I use the 1999 Green Integer edition of the Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell translation (simply because that’s the one I have on my shelf). Page numbers will refer to that edition.

[ii]. This term first appears on Bergson, Laughter, pg 15.

[iii]. This term first appears in full on Bergson, Laughter, pg 39.

[iv]. Bergson, Laughter, pg 32.

[v]. Bergson, Laughter, pg 18.

[vi]. Bergson, Laughter, pg 52.

[vii]. Bergson, Laughter, pg 49.

[viii]. Hobbes, Thomas. Human Nature, as reprinted in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. Edited by William Molesworth. Aalen, Germany: Scientia, 1966. Vol. IV, pg 46.

[ix]. Peacock,Louise. Slapstick and Comic Performance: Comedy and Pain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pg 27.

[x]. Bergson, Laughter, pg 166.

[x]. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Pg 261. (Book II, §202)

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