The Fine Line Between Comedy and Insult

Galaxy Song
Monty Python
YouTube     Lyrics

My time in live performance improvised comedy taught me that there is a close tie between truth and comedy, and an even finer line to walk between humor and insult. You see, a joke and an insult are good for many of the same reasons.

First, we often laugh because it is the politest social response we can muster to something that makes us uncomfortable. This idea is captured in our idiom with phrases like “it’s better to laugh than cry,” and, “laugh it off.” Some types of humor, such as racial jokes or bathroom humor, rely on the violation of cultural norms and the exploitation of taboo. After a certain point, either you find it funny or insulting.

Second, humor and insults both play and pray upon expectations. Irony and sarcasm are the classic example. In both instances, a chain of reasoning is set up and then subverted to deliver a message. How the expectation is twisted is the important part.

Third, a person’s reaction to a joke or insult is highly individualistic, making it difficult to predict reception. Cultures tend to have a communal sense of humor, as can be seen in the differences between American and British humor. Beyond the broad strokes, however, a person’s sense of humor often depends on where and how they grew up, and what trauma they have faced in the past. As an example, some people find rape jokes to be funny, but that is a great way to end a conversation with me, personally.

Finally, humor and insults both ring with truth. This is what gives them the power to touch us on an emotional level. It is easy to ignore lies, but the truth holds our attention.

To me, Monty Python is often hilarious, and many, many people seem to share my view.  Their skits and movies are internationally famous, but I particularly love their songs. The Galaxy Song is something that I keep on my phone to play on days where I’m feeling sorry for myself.

Though the song is sung to “Mrs. Brown,” she is a stand in for the audience. Because the narrator has a specific person he is speaking to, we are just far enough removed to not take insult, but close enough to empathize and feel the sting of the truth. He starts the song with seeming sympathy for Mrs. Brown, but twists that when the song ends up concluding on the inconsequence of her problems in the grand scheme of all existence. He concludes by stating that truth outright, reminding her and the audience how “amazingly unlikely” her birth was. It is the truth in the message, along with our ability to empathize with that truth that makes the song funny. We can either laugh at ourselves, or take insult.

So, to be funny, be true, and let the audience interpret it as they like.


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