The Philosophy of Humor

June 25, 2012

Pacific University Professor Dave Boersema had them (us) rolling on the floor Friday at the latest installment of PUB Night.

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Two cannibals are eating a clown for dinner.

One cannibal says to the other, “Does this taste funny to you?”

Ba-dum-da.

***

Two hunters are in the woods, when one falls to the ground, apparently dead. The second hunter calls 911.

“Are you sure he is dead?” asks the 911 operator.

“Hold on,” says the hunter.

BANG.

“Now I’m sure.”

Ba-dum-da.

***

The jokes got better—really—as Dave Boersema, professor of philosophy, presented The Philosophy of Humor during the latest installment of Pacific University Boxer (PUB) Night.

PUB Nights are sponsored by the Office of Alumni Relations and invite a Pacific professor to offer a casual and entertaining 101-level lecture to alumni and guests as they enjoy food and libations. The previous PUB Night, in February, featured Jim Moore discussing the upcoming presidential election over beers at the Widmer Gasthaus Pub in Portland.

On Friday evening, nearly 100 people gathered at David Hill Winery in Forest Grove to hear Boersema. Beneath an outdoor wedding tent, the crowd ignored the soft rain, sipping from a selection of beer and wine, enjoying a dinner of chicken, rustic bread and spiced vegetables, and pretty much laughing themselves to the floor.

Using a selection of jokes, from the predictable openers above to the famous Abbott and Costello sketch Who’s on First?, Boersema gave a casual overview of philosophy. He used jokes to illustrate the difference between metaphysical, epistemological and axiological approaches to philosophy—categories that, on more serious subjects, help us as humans explore our understanding of the world and our values.

He discussed the role humor places in building relationships between people. And, he discussed the theories behind what makes something funny.

Kierkegaard would say incongruity or unexpected twists are funny. (Boersema recommends the website totallylookslike.com.)

Freud would say anything that provides relief in a tense situation is funny.

Aristotle might say it’s all about superiority, about the listener enjoying a joke because they “get it” while a character does not.

For example:

On his first day at a new job, the boss tells a man to sweep the floor.

“I’m a Linfield graduate!” explains the employee.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” replies the boss. “Here, I’ll show you how the broom works.”

That’s superiority at work in humor, Boersema said.

“If it had been a Pacific grad, that wouldn’t have been funny,” he said.

“That would have just been dumb.”

The next PUB Night will be in December, date, location and topic to be determined. Keep in touch at pacificu.edu/alumni for details.