In his very thorough treatise on comedy, “Laughter,” Henri Bergson concedes that “it would be idle to attempt to derive every comic effect from one simple formula” (Bergson, 85), but nonetheless bases his concept of the comic on “something mechanical encrusted upon the living” (Bergson, 92). This idea – that humor is found essentially in a rime of automatism covering human expression – generally holds true for the short humor of Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Garrison Keillor and Dave Barry, but Bergson’s corollary theory – that the comic is neither more nor less than a form of social censure and a means of affecting the behavior of others by causing humiliation – seems overly pessimistic and fails to take into account the element of identification inherent in humor, as can be seen in the works of the four writers we explore here. Furthermore, we shall discover lapses in Bergson’s theory, areas of comic interest that cannot be analyzed with the conventions set out in “Laughter.”
Before delving into the works of the aforementioned authors, it is incumbent upon us to look more closely at Bergson’s theory of humor. Bergson identifies three conditions he finds necessary for laughter: first, the character or performer – the object of the laughter – must be in some way unsociable; second, the audience must be possessed of a certain insensibility or callousness; and third, the humorous character or situation must display a rigidity that seems mechanical or automatic. The first and third of these conditions Bergson later conflates, writing, “Rigidity, automatism, absentmindedness and unsociability are all inextricably intertwined; and all serve as ingredients to the making up of the comic ch...
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...s fully developed in the pieces we considered from Thurber and Keillor, but leaves its mark on Benchley and Barry’s work. With each of these two authors, we get the sense that there is some relief to be found in identifying with the object of humor and continuing to laugh, a possibility not allowed for by Bergson. Clearly, “Laughter” is a thorough work, covering most aspects of humor in meticulous detail. It is not, however, comprehensive, and as we originally stated, it fails at times to make the crucial distinction between relief and superiority as motivations for laughter. Of course, either way we’re laughing, so one wonders whether it’s really worth all the bother of ascertaining precisely why. Bergson evidently found it worth the trouble, and with some exceptions, his treatise on the subject continues to provide illumination for the modern reader of humor.
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