Self- Deprecation and the Habit of Laughter

Florida Philosophical Review 15 (1):19-36 (2015)
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My objective here is to give an account of self-deprecating humor—examining what works, what doesn't, and why—and to reflect on the significance of the audience response. More specifically, I will be focusing not only on the purpose or intention behind self-deprecating jokes, but considering how their consequences might render them successful or unsuccessful. For example, under what circumstances does self-deprecation tend to put listeners at ease, and when is this type of humor more likely to put people off? I will also consider the ways in which self-deprecating jokes are similar to gallows humor, and the extent to which context counts. The target or "butt" of these jokes, in cases of self-deprecation as well as gallows humor, will be explored; as will whether or not the audience bears some responsibility or has a role to play in the ultimate success or failure of a joke. For instance, is the audience role a completely receptive and passive one? Is the joker/jokee relationship one which confers no responsibility on the listener whatsoever? Or, do listeners have an obligation to respond with appreciative laughter to mere attempts at humor, especially the self-deprecating sort, by accepting such levity in the spirit in which it is intended? Does this mean that being a good sport—responding generously or appreciatively when a well-intentioned joke fails to land—would be a habit worth cultivating? If so and courtesy laughter or a playful appreciation of self-deprecating humor is something that can be cultivated, what specifically would that entail? In sum, although I cannot fully or definitively answer each and every one of these questions, I do hope to provide some provisional responses. To better situate the nature of self-deprecation, I will not only provide a brief description of the gallows genre, I will also explore two traditional theories of humor. Those that are particularly relevant, to both gallows and self-deprecating humor are Freud's relief theory and the incongruity view. In addition, I will identify what I believe to be the three essential ingredients of successful self-deprecation and, finally, will conclude with the argument that audiences or listeners do have an important role to play. And, moreover, that generous, appreciative laughter can and should be cultivated—even though this is something that will largely depend on one's personal history and habits, dispositional character and cultural background.
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