I had a friend in college who was fond of a saying: “sad is happy for smart people.” She was an undeniably brilliant person, and I’m sure that wherever she is now, she’s doing great things. But I’ve always hated that one quote, as I’m sure you all have been able to tell just by reading through this series. And, since we’ve reached the final post in it, I thought it would be best to end with talking about that quote in particular, because I think it’s been one of the big reasons that I’ve devoted eight full weeks to talking about the literary meaning of humor.
Before I dive into refuting this quote, however, it’s important to talk about its merits, which definitely exist. After all, happiness can easily be a way of blinding ourselves to an inconvenient reality, and sadness in these situations often accompanies the very important undertaking of learning our predisposed assumptions about how great the world is were wrong and coming to see truths we’ve forced ourselves to ignore. In other words, sadness can be smart, and we should never just default to a happy ending because it’s exactly those defaults that ruin powerful storytelling. Sadness, deep and massive sadness, often characterizes the search for meaning that many of us experience, in a world that seems like its determined to withhold that very meaning from us. To make a point, you often have to forgo the “everything is great” bias that happiness so often feeds into.
What’s so important about humor, however, is that it’s almost built from its very core to make the kinds of points that serious works of art want to make. I talked about this a bit in the Star Wars and Moby-Dick posts, but the reason for this is that one of the most fundamental techniques of making a powerful point, which is one of the central tenants of humor. After all, a joke that ends by showing us nothing new very rarely make us laugh. Humor also almost always sets itself up as an answer to a question, which works in its favor when it comes to discovering meaning. Think of how often the structure of a joke is explicitly answering a question in a way that surprises us. If you’re looking to make a point in a story, in other words, humor, with its emphasis on subverting expectations and answering burning questions simultaneously, is an incredibly powerful tool for the task. And, of course, humor is instantly engaging. Even in a story steeped in sadness of unhappy messages that eschews the (a massive mistake, in my opinion), humor has a way of making us enjoy the tale, helping us connect powerfully with the text, and that’s a boon to any artist.
More generally, I think that happiness has a quality which differentiates it in a meaningful way from sadness: it’s motivating. Happiness, to me at least, has always felt like something inherently forward-looking, while sadness has always felt inherently backward-looking. There are negative emotions, of course, that are forward-looking, and that deal with our thoughts on what’s to come; dread and anxiety, for example, are two powerful emotions that inform some downright phenomenal storytelling. But sadness in and of itself. However, happiness and humor, for me, are so often employed when discovering and relating important and meaningful conclusions that it’s criminal to ignore them. In this, I want to return to what I said two paragraphs ago, when I mentioned that sadness often characterizes the search for meaning in a world that seems either determined to withhold it or devoid of it. One of the biggest problems with this this that art, unless its trying to be profoundly disappointing, has to take the opposite approach: to affirm that meaning can in fact be found, and will be described to us in these pages. So when you’re experiencing a book or a movie and it’s trying to make you laugh or smile, resist the urge that we probably all have to write it off as something a little less meaningful, and just remember: the greats were all funnier than you realized.
With excitement and optimism,