Humor 101: History Of; The Brow Rating System
By Prof. Cornelius P. Stodgington
History of Humor
Only the briefest survey of the history of humor is necessary for our purposes. Those motivated will find plenty of graduate-level material readily available elsewhere.
The history of humor begins—well, no one really knows, because the recording media was so limited. We suspect certain types of humor of being more “primitive” than others (as we’ll delve into further in later lectures), but there’s no reason to assume there were not screaming wits in the earliest civilizations. They were just the first ones executed.
Those with an eye for such things claim to see trace evidence of rude and/or silly bits in hieroglyphs, scrolls, and cave paintings. However, this has never been quantified or peer-reviewed, as appreciators of humor are rarely included on archaeological digs.
For most of mankind’s history, the only way to record things was the “oral tradition.” This is the practice of teaching others to repeat stories verbatim. This practice has been proven surprisingly unreliable. As childhood games of “gossip” teach us, each teller tends to paraphrase. Thus, for all we know, the ancient myths and sagas of gods bringing the Earth into being may well have started out as the world’s oldest “knock, knock” jokes.
The tales of medieval court jesters ring truthier, especially the part about their fates when not funny. Indeed, “killing the messenger” has long been a standard response from the seats of power; some eras were just more literal than others.
Once mass printing became economically viable, the odd book of jocular fiction or satire or other such foolishness began to appear. Like jesters before them, however, writers and publishers existed only so long as heads of state could tolerate them. Once they offended the sensibilities of the ruling classes, they were persecuted for being naughty or seditious.
At some point, humor assumed a place as a subdivision of entertainment. Back when the total number of defined jobs was limited, “entertainer” was considered one of the lowest types (i.e., déclassé, least valuable to society). As performers could not provide food or defend the realm (viz., kill things), only the wealthiest societies could afford those who marketed to “leisure time.” When entertainment types started turning the heads of beautiful women, however, they really attracted opprobrium.
Like pioneers in any pursuit, early entertainers had to have a variety of skills. Travelling troubadours, for instance, would pad their musical sets with stories and news from other shires—and the reckless ones would attempt a few outright “jokes.”
As the entertainment industry grew, so did subspecialties. This meant ever-larger groups of entertainers travelling together (medicine shows, circuses, and the like). The “comedian” emerged as one who specialized in just delivering humor. Eventually this skill in turn refined into many subcategories, styles, and formats (albeit it’s difficult for the layman to distinguish these subtle differences).
The entertainment profession has still not lost its stigma in the eyes of wide swaths of the God-fearing population. Paradoxically, however, increasing numbers of youth dream of becoming rich and famous via this industry (primarily, singing and acting). [NOTE: this latter phenomenon may simply be a function of the sudden dearth of living-wage jobs available in any other profession.]
Thus, in richer societies—with ever-increasing amounts of leisure—even the “lower arts” such as comedy have propagated sub-subspecialties. Conversely, modalities can fall out of favor as majority tastes change. For example, caricatures and stereotypes of most ethnic minorities—once a staple of “broad” comedians—are no longer considered in good taste by the vast majority of the public. More subtly, the practice of written humor has all but disappeared thanks to the general paucity of reading by the average citizen, which in turn has spelled the death of traditional printed media.
In our time, the archetypal image associated with humor is the “stand-up” comedian. At no time has the quantity of such performers been higher—the quality, however, is another matter. In a clear case of market saturation, it becomes ever more difficult to identify a unique voice. Social stigma remains high for all but a handful of these folks. In their defense, however, one must consider their working conditions. They go out nightly to face inebriated and unread audiences who are expecting a unique experience—this in an era when entire generations of previous material is available over the internet at a click or tap. Given all that, it is hardly surprising that they tend to resort to a “lowest common denominator” approach in their material.
The Brow’s Role in Comedy:
Relative Class of Humor as Expressed by the Position
Of Hair Above the Orbital Socket
The ruling and opinion-shaping classes have always passed judgments on the social acceptance of humor forms. As these people were never the humor creators, they felt it their place to protect their societies by creating taboos and rating systems for entertainment. For instance, patriarchal societies tend to publicly disdain scatological and sexually suggestive humor, deeming them inappropriate for the delicate sensibilities of women and children. [Privately, however, a fascinating hypocrisy has also persisted through the ages: in single-sex groups—particularly where alcohol is present—lewd and crude material is preferred and actively encouraged.]
Socio-economic classes also play a huge role in categorizing humor. In this case, peer pressure within the higher statuses tends to reward what appears to be higher “class” humor. Reasons for this are not fully understood. Perhaps those that aspire to the finer things of human achievement are embarrassed by involuntary laughter prompted by relatively base sources. Or, they don’t wish to waste the time and expense they’ve spent on education and refinement on the same things that tickled them as callow youth.
In any case, the phenomenon coalesced into the “brow” classifications of culture during the last century. “Highbrow” came to describe things requiring education, refined taste, and experience to properly enjoy. At the other extreme, “lowbrow” was coined to loosely encompass everything else (i.e., primitive expressions appealing to the basest sensibilities).
Obviously, this is a system fraught with hypocrisy and exceptions, so the term “middle-brow” arose to better describe efforts within the statistical mean. This effort was largely unsuccessful, though, due to lack of any consensus by the social classes.
Applied to the field of comedy, the brow system finds relatively little on the high side, as one might suspect. Witty, urbane stories which pithily reveal a universal truth are so rewarded, but—to truly be accepted as highbrow—a work usually starts its life at the other extreme. Such works challenge accepted social norms, and we rarely reward that behavior immediately. Only when it attains such universal respect and high regard that it is impossible to ignore (often, just after the author’s passing) does the elite pronounce it fit for more rarefied esteem. Think Mark Twain, for example.
One frequently encounters great paradoxes when trying to use the brow system. Take the British bunch “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” for example. Because the fellows come from Oxford/Cambridge backgrounds, philosophers and historical figures featured prominently in their silly songs and sketches. The title alone is a little artsy-fartsy. Yet these subjects were treated with such irreverence as to be downright insulting, and in the end the shows were full of rude, crude, and obnoxious behavior. While the subjects and vocabulary gave a patina of class, at the end one realized one’s jaw was seriously agape.
Another paradox: while highbrow aficionados are generally college-educated, comedy from college-aged practitioners is generally of the lowest order possible. Obscure references and modalities and references from a classical education may seem highbrow, but the trained eye sees through this in an instant as so much pretentious poppycock.
As we delve into specific humor subspecies in later units, there will be more to say about where each lies in the “brow” scale.
Here we must note that humor creators and practitioners tend to be male, anti-social, anti-authority, and antidisestablishmentarian (in the broadest sense). Even the meekest punster is acting out deep frustrations with his elders, his peers, and/or would-be mates. Lest you fear these sorts are a threat to society, please realize from the outset that they are only influential with a small number of people, and only to a mild degree. Our condemnation is hardly necessary, as they tend to loathe themselves and lead short, unhappy lives. As revolutionaries, they are as weak as water; Che Guevara was no comic.
Psychology has much to say on this subject, but then they have a lot to say about everything—and honestly, who has the time? We will understand more about the humorists themselves as we examine their output.