What’s So Funny About That?

My wife was watching one of those Sandra Bullock comedies recently, The Proposal, she says. I was nearby, earbuds oozing jazz while I wrote—such is family time at La Casa Ponepinto. And she was laughing at this scene: Sandy B carrying a little dog and trying desperately to conduct a cell phone call, when a hawk swooped down and carried the dog away. She managed to save the dog from the bird, but in the process dropped her phone, which the bird snatched up. Frantic at losing her conversation, Sandy tried to convince the hawk to exchange the dog for the phone.


My wife thought so. Maybe I’d missed something in the dialogue by listening to music.

Flash back to a week before, when we went to a performance by John Cleese, the now 79-year-old comedian best known for his part in the 1970s BBC series Monty Python, and the troupe’s movies of the next decade. During the show he screened a variety of clips from the old shows and movies, including one from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which King Arthur faces off against the Black Knight in his quest for the grail. They battle until Arthur hacks off one of the knight’s arms. Undaunted, the knight keeps fighting and Arthur is forced to dismember him, limb by limb, down to a head and torso. Still the knight taunts the king to come back and fight.


I, and the rest of the audience howled, in part from the memory, but also because, yeah, it’s hilarious.

Why one and not the other?

As Cleese explained, the Black Knight, despite his loss of limbs, exhibits not the slightest pain. A garden hose of blood spurts from his wounds, but all he can do is fight on, mindlessly. But should the injured party show pain, the dynamic shifts from absurdity to cruelty. I’m not so sure about offering a small dog to a ravenous hawk. Maybe that’s what made the Sandra Bullock scene unfunny for me—no way the dog wouldn’t feel the bird’s talons embedded in its flesh. No way it deserved that treatment. The Black Knight? Well, he started it.

I also think the pure absurdity of the scene has something to do with it. The Black Knight’s reactions are so far from reality that they can’t be taken seriously. In the Bullock scene, the danger is exaggerated, but not to absurd proportions (except perhaps for the fact that a 10 pound hawk cannot fly off with a 20 pound dog).

But who knows? There are so many types of humor, so many styles of funny, and so many different tastes. What’s funny to one person might be stupid or insulting to another. I’ll take a look at that aspect of humor in future posts.