"I had thought-I had been told-that a 'funny' thing is a thing of a goodness. It isn't. Not ever is it funny to the person it happens to. Like that sheriff without his pants. The goodness is in the laughing itself. I grok it is a bravery . . . and a sharing . . . against pain and sorrow and defeat."-- Valentine Michael Smith, from Robert Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.
I recently reread Heinlein's STRANGER. I was probably in college when I first read it, and I recall being very impressed with it. I don't remember how long ago I gave the novel a second read-through, but I remember thinking that it wasn't nearly as philosophically deep as I'd thought in my earlier years. The third re-reading was no different: Heinlein's cracker-barrel philosophy doesn't stand up to strong analysis, as it's often structured as if Heinlein's version of Socrates, Jubal Harshaw, were doing a stand-up vaudeville act where he got all the punchlines.
"Say there Mister Bones, what you think should be the limits of personal responsibilty in a free society--?"
However, one scene that still works for me is the one where Smith, the Martian-educated Earthman, finally "groks" what it means when human beings laugh. Not merely "smile," though. Prior to the quote cited above, Smith makes very clear that his understanding of humor depends on the explosiveness of the belly laugh:
Perhaps I don't grok all its fullness yet. But find me something that really makes you laugh, sweetheart . . . a joke, or anything else-but something that gave you a real belly laugh, not a smile. Then we'll see if there isn't a wrongness in it somewhere and whether you would laugh if the wrongness wasn't there."
In essence Heinlein has presented, in fictional form, the so-called "relief theory of humor," pioneered by Freud, which argues that the human impulse toward comedy is a way of venting social and psychological pressure. In the novel Smith comes to his conclusion at a zoo, as he watches one monkey take out its frustrations on another monkey less able to fight back. This, rather improbably, leads to Smith's conclusion that humor is a coping strategy that helps one deal with injustice and "wrongness."
The problem of the relief theory, though, is that in order to work, it has to disinclude the phenomenon of the "smile" that may be best explained not by Freudian pressure-relief, but rather by Schopenhaurer's theory of incongruity.
Take as example this Jack Cole POLICE COMICS cover-- one of many he did which feature Plastic Man transforming himself into some playful object, with or without Woozy Winks, and often without any criminals to fight.
It's certainly not impossible that covers like these may have caused some members of their audience to laugh out loud. But it seems much more likely that the incongruity of a man turning himself into a boat or a sled or a ball is much more likely to have inculcated no more than an amused smile.
Now, Cole isnt' the best proponent of this type of humor overall, for as gentle as many PLASTIC MAN covers are, a lot of the stories inside *do* generate their humor from the sort of "wrongness" Heinlein considers the sum and substance of comedy. In my essay RAPT IN PLASTIC I noted how greatly Cole seemed dominated by "violent and transgressive materials."
Yet on another level PLASTIC MAN might serve as a better means to prove the superiority of the incongruity theory of humor over the relief theory. It's one thing to have a humor feature like BARNABY or FRED BASSETT that never ever conjures with anything stronger than the "gentle smile" brand of humor. However, the fact that Jack Cole had in him the capacity to produce both gentle and savage forms of humor demonstrates that as a professional artist he could master the demands of both disciplines.
And to do, he had to be able to imagine any number of incongruous situations in order to keep producing both the covers and the interior stories: to imagine Woozy harmlessly bouncing a Plastic Man-ball on the cover, and then to turn around and have him imperilled by some grotesque villain, to whom Woozy naturally reacts with the expected comic cowardice.
Both are fascinating aspects of Jack Cole. He wouldn't be the artist he was, without both sides.
Just as the human sense of humor can't be restricted to the desire to laugh alone. The simple smile at harmless incongruity, in fact, may be not as inconsequential as Heinlein imagines.
As the child is father to the man, might not the smile be father to the laugh?