Why Not-Funny-Ha-Ha?


“Depression is a funny beast.”

I wrote that sentence at the top of a clean page in my writing-ideas journal.  But I hesitated and then added “not funny-ha-ha.”  I was trying to keep my train of thought going, but the train had already jumped the rails.

I was hung up on “funny.”

One way or another, words have been my business for many years, so finding the right word to describe or express something is almost a compulsion.  The first replacements that came to mind were “strange” or “odd,” but those words imply a context of normalcy in which other things aren’t strange or odd.  What would that context be for depression?  Daily life, states of mind, mental illnesses?  Clearly, I was on the wrong track.  I kept trying.  Depression is an interesting beast?  Too neutral and not what I wanted to say.  A surprising beast?  Closer, but the connotation is too positive.  An intriguing beast?  Not personal or emotional enough.  A disturbing beast?  Too emotional.  Other than funny, what kind of beast is depression? Gogo and Didi2

I tried to change the sentence completely, asking myself even if “beast” was the term I was looking for.  Actually, “beast“ works pretty well, both as a potential reference to something dumb and ox-like or possibly to something metaphorically demonic, such as an incubus or succubus.  (There’s truth to the titular metaphor in Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.)  I couldn’t let the sentence go, so I tried a different tactic.  Why was the word “funny” the first (and seemingly most effective) word I could come up with?  What did I mean by “not funny-ha-ha”?

At first glance, “not funny-ha-ha” would seem to be the opposite of “funny,” right?  So, if funny means amusing or laughter-provoking, “not funny-ha-ha” should mean something like “serious.”  Then is depression a serious beast?  Yes and no.  Depression is certainly serious, but that isn’t the idea I wanted to explore.  Why funny/not funny?

Theories of humor and laughter are surprisingly complex, or perhaps have been construed as complex by the scholars and philosophers who study humor and laughter.  For years I taught a course on “The Politics of Comedy,” which was about humor and comedy as an assertion of power in drama.  Preparing that course, I learned that the three most dominant theories of comedy and laughter are Incongruity, Superiority, and Release.  Other theories abound, but they don’t have the historical weight of these three.

Fifth-century B.C. all-star Aristotle said we laugh at people who are inferior, weak, or ugly because we get a kick out of feeling superior.  That’s Superiority Theory.  People who favor Release Theory, which is about laughter as the release of tension, might say that laughing at others is really about the anxiety we feel that others will see us as the inferior, weak, or ugly butt of the joke.  Sigmund Freud pretty much agreed but saw laughter mainly as a release of physical tension, which, of course, he assumed was fundamentally sexual tension.

Our first experience of funny in life is likely incongruity-type laughter when we are toddlers.  Little kids think potty humor is hilarious because they have been taught that talking about such things is taboo or definitely not approved by mom and dad.  By the time people hit their teens and early twenties, potty jokes have morphed into or expanded to include sex jokes, which some people never outgrow.

A mechanistic theory of humor seems to be a variation on incongruity.  One ancient and still common example of mechanistic incongruity is the annoying consistency of common human traits, such as being persistently boastful, flirtatious, self-centered, or foolish.  Socrates, via Plato, said that the ridiculous is characterized by self-ignorance, a human trait that always causes trouble.  Think of a few sit-com characters on television, and chances are they’ll represent common types of human frailty.  What makes Homer Simpson funny is the persistent selfishness and foolishness of the character.  His behavior is predictable (mechanical) but all too human.  And that contradiction brings up the issue of irony.

Early Twentieth Century French philosopher Henri Bergson explained funny as something mechanical imposed on the living.  One appropriately French example is Jaques Tati’s film Mon Oncle (1958) which contrasts what Tati saw as the rigidity and sterility of Modernism with the fluidity and fallibility of human life.  The rumpled, bumbling main character Mr. Hulot seems out of place in the busy, angular, sleekly modern world he lives in.  But we understand Tati’s film is ironic, and that it is Modernism that is inhuman and out of place in the larger context of a natural, unpredictable, lively world.

The inversion, contrariness, or intentional understatement of irony certainly inclines to humor and laughter.  By the word funny, do I mean, then, that depression is ironic?  Maybe, but not exactly.

Perhaps the most common “use” of laughter, in my opinion, is to bring something down to size.  Laughter or making fun of something is a means of managing our emotions or restoring order to a chaotic or threatening situation.  We mock an abusive boss or teacher (out of his hearing) in order to reclaim our sense of dignity and equality.  Or, more negatively, we may bully someone by belittling them and laughing at them in order to establish our superiority and control.  Funny isn’t always nice.

Stage comedy, from Aristophanes to the present, often depends on either gentle or biting satire, which mocks people or behavior in order to correct those things.  Let’s face it, we like correcting other people.  British philosopher Thomas Hobbs identified laughter as “sudden glory” at the failure or fall of someone else.  Therefore, is my supposed insight about funny depression the “sudden glory” of putting it in its place?  Is calling depression funny a sarcastic put-down?



Depression is a funny beast.  In other people it may look like what we expect it to, or it may appear as if nothing is wrong at all.

I suspect most of us think we know more-or-less what depression is, even if we have no personal experience with it.  We probably would describe a depressed person as someone who is sad and perhaps lethargic.  If that person is a teenager, we may perceive him as moody or sullen, lazy, and “not working up to ability.”

But the actual experience of depression may or may not be any of that, from person to person and moment to moment.  It can be both inaction and impulsive action, time stretched out endlessly—and yet with the unbearable tension of a frayed rubberband.  It is cynicism, sadness, despair, self-hate, ennui, numbness, and perhaps suicidal ideation.  A depressed person can actually show moments of happiness, but at the same time be making a tremendous effort to keep going and seem “normal.”  This pleasure may be expressing gallows humor, black humor, or cosmic humor, but it may also be a genuinely happy moment.  Unfortunately, that moment can make the darkness seem darker.  While she is putting a good face on it, a depressed person may neglect friendships and family responsibilities, eroding the support system she needs so desperately.  Sometimes, depression looks like a happy-face mask, a constant but mindless smile.  For the sufferer, depression is like trying to walk normally underwater at the deep end of a pool.  And that person may not know just how deep underwater she is.

Gogo and Didi1
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot*

When I first read Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in college, I absolutely did not see anything funny about it.  Talk about depressing!  But in performance, the play can be quite funny.  Gogo and Didi’s banter and physical comedy bits can be the brightness that makes the darkness darker.  I believe the laughter is necessary to the existential theme of the play.  Exploring similar themes, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead uses comical, even silly, wordplay in the context of something larger and darker than the characters can handle or even grasp.  The disquieted audience laughs.

One of the assignments I would give my students in that literature class was to find a joke they really like and then write an explanation of why it’s funny.  It was an unsettling assignment because, of course, explaining a joke sucks the funny right out of it.



One comment

  1. […] This piece was published first on my second blog, Ten Minutes With a Friend. […]


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