It happens every day while nonchalantly flipping through social media. It’s the spoof of a popular music video, the meme poking fun at a celebrity or politician and inevitably, it’s the guy jumping off the top of the playground set who ends up wiping out the innocent child below. It’s these things that not only make us laugh, but remind us of that one time we just happened to get the stomach flu while giving a speech or left the bathroom with that really long piece of toilet paper stuck to our shoe. From the times of jesters in Royal courts to the sometimes, riske skits on today’s Saturday Night Live, comedy has produced many belly laughs for hundreds of years, but why are people all over the world so obsessed with this invisible, contagious force that is humor, and how is it beneficial to our everyday lives? The answer is simple, comedy tells the stories that everyone else is afraid to, giving life to the taboo and unexpected, in turn making everyday life, (full of hard subjects and embarrassing moments) easier to swallow. With the use of the inferiority complex, comedy is both grounding and empowering, allowing the average person to get away with the unacceptable all the while laying out the framework for what is socially acceptable in society today.
Let’s be honest, no matter who you are or what you are doing, there is a continuous subconscious dialog going on in our heads. I have experienced this several times, especially while minding my own business in Walmart. I’m not sure what it is about that store but I can tell you, it is a breeding ground for the strange and unnerving. There is always that one odd character who you secretly and carefully follow around the store, hiding behind the Keurigs and electric skillets just to get a better look, or maybe even snapping a photo because after all, this is worth sharing. While peeking through the holes in the back of the display aisles and shelves to avoid detection, there are a million thoughts that run through your head like, ‘I wonder if she knows that those do not qualify as pants’ or the inevitable internal conflicts like, ‘is that a man or.. it has long hair and a boa but that is definitely not working with those hiking boots’ or my personal favorite, ‘What the F**k is happening here?’. It was only recently while flipping through Facebook that I stumbled upon a photo album shared from a website called The People of Walmart. Immediately, I was surfing hundreds of pictures of the unashamed, unbelievable, colorful characters featured in the website’s album. To go along with the obvious, the captions were invaluable to the experience as my subconscious could rest easy knowing that everything that was running through my mind was typed out in bold letters, right in front of me. Now, instead of an amatur housewares isle hopper or grocery store stalker, I became apart of the social media sensation that is The People of Walmart not only because they already knew what I was thinking, but because they actually said it. And so the virtual fist bump became a thing.
So why are Walmart people so funny? Besides the obvious lack of judgement and color coordinating, the answer is simple; honesty and breaking social norms. In Andrew Stott’s book Comedy, the idea that comedy is all about breaking social norms and simply saying what everyone else is thinking, is a central theme. Stott argues that, one of the keys to making a situation funny is the “essential awkwardness of  human interactions”. One of the reasons why the online album full of what society would classify as “social rejects”, works is because the situations are extremely awkward. It is funny because the average human being could not imagine going out in public looking anything but their best and in turn, we are amused and embarrassed by the awkward situation. Not only does this speak to the fact that social norms and hierarchies are present in society, but it also highlights the stereotypes and expectations of society. Being worried about appearance and presenting ourselves as neat and “civilized” is a part of culture. Modesty and manners account for a lot; in the Walmart photos however, these social norms are completely defied and even highlighted by social media. This also speaks to the idea that these photos set a standard for how the everyday person should act and dress, or as Stacey London and Clinton Kelly would say, ‘what not to wear’. When the viewer laughs at something such as Walmart people, they are subconsciously (thank you Freud) reinforcing a specific set of ethics and etiquette associated with American culture. Now, when shopping in Walmart, the customer may be looking for the odd and eccentric, thus in itself Walmart people have actually created a new culture and expectation of what is to be found within the redundant concrete walls of lettuce and fishing poles. Not only does this reinforce the need as a society to be “proper” but it also creates a Walmart subculture. As many people already regard Walmart as a ‘circus’ for their long lines and crowded aisles, Walmart people are just another attraction.
Another aspect of comedy that plays in the favor of Walmart people is the inferiority complex, or poking fun at someone above or below your own social standing. The People of Walmart website does a good job of highlighting this theory as most of why these images and captions are funny is due to the fact that the average American would never dress or act like those people and in turn, the ridiculous examples of social fails make us feel a little bit better about our own follies. This method of comedy can also be seen in comedic skits by Jeff Foxworthy and Amy Schumer. As they both poke fun at minority groups, women, rednecks etc, they exhibit the inferiority complex by placing themselves on a higher playing field, only to level it out with adding that they too identify with the material they are reciting. In his stand up routine, Jeff Foxworthy discusses all of the things that “qualify” someone as a redneck stating, “My definition of redneck is a glorious absence of sophistication”.  He then goes onto repeat again that, “I have kinda felt like you couldn’t talk about rednecks unless you are one, and I are one”.  This again goes back to the idea that everyone’s human and everyone makes mistakes but learning to laugh at them proves to make life a little lighter and relieve the stress that comes along with, (in true pop culture fashion) “adulting”. This also establishes a relationship between the comic and the listener as one in the same which is the essential difference between laughing with someone and laughing at them.
Aside from setting standards, being honest and relatable, comedy is beneficial and essential to everyday life. Sigmund Freud classified comedy as a “release of intellectual tension” and argues that making jokes is done subconsciously and that “joking is symptomatic of the division in the psyche.”  This also backs up Johann Huizinga’s theory of the importance of play and laughter, as highlighted in Stott’s Comedy, which argues that “ in all accounts [..] the human being is using their laughter to serve a social, psychological, physiological need.” This means that by using comedy as a mediator, the average person can lead a perfectly civilized life while at the same time satisfying their twisted, stereotypical, morbid and mischievous prankster subconscious And maybe that is the draw here, the chance to be a little bit bad while still being mostly good; after all, it can’t be helped. Stott also argues, “that in some experience of the comic there is a division of consciousness the enables the subject to see the world with bifurcated vision”. Stott is suggesting that by seeing themselves from the comedian’s viewpoint, they can live vicariously through them and in this way comedy becomes relatable. Kind of like realizing that you left the house with two different shoes on, it can happen to anyone.
Comedy is both beneficial and essential to everyday life. Without comedy, life would be dull, hard to bare and redundant. Comedy is empowering, giving courage or even an “in” to someone who might have never had one otherwise. It is essential to human existence that we understand the power of comedy both as a coping mechanism as well as a way to relieve stress and tension. Humor is a constant reminder that mistakes are apart of life and everyone is entitled to momentary lapses of better judgement, and as mortifying as they may be, are even allowed to be laughed at. Comedy is a constant reminder that it’s okay to be imperfect and it is essential to laugh and relax in this crazy, hectic world.
Foxworthy, Jeff. Redneck Comedy. DVD. YouTube, 2011.
Stott, Andrew. Comedy. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2014
 Stott, Andrew. Comedy. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2014. (p.60).
 Foxworthy, Jeff. Redneck Comedy. Videon. YouTube, 2011. Web.
 Foxworthy, Jeff. Redneck Comedy. DVD. YouTube, 2011.
 Stott, Andrew. Comedy. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2014. (p.12).
 IMbD. (p.15).
2 thoughts on “The Importance of Comedy: Breaking Social Norms and Learning to Laugh at Imperfection”
Such an amazing essay on the appeal and allure and breakdown of comedy. That must be why I love it so much. Because I am always observing people and places and things that are doing absurd things to me.
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Thank you Ben! I appreciate your feedback!
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