It’s Funny Because It’s True!

A really funny feed on Twitter is Nihilist Arby’s. When beginning my “Nihilist Journey” (ugh, there’s that word again, journey), I found Nihilist Arby’s – I don’t remember exactly how or where, whether it be via a Google Search or an article on Nihilism – and I found it to be hilarious. Here are a few choice cuts (hur hurr):


If they somehow got the guy who does the voice-overs for the current “Arby’s We Have the Meats” television ad campaign, it would be even funnier. Page after page after page on the Twitter feed itself or in a simple Google images search, Nihilist Arby’s constructs its jokes first by stating a harsh truth of life, and concluding with the shrugging of the shoulders sentiment “so you might as well eat a delicious sandwich.” “Eat Arby’s” or “Enjoy Arby’s” is very similar to my own “Mmm, the Coffee’s Good!” or Ayn Rand’s “Who is John Galt?” – in essence, oh well, there’s nothing we can do about it, it just is the way that it is.

After laughing through pages and pages of Nihilist Arby’s zingers, I did begin to wonder why I thought they were so funny. Objectively, even as a nihilist, they should be depressing the hell out of me, but the phrase “It’s funny because it’s true” came to mind. So what do I do when I’m curious about something? I look it up.

I found an actual scientific research paper on the first page of the Google search, titled “It’s Funny Because It’s True (Because It Evokes Our Evolved Psychology)” by Barry X. Kuhle of the
University of Scranton. The strongest case he makes for the truth of “It’s funny because it’s true” is that the joke usually depends on the audience having a baseline understanding and general acceptance of the ideas behind the joke, and that these ideas and “truths” are not explained explicitly in the telling of the joke – otherwise the joke would not be funny, right?

The fact that we laugh at all is sort of an evolutionary fluke, because on its face, what laughter does to us physically would appear to be a disadvantage to survival. A quote of a quote from the paper: “Breathless, weakened, with lungs and muscles already spoken for; this is certainly not a state in which one would find greatest advantage when faced with life threatening hazards. Laughter thus seem[s] to be in direct conflict with the evolutionary tendency.” The fact that we laugh at all is a joke in itself, and a pretty good one.

But he also has some really interesting ideas on the evolution of humor as an obviously successful mating strategy, because we’re all here and most of us are laughing our asses off:

  • Laughter evolved 6.5 million years ago, before the hominids split from the hominoids, as evidenced by the grins of orangutans and chimpanzees when tickled or given their favorite food (observed by Darwin); chimpanzees also appear to utilize humor when using sign language to communicate, and chimps, bonobos and gorillas all express a pant-like laughter.
  • The various hypotheses for the evolution of humor include: “(a) promote social bonding; (b) facilitate cooperation; (c) disable pursuit of counterproductive paths; (d) signal that a stimulus is nonthreatening; (e) signal interest in pursuing and maintaining social relationships; (f) promote social learning; (g) manipulate status; (h) make finding and fixing inference errors fun; (i) court mates and (j) signal shared knowledge, attitudes, and preferences.” The only funny one of those hypotheses is (h), which basically equates to the old joke “making assumptions makes an ass out of you and me.” The author of the paper concludes that humor as a tool of courtship and signaling shared knowledge were most supported thus far in studies.
  • Humor is linked to higher intelligence. Smart people are funny, and smart people are successful in navigating this harsh reality, so humor is an effective sexual mating strategy.
  • Humor can assess the shared underlying knowledge of a social group quickly and effectively – those laughing “get it,” those not laughing don’t. Humans depend on each other for survival, so making sure everyone is on the same page as far as the truth of reality results in greater success for the group. This is why Millennials are instinctively despised and ridiculed – even Jerry Seinfeld no longer performs comedy shows on college campuses. These stereotypical triggered snowflakes don’t find anything funny, and have no sense of humor. They are signalling their unfitness to be a part of the larger social group – they are alien and a threat to our survival, because by not laughing and instead lashing out with righteous indignation they are signalling they do not accept the shared underlying knowledge/truths of this harsh reality. Evolutionarily-speaking, Millennials are indeed a threat to our survival if they don’t wake up, get with the program, and laugh it off with the rest of us.
  • Men value women who appreciate their humor, and women value men who produce humor. This is self-evident, but statistical studies conclude the same. Amy Schumer is not attractive to men, but women love a decent-enough looking guy with a killer sense of humor.

But is humor sexually attractive, from an evolutionary standpoint, just because it signals higher intelligence? Or that it showcases an ability to express unspoken, generally accepted harsh truths necessary for individual and group success and survival? What about the fact that we feel pain and suffering – that life in most ways is suffering? Don’t we need something as a self-aware and conscious species to offset that pain and suffering? To make it tolerable?

Black Humor

The fact that something called “Black Humor” exists I believe points to a different, harsher reason for the evolutionary existence of humor. Black Humor is defined as “combining the morbid and grotesque with humor and farce to give a disturbing effect and convey the absurdity and cruelty of life.”

Nihilst Arby’s I believe qualifies as Black Humor. When I think of an example of Black Humor, the first thing that comes to my mind is a scene from the film “Pulp Fiction” where the two hit-men, played by John Travolta and Sam Jackson, are transporting their hostage (a young black kid named Marvin) in the back seat of their car after killing all his friends who didn’t deliver on a deal to their boss. The two hit-men know they should be dead, because during the hit, they miraculously survived an onslaught of bullets from someone hiding in the bathroom. The two hit-men debate whether the event was just chance or an act of God, with Travolta’s character on the side of chance, but Sam’s experience is life changing and evidence of a higher power at work. When Travolta turns to ask Marvin his opinion (and on my first viewing I’m thinking “He’s pointing his gun right at Marvin!”), this happens:

“Oh, man, I shot Marvin in the face.” I’m in the theater, laughing my ass off at the absurdity and horror of it all, surprised I’m laughing along with everyone else, looking at the disgusting little bits of brain matter caught in Sam Jackson’s hair, while thinking “that’s Marvin right there, holy shit.” One second the two hit-men are discussing Chance vs. Acts of God in reference to their lives being spared, one making a life-altering decision to change his evil ways as a result, and the next a chance accident snuffs out a life in an explosion of gore (which we don’t really see, we just see the aftermath).

That is Black Humor. That is Nihilism. You are born. You die. Life sucks. Deal with it and enjoy it the best you can. Eat Arby’s.

Life is a Joke

In my estimation, humor as a successful survival and mating strategy is a secondary result to it being necessary for humans to deal with the “blessing” of consciousness and sentience. We are the only species (that we are aware of) that know we exist, that know we are individuals, that know our place in this harsh reality, and that know deep down in our bones that are going to die someday. Maybe tomorrow. But we can’t think too deeply about that, because it would render us immobile and unable to continue living and struggling and striving. So we push it back in our minds, and it rises to the surface from time to time, and when it comes to the surface as laughter, what a wonderful way to deal with it!

Nihilist Arby’s is funny because it’s true.

Just as Religion developed to help us deal mentally and emotionally with our mortality, fragility, finite-ness, and provide answers to questions with no answers in this reality such that we can keep living, I believe humor developed first to combat those same inevitable problems that result from a conscious existence. If we are only capable of looking into the abyss, and not point and laugh at its ridiculous emptiness in response, our species would’ve committed suicide long ago. We wouldn’t be here.

The duality of Light and Dark, Life and Death, Pain and Pleasure, Tears and Laughter, Suffering and Joy, is a truth. You cannot have one without the other. They exist in balance.

In The Killing Joke, Joker says to Batman: “It’s all a joke! Everything everybody ever valued or struggled for… it’s all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side? Why aren’t you laughing?” He’s right. We know it, deep down, which is why Joker is such a compelling and attractive character. Where Joker goes wrong is responding to this monstrous joke called existence by adding to the pain and suffering of others, rather than providing the needed balance of pleasure and joy. Life is cruel enough all on its own – people experience enough pain and suffering due to their own choices, faults, and actions, above and beyond the cruelty of disease, tragedy, acts of God, and accidents – we don’t need to add to it by purposefully and willfully causing pain and suffering, and laughing at the horrific consequences. That’s not Life. That’s not Existence. That is you, and what you have brought into existence. Just because someone is going to die alone one day, does not mean you should kill them now.

So Laugh

My family went to Valley Fair recently. It was a beautiful day, with a clear blue sky. My two daughters rode the roller-coasters for the first time because they were finally tall enough, and they rode all of them except the highest one, the Wild Thing. They didn’t want to ride that one, they were too scared, or maybe they were just saving it for next year – they had accomplished enough already. I didn’t tell them that the reason the roller coasters and rides are “fun” is because they simulate and stimulate the death-reflex in our bodies – we are not supposed to go that fast, or freefall like that, and survive. Adrenaline rushes into our system, we instinctively scream because our bodies think we are going to die, but then we don’t. So we literally laugh at the face of death, and go to the next ride to not die again.

The day was nearing its end, and we decided to ride the Scrambler that makes an appearance at most small county and city fairs. An oldie-but-goodie. Mrs. DT and I rode together in one car, and my two kids rode together in another car. They had trouble getting the seat-belt buckled. We could see them from where we sat, already buckled and latched in. I knew the ride attendant would come around to check eventually, but as a “good-Dad” I probably should’ve gotten out to help them myself. I could see them start to panic, looking over at us with wide eyes, not belted in – “What if the ride started? We’ll get flung out and die!!!” But a part of me, since they were big enough to ride the big rides, wanted to see how they would handle this situation – a little lesson in “self-reliance,” maybe.

My youngest tried to buckle the seat belt, jerked back her arm and elbowed my oldest in the face. Her glasses came off, hanging askew across the tip of her nose and from one ear. She looked over at us. I tried not to laugh. My oldest straightened her glasses and took a turn at the belt. She too accidentally elbowed her younger sister right in the chops. My youngest’s head snapped back a little. She looked at us. It was like a comedy-bit now, I couldn’t help but laugh, but at the same time tried to comfort them by saying the ride attendant was on his way. “Stop laughing at us! You’re laughing at us! You’re embarrassing us!” Now the kids were crying a little and pouting. They got belted in eventually. Safe and sound now, they crossed their arms and turned away from us.

They were showing us. They wouldn’t have fun on this ride now. We ruined it for them.

The Scrambler started moving and spinning, slow at first but accelerating quickly, and our two cars crossed paths on the ride again and again. Watching them pass in their car, it was like a time-lapse photography video, or stop-motion animation. We’d get a little glimpse each time the ride spun around. First they maintained face, grumpy and sad. But each time, their faces brightened a bit, the light twinkled more in their eyes, their smiles started to show, and after ten or so “photographs” they were open-mouthed laughing, pressed back into the seat, gripping onto to the bar with straightened arms, crinkled faces to the sky as if to say “stop tickling me, I’m going to pee my pants!” Mrs. DT and I laughed at the evolving image in equal measure.

I’m a visual person, and I’ll probably remember that image the rest of my life – their faces slowly transforming from sadness to laughter. Angry to happy in twenty seconds, thanks to the Scrambler.

After the ride, my youngest returned to being angry at us for laughing and embarrassing them. I explained what we saw from our angle – the dueling elbows to the faces – and laughter started to peek through her grumpy face and tears. She “got it.” She was in on the joke, even if she didn’t like it.

Sure, I am going to die, Mrs. DT is going to die, my kids are going to die, and that wonderful moment in time will be lost forever. But it’s here now, so enjoy it and laugh.

Your survival depends on it.


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