TED Conversations

Jim Moonan

Owner/Artistic Director, NorthWind Education

TEDCRED 50+

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What role do you think humor has in human discourse?

I am a huge proponent of humor used in small measures to enlighten and propel a conversation forward. It is a remarkably versatile and worthwhile ingredient to any recipe for unlocking truths. It has been my experience that TED conversations appear to largely forgo the use of humor as if it were MSG or some kind of unpronounceable chemical additive. Do you think this is an accurate assessment?

On the other hand, many TED talks are well-seasoned with humor and it is standard wisdom that most formal presentations need to be whetted with humor from time to time to keep things “real”.

I’m talking about wit. I’m talking about insightful humor. Twain-like quips. David Sedaris-like observations. Churchillian witticisms. Obama-like levity.

It’s a difficult subject to address seriously. Everyone is born with a sense of humor, yet so often it is kept under wraps when we talk “seriously” about issues.

I am NOT advocating for “laughs”. Not looking for jokes. Not interested in embarrassing someone or offending someone.

I am NOT talking about the “everybody is a comedian” syndrome that seems to infect social scenes nowadays. I am not talking about the pointless, baseless humor meant to shock and offend sensibilities.

I am NOT talking about controversial humor that acts like an irritant.

I am talking about human nature.

How do you feel about it?

Topics: World Peace
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    Nov 24 2011: If you are interested in human nature, you should forget about humor and look to comedy. Comedy encompasses wit, play, and humor, but on a structural level it also includes a deep reminder about what is important in life. Humor is the stuff of jokes; comedy is the stuff of Falstaff and Aristophanes. Unlike humor, comedy has a critical tradition that extends to the Greeks—if you want to know what role it plays in human discourse, it's a richer field.

    Here's an interesting essay about play and comedy: http://www.canuck.com/~bnb/greatcosmicjoke/reallife/playethic.html
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      Nov 24 2011: It depends on your definition of comedy. (See Stephen Camm's comment below on evolution) If you are referring to comedy in the classical sense then yes.

      "Humor is the stuff of jokes; comedy is the stuff of Falstaff and Aristophanes".

      I disagree. I think humor is a high form of comedy and is used to provide insight, levity, perspective, etc. and comedy as being more "the stuff of jokes" as you say.

      Both are useful. But humor is critical. Humor is a pervasive thing. There is humor in nature, humor in saddness, humor ikn confusion, humor in sexuality, humor in politics, humor in death, humor in birth, humor in art, even humor in science (no small feat). I also think it is humor that is "medicine" - not comedy, not laughter.

      We may be playing semantics here (a TED tradition). I understand your classical definition of comedy and the long tradition of comedy in the arts, but in today's terminology it is humor that is critical - not comedy. Comedy is important (where would the world be without Charlie Chaplin?) but I think it is a person's ability to find humor in existence that is critical. You need not look any further than at many of the comments here to see that.
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      Nov 24 2011: Incidentally, there was a TED conversation taking place that recently closed. I was unaware that it was closing so soon and entered into it on the last couple of days with what I thought was a "humorous" comment. It caused something of a stir and two TEDsters I highly respect could not make heads or tails of why I said what I said. I never got a chance to explain my cryptically humorous comment. My plan was to use satire to show why the USA taking over the world was in fact a ludicrous idea. I was going to approach it in a Stephen Colbert kind of way to expose the 1,000 reasons why that would amount to Armageddon, but the conversation closed.
      Maybe I'll just continue that conversation here just so that I can sharpen my satirical skills. That's why I love TED conversations.

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