Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays
Vitalist humor is a response of the human spirit to the forces of life and death.
Vitalist humor comes in two voices, defiant and affirmational.
Working with the two voices, the LBVHT employs four forms of vitalist humor: Potential, Creativity, Performance, and Tenacity.
The two joke types that show the highest degree of affirmational preference for each participant are combined to create a vitalist humor personality.
The vitalist humor personality suggests the ways a participant joys in the presence of life.
Test participants in the aggregate prefer affirmational jokes about as frequently as defiant.
The LBVHT was administered to five congregational subgroups as well as a group of Winona State University faculty.
Results showed stronger preferences among all subgroups for Langerian creativity than for other Langerian forms.
Denominational Differences in Vitalist Humor Preference
Presented at the Midwest American Academy of Religion
Conference on Religion and Humor
Chicago, IL 2001
Edited for internet publication
If the classical humor admired by George Meredith is aptly called Humor of the Mind, vitalist humor, first described by Henri Bergson and later recast by Suzanne Langer, can be called Humor of the Spirit. As an expression of the élan vital, vitalist humor is a response of the human spirit to the forces of life and death. As such it might be expected to reveal differing sensibilities among different religious groups.
The vitalist interpretation of humor was first proposed by Bergson in 1900. Bergson argued that the entire universe is a struggle of two forces, the living and the dead, that the dead is constantly encroaching on the living, and that laughter is a recognition of this encroachment in the form of the "mechanical encrusted on the living." He pointed to laughter over the standard slapstick routine of an old man slipping on a banana peel as our recognition of the forces of death to which somebody has just succumbed but which we have heretofore fended off.
Fifty years later Langer propounded another vitalist variant. Langer saw laughter as the recognition of life breaking forth. She noted that babies, human or animal, often elicit laughter, and suggested as a model the fish which, in a close encounter with a predator, had lost half its tail and now swims with a list, but swims nevertheless. Our laughter celebrates the life force still working in the fish.
Gravian vitalist humor research has been premised on a fusion of the insights of both Bergson and Langer, concluding that vitalist humor comes in two voices, the defiant Bergsonian voice which laughs in defiance of death, and the affirmational Langerian voice which laughs in affirmation of life. Generally speaking, in the Bergsonian variant we laugh at death, at the mechanical, the robotic, the rigid. On the other hand, in the Langerian variant we laugh with or in appreciation the exceptionally alive.
Gravian methodology further identifies four primary forms of vitalist humor—Creativity, Tenacity, Potential, and Performance—each of which occurs in both the defiant and the affirmational voices. Working with the two voices of vitalism expressed in four forms, Paul Grawe developed the Langerian/Bergsonian Vitalist Humor Test (LBVHT) to measure a participant's degree of preference for the affirmational or the defiant voice for each of the four forms of vitalist humor.
For example, participants are shown two vitalist Creativity jokes, one which asks us to laugh at a lack of Creativity and one which asks us to laugh with extraordinary Creativity. In a Beetle Bailey comic strip, when General Halftrack is asked the attributes of a good general, he demonstrates his putting skills ( Walker September 12, 1997). We laugh at his idée fixe, which is mechanical, uncreative. Alternatively, another Beetle Bailey cartoon shows Sarge asking his men the whereabouts of Beetle, all the while Beetle has creatively escaped Sarge's notice by clinging horizontally to a ladder the men are carrying right under Sarge's nose (September 25, 1997). We laugh with Beetle's alive mind, his light bulb idea.
Similarly, a Tenacity pair is represented by two Peanuts comic strips. In the one representing defiant Tenacity, we read that Snoopy's fictional hero, heartbroken over the loss of his girl friend, consoles himself in the faithfulness of his dog which we are told is planning to leave him. We laugh at the lack of Tenacity of the pet (Schultz September 12, 1997). In the Langerian match, we are invited to laugh with the stiff-upper-lip Tenacity of another fictional hero of a work evidently celebrating tenacity called "Border Collies Don't Cry" (September 29. 1997).
In a pair of Potential Crankshaft strips, the first shows an elderly woman telling her friend over tea, "Actually my memories are still all there. . . .locked inside these tiny little gray cells! I just can't find some of the keys anymore!" (Batiuk & Ayers October 9, 1997).We laugh at the description of senility, recognizing the lack of Potential. Another strip shows the same women with a friend at a pet shop looking for a kitten to brighten the mood. The proprietor suggests, "In that case, two kittens would be even better!" (November 5, 1997). The cartoon invites a Langerian delight in the Potential suggested in young animals.
And finally, in two Marmaduke Performance cartoons, the first invites us to laugh at Marmeduke who, urging his young mistress to play ball with him, is reeking of bad breath (Anderson October 9, 1997). If he doesn't smell of death, he smells of garbage, and we laugh at this Performance. In the companion joke, Marmaduke is enjoying a car ride; large as he is, his face fills the windshield, his rear end extends out the hatchback, and his wagging tail is so expressive of life that the car swerves back and forth (October 25, 1997). We laugh with an extraordinary display of life.
In most instances, the test pairs cartoons created by the same artist in order to eliminate responses based on a favorite cartoonist. And in most cases, the cartoons are multi-frame strips rather than single frame jokes. Vitalist humor is dynamic, tied into life forces, suggesting life processes. This dynamic character of vitalism makes it less apparent and less workable in joke books than in dramatic productions, both stage and film, where vitalist humor accentuates how characters deal with the challenges to life.
Vitalist Humor Personalities
The two joke types that show the highest degree of affirmational preference for each participant are combined to create a vitalist humor personality. Affirmational preferences create six vitalist humor personalities illustrated by the circle below:
Vitalist Humor Personalities
For the purposes of the LBVHT, a participant's two most affirmational vitalist joke preferences create the vitalist humor personality, suggesting the ways he or she joys in the presence of life rather than the ways he or she laughs at the ever-present forces of death. While test participants in the aggregate prefer affirmational jokes about as frequently as defiant, almost all participants lean somewhat toward either the affirmational or the defiant. Nevertheless, those who lean Bergsonian (defiant) still exhibit relative Langerian (affirmational) preferences. Thus, for example, a participant who prefers affirmational Tenacity and Performance jokes two out of three times and defiant Potential and Creativity jokes consistently would overall have a defiant (Bergsonian) score. But this participant would have demonstrated by the test a Hero vitalist humor personality on the basis of relative affirmational (Langerian) preferences for Tenacity and Performance.
The LBVHT was administered to five congregational subgroups, two Catholic (one of which was connected to a university), two Lutheran, and one evangelical; additionally the test was administered to a group of Winona State University faculty who did not specifically identify church affiliation. The researchers are much indebted to these groups for their participation. The chart below gives a fuller description of the Vitalist Participant Subgroups. The total number of participants was 145.
Vitalist Participant Subgroups
The following charts show the distribution of vitalist humor personality types by subgroup.
The most common personality type among all participants was Artisan with 34, followed by Entrepreneur with 28 and Inventor with 10. These results reflect the stronger preferences among all subgroups for Langerian creativity than for other Langerian forms and the average preference for Bergsonian vitalism among all other joke types. Because of the large number of participant subgroups (6) and the large number of humor personality types (6) as well as the possibility of ties in personality types, a Chi-square analysis was used. It should be noted that participants were not merely associated with a congregation or subgroup; they might be associated with a cluster of subgroups, such as liturgical churches, Catholics, Protestants, or academics. Additionally, we have repeatedly found that gender affects participants’ humor preferences, and thus it is often necessary to separate genders to find a meaningful result. The Chi-Square grids below indicate high-confidence results.
Faith Evangelical Free Females
While all subgroups showed a strong liking for Langerian Creativity, Faith Evangelical Free females far more than others combined this liking for affirmational Creativity with a preference for affirmational Performance (p < .002) making them exclusively Artisan except for 2 ties, a relatively low number. Faith Free males and females together scored more highly Artisan than other participants (p < .09). It is interesting to reflect that Evangelical Protestantism starting in the 16th Century with English Puritans and French Huguenots tended to thrive among the artisan class.
St. Mary's University Males
All St. Mary's University participants were of the Christian Brothers Order (and thus male), an order well-known for it entrepreneurial spirit in establishing universities and wineries at its California missions. Compared to other groups, they tested high for Entrepreneur (relative affirmational Creativity and Tenacity.)
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Redeemer Lutheran Church is known for experimentation and inventiveness in worship, using a wide variety of music, and in ministries, including a stewardship garden, which was featured in a national Lutheran magazine. Compared to other groups, Redeemer participants tested high for Inventor (relative affirmational Creativity and Potential).
Nurturers (relative Potential and Tenacity) tended to be Lutheran females, either of Redeemer Lutheran Church or Central Lutheran Church. With a total of only 7 Nurturers overall, 6 were Lutheran females.
The extraordinarily high confidence levels of these results suggest that ivitalist humor preferences are in fact reflective of religious group sensibilities. Though all the religious groups tested represent branches of Christianity which share basic theological tenets, their responses to the forces of life and death as they appear in cartoons seem to differ, a reflection of the diversity of denominationalism within the unity of the Christian faith.
Bergson, Henri. “Le Rire.” Tr. Fred Rothwell. Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1956: 61-192.
Langer, Suzanne. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953.
Anderson, Brad. Marmaduke. United Features Syndicate, Inc. Winona, MN: Winona Daily News, 1997.
Batiuk, Tom, and Chuck Ayers. Crankshaft. Media Graphics Inc./Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate. Winona, MN: Winona Daily News, 1997.
Schultz, Charles. Peanuts. Winona, MN: Winona Daily News, 1997.
Walker, Mort. Beetle Bailey. King Features Syndicate. Winona, MN: Winona Daily News, 1997.