by Jason Pack
Is humour more like wine or more like a magic trick? Worded differently, if you are a comedy lover, is it better to know more about how humour works as then you can appreciate it more? Or, does knowing more spoil the wonder?
Knock, Knock: In Pursuit of a Grand Unified Theory of Humour by William Hartston (2023, Watkins Books) is a fantastic and wide-ranging investigation of how humour works. Firstly, the book is a potted history of Western philosophical inquiries into the nature of humour. Secondly, the book attempts to synthesize its own universally applicable theory of humour and then use it to shed light on humour’s role in ancient, modern, and contemporary societies. Thirdly, the book is a remarkably concise history of Western (primarily English language) humour and comedy. The scope and ambition of the work is completely original.
First off, it should come as no surprise that the Bible, Aristotle, Plato, various Churchmen, the Victorians, and many other old dead and cancelled white men hurled moral judgement against humour. It is a bit more surprising how comically wrong their views of how humour operates were. Harston scores big in pointing out the errors in the ancients’ and the religious fuddy-duddys’ understandings of humour, but he misses a trick by not investigating what even their misunderstandings or knee jerk reactions reveal about the core principles of the societies they were living in.
In this approach, Hartston treads on similar ground to Humour: A Very Short Introduction by Noël Carroll (2014, OUP) as both debunk the most venerable philosophical theories of humour: superiority theory, incongruity theory, surprise theory, and a few others. For those who are unfamiliar with the venerable and voluminous philosophical subfield investigating what makes things funny and what humour and laughter reveal about humanity, this portion of the book is an excellent primer.
Less comprehensive than Humour: A Very Short Introduction but far more readable, this portion of Knock, Knock suffers from a similar flaw – the investigation of the philosophical theories of why humour is humorous is simultaneously deeply unfunny and potentially like demystifying a magic trick. However, this is not Hartston’s fault, it is simply the nature of philosophical inquiries into humour: they simultaneously take away the fun, while failing to add new methods to further savour the underlying material. Therefore, without saying so overtly Hartston definitively answers the question: humour is more like a magic trick than like wine. The more you know, the less it works. That is not necessarily bad, it just is. It is like being tickled, if you see it coming, it doesn’t make you laugh.
The second theme of the book, the pursuit of a ‘Grand Unified Theory of Humour’, is a little bit of a red herring. It is used to drag the reader through the text and inspire them to challenge their assumptions, but at the end there is no eureka moment.
Where Hartston truly shines is in the final portion of the book. He is at his page-turning-best as he shows us examples of Sumerian jokes, Roman potty humour, Italian Commedia dell’arte, French opera buffa, British 19th century cartoons, German silent films, the Jewish Marx Brothers, and the American Seinfeld. His mastery of the material, plus his amazing concision, is an important addition to the history of human culture.
Having read Hartston, I now conceive the need for a history of Western civilisation told exclusively through its comedy. The work could draw on the templates of Jacques Barzun, Will Durrant, or William McNeil but confine itself to illustrating cultural evolution through the West’s changing sense of humour.
Taken in its totality, Knock, Knock is a deeply original, constantly enjoyable, and effortlessly well-written romp through five millennia of human humour.