Comedy Is Cynical

Millions of consumers proceeded to their nearest commercial centers this week in hopes of acquiring the latest, and therefore most desirable, personal device. … “Its higher price indicates to me that it is superior, and that not everyone will be able to afford it, which only makes me want to possess it more,” said Tim Sturges, ….

“Not only will I be able to perform tasks faster than before, but my new device will also inform those around me that I am a successful individual who is up on the latest trends,” said Rebecca Hodge, whose executive job allowed her to line up for several hours in the middle of the day in order to obtain the previously unavailable item. “Its attractiveness and considerable value are, by extension, my attractiveness and considerable value.”

Consumer Robert Larson agreed.  “I’m going to take my new device wherever I go,” said Larson, holding the expensive item directly in the eyeline of several reporters. “That way no one on the street, inside the elevator, or at my place of business will ever mistake me for the sort of individual who does not own the new device.”

More at The Onion.  Since it is low status to be seen naked in public, we think it funny to see high status folks naked in public.  Similarly, while we humans seek status, it is low status to be too obviously trying to seek status.  So we get a special thrill out of seeing high status folks shown to be directly seeking status.

Comedy is full of such cynical observations like the above, far more than most other media.  (Why?)   Since we immediately recognize such descriptions, we must think this sort of behavior is pretty common.  But we only rarely admit that we are at the moment motivated by such concerns. So just how much of human behavior do most people think is driven by status seeking?  10%? 90%?  And just how different do we each think we are relative to the average?

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  • http://www.overcomingbias.com/ Mike

    Since it is low status to be seen naked in public, we think it funny to see high status folks naked in public… Comedy is full of such cynical observations like the above, far more than most other media.

    You’re missing the best part – what’s brilliant about this is that it doesn’t go for the cheap laughs by portraying its victims as clownish buffoons (as the Onion sometimes does), exaggerating their flaws – the usual yuppie-bashing. Rather than cynicism, isn’t this just the opposite? Naively adopting what we usually cynically distance ourselves from and do anyway.

  • rob

    “Comedy is full of such cynical observations like the above, far more than most other media. (Why?)” — This is tautology. Cynical observations are funny. Why? :

    “But we only rarely admit that we are at the moment motivated by such concerns”.– Because we are embarrassed by the truth. We laugh off the embarrassment.

    I think the real question you are driving at is: why do comedians and comedy writers take such a different approach to status seeking (acknowledging it) than most people? Probably because they are greater risk takers. The Lenny Bruce’s of the world don’t have the option of resigning themselves to middle-management positions. They must go for the nuclear option. They began their careers by pressing that little red button. Even Jay Leno lived out of his car for a while.

    Steve Martin had a routine where he said: “I’ve decided to try to appeal to a wider audience because I feel that it is more… money.” Cynical observation IS comedy. The Steve Martin album is titled: Comedy Isn’t Pretty.

  • rob

    Nietzsche said you can rank a man by his sense of humor. Comedy and cynical observation are like electricity and magnetism.

  • Robert Wiblin

    Many funny male t-shirts have observations about signalling in the same style. I think calling out your and others’ signalling is a sign of confidence that makes you seem more attractive, if you can pull it off.

    One old interpretation of comedy is that it is attenuated aggression – if so, it is not surprising that status attacks on other people (or countersignalling by attacking yourself) are used in humour.

  • Karthik

    So just how much of human behavior do most people think is driven by status seeking?

    99.9% (meaning just about all).

    All acquisitions are coloured with status seeking, including a wife.

    Even the seemingly noble activities, like the pursuit of science or a passion for the arts, are tainted with a desire for status.

    • michael vassar

      Tainted? Compared to what?

    • J

      “tainted with a desire for status”

      What’s wrong with desire for status?

      Is comedy cynical, or is cynicism inherently funny?

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  • Jess Riedel

    Since we immediately recognize such descriptions, we must think this sort of behavior is pretty common. But we only rarely admit that we are at the moment motivated by such concerns. So just how much of human behavior do most people think is driven by status seeking? 10%? 90%?

    I immediately recognize when someone is using the toilet, and I would agree that this behavior is common. But this observation doesn’t suggest that 10%-90% of human behavior is toilet-related.

  • retired phlebotomist

    No one made status seeking and self deception funnier than novelist Thomas Berger. He’s most famous for “Little Big Man.” But I prefer the shorter novels from the last half of his career.

    “The Houseguest” might be the most cynical and funny novel I’ve read.

    He even has one that centers around cryonics (“Vital Parts,” I think)

  • http://petitioprincipii.wordpress.com/ Ray Gardner

    I wont’ hazard a guess as to an actual %, but it would be closer to 90% than 10%.

    What interests me more is the anti-status seeker who establishes their bona fides by making fun of anyone with something new. They make a point to never have the newest thing – lest they be seen as trendy.

    Guys who drive $60k pickup trucks and have to wear jeans as a matter of principle will make fun of someone driving a used Mercedes and wearing loafers. The blue jean guy is still establishing his status as a “real guy” though.

    My brother-in-law is this hyper-pragmatic person who won’t even get a new car. Last time we visited, I cringed when my phone rang because I suddenly realized I was going to pull out my new Blackberry, and he would of course assume that no one actually needs a Blackberry so therefore I was being trendy.

  • Psychohistorian

    Comedy is full of cynicism because the core element of comedy is wrong-ness.

  • michael vassar

    Status seeking? Maybe a third. Signaling? Nearly 90% in routine situations, far less in novel situations, times of crisis or desperation, childhood etc.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Not clear why we’d signal less in novel situations.

      • michael vassar

        I’d say that in practice we fairly clearly do. Probably because we have to figure out the situation, including what sort of signals and actions are in our interest, before signaling makes much sense.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    The Onion example isn’t status seeking; it’s signaling group membership. Lots of groups display membership badges, but they’re not lampooned as much as those whose credo is that they’re above petty tribalism.

    We signal more in desperate times. Childhood is pretty secure — your parents are always there. It’s adolescence and young adulthood when you’re the most socially desperate. And sure enough, that’s when people wear clothing with logos, obsess over what hairstyle will best signal group membership, etc. And all those American flags came out just after 9/11; they’ve since disappeared.

    One reason that comedy doesn’t age as well as other genres is that these subtle jabs at status-seeking require us to know what fads and affectations the group was chasing at the time. Not the stuff they teach in history class, so a lot of it makes no sense to us now. Being overly topical is not the best way to stay relevant.

  • Karthik

    @J:

    “tainted with a desire for status”

    What’s wrong with desire for status?

    The usage of ‘taint’ is not entirely inappropriate because, look at this way: In the pursuit of free thought (as in Science) or free art (I couldn’t phrase this one better because I’m not quite sure how art works), ‘status’ is a constraint, a boundary condition that must be met if you will. For instance, if I seek status, I might pursue solar cell research instead of trying to explain better the phenomenon of charge transport in disordered solids, because the former brings me much more status than the latter. Although the latter is a much more significant contribution to science and will likely result in greater benefit to mankind in the long run, albeit in a latent roundabout way.

    Is comedy cynical, or is cynicism inherently funny?

    To answer your question, I don’t quite understand the sense in which the word ‘cynical’ is being used by Dr. Hanson here. And I’m not sure what is inherently funny about cynicism. I am in agreement with Dr. Hanson that status lowering is a significant component of much common comedy, including slapstick, toilet, and sexual humour. However, I don’t think that covers all cases. Another significant source of much comedy is hyperbole overlaid on quirks. For instance Jerome K Jerome starts his legendary novel ‘three men in a boat’ with his looking up some medical dictionary and concluding that he had just about every illness in the book and then feeling slightly offended that he missed one. Similarly, in ‘three men on the bummel’ he narrates about the german desire for perfection, and how he wouldn’t be entirely surprised if a good German citizen went to the police and complained that the waterfall was not orderly enough, and asked that the fall be tamed. These are just two examples. I haven’t thought enough to figure out all possible sources of comedy. I expect there are more.

    • Jess Riedel

      “tainted with a desire for status”

      What’s wrong with desire for status?

      I don’t think Robin is making a normative judgment about status-seeking. He’s just referring to the fact that most people feel uncomfortable about their own status-seeking and attempt to hide it from themselves and others.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/robsica Rob

    William Ian Miller does a wonderfully erudite and uncommonly hilarious job of exploring the pervasive grip of status-seeking in everyday life (in “Humiliation” and “Faking It’), as well as the intimate connection between “upward contempt” and democracy (in “The Anatomy of Disgust”).

  • Philo

    “[J]ust how much of human behavior do most people think is driven by status seeking? 10%? 90%?”

    How big a motivational factor must *status seeking* be to count as “driving” one’s behavior? One’s status in society is important, and must virtually always be at least a background consideration. But it will often have only minor force, especially when one is confident of being unobserved.

    But, of course, one is always observing himself. The singleton “society”–oneself–is the most important society to which he belongs. Losing status with oneself is, for many people, harder to bear than losing status with other people.

    Some people also have religious concerns, and more strongly fear losing status with God than with their fellows.

    But, to repeat, one’s social status is always a legitimate concern, though perhaps a minor one.

  • Mas

    Designing a popular tech gadget conveys status. Just buying one at the store is not a difficult or exclusive activity (even 10 year olds can afford fancy smart phones) so it doesn’t carry much status.

    It can make you look tech savvy and there are technology branding issues which are status related. The real status symbols in life are more exclusive than a simple $200 purchase.

    The Onion article also poked fun at how we get excited about minor gadgetry improvements.

  • http:/www.jackchristopher.com Jack Christopher

    Has anyone read “Impro“? Johnstone basically invented modern improv. He explicitly teaches status. Here’s a sample

    His definition of comedian; from the link:

    A comedian is someone paid to lower his own or other people’s status.

    But you can lower (or raise) anything, not just people. We might call a funny person, a “comedian”, if they’re good at lowering (and raising) the status of things in general.

  • Jackson

    Okay, help me out here, what’s cynical about this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkJswDjn3zs

  • Tim

    The excerpt above seems to describe a very specific type of status seeking – the obvious attempt at projecting an image of wealth.

    I think this particular type of status seeking is often criticized due to the duplicity which is frequently associated with it. Take as an example the guy who makes $10-$20/hr and is sinking deeper and deeper into debt to provide the illusion of wealth through his purchases of a new bmw, luxury home furnishings, 0% down McMansion, 3g ipod, netbook, etc.

    Perhaps openly seeking a wealthy status (regardless of one’s actual wealth) is also mocked because it indicates the seeker believes his/her own value is increased by the mere ownership of a new/expensive item. I think people would like to believe that they only truly consider the physical and mental characteristics of a person, so these status seekers might come off as completely shallow.

    Alternately, I would imagine that those with reduced financial means (or a lack of desire to go into extreme credit card debt) might mock wealth status seekers (obvious or not) due to sheer jealousy.

    As for cynicism in comedy in general, we tend to have very high opinions of ourselves and aren’t always very tolerant of groups or individuals who we see as different. Comedians do a great job of focusing on and exaggerating our differences and provide us an outlet for dealing with these feelings through laughter rather than violence.

    • Jackson

      Perhaps openly seeking a wealthy status (regardless of one’s actual wealth) is also mocked because it indicates the seeker believes his/her own value is increased by the mere ownership of a new/expensive item. I think people would like to believe that they only truly consider the physical and mental characteristics of a person, so these status seekers might come off as completely shallow.

      Unfortunately, far from mocking it (yes it does happen in comedy, and that’s on topic) people go along with it… they don’t seem to equate themselves with the targets of comedy… or just don’t care.

      I would imagine that those with reduced financial means (or a lack of desire to go into extreme credit card debt) might mock wealth status seekers (obvious or not) due to sheer jealousy.

      Just sheer jealousy? Is that the best you could come up with?
      ‘Lack of desire to go into extreme credit card debt’
      My integrity, or that which I aspire to, is such that I’ve never gone into

      extreme

      debt. And on the few times I have used my overdraft (no more than £200), I recovered promptly.

      • Tim

        Just sheer jealousy? Is that the best you could come up with?
        ‘Lack of desire to go into extreme credit card debt’
        My integrity, or that which I aspire to, is such that I’ve never gone into
        extreme debt. And on the few times I have used my overdraft (no more than £200), I recovered promptly.

        I didn’t meant to imply that all people with prudent spending habits are jealous of the wealth status seekers, simply that it was a third possible cause. I believe my own amusement at the behavior of the aforementioned individuals is due to a combination of the first two listed causes (perceived duplicity and perceived shallowness). These could probably both be categorized as laughing at behavior that we believe to be different from our own.

        If you, too, occasionally find yourself laughing at wealth status seekers, what do you find your own reasons to be?

  • Jackson

    One needs a sense of humour to cope with this madness

    • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com Richard Silliker

      This really is a lotofun!

  • http://litnow.litnow.com/ Andy

    Great point, Robin. Your post got me thinking about the cynical basis of comedy, and also about how comedic pieces can be seen as enacting a sort of mock QA process, in which a set of social practices are tested to see which are “good” and which “bad,” i.e. socially acceptable or not. That is, the characters are shown to engage in certain practices, often in exaggerated form, and in unusual situations – “edge use cases” – in order to demonstrate which will “break” and which won’t. When they break, the audience laughs – and learns not to engage in this practice, either at all, or in certain situations. (I work in tech – thus my thinking of the QA analogy.)

    I’ve written about this at http://litnow.litnow.com/?p=328. I’d love to know your thoughts on my analysis.

  • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com Richard Silliker

    Comedy is no longer humour, it now tickles your ambivalence.

  • OldIdealist

    Anytime anyone tries to tell me that human action can be reduced to a single activity my bullshit meter starts to screaming.

    You may be on to something regarding cynicism. I am not cynical and while I can laugh easily I’m not adept at telling jokes. I think that’s a small price to pay not to live your life under the constant cloud of disgust and hatred for your own species.

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