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I was watching a science fiction movie the other night in which were figured several aliens of diverse races. During the course of the movie it became obvious that all three of the aliens, although vastly different in physical appearance and personality, shared one primary trait – none of them had a sense of humor. I have read and watched plenty of science fiction over the years and in retrospect, I can't recall that more than a handful of aliens portrayed in literature or on film who had any sense of humor at all. A few were cackling madmen, a few were wryly sarcastic, and plenty were funny without trying to be, but hardly any of them were likely to show up on earth and say, “I just flew in from Alpha Centuri, and boy, are my arms tired.”
The lack of comedians in our portrayal of the alien world got me to thinking about how humor plays into our sense of uniqueness. Humor is part of how we define ourselves individually, as a culture, and as a species. Humor can be very different depending upon from which culture we hail and vary in degrees or what value we place upon it, but it is very much part and parcel of every society and has been for a very long time. We tend to think of ancient cultures being less humorous than ourselves, but that is a fallacy. Ancient people were just as fond of it as we are. I bet that ancient Athens was full of stand-up comedians. I know that there is a Roman joke book found by archaeologists that is full of humorous one liners from the past. Some of them are just as funny as anything you might find in a modern joke book.
I wonder if writers and film makers tend to portray aliens as being rather humorless as a method of defining us as humans and them as something not human. If that is the case it just goes to prove how important humor is in our vision of ourselves. It is kind of interesting that many of the most iconic alien characters that have been created in literature and film over the years, while being advanced far beyond us in intellect and technology, are also rather serious and literal minded and invariably, confounded by our funny human selves. On some level, we must associate superior intellect with a lack of a funny bone. I find this interesting. Perhaps it is our way of creating a level of superiority in ourselves in the face of our lack of brains and really cool space toys. Like, yeah, OK, we aren't very bright and we don't have any ion canons or time machines, but we're a laugh a minute at a party.
Personally, I'm not so sure that humans are the only species who enjoys a good joke. I know that it has been proven that there are things that some primates think are a total hoot. They have done research with great apes and chimps that prove that, but I'm convinced that there are lower animals that find certain things hysterically funny, including us and on a regular basis.
I once had a friend who was absolutely convinced that his dog was laughing at him all the time. This friend was a lovable goof-ball who tended to be terribly clumsy and whenever he did something that made us laugh, the dog would snuffle in a manner that sounded exactly like a person attempting to stifle a laugh. We all heard it at one time or another, and although it was obvious that the dog loved him, it also appeared as if he found his master ridiculously funny. When my friend once tripped running down a slight grade and rolled ignominiously to the bottom, the dog snuffled. When he was leaning into his car once and the wind blew the door shut and smacked him in the rear end, the dog snuffled. When he had a little too much happy juice at a party and walked into a wall, the dog snuffled at least twice. When a chair he was sitting on slid out from under him and he landed on the floor, the dog snuffled so hard he had to lie down. After all of these mishaps my friend would point an accusing finger at the dog and say, “Don't laugh at me, you traitor!”, but that never stopped the dog as far as I could tell.
One day we were going sledding after a snow storm and my friend managed to find the only patch of ice in a 3 mile radius, lost his footing, and fell with a resounding thump on his backside. The dog snuffled 4 times, lay down in the snow, and rolled over. I was pretty sure that this was the doggie version of falling down laughing.
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