For many there’s nothing more humourless than insisting on analysing humour. E.B. White famously said: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” I can agree to an extent, to begin over-analysing why something is funny can end up sucking the humour out of it. On the other hand, I think that when we find something funny, we are making those connections in our minds anyway. Humour is often about drawing attention to the familiar, or finding a common understanding, and so to dismiss laughter as a simple reaction that isn’t the result of any thought does comedy, and the people who enjoy it, a disservice. I would argue that we laugh because we understand why something is funny. It’s strange that White’s oft-quoted take on analysing humour (and who knows how serious he was being about it anyway) is both humorous and seemingly worthy of analysis. Even the language choice of ‘the frog dies of it’ is a great punch-line. So, it turns out, for better or worse, that I am a person that is interested in analysing it. As well as being interested in humour for humour’s sake, I’m also interested in comedy that uses humour to say something, and I think almost all comedy does.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide series is as silly as it is smart, and as thought-provoking as it is humorous. Adams chose to deal with our species’ position in the Universe from the very opening of the first novel in this series. The narrator immediately dismisses our place of residence as being of any importance by calling it “an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” The narrator of this particular book is, in my opinion, being a lot more truthful than the narrator who explains the overwhelming importance of our species in the opening of, say, The Bible. And this sets precedence for the entire series – Adams deals with philosophical questions in a manner which could be perceived as being offhand, but are, in actuality, extremely reasoned. He offers an anthropological reason for the origin of religion in a speech he gave at Cambridge in 1998, an audiobook transcript of which is set to some smooth jazz below.
An audiobook version of a transcript from Douglas Adams’ speech at Digital Biota 2 in Cambridge, September 1998. Adams’ original speech in the audio below. Also found in The Salmon Of Doubt.
In Mostly Harmless we witness Arthur Dent crash-landing on a strange planet and his mystery and other-worldliness means he is soon considered a figure of influence (in much the same way as Brian in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian is forced into a position of influence against his will), and it is soon decided that he must be the figure known as The Sandwich Maker. The true position of influence, however, lies with the one who has informed other residents of the planet that this is Dent’s true identity, Old Thrashbarg, who is seemingly the source of (and retainer of) information about Almighty Bob – the god worshipped on this planet. He dislikes being questioned on the nature or motives of Almighty Bob, and dismisses questions about his will by explaining that they are “ineffable”.
A favourite passage of mine is about Old Thrashbarg’s use of this term:
“A few villagers wondered why Almighty Bob would send his only begotten Sandwich Maker in a burning fiery chariot rather than perhaps in one that might have landed quietly without destroying half the forest, filling it with ghosts and also injuring the Sandwich Maker quite badly. Old Thrashbarg said that it was the ineffable will of Bob, and when they asked him what “ineffable” meant, he said look it up.
This was a problem because Old Thrashbarg had the only dictionary and he wouldn’t let them borrow it. They asked him why not and he said that it was not for them to know the will of Almighty Bob, and when they asked him why not again, he said because he said so. Anyway, somebody sneaked into Old Thrashbarg’s hut one day while he was out having a swim and looked up “ineffable.” “Ineffable” apparently meant “unknowable, indescribable, unutterable, not to be known or spoken about.” So that cleared that up.”
Without wishing to dissect this too much and undo what makes this passage funny, there are some serious things being discussed here about the nature of religious belief and the hold it can have on the way a person thinks. I think Adams has managed to break religion down into its constituent parts and is discussing the way that religion relies on presenting (or, indeed, withholding with the promise of one day presenting) seemingly ethereal information, holding inexplicable power, and creating mystery and fear in a way that is brilliant in its simplicity. In many ways Adams is offering a blueprint for the reason religion has been and is still such a successful and thriving part of our society.
Douglas Adams’ interview with American Atheists, taken from the audiobook version of The Salmon Of Doubt.
Adams was clear about his atheism, as well as being clear about his fascination with the concept of religion. So many separate planets that are visited or discussed in The Hitchhiker’s Guide series have their own myths about their arrival in the Universe, have different gods they worship, and have certain codes or practices based on these assumptions. Adams’ insistence on having religious inclinations being present throughout this fictitious Universe and evolving on separate planets is a suggestion that all sentient living beings might be naturally inclined to look at the world around them and conclude that there is something bigger and more powerful than themselves that must have created them and, rather dangerously, come to the conclusion that this world was created for them. There is a certain sympathy with religious thought here, though. It is not dismissed as sheer foolishness, rather it is offered as being a natural and seemingly logical conclusion for a living being to come to, albeit a conclusion that is wrong. This is what Adams refers to as the conclusion of the ‘sentient puddle’ in a lecture he once gave. He describes a puddle of water which suddenly becomes sentient, and after waking up it feels that it is so perfectly suited to the hole it occupies that it comes to the conclusion that the hole must have been built for the sole purpose of having this particular puddle occupy it (discussed in the video above and from 10 minutes and 44 seconds into the audio below).
Douglas Adams talking at Digital Biota 2 in Cambridge, 1998. Full transcript.
It wouldn’t be true to say that Adams was saying anything particularly new or ground-breaking. Atheism has been a philosophical position for many people for many years. The way Adams chooses to explore the idea, however – by engaging with the psychology behind religion, by presenting our species as being as prone to folly as any other fictitious alien society he might make up, and, most importantly, by being funny – makes him stand out to me as someone approaching the subject in a different way. Since I’m still worried that this over-analysis is in danger of killing the frog of comedy (as we should take it to be in White’s metaphor), and the last thing I would want to do is kill the humour of this great series of books, I guess there’s every chance I could be wrong. Maybe he was just being funny.