Comedy and the Three Part Soul


Credit: Adam Richins

A group of sophomores laughing at something (probably the rubric for National History Day).

A sense of humor is important for anyone hoping to make it through life without being miserable. If you took everything that happened to you seriously, you would probably explode from the sheer pressure of life on Earth. But, in today’s culture, humor is sometimes warped from something intellectual and pleasant to base and ugly. Humor can be a beautiful expression of one’s rational and emotional capacities colliding to form something objectively clever but also simply enjoyable. When you take out the intellectual aspect of comedy, you are left with something “pleasant,” but not always good.

As Plato and Aristotle recognize and the juniors study in their Theology class, the soul can be understood with three parts: the rational, spirited, and the appetitive. A well functioning soul, one that is in line with Plato’s obsession (justice) and able to seek Aristotle’s buzzword (telos) is one in which the rational aspect of the soul rules over the other two. A soul ordered in this way is the only one able to be happy, free, virtuous and have friends (you’d think it’d be more appealing to people, right?). The issue that we encounter with humor is that there is a fine balance between reason, spirit, and appetite. When people make jokes only about things that pertain to their appetite, there’s an imbalance. The joke might seem funny to the listener, especially if it was well-executed, but there is no substance in that joke, and it is objectively unhumorous. As comedian and actor Ricky Gervais said in an interview: “A comedian’s job isn’t just to make people laugh, that’s easy, that could be a reflex…I think comedy is about empathy.”

Humor, at its highest form, is an act of the reason. It has many forms, but at its base, humor is laying expectations next to reality and pointing out the differences. It is exposing something slightly absurd in what we experience everyday. Good humor can be as simple as two words sounding similar and meaning something entirely different than what you would think. Humor requires a fine eye to see these small but meaningful distinctions and a sharp tongue to lay them out well. This humor is the highest form of humor precisely because the intellect is at its head. It is well balanced.

But even better than this form of humor is one which is not simply the domain of the intellect nor the appetite, but a pleasant blending of all three parts of the soul. It is a humor which brings people together, not because each joke is objectively funny, but because they are relevant to people’s lives and relieve tension. That’s why comedians like John Mulaney are so good; they take the aspects of life that most people have experienced and point out the absurdities. And the best kind of jokes that you can make or hear are the kind that strike some specific weird occurrence in your daily life. 

So I basically just ruined every joke ever with this in depth explanation of how they work. But I think it’s an important reminder for everyone that humor is not just about laughing, it’s about relieving some stress from life. I’m not sure about you, but I’m not usually stressed about the appetitive aspects of life. What I am certainly stressed about is that Lang rewrite due next week, or the fact that momentum actually makes no sense and the chain rule was invented by Albert**

Newton to destroy mostly sophomores’ and one junior’s mental capacity. Even more than that, I’m stressed about the rising gas and grocery prices and the war in Ukraine. Humor has the beautiful ability to make all that a little less stressful and tense. But not if all the jokes we are making are about stupid meaningless things, because for a joke to really be meaningful, it has to have more substance than noises or rude gestures. So put some effort at this ~critical time~ in your life into building up that sense of humor.

Theresa Marcucci ‘23, Faith Editor

**I’m aware that most people think his name is Isaac, but it’s actually not.