Let’s start with the concept of humour itself. The character of Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation had a hell of a time trying to understand it, and with good reason. Humour is a very, very strange thing when you stop to consider it, because much of it is at the expense of others. In other words, it’s actually a rather cruel concept. It’s funny when someone does something ridiculous or stupid, for example. It’s funny when someone fails to understand or is blind to the social nuances of a situation (either willfully or through genuine ignorance). Pointing out the foibles of someone else is funny, especially if it is done with cutting sarcasm. Much physical humour is funny when it involves someone hurting themselves, particularly through clumsiness or maladroitness --- not seriously, because after all, most of us aren’t sadists. But oh yeah, that slipping on a banana peel and flying ass over teakettle? Hilarious. Black humour is even stranger: it’s something we find amusing that, by rights, shouldn’t be amusing at all. It often has a heavy dose of irony included in it --- which is another strange concept we can talk about another time.
So, yeah, humour is a really weird part of the human psyche that, as I said, often does not reflect well on us as a species.
Humour is often a matter of perspective or context. Let me give you an example from recent TV. I often watch The Big Bang Theory (BBT). It’s kind of a guilty pleasure for me in that it really doesn’t challenge or make very many demands of its viewers, and it’s really not about much of anything at all beyond the lives of these four geeks and their associated nearest and dearest. It’s nowhere near as clever or as deep as Frasier often was, for example. But it’s usually innocuous, pleasantly bland mental candy after a hard day at the office. So when the news came out that BBT was spawning a spin-off called Young Sheldon, I thought I’d give it a try. Full disclosure here: I rarely watch live TV, except for the news --- my modus operandi with BBT is to get the seasons on Blu-Ray and watch them at my leisure/convenience (yeah, okay, I’m something of a Luddite, so what?), so my exposure to Young Sheldon has been through YouTube clips. Young Sheldon, pretty much as one would expect, deals with the childhood vicissitudes of life for Dr. Sheldon Cooper of BBT. No need for a great deal of puzzling out the significance of the series title.
Now, Sheldon Cooper is one of the key characters on BBT. And quite frankly, as many, many people have already noted, he displays many of the characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This gives rise to a lot of the humour on BBT, especially when Sheldon is absolutely tone-deaf to the social nuances of a situation. His cluelessness is… well, it’s funny. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it often is (although it’s wearing a little thin after… what, 11 seasons?). So I expected Young Sheldon to be much the same.
Only it wasn’t.
Watching a ten-year-old Sheldon trying to maneuver his way through social situations he didn’t understand or appreciate at all wasn’t funny, I found. It was… sad. Painful. The last thing I felt like doing was laughing. Why?
Because it’s all a matter of perspective. It’s one thing, I guess, to watch the adult Sheldon, who at least has some life experience under his belt, attempt to negotiate these situations. He’s also obviously acquired some mental armour over the years to insulate himself from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. (Sigh. We all do. Unfortunately, it’s a vital survival tool in this often-cruel world.) It’s a totally different thing to watch a young child, who doesn’t have that life experience or the mental armour, do the same thing.
I know that Freud said that, “sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar,” and maybe I’m just being overly sensitive about a TV comedy which I’m quite sure has no aspirations whatsoever about making any kind of deep social or emotional commentary on our humanity (or lack thereof)… but it’s like I tell my students: kids, when you’re thinking about inserting humour into your writing, remember it’s a damned strange concept, completely subjective… and that means it’s all a matter of perspective.