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“…the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.”

Most of us who work on computers will watch at least one funny or outrageous video a day.  Sometimes more like 10 or 20.  They usually come out of nowhere, dropped in the form of an IM or e-mail link — a little gift of levity or extreme violence to help you through the day.  Perhaps a flaming-shot-gone-wrong video like this one.

It makes you feel like a champ watching bad things happen to someone else.  It lets you ignore the bad things that are happening to you.  In a way, comedic and violent videos (the line is fine) are similar to the puns and pratfalls of vaudeville days.  You used to go pay to see a man fall on his ass on a stage.

Now, you can watch a baby kicked for the same effect.  Or a remix of a baby being kicked.

The key difference, you might say, is this one really happened (if it wasn’t faked) whereas physical comedy in vaudeville or a film is staged.  There’s a quote from a magician character in the Christopher Nolan movie The Prestige: “If people actually believed the things I did on stage, they wouldn’t clap, they’d scream.  Think of sawing a woman in half.”

The implication is we should be upset about a baby being kicked, not laughing.  That is, if it were real.  Without getting too intellectual about it, I think it’s probably because the Internet doesn’t feel much like reality.

It’s not that people have necessarily developed a more brutal sense of humor.  They probably have.  But the important component of these videos is that they are drained of any pain or tragedy.  What happened to the baby?  You don’t know.  You don’t want to know.  You don’t get to see the aftermath.  You can’t really find any information if you search for it.  Like with vaudeville — nobody wants to see the clown after the show, drinking bourbon over whatever misery has turned him to a career of public humiliation.  That’s not the funny part — just the violence.

Take this video of mascot bloopers, for example.  Pure horror — and yet one of the most entertaining spectacles you can watch online — because the pain is masked over by a stupid cartoon visage, and you never get to focus on one accident long enough to consider the agony involved.

There is an interesting interview with Alfred Hitchcock in which he discusses a movie he’d like to make.  It begins, as he explains, on a serious-looking man in a dignified top hat walking down the street.  The man falls unsuspectingly into a manhole, and the audience laughs.  But the camera holds, then pushes in on the manhole, where we see the aftermath of his plunge — the man at the bottom of the sewer, unconscious, his head split open, etc.

He never made the movie, but the internet did.  There is no more perfect mix of comedy and pain than in videos like this or the compilation of reporters getting owned that had the whole office laughing a while ago.  An innocuous fall you might see on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is followed by a compound fracture or possible death (you never really know).

Your reaction to these things can tell you a lot about yourself and other people.  It may be horrible to laugh at violence and misfortune, but why end a long human tradition?


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