If it’s funny, must it be true?

by John Holbo on February 28, 2006

So far as I know the following fallacy has no name: ‘if x is funny, there must be a grain of truth to x.’ It’s sort of like affirming the consequent, but for ‘it’s funny because it’s true’. If you see what I mean. (You have to think of ‘it’s funny’ as the consequent.) It’s part positive ad hominem. Rather than proving what he says is true, the speaker generates a sense of himself as a clever, sharp, perceptive person. The audience then infers that there must be something clever, sharp and perceptive about the position taken. But mostly the fallacy works because funniness is next to truthiness. The mechanisms of stand-up comedy and propaganda are not fully distinct. What makes you laugh has a certain kinship to that which causes the crowd’s madness. When you put it that way, it’s darn obvious what I am talking about. You have read something Mark Steyn wrote in the last several years, I take it? As Hume writes:

Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and of taste are easily ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: the latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue. The one discovers objects as they really stand in nature, without addition and diminution: the other has a productive faculty, and gilding or Steyning all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises in a manner a new creation.

(There, you see. That’s how it works.)

This fallacy has peculiar relevance for blogging because one of the main formal distinctions between ‘citizen journalism’ – i.e. political blogging – and the MSM (if we must call it that) is that it is the rule for blogging to be moderately to extremely, yet at the same time only incidentally, humoristic. This is why people like getting their news from blogs. Reading blogs is like hanging out with a bunch of witty people, whereas reading the newspaper is not. It’s sort of dry.

There is a sense in which blogging is poetic payback for traditional news and opinion outlets, whose obligatory self-seriousness, whose aura of professionalism, is itself a kind of positive ad hominem argument from authority – that is, a fallacy. That said, I think quite a bit of blogger triumphalism is due to sheer misplaced sense that somehow the fact that they – excuse me, we – are cracking wise all the time really proves we are wiser. There is a sense in which blogging feels like putting an extra twist on it for bonus style points, while at the same time playing it straighter, which makes you a better mental athlete and a more authentic average joe (even though it is hard to see how putting an extra twist on something could make it seem straighter.) I’m beating you at your own game! In my pajamas! But most traditional journos could make jokes and adopt a more gonzo style, if you let them. They are verbal people. They went to college, where they read Hunter S. Thompson. It’s not as though the very form – gonzo – sprang up in their midst like a monolith among the monkeys. Being the one who can display personality and mock, when the other guy can’t, means he’s the one fighting with one hand behind his back, not you. (There is a reason the straight man in the skit is not assumed to have a natural advantage over the comedian.) Not for purposes of TV ratings. For that you do need a network, usually. But for comparatively small stakes games of ‘gotcha!’ bloggers have an incredible rhetorical advantage over the (ahem) MSM, which I think tends to be mistaken for decisive intellectual advantage. What seems to some like an intellectual paradigm shift – an advance in intellectual morals – is just a loosening up of intellectual manners.

OK, qualifications. First, I myself am a joker. (Yes, I noticed that.)

Second, the stylistic freedom to make constant fun is, if you know how to use it, a fine and intellectually scrupulous thing. Many posts utterly lacking in seriousiness make serious points.

Third, blogging has provided outlets for a valuable sort of analytic extensiveness, often completely joke-free (or nearly).

Fourth. Hell. There’s tons of great things about blogs.

Fifth. I’m running some points together above. You sort me out. Is it right to say that blogging is a humoristic genre – or a personal one, a polemic one? Obviously it’s a trick questions, since it isn’t one thing.

All I’m saying is: in all the accounts I’ve read of ‘the rise of the blogs’ I haven’t really seen enough account taken of the fact that one of most highly characteristic changes is just permission to be humorous and intelligent about things other people are only ever serious and intelligent about. Humor is nice, and it certainly doesn’t always kill intelligence. But how much smarter do we think adding humor makes people, as foreign policy analysts, say?

Maybe I should add that my thoughts on the subject were semi-provoked by this Jeff Jarvis post, which seems to me a tad overboard in the libertarian triumphal department. From the fact that old (liberal) media has a professionally serious face, it follows that it is – morally, on the inside – sort of like Brezhnev pulling down the curtains and pretending the train is moving? I guess Jarvis doesn’t quite say that, but the implication seems to be that bloggers will tend to be more freedom-loving and intellectually nimble. Why? (It is true that libertarians have done very well for themselves, blog-wise. Still.)

Anyway, what should my fallacy be named?

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Erik 02.28.06 at 6:21 am

Anything, so long as we don’t call it affirming the clownsequent.


ab 02.28.06 at 6:30 am

Anything, so long we don’t call the fallacy funlacy.

Ok, bad joke. Sorry.

Serious point: True, up to a point.

However, I think you underestimate how much the MSM has changed in recent years. With the rise of columns, reviews sections and other supplements, at least newspapers now incorporate many of these witty elements.

Conversely, I think you underestimate how serious some (especially political) bloggers take their blogging. They fight like mad dogs about some small issues.


soru 02.28.06 at 6:31 am

I think that applies not just to comedy, but also irony and tragedy.

I suspect you could go through a lot of arguments made on blogs (or op-eds), and identify cases where they are telling a story about the fates punishing some person in an amusingly appropriate way, or their own flaws leading inevitably to their predestined failure.

In some cases all the facts involved would be true, but still the force of persuasion is based more on the comic, ironic or tragic nature of the story than on an attempt to be objective in assessing the evidence.


Chris Bertram 02.28.06 at 7:02 am

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great journalism appears, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add …..


abb1 02.28.06 at 7:16 am

If x is truly funny, there must be a grain of truth to x. Why is it a fallacy? It may be a valid postulate, depending, of course, on the definition of “funny”.


Kieran Healy 02.28.06 at 7:24 am

He forgot to add … “Heh.”


stostosto 02.28.06 at 7:26 am

“What makes you laugh has a certain kinship to that which causes the crowd’s madness. “

Great put-down line! I must remember that one.


jonst 02.28.06 at 7:29 am

If you have moment you might listen to Roger Waters’ CD “Amused to Death”. 1991 CD. The man was on to something back then.


Kieran Healy 02.28.06 at 7:34 am

As for a name for this, “The Correspondents Theory of Truth” is not quite there, but nearly.


Kieran Healy 02.28.06 at 7:36 am

The comparative advantage of _The Daily Show_ is a clear example here, as when Jon Stewart went on _Crossfire_ and was simultaneously able to make serious criticisms of the hosts while being himself completely insulated from any criticism, because he could just say “My show is a joke show”.


Steve 02.28.06 at 7:50 am

It’s not just funny. Entertaining and charismatic, too. Reading this post, I was thinking of hollywood (and George Clooney, in particular). Charisma as a substitute for thought.



John Holbo 02.28.06 at 8:24 am

If you wanted to narrow your focus to strictly blogospheric mistaking of funniness for truthiness, I guess ‘premature e-joculations’ would do.

ab makes the point that traditional media are trying to put on their jester hats as well. The trouble is that this is a very risky strategy. You can end up looking like the 45 year old guy having the mid-life crisis, trying to look cool with the kids. Also, I don’t deny that bloggers take it seriously – fighting like mad over tiny points. It’s just that they can play it off more easily, by playing the Jon Stewart card Kieran mentions. When pressed: retreat to comedy. This isn’t some devious thing. But it is a distinct rhetorical advantage.


john m. 02.28.06 at 8:24 am

#11 Glad to see that being funny, entertaining and charismatic is a substitute for thought and indeed that Hollywood (and George Clooney, in particular) are prime culprits. On the post in general, ridicule is the thing the powerful fear the most but this does not mean that all humour is satirical (insofar as it exposes a greater truth) or indeed, for that matter, actually funny.


john m. 02.28.06 at 8:28 am

Jon Stewart can only play the funny card becuase he is actually funny. This is a lot harder than many seem to usggest. If he uses it as a defense or deflection in a more seriously toned arena succesfully, this implies weak opponents as it is easily countered by reference to the seriousness of the underlying issues.


John Holbo 02.28.06 at 8:40 am

john m., I do concede that Jon Stewart is funnier than I or any of my Crooked colleagues can hope to be in this life. The reason why your suggestion of ‘easy countering by reference to the seriousness of the underlying issue’ will not work, however, is that there is an equally easy comeback. Even the most serious talking-head forum has a lot of ridiculous, stagy elements. All Stewart needs to do is expose the fatuousness of that, and thereby drag them down and reveal them as entertainers – like himself – who have not had the honesty to admit it, as he does. Advantage: comedian. (But because the comedian is, in a deep sense, in tune with what is going on. So the advantage is, substantially, deserved.)

But one thing that the internet has taught me is that there are many more almost competent comedians than there are actually competent analysts, when it comes to most things that matter. Lots of people can make sort of funny jokes, lots and lots of them. (This is hard on me, because I am one of those people. I could be a failed stand-up comic. I’m that good.) A rather mediocre yet not inconsiderable standard of comedy is what makes the blogosphere turn round, most days.


coturnix 02.28.06 at 8:48 am

Funny, I wrote (sort of) about the same topic just a couple of weeks ago: I am not funny.


Richard Bellamy 02.28.06 at 9:17 am

I think abb1 has a point. If there’s no grain of truth, it probably won’t be funny. Of course, it may only be a “grain”, but that’s often enough.

A stand-up comic talking about how fat supermodels are likely won’t be getting any laughs. Switch “supermodels” with “Americans” and the same jokes get “funnier”, even if advanced statistics through doubt on how fat Americans really are.

Thus, it may be that “funniness” is a factor in determining how true something is. Not proof, of course, but logically valid evidence.


Seth Finkelstein 02.28.06 at 9:29 am

Regarding: “All I’m saying is: in all the accounts I’ve read of ‘the rise of the blogs’ I haven’t really seen enough account taken of the fact that one of most highly characteristic changes is just permission to be humorous and intelligent about things other people are only ever serious and intelligent about. ”

While you’re not necessarily wrong, the discussion of this factor is usually phrased in a slightly different vocabulary, the main word being “snark”. For example, the person who wrote Wonkette is quite up-front that this is the formula she used to appeal to audiences.

The triumphalists gets in the way, crowding out what’s heard, but the business-people do mention it as part of what pays, e.g. why there’s so much gossip-style type columns.


John Emerson 02.28.06 at 10:14 am

Short answer: this was happening before blogs were much of a factor.

A lot of the trashing of Al Gore in 1968 was super-cool snarkiness. Somerby has written about this in exhaustive detail. Likewise, a lot of the pre-2000 anti-Bill anti-Hitlery energy came from snark (and still does).

Not much of this came from the internet. Some of it seems to be the learned cynicism of a whole generation of bright, ambitious young Ivy-leaguers nourished promarily on pop culture trivia and comedy albums. I think that the dominant factor, however, was a preference for Bush over Gore, and a dislike of Clinton, among high management of the major media. The cheesy little reporters and TV news people whose names we know all too well wouldn’t have been able to do their dirt if management hadn’t wanted the too.

Republicans thrive on cynicism because they want the vote to be low. Knowingly or not, apolitical media cynicism functions as part of the Republican voter-suppression campaign.


John Emerson 02.28.06 at 10:16 am

“wanted them to”.


Sailorcurt 02.28.06 at 10:16 am

There are plenty of serious blogs out there. I enjoy reading the “funny” or “entertaining” ones, but I also enjoy serious analysis of serious issues.

I personally think that one reason for the “rise” of blogs is because the MSM (for lack of a better term) is in denial about their biases. They attempt to pass themselves off as objective observers (to the point of not taking issue with things that they arguably SHOULD take a stand on) but disguise themselves poorly. They are nothing more than human beings and are just as subject to the perceptual skewings caused by personal experience and bias as the next guy. What gives bloggers the advantage is that they FREELY ADMIT their biases. When one reads a particular blog entry, one is EXPECTING to find the entry biased towards the author’s pre-conceptions and prejudices. With the MSM, we have been led to believe that when we read their entries, we can expect an unbiased, objective analysis of the issues and facts. We quickly realize that we are not receiving that for which we have paid and become disillusioned.

Truly humorous humor does generally find its roots in truth, however, the situations and events must be greatly exaggerated in order to realize the full potential for humor. “If you are mowing your lawn and find a car…you might be a redneck” –Jeff Foxworthy. “According to the latest crime statistics, crime in the U.S. is at a 30 year low. John Kerry blamed this on President Bush. He said, “See even criminals are having a hard time finding jobs to pull off” –Jay Leno.

To be funny, it generally must be based on fact or truth, but taken to a level that renders the statement to be a mere caricature of truth.

That may make the entry more entertaining, but typically less apodictic.


Delicious Pundit 02.28.06 at 10:36 am

You could name it the Humorous Fallacy, and puzzle future students when they wonder why it’s not funny.

I tend to agree with John Emerson about the limits of humor. In fact, I thought Jon Stewart was unconvincing on Crossfire — how does Stewart know he’s not hurting America, too? How does he know he’s helping by turning politics into a comedy product presented by a huge corporation and made to be consumed on a couch? (Disclaimer: I do the same thing, only worse, because my show doesn’t even have politics. Double disclaimer: having had to write daily topical jokes back in the day, I know how hard it is & appreciate hiis show even more. They need that every fourth week off, people.)


Steve 02.28.06 at 10:47 am

Sorry, dude. I didn’t know George Clooney was off limits.



Sven 02.28.06 at 10:51 am

This is kinda funny. Guess who made this statement:

There is so much ugliness and viciousness and fundamental untruths that the blogosphere transmits. It also is a vehicle for ugly rumors, for scurrilous personal attacks, an avenue for the creation of urban legends which are deeply corrosive of the political system and of people’s faith in it.


roger 02.28.06 at 12:59 pm

Hume is the wrong philosopher to smuggle into the discussion. You should reference the guy who wrote this:

“Precisely because we are at bottom grave and serious human beings—really more weights than human beings—nothing does us as much good as a fool’s cap: we need it in relation to ourselves—we need all exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childish, and blissful art lest we lose the freedom above things that our ideal demands of us. It would mean a relapse for us, with our irritable honesty, to get involved entirely in morality and, for the sake of the over-severe demands we make on ourselves in these matters, to become virtuous monsters and scarecrows. We should be able also to stand above morality—and not only to stand with the anxious stiffness of a man who is afraid of slipping and falling at any moment, but also to float above it and play! How then could we possibly dispense with art, and with the fool?”

He had a name for this kind of thing: the Gay Science.


Shelby 02.28.06 at 1:30 pm

“You have read something Mark Steyn wrote in the last several years, I take it?”

That made me laugh — and then I realized that it was in much the same way Steyn sometimes makes me laugh. So, your line and his are comparably funny, therefore comparably true.

Aside from demonstrating the fallacy, though, consider newspaper sports journalism. Though usually regarded as jouranlism-lite, it often packages solid reporting and sound insight with humor and the most colorful writing in the paper. To some extent, I think the use of humor can lead readers or viewers to discount the seriousness of your point. Maybe overcoming this “discount” is the mark of the truly great “funny commentator”? With Mark Twain the presumed apotheosis.


Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury 02.28.06 at 4:13 pm

Truth, ’tis supposed, may bear all lights; and one those principal lights or natural mediums by which things are to be viewed in order to a thorough recognition is ridicule itself.
Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour !.1


vivian 02.28.06 at 9:00 pm

10 & 14: Jon Stewart’s point hit home (for me) because in his monologue he doesn’t pitch the jokes to the ignorant – he assumes a moderately intelligent, moderately engaged audience. His plea to Tucker Carlson not to dumb-down his show was thereby effective, even though Stewart can always claim not to be taking politicians seriously. He accused Crossfire folk of making the population more apathetic, whereas the Daily Show makes politics less intimidating and less dull.

Stephen Colbert would not have been able to make Stewart’s point as effectively.


vivian 02.28.06 at 9:07 pm

17: The ‘fat supermodels’ vs ‘fat american’ observation doesn’t rely on a grain of truth so much as echo some grain of common belief. Might be based on some facts, might be based on prejudice, myth or propaganda. See the 1980’s series “Truly Tasteless Jokes” for examples.


rollo 03.01.06 at 12:48 am

Lord Ashley, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (29, above) being no doubt somewhat unfamiliar with the layout of a traditional keyboard, or typing generally for all that, I’ll presume the liberty of displaying his apt and cogent phrases in a less diminished form, punctuated just as we received them:

“For that which can be shewn only in a certain Light, is questionable.Truth, ’tis suppos’d, may bear all Lights: and one of those principal Lights or natural Mediums, by which Things are to be view’d, in order to a thorow Recognition, is Ridicule it-self, or that Manner of Proof by which we discern whatever is liable to just Raillery in any Subject.
So much, at least, is allow’d by All, who at any time appeal to this Criterion. The gravest Gentlemen, even n the gravest Subjects, are suppos’d to acknowledg this: and can have no Right, ’tis thought, to deny others the Freedom of this Appeal; whilst they are free to censure like other Men, and in their gravest Arguments make no scruple to ask, Is it not Ridiculous?”


Chris 03.01.06 at 1:00 am

Is it true that the straight man is at a disadvantage compared to the comic? Abbott always won the money against Costello.


robbo 03.01.06 at 3:06 am

I find many lefty blogs biting and incisive, but I very seldom find them truly “funny.” That is, I can’t remember the last time I cracked a smile at this site, or any other political site, let alone laughed out loud.

Sites like the Exile and Something Awful offer true comedy on the web, but Exile is really like a magazine and SA is focused on making comedy — they’re not blogs.

Blogs offer snarkiness, looseness, the imperative to state one’s personal opinions, as well as true interactivity that’s not mediated by an editor deciding which one or two letters get published. Naturally there’s an element of humor in the snarkiness, but for me that’s about the extent of humor I find in lefty blogs, and it’s pretty thin sauce. Nothing wrong with any of that, but I’m interested to know whether John thinks that anything he writes here is truly lol “funny.”


Ahistoricality 03.02.06 at 3:33 am

ad joculum.


eb 03.02.06 at 3:04 pm

Post “ha!”, ergo propter “ha!”

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