Why successful black guy is successful: The socio-cognitive side of humor
Having read Jenny Davis, David Banks and PJ Rey on internet memes, I felt compelled to share my creative grain of sand on this peculiar ‘web-based’ construct. I often wonder why memes are funny. The simplicity of memes is deceiving: e.g., a Spartan image, often featuring only the face or upper body of a person or animal, and a kitsch colored background that would make Warhol think you’re on acid. Add two rows of parallel text above and below and presto! – You have created funny. Is it really that easy? I would generally think (and hope) that humor is a complex phenomenon, that answering “why is this picture of a cat funny to me?” requires invoking some esoteric philosophical or psychological terminology. I decided to do some research.
One of my favorite memes of all times is “successful black guy”. This is successful black guy explained by know your meme: “an image macro series featuring a Black man dressed in business attire and a witty one-liner satirizing the stereotype of young African American male as street hustlers or gangsters who only care about cars, money and ho’s. The humor is mostly derived from the intentional line break in mid-sentence, with the top line impersonating a black male stereotype (EX: I Got the Best Ho’s) and the bottom line suddenly falling flat in character (EX: Out in My Tool Shed).
The people over at know your meme are hinting at why memes are funny when they say: “The humor is mostly derived from the intentional line break in mid-sentence”: the key lies in the logical continuity that is established by the top line of text, which suddenly breaks with the appearance of the following line. OK, we are getting somewhere now. But, why is this funny? Why are breaks in logical continuity amusing, and particularly sudden breaks of logical continuity?
In a book published in November 2011, Matthew Hurley, alongside prominent philosophers Daniel Dennett and Reginald Adams, tries to give us insight into this question. Hurley was amused at the fact that most literature on humor was descriptive; it sought to differentiate types of humor and draw comparisons between them. There was little material on why some things or occurrences ought to be funny in the first place. Why does humor exist? Where does it come from? Hurley reached the following departure point: There is simply not enough information out there, at all times, for us to make completely informed decisions on a consistent basis. Our brains have to make decisions in situations abound with multiple pieces of incomplete information, and thus have to make assumptions. “All these best guesses simplify our world, give us critical insights into the minds of others, and streamline our decisions. But mistakes are inevitable, and even a small faulty assumption can open the door to bigger and costlier mistakes” (full article here).
Our brains are constantly processing information about the world, and ourselves, so small mistakes can quickly pile up and be detrimental. The pleasure we feel when something is funny is a small jolt which the brain receives for picking out instances where our assumptions break down. The evolutionary value of this action is large, and the method by which we accomplish this, the systematic process of rewarding ourselves when we identify breaks of continuity, is called humor.
Enter the Successful Black Guy meme. The first line of text on the top is written in such a way as to prime your brain to make certain popular assumptions about the world, in this case about African Americans in the United States. Then, the second or concluding line finishes the sentence in a way which maintains the semantic consistency, in other words the sentence still makes sense, but through a different logical continuity pathway. This is the break that know your meme is talking about. The result is the uncovering of the previously covert assumptions your brain made after reading the first line. Now, your brain is happy!
If Hurley and Co. are right about the underlying mechanisms of humor, then it is easy to see why memes are funny, albeit appearing incredibly simple. The meme is like stripped down funny, the skeleton or template of a joke, if you will. It delivers a fully developed context through an image and by its binary spatial configuration, the edification and later destruction of an assumption about the world. It is possible that the internet meme as we know it is the smallest and simplest fully-functional and self-referential carrier of humor there is – the building block of humorous information, similar to how the meme is the smallest building block of cultural information.
In the case of successful black guy, the story does not end here. There is an added layer of complexity, which stems from the fact that the assumptions of the world called upon by the first line are of a particular kind, they comprise a stereotype of African Americans. Stereotypes are also cognitive responses to the fundamental condition in which humor arose; lack of information in every-day decision-making. Our brain bundles types of experiences together and tries to link them to experiences we previously had. It would simply be too costly to approach every new situation with a cognitive clean slate. In this sense, stereotypes are cognitively useful as decision-making heuristics. Thus when the second line of Successful Black Guy dismantles the assumptions of the first, it is not simply illuminating assumptions we made ad-hoc; it sheds light into how assumptions got bundled up through shared experience in a systematic and habitual manner. In this case, the experience of being black in the USA, and the stereotypes that accompanies it.
Most jokes will use these socially-situated assumptions and generalizations to their advantage. This is interesting because it means humor has an inherent social component. In other words, Successful Black Guy does not simply tell you – “Hey brain, here are some assumptions you made about Black people”. Rather, it says, “Here are some assumptions a group of people (which you may or may not belong to) consistently and systematically make about Black people”.
Successful Black Guy opens up the floor to asking the question: Can memes be used purposely and strategically with a social purpose? My tentative answer would be yes, if done right. For example, there are other memes out there which are about racial or ethnic stereotypes. Think of ‘high expectation Asian father’.
‘High expectation Asian father’ does not align the punch line with the de-construction of the social stereotype. The humor comes from showing us the assumptions we made on that particular joke, in this case a linguistic assumption, not the assumptions we collectively make about Asians in the United States (this assumption, this meme in particular, leaves intact). In contrast, Successful Black Guy’s humorous target lies at the core of the stereotype. This way it does a good job of cognitively nudging us to dismantle our social constructions about African Americans in the US. It does so without asking us if we have stereotypes (most people would say “no”), or without asking us to consciously make reference to them (most people could not). It simply shows us they are there; they reveal themselves to us, perhaps in the mythological way Jenny Davis described. Otherwise, the meme would not be funny.
Although they are cognitively useful, ethnic or racial stereotypes need to be constantly in check. The lag between evolutionary time – the time scale in which our brains got molded to be the way they are now – and globalized time, the instantaneous and parallel time paradigm of our age, is big. The evolutionary mechanisms we have built into our brains developed in a very different social context than the present one. Stereotypes made sense in the tribal mode of social organization, where one group of genetically similar people made sparse contact with other similarly-organized groups. This process of being shown our assumptions, our breaks of logic or where our generalizations extend beyond their reach, is useful to this goal, whether it is called humor or not. Being able to laugh while doing this might make all the difference, after all, it would entail strategically using built-in cognitive dispositions (humor) to mitigate the effects of cognitive heuristics (stereotypes). The internet meme can be a simple, cheap and available tool for doing so.
Jenny Davis — January 29, 2012
Great post!! I love the deconstruction of humor. I've read elsewhere that, as you essentially point out here, humor hinges on surprise. What surprises us, of course, will vary from culture to culture.
As for memes as a form of stereotype resistance...that's a tough one!! As you point out, they do allow us to recognize our assumptions, but do they also bring us to problematize them? The risk, of course, is that by pointing out stereotypes in a humorous way we brush off the serious consequences of these stereotypes and reinforce the often oppressive assumptions that go along with them.
I think this is an empirical question to which we unfortunately don't yet have the data, but I do find your hypothesis interesting.
Samuel Tettner — January 30, 2012
Thanks for your comment!
I understand your worry of trivializing racial stereotypes. I hadn't through about it before, but it might work similarly to this sort of hipster post-racism belief that young people have now-a-days. "I am not racist, but..." which might actually end up preserving the racist typologies.
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