Mel Brooks once joked, “Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.” Brooks understands humor.
"Funny" is the joy we feel when we see someone else suffer. Not noble, perhaps, but that’s who we are. We happily anticipate the Little Tramp pratfalling on that banana peel clearly visible in the middle of the street; and when he notices it and carefully walks around it, we feel a twinge of disappointment. But then, with his attention still fixed upon the offending peel, he steps backward and falls into a manhole and we explode in laughter.
We laughed because we didn’t see it coming, and because we knew that it was all a setup and Charlie Chaplin really wasn’t injured in his fall. Funny is when someone suffers an unexpected injury or exaggerated insult which does no real harm.
The quandary of the comedian is how to torment somebody without offending anybody. As far back I can remember, comedians solved this dilemma by ridiculing themselves, or their families or friends, or fictitious characters. Jack Benny made fun of himself by playing the miser to perfection. (Robber with a gun: “Your money or your life.” Long pause. “Well?” Benny, angrily: “I’m thinking about it!”). Bob Hope pretended to be a narcissistic coward whose only weapon was the wisecrack -- a role later adopted and adapted by Woody Allen and Bill Murray. Bob Newhart portrayed a self-doubting psychotherapist trying to dispense self-confidence to a bunch of loonies. Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers mocked their husbands. Johnny Carson skewered his fictional characters -- Art Fern, Floyd R. Turbo, Aunt Blabby, and Carnac the Magnificent.