It’s question-answering time here at the Eldraeverse! A reader writes:
1) Is there a food item for the Eldrae that has assumed the same memetic status as bacon for humans?
2) What do the Eldrae find funny? What human comedians, if they were to go on tour in Eldrae territory, would do well and which ones would starve?
1. Well, if there is, I don’t know about it yet, and since nothing’s immediately leapt out of my imagination and made me say, “aha, this must be it”, I think I’m going to have to preserve my future authorial maneuvering room on that one, sorry.
On the other hand, there’s at least some reason to suspect there might not be.
Top of that list is mass. We’re one planet of seven billions, and I might be inclined to quibble a little with “for humans”, inasmuch as the bacon meme has spread mostly among the cultural intersection of the Anglosphere and the Internet-connected world, which while a lot of the planet isn’t quite all of it.
This limiting effect is only multiplied when they’re 250-odd star systems plus a scattering of ecumenical colonies, outposts, and exclaves, and those in the core, at least, are rather more heavily populated than ours. Throw in cultural groupings caused by light-lag, differences in diet across different worlds, and that common culture is both (a) polyspecific, including species that can’t eat the same food period, and (b) more diverse at baseline, due to the lack of the peer-norming instinct humans have, and while memes certainly do catch fire and grow explosively *there* – aided by high-speed Internet-equivalent connections being universal – they have to be ridiculously virulent in order to capture a statistically huge chunk of that population.
I’m sure more local versions of it come and go all the time, though.
2. Argh. Well, that’s not a tricky question for me with respect to *there* , but it is with respect to *here* – namely, I’m not adequately familiar with real-world comedians to even begin to come up with a list.
So here are some general comments on what Imperial-culture humor is like, and then hopefully you can take it from there –
Things that work:
- By and large, the majority of their sense of humor is dry. Very dry. Possibly dehydrated.
- Irony never fails. Snark is practically impossible to resist.
- Likewise, wit and intellectual humor always go down well, and the more levels it works on, the better 1.
- So does surrealism and absurdity. So, to break my rule and name a name, Monty Python would probably play well.
- Situational comedy can work, as long as the humor derives from the situation and/or the interaction between the characters, and isn’t specifically targeted at one or all of them.
- Black and gallows humor are also generally accepted: in the sorts of situations that lead to them, laughter is, they deem, one of the civilized responses to entropy.
Note: Even if it sounds it to some degree, none of this is necessarily what we would call “high-brow”. On a number of the criteria above, something like, oh, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum would probably work.
Things that don’t work:
- Humor that depends on laughing at someone’s pain, misfortune, humiliation, or embarrassment. That’s just perverse. The modal human clearly has something wrong with its empathy-sympathy wiring.
- Note: So, to give an example of how this works in practice, you can have something like a traditional romantic comedy because while there is pain and embarrassment, etc., along the way, there’s also a happy ending and you’re notionally looking back with the protagonists narrating the story and laughing with them at the tangled path and difficulties that they overcame to get to said ending. If there wasn’t that payoff at the end, none of it would be funny. (So, there go most of the sitcoms that go for the cheap laughs…)
- Also, as a related category, all the humor that depends on the protagonist screwing up repeatedly or just plain being a screw-up. Incompetence isn’t funny. Incompetence (in space, and the spacer-culture attitude on this is pervasive) gets people killed in winnows.
- Humor targeted at (in the sense of “laughing at”) individuals or groups. Individuals, for all the reasons above, inasmuch as it’s usually intended to humiliate or embarrass. (And this is a culture which, natively, has essentially no concept of a “friendly insult”.)
- And groups because humor that makes fun of the out-group (or, hell, even the in-group) directly or by treating their characteristics as a source of humor depends on the peer-norming instinct that leads humans and other species that have it to see deviations from the majority-norm as somehow wrong. Eldrae don’t have that and they encourage other people not to have that either.
- Exception: You can do this when the target is one of the short list of Universally Acknowledged Acceptable Targets: “Ah, Yes, The People” achieved its high box-office despite/because of being a black-toned satire of galactic politicians because politicians and the politically-minded have earned it. In this case, the viciousness of the targeting and the laughing-at-them nature of the beast is entirely intentional because being righteously despised by all decent folks is the mélith the political and politically-minded have earned by being a bunch of scum-sucking slaver-cultist swine in the first place. You’re allowed to take the piss out of the Iltines or the Galians, too, because everyone can righteously hate Space Fascists and brutal theocrats, too, but this is very much not the sort of thing one can aim at mere honorable opponents 2; it’s basically insulting them by refusing to take them seriously. To fall under this exception, you have to be dishonorable, disgusting, and completely outside the pale where civilized society is concerned; people can be wrong without being Bad People, and only Bad People qualify, so it’s a really short list.
- Self-deprecation is mostly considered annoying 3.
- Shock comedy is an utter fail. In approximate order:
- Scatology (and other “gross-out humor”) fails because poop, really? If you’re building recycling systems to cope with your excreta and still find them funny, something’s gone wrong with your cultural evolution somewhere.
- I’d say that of sexual humor, but that’s not entirely true. They do have a perfectly good “light-hearted erotica” genre. On the other hand, Eldraeic follows the Culture’s Marain in having a single word per kind of genitalia that suffices for all uses 4, so you can’t derive humor from the million euphemisms we insist on using, and the words have basically no shock value. If you go into the food court and yell “penis!”, the strongest reaction you’ll get is along the lines of “What? Where?” The problem with much sexual humor as we define it is that it depends on your society having a giant bug up its ass about sex in the first place, so, yeah, falls rather flat.
- Basically, the trouble with transgressive humor 5 in a libertist society is that you’ve got some real problems finding taboos to transgress, and when you do, you’re find that you’ve either successfully adopted the posture of the poop-flinging monkey 6 or else that of the dude who loves rape and Holocaust jokes, and not only should that shit not be funny, but per reasons mentioned above, basically never is.
1. Dear gods, the puns.
2. If they had elections, using “attack ads” in this style to mock one’s opponent would be a swift ticket to lose the election by way of depriving oneself of decent chaphood. Of course, if they didn’t like your opponent either, you might lose the election to None Of The Above, but there ain’t no way they’d let you win.
3. Pride is a virtue, humility is not.
4. See endnote in the back of which book I don’t remember. Consider Phlebas, maybe?
5. “Transgressive” art forms generally also fail epically. Violating the rules to achieve an interesting effect is interesting. Violating the rules just to shock – here’s a nickel, kid, you’ve learned to create ugliness. Now get your cacophilic ass out of my gallery. Don’t come back.
6. It also tends to be a staple of those who want to use it for, um, political ends, and as a society that prizes coválír – rationalism – that sort of thing gets you a straight out “shut up, moron, the adults in the room are talking”.