Yes, after being forced by my six-year-old son to watch approximately eight billion episodes of the ITV video clip show, I can tell you that schadenfreude is about as amusing and sophisticated as Jim Davidson’s memoirs. HA HA! A pram has gone over a cliff! HAHAHA! An old lady has been swept into the sea! Not even Harry Hill, sitting there sweating into his big collar in the voiceover booth, can make something funny out of yet another fuckwit falling off a rope ladder into a small stream in the Lake District.
I mean, actual slapstick is fine. Fall off that metal skyscraper girder, hang off a clock face, thwack a car with a tree branch. But when you laugh at someone falling over in the street and hurting themselves – I would argue that makes you a bit of an idiot.
Psychology professor Dr Richard H Smith says in his recent book The Joy of Pain that schadenfreude stems from a need to compare ourselves with others and work out our position in the social order. For example, some dude falls down a flight of stairs, and by the simple virtue of not being him, you become automatically superior to him. Similarly, when people who were once superior to us fail, we can rub our hands together and rejoice, even though we can barely put our pants on the right way round in the morning.
Taking the high road
Smith opens his book with the description of a brilliant scene from The Simpsons, when Ned Flanders quits his job to start a shop for left-handed people called the Leftorium. When Flanders announces this at a BBQ, Homer breaks a wishbone with him and prays for Flanders’ failure. When the shop does then fail, Homer is delighted. It’s up to Lisa to explain how the concept of schadenfreude works: “It’s a German word for “shameful joy”, taking pleasure in the suffering of others.”
SHAMEFUL. Exactly. But while Smith argues that we should all embrace rather than deny our dark side, I disagree. Although it’s part of our basic instinct to try to be better than the next person, if we indulged our basic instincts all the time, we’d be shafted. There’s a time when you’ve got to stop trying to hump people in the street – or stop laughing at Compo from Last of the Summer Wine going down a hill in a bathtub – and become a bit more civilised.
After all, isn’t there too much hazard and senseless Darwinism in life already to laugh at the personal tragedies of others? How many side-splitting videos can there be of someone slipping on ice? I’m hoping, for the sake of comedy, that evolution will put paid to schadenfreude – we will literally grow out of it, the way we grew out of having a tail.
Schadenfreude should go into the landfill of progress, along with jokes about knockers and offensive portrayals of black people. One glorious day, perhaps we will throw our hairy knuckles to the sky and yell ‘You’ve Been Framed is SHIT!’
Fair game funnies
Low-key failure, though – now that IS funny. By all means, be a sad-faced, glasses jiggling Eric Morecambe, trying to get in Glenda Jackson’s knickers. Be Louis CK, eating ice cream in his pants, or Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation. George Costanza was a perfect failure – he was bald, petty and boiling with impotent rage. Hilarious!
The stumbling, dismal buzz of the human condition is where we should be getting our LOLs. It’s something that everybody understands; laughing at our pathetic existence can actually keep us alive. It’s so much richer than the brief, hollow thrill of watching someone breaking their kneecaps on a child’s trampoline.
But what about future generations? Will they keep this most heinous of comic devices alive, or will they reject it? Well, even my son says he only laughs at You’ve Been Framed if it’s not babies or people hurting themselves. And afterwards, we put on Looney Tunes, because schadenfreude is perfectly acceptable as long as it’s only a cartoon baby falling off a cliff. Hey, I don’t make the rules.
@lucytweets1. Image credit: CC Chris Huggins.