Captain Underpants and The Philosophy of Humor!
One of the best scenes in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is when Joe Pesci’s Tommy berates Ray Liotta’s Henry after Henry told Tommy “You’re really funny.” As Tommy repeatedly asks Henry: “How am I funny?” What’s great about the scene is that as funny as Pesci’s Tommy is (sorry Tommy, you’re funny, deal with it), he’s also frightening. You have no idea if Tommy is going to burst out laughing (because he’s pranking Henry) or if he’s going to beat the crap out of Henry or shoot him (because Joe Pesci does things like that when he’s playing a mobster). Luckily, it’s just an extended gag that Tommy pulls on Henry, but it gets at something paradoxical about humor: it can hurt.
It’s fair to say Tommy was a little hurt by Henry’s observation, because a part of him took it too personally, as a criticism of his personality rather than a compliment. This isn’t unusual. Many of us do this because comedy is often as painful as it is funny (especially if it’s aimed at you). Of course, we’ve been conditioned (by Reader’s Digest) to believe that laughter is the best medicine – and, yes, humor can be therapeutic, if not cathartic. A good laugh goes a long way, doesn’t it? And yet, there is an element of pain inherent in laughter, whether you’re the punchline or not.
Philosophically, comedy is difficult to understand and this perplexity relates to how we view humor. How or why is something funny or not funny? How is laughter simultaneously funny and painful? What makes us laugh (and cry)? In many ways, this philosophical dilemma regarding humor is what Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (a completely different film than Goodfellas) explores. Let’s see if its two fourth-grade heroes, George and Harold, can help us understand humor and its connection to pain perhaps more clearly than mobsters Tommy and Henry. It’s one thing to feel pain as an adult, but humor is different for children, isn’t it?
In Captain Underpants, there are two villains who provide the story with a plethora of laughs. The first is Principal Krupp, the mean administrator who makes students attend all-day events on Saturdays and doesn’t want any students to have any fun (not even smile). Krupp has been trying to catch George and Harold for years because they’ve been pulling pranks on the school (and especially on Krupp) since kindergarten. When Krupp finally finds a way to catch them in the act of pulling a prank, something funny happens – George uses his hypno-ring to make Krupp think he’s Captain Underpants, the idiotic, superman-like hero (who dresses only in white underwear briefs and a red cape) George and Harold created in their self-drawn comic books. As soon as George snaps his fingers, Krupp instantly strips to his underwear, fashions a red cape from his office curtains and jumps out the second-story window to fight crime (over the years, Krupp has confiscated George and Harold’s comics, read them, and internalized the personality of Captain Underpants, as well as the bumbling hero’s backstory and adventures).
The gag works because Krupp looks ridiculous (like Humpty Dumpty with a cape) and this brings us to René Descartes, who doesn’t seem to like humor very much (apparently, “I think therefore I am” doesn’t translate to “I think therefore I laugh”) because, for Descartes, laughter is a negative expression. As he writes: “Derision or scorn is a sort of joy mingled with hatred, which proceeds from our perceiving some small evil in a person whom we consider to be deserving of it; we have hatred for this evil, we have joy in seeing it in him who is deserving of it; and when that comes upon us unexpectedly, the surprise of wonder is the cause of our bursting into laughter.” Is it laughter that’s negative or is it just the way Descartes views it that’s negative? Is this how we feel when we laugh at someone?
Thomas Hobbes doesn’t seem to like laughter either. As Hobbes concludes: “And therefore much laughter at the defects of others, is a sign of pusillanimity. For of great minds, one of the proper works is, to help and free others from scorn; and to compare themselves only with the most able.” Hobbes may scorn humor but his point is that we lack courage when we laugh at others, courage to defend someone being ridiculed, and courage to refuse joining in the laughter. He might be correct, but is all humor the same as ridicule? Can’t things just be funny because they’re funny? Is a man wearing underpants funny or is it degrading and insensitive?
For Captain Underpants, the Krupp/Captain Underpants gag is funny because he’s a fool either way – as Krupp, the idiocy relates to his inability to show any empathy, compassion, or understanding for the elementary school children (idiocy in this sense is Krupp being obtuse). Indeed, the film suggests – through satire (which is a very intellectual form of humor, Mr. Descartes and Mr. Hobbes) – that school principals and teachers are completely oblivious to the children’s needs. Laughter is important in a child’s life and it’s difficult to find any sound more enjoyable in this world than a child laughing. As Captain Underpants, Krupp’s a fool because he really thinks he can fly and that he’s indestructible (this is idiocy in the sense of being oblivious to reality).
The satire in Captain Underpants comes in the illustration of the school-children as prisoners unable to resist, question, think for themselves, or engage in anything enjoyable at school (they can’t even have fun on Saturdays?), while the administrators crack the metaphorical whip to keep the students in line – and it’s funny because the other thing we’ve been conditioned to believe is that there’s truth in humor. We can relate to being in elementary school or, if that’s too far back, to having children in elementary school. Thus, we know how it feels to have our souls crushed on a daily basis by insensitive teachers and principals – this might be a good point to suggest that anyone in the education business (or with school-age children) would do themselves a service seeing this film (because it helps to laugh at ourselves and engage in a good reality check beyond Rate My Professor).
And this brings us to the film’s second villain: Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants. Obviously, his name is ridiculous and upon hearing it, George and Harold burst out laughing (the joke is enhanced by Professor Poopypants’s voice – he’s got a Swiss/German accent, which allows him to pronounce words in a funny way – not that there’s anything wrong with that). While Descartes and Hobbes might be disappointed in George and Harold, we can understand why they laugh, can’t we? What Descartes and Hobbes might point out, however, is that laughing at Professor Poopypants is cruel. Again, they have a point. After all, if we’re honest, most of us were ridiculed in some way in elementary school, either for our name, our looks, our weight, our family, our friends, or whatever was considered worth laughing at by the group of kids in charge.
This is why humor is difficult – we want to laugh at funny things but when we do, we might make someone else feel bad. In other words, humor isn’t universal, it’s subjective, perhaps even specialized. You have to be “in on it” and you have to “get it” in order for it to be funny – or, you have to be so thick-skinned and supremely confident that teasing doesn’t bother you. Otherwise, you’re like the character of Melvin, a kid in George and Harold’s class who absolutely has no sense of humor – literally, as Professor Poopypants discovers Melvin is missing the part of his brain that controls humor.
Using Melvin to power a two-story tall toilet-monster, Professor Poopypants shrinks the humor part of every child’s brain in George and Harold’s school so that no one will laugh at him anymore – and here we have our plot: humor turned into ridicule turned into trauma turned into revenge. Professor Poopypants, fascinated with Melvin’s lack of humor (which doesn’t come from trauma but simply from biology – he was born without the capacity to laugh), wants to weaponize Melvin’s unique trait to eliminate laughter not just from the school but from the whole world. Of course, it doesn’t work, but it certainly makes you see the sides of humor we don’t often see (but perhaps often feel).
And this brings us back to pain. What do you do when someone laughs at you? How do you handle the pain of being humiliated, of being the butt of a joke, or of being simply teased? The lesson of Captain Underpants seems to be to laugh along. Professor Poopypants could’ve recognized the humor of his name and just gone along with it. Doing so wouldn’t have made him weak or humiliated, it would’ve made him strong. But it’s not easy to do, is it? Self-effacing humor is perhaps the most difficult type of humor to practice. Not taking yourself seriously – like Captain Underpants, George, and Harold –allows you to enjoy life more, doesn’t it?
Of course, laughing at yourself requires a mixture of deep humility, confidence, and understanding that the laughter isn’t pain, it’s actually joy. Consider how Charles Darwin describes laughter: “Laughter seems primarily to be the expression of mere joy or happiness. We certainly see this in children at play, who are almost incessantly laughing.” This isn’t negative nor is it ridicule or scorn, it’s just laughing because you’re happy. Perhaps this is why children laugh differently than adults.
One of the best scenes in the film is when Captain Underpants (pretending to be Principal Krupp) organizes a carnival on the school grounds. For a brief few moments the children are at play (and the teachers are in detention), laughing and enjoying being free. Perhaps that’s the final message of Captain Underpants: laughter is freedom, for it’s one of the few things that teachers and adults and society (and bosses and any other authority who seeks to oppress us by making us do things we don’t want to do) can’t take away from us (no matter how hard they try). George and Harold recognized this in kindergarten, like most kids do.
Indeed, learning to laugh is perhaps the most important lesson life teaches us. It’s not something kindergarteners need to be taught – children laugh naturally, as Darwin observes. But somewhere along the way, many of us lose this ability. We silence it, shun it, repress it, and punish it to the point that we’re unable to handle humor, like Professor Poopypants (who, like Joe Pesci’s Tommy, takes things way too personally). The hope of Captain Underpants, then, is that we find the ability to rediscover not just our inner child, but our inner laughter. As Captain Underpants tells a street mime early in the film: “Poor soul, you’re trapped in some sort of invisible boxlike prison […] I will set you free.” He then punches the mime out of the box. Tra-la-laaaaaaaaaa!
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, Dreamworks Animation, 2017.
Darwin, Charles. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. 4th Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Descartes, René. The Passions of the Soul and Other Late Philosophical Writings. Trans. Michael Moriarty. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Dover Publications, 2006.