Childish, Childlike, and Adult Humour

Posted on 30 September 2011

The Problem

Not long ago I was out flying my kite. It’s a delta wing that flies well even in low wind. I find kite-flying a great way to get outside and enjoy the weather. More than that, the simple enjoyment of playing with the wind helps me to clear my mind and relax. I did a lot of kite-flying when I was at university.

On this particular day a friendly gentleman wandered up and mentioned he remembered kite-flying as a kid, and complimented me on having a healthy “inner child”. I tossed back my usual joke, “Inner? My child is all outer.” However, inside I felt annoyed.

Why. Why did he see flying a kite as a preoccupation of childhood?

Kites were used in China around 2800 years ago for measuring distances, testing the wind, lifting men, signalling, and communication for military operations. The understanding of aerodynamics that came with kite-flying made the first functioning airplanes possible. When I was a child men were still messing about with kites in the same way that some men still go fishing.

Our culture has been creating a larger and larger divide between what is considered appropriate for adults and what for children. And I could say, isn’t it a shame what we are losing as adults, but children are losing too.

Marketers know that it is easy to sell to people’s egos. A child’s ego is directed toward wanting to be more like adults or at least the older kids. At a certain age, if something is seen as for “little kids”, children will want to disassociate themselves from it and are unlikely to ever return to that something as they get older. Our culture over-values status, dominance, and power: and youth is seen as a stage of powerlessness.

This divide has a strong impact on comedy. Humour is all about play, and play is too often seen as the domain of children.

Adult Humour
blue language, sex, drugs, politics, satire, cynicism, violence

To be taken “seriously” some comedians will go straight for the material that would give them an “M” to “R” rating on TV. This sort of comedy appeals to crowds who might feel uncomfortable and vulnerable enjoying the childlike.

I’m a great fan of good political humour. Good satire is always fun. I have no problem with blue language used for emphasis or reality, or played with intelligently. Sex jokes can be told to emphasise our humanity, and not just to demean certain portions of the population. And I do not feel insulted or threatened by a cheerful pun. The range of my enjoyment goes beyond only that which is dark.

However, I have sat in venues where if you came on stage with a happy smile and a light quip, you would be met with stony silence. Sadly, many of these are the pubs where open mic nights are available.

It’s not a problem that such humour and such venues exist. This may be how some people need to blow off steam. It is a problem when other venues do not exist to promote and develop lighter humour and encourage people to see it as part of the spectrum of adult comedy.

Childish Humour
farts, burps, gurgling tummy, poop, piddle, vomiting, gorging, petty vengence

I enjoy characters such as Mr Bean or Frank Woodley. Certainly Frank and Mr Bean can have their childlike moments, but much of their humour derives from childishness.

In one performance Colin Lane, Frank’s comic partner, bellows, “Don’t you touch me!” and aggressively points his finger at Frank. Frank decides to mock Colin’s pronouncement by putting his mouth over Colin’s finger. The absurdity and humour comes from the fact that this is an adult behaving in a manner we would expect from a twelve year old, not a man in his thirties.

Mr Bean has an adventure at the swimming pool, which starts with his attraction to elephant shaped water slides. He climbs onto the slide and before he can launch into the pool, the pool supervisor blows his whistle and warns Mr Bean off. Because Mr Bean sat on the slide while his trunks were still dry, when he climbs off we see a round wet patch on his bottom that looks like he piddled.

Both of these characters use the tropes of childhood to develop their comedy. Nevertheless, their material is aimed at both young and old, and their television shows first aired to a mixed audience. In re-runs their shows were then marketed to children. Yet, if you go back over the jokes, many of them were squarely directed at the adults. Shows such as The Muppet Show, The Simpsons, and Southpark have met the same fate.

Interestingly, childish humour becomes adult humour when taken to the extreme. A large man able to fart so loudly and offensively he is able to clear the room proves that, though he is unable to control his bodily functions, he can do so in a way no child could achieve.

Childlike Humour
whimsical, imaginative, colourful, optimistic, clever, nonsensical

This is humour that gets classified as belonging to children. I would say it belongs to all of us and deserves respect. Some of the most popular television shows and television personalities dip heavily into this well.

I suspect neoteny has something to do with this humour.

Neoteny is the retention of childlike traits by adults. We see this in dogs who no longer seem to look or behave like their wolf ancestors, except if you examine the characteristics of wolf cubs. The neoteny of dogs was crucial to forming an evolutionarily successful relationship with human beings. They needed to have reduced aggression and a greater capacity to bond with non-wolf creatures.

Neoteny was also crucial to our own evolution. The child stage of most mammals is a time of playful practise of skills, intense learning, and an ability to peacefully co-habit with brothers and sisters. Once a mammal has learned all it needs to survive, it may lose these characteristics to focus solely on feeding, reproduction, and survival. In adulthood no longer can a mammal rely on a parent to protect them and give them the space to retain these characteristics. Yet, since our species selected for intelligence and community as its means of survival, we needed to retain the childlike abilities to learn and peacefully interact with one another.

When we laugh and play, when we cheerfully plug away at problems until we have solved them, we are celebrating what made us successful as humans…neoteny.

It is only now with the sheer volume of humanity that people have been able to rely on the technical, medical, artistic, etc creativity of a few and shut down important childlike abilities. People seeking power may indulge in this atavism, not realising that they are also reducing our ability to survive.

Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock was aimed at children. It also focussed on teaching children how to use play as a means to finding solutions to conflict and endangerment. These were meant to be skills they could carry with them into adulthood. Adults used a computer game called Foldit to solve a molecular puzzle that could lead to a cure for AIDS. One of Albert Einstein’s most famous quotes is, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited; imagination encircles the world.”

We need to create a world where it is safe to be ourselves without having to prove our importance. That’s from where the child/adult divide begins. When we can laugh long and loud with anyone of any age, when we can laugh with a sense of freedom and joy, we will have achieved a world of peace. Comedians you have a very important role in all of this. Go cuddle a teddy bear on stage with pride.

Peace and kindness,


1 Response to Childish, Childlike, and Adult Humour

  • Marcwolf says:

    And a good Doctor was once asked
    “Why did you do that.. That’s childish”
    and he answered
    “What the good of being adult when you can’t be childish once in a while”

    Take Care
    Your wolfy friend

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