The Psychology of Entertainment: What We Find Funny

Did you hear the one about….

A rabbi, a priest and a prostitute walk into a bar….

Knock Knock….

A lot of decidedly unfunny academic papers have been written about what makes us laugh (the one I referred to for this post was  Robert Storey, “Comedy, Its Theorists and the Evolutionary Perspective,” Criticism 38.3 (1996), Questia – what a hoot!). Freud has his own ideas that involved a sudden release of psychic energy, sort of like a mental steam release valve. It’s a sign of the dryness of the academic world to note that there is vigorous academic debate about what we find funny.

At the risk of examining an inherent human trait that’s probably better left alone, if we’re going to look at the psychology of entertainment, we have to look at what we find funny. And to begin, let’s look at what makes a baby laugh.

Getting a Baby to Laugh

babylaughBabies get humor at a pretty early age. Most babies start laughing in their first half year of life. So, obviously, there must be some fundamental qualities of humor. In understanding what we find funny, it’s helpful to look at what makes a 5 month old baby laugh.

Think about how you get a baby to laugh. A game of Peekaboo is usually effective. Tickling and gentle rough housing can usually elicit a chuckle. A adult face zooming into close proximity while babbling verbal nonsense also seems to do the trick.

Now, if we look closely at each of these activities, we start to realize there’s a macabre and twisted underbelly to humor.

Peekaboo generally works best with the primary care givers, the parents. The closer the adult is to the baby, the more likely you’ll get  a smile or laugh. But the game basically mimics the disappearance of the person closest to the baby and then brings them back. Now you see me, now you don’t, and now you see me again.

Tickling and rough housing is a toned down mock attack. The same is true when we jam our faces into that of an infant and spout baby talk. We get them to laugh by scaring the bejesus out of them. Is it any wonder that babies seem to be balanced on the fine line between laughing and crying during most of these activities? It doesn’t take much to slip from humor to fear. As the baby gets tired or if a stranger tries the same game as the parent, you’re more likely to get tears than laughter.

The Primal Building Blocks of Humor

This starts to tell us what the primal elements of humor might be. For a baby, we take a threatening situation and down play it dramatically, letting the baby feel that it’s just play. The baby picks up signals from us that there is no real threat, leaving them free to enjoy the game.  In this benign version of toned down danger, the baby builds coping skills for the world around them. This mastery of our environments, our ability to align things with a sense what’s right and achieve congruity, continues to play a critical role in what we find humorous as we get older.

By the way, humans aren’t the only animals that laugh. Other primates, such as chimpanzees, also laugh, and there the dividing line between hostility and humor is almost non existent. The toothy grin in a primate is not too many steps removed from baring your teeth in preparation for battle. And a smile is the primates sign for submission to a superior.

This line between danger and pain is one that humans continue to ride through our lives, and some enjoy the journey more than others. Some smile and laugh like idiots on a roller coaster (myself included), others are paralyzed in fear. But the difference between the two extremes is not as far as you might think. Research seems to show that both feelings originate from the same centres of the brain and it’s our threshold for sensation stimulation that separates laughter from screaming.

The Psychology of a Joke

The jokes we find funny can tell much about us as individuals. Again, jokes rely on closing gaps of incongruity, a sudden revelation that suddenly allows a situation that highlights a discrepancy to make sense. We master the situation when we “get” the punchline, the source of the humor.

But the funniness of a joke depends on our frame of mind. What we find incongruous and the things that offer a pleasing solution to that incongruity differ from person to person. A highly religious person may be offended by a dirty joke that would be gang busters amongst a bunch of guys having a drink after work. The different view of context and competing emotions of disgust render the joke unfunny to more “upright” recipients.

This dependency on cultural context can help explain why jokes seldom translate well from culture to culture. The more the joke relies on a frame of reference steeped in the uniqueness of a culture, the less likely it will be to successfully cross borders. In 2002 a study was done to find the funniest joke in the world. The winner was:

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm, soothing voice, says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “Okay, now what?”

The classic elements of humor are all here. The initial situation, the set up, the twist and the sudden understanding of the twist, resulting in, apparently, universal laughter. Notice that the context is so broad and independent of a cultural context that anyone, anywhere, should “get it”. There is nothing culturally specific about this joke.

But now let’s look at what the winner in the US was:

A man and a friend are playing golf one day at their local golf course. One of the guys is about to chip onto the green when he sees a long funeral procession on the road next to the course. He stops in mid-swing, takes off his golf cap, closes his eyes, and bows down in prayer. His friend says: “Wow, that is the most thoughtful and touching thing I have ever seen. You truly are a kind man.” The man then replies: “Yeah, well we were married 35 years.”

The humor in this joke depends on understanding how fanatical some males are about golf, a context familiar in the US, not as familiar in Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe.

The funniest joke in Canada revealed a nastier side of our culture:

When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they quickly discovered that ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity. To combat the problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12 billion to develop a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on almost any surface including glass and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to 300 C. The Russians used a pencil.

Much as we Canadians love our neighbors to the south, we also love to see the U.S. get it’s comeuppance. The humor of this joke depends on a shared cultural perception of Americans “overdoing” it on the world stage. Canada’s reputation as a source of world class comedians and satirists has been honed by this love/hate relationship with the U.S. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that this same tendency has produced some of the world’s best known observers of human behavior and social peculiarities, including Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker and Marshall McLuhan.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll talk about how we process humor and why we can laugh at both Oscar Wilde and Three’s Company.

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