The Psychology of Entertainment: Men, Women and How We Process Humor

Yesterday, I talked about context and it’s impact on comedy. What makes something funny in Scotland wouldn’t necessarily be as funny in Switzerland or South Africa. If different nationalities process jokes differently, there must be other dividing lines as well, right? Yes, and the biggest one is the line that segments the sexes. Men and women have significantly different humor processing hardware. Women tend to think before laughing, monitoring the social temperature before making a judgement about what’s funny. A man’s response tends to be less deliberate, a more direct connection to our primal “humor” centres.

And it’s this divide in the senses that provides some clues on the mechanisms used to process humor. Studies have found that unless both the right and left hemispheres of the brain are fully engaged in the task of processing humor, we won’t find a joke funny. This is why you never find a joke funny if it has to be explained to you. If we use the left hemisphere (the logical side) of our brain to analyze a joke too extensively, it ceases to be humorous. The suddenness of the gap closing, the elimination of incongruity and the feeling of mastery is no longer there. You’ve taken too long a road to the punchline and the humor got lost on the way.

In humans, humor seems to be a balancing act between the left and right hemisphere. The left gets the facts in order, and the right seems to provide the synthesis that produces the humor. Neurologists have found that patients with lesions to their right hemisphere can understand the “logic” of a joke but simply won’t find any humor in it. Knowing that an interplay between the hemispheres is required to produce humor explains the differing responses from men and women when it comes to what’s funny. Women have more robust wiring between the right and left hemispheres.  The important thing, however, is that we process humor subconsciously. As I said yesterday, if we stop to think too long about a joke, it ceases to be funny.

The Difference between Slapstick and Wit

three_stoogesYesterday, I talked about what makes a baby laugh. In effect, I stripped humor down to it’s essential building blocks. But, as we get older, we get more sophisticated. We move beyond the universal foundations of humor and start to develop tastes. Some of us love Oscar Wilde. Some of us love Tyler Perry. So, what is the difference between high brow and low brow humor?

Why do we laugh when other people hurt themselves? Why was it funny when Larry slapped Moe, or poked Curly in the eyes? What kind of sick, sadistic bastards are we? The Germans even coined a word for it: Schadenfreude – which translates literally as “joy from adversity”.

There is a double punch-line to slapstick comedy. The first comes from the fact that laughter and danger live in the same parts of our brain, as I explained in yesterday’s post. We have an immediate and complex reaction to physical calamity. It surprises us, which triggers the appropriate part of the brain, which in turn responds with a double hit of fear and laughter. Which side of the dividing line we end up depends on the seriousness of the calamity. Minor bumps on the head (when they happen to others), slips, falls, knocks and bumps can all trigger laughter as an immediate response. If the damage is more seriousness, our laughter quickly turns to concern. Remember yesterday when we looked at how a 5 month old’s laughter is triggered by conquerable danger, in a playful setting? These same mechanisms stay in place throughout our lives and partially explain our response to other’s physical misfortunes. In comedy, Slapstick is stylized so that we can be certain nobody is getting hurt too badly. Facial expressions, sound effects and mock moans all signal that this is just good fun. Look at the picture of the Three Stooges I included with this post. No one could look at the expressions on those faces and make the mistake of thinking that there’s anything remotely serious about the ear twisting that’s going on. We distance the physical violence from the result of that violence. It’s the entire premise of the game show Wipeout, as well  as 85% of the clips on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

The Social Side of Humor

But there’s more to it than just a mixed up fear/laughter response. Humor depends on our social radar. It depends on how we position ourselves in our social network. This is where the Schadenfreude part of the equation plays out. We find it funny when  Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff but we don’t when the same fate befalls the Road Runner. Why? Because Wile is the bad guy and the Road Runner is the good guy. Archetypes are important in comedy. This goes back to Aristotle’s rules for drama: bad things can happen to bad people, good things are supposed to happen to good people, but when those two get mixed up, it’s a lot less satisfying to us. Schadenfreude works best when the good/bad roles are clearly defined.

So, how do we define Schadenfreude for men vs women? This is another place where males and females diverge in their opinions of what we find funny. In men, it typically plays out in terms of physical violence. We men laugh when others get hurt. With women, it’s more often defined as a social comeuppance. Women laugh at social ostracization.

Tom Green vs Kate Hudson: Guy’s Movies & Chick Flicks

Let’s visit the 6th grade school yard at lunch time. Over in this corner we have a group of guys laughing. What are they laughing about? Chances are, it’s something to do with some type of bodily emission or various parts of the male and female anatomy and how they might interact. Guys are, on the average, predictably base about what we find funny. And much as I wish we outgrew this, a quick glance down what’s currently playing at the local Cineplex will probably prove me right.

But there, over in the other corner, is a group of girls laughing. What are they laughing about? Chances are it’s not about farting or doody. It’s more likely laughter at the expense of some poor unfortunate distant member of their social circle. Social status is a key ingredient in comedies aimed at women, usually with a romantic twist thrown in.

High Brow Humor

Do we ever rise above the limitations of our base instincts when it comes to humor? Thankfully, yes. Many of us appreciate wit for it’s own sake. So, what is it about the witty remark that we find so appealing?

Perhaps the answer can be found in how we respond to wit. A witty remark almost never elicits a belly laugh. Witty remarks cause us to smile. A chuckle is usually the most we can hope for. Belly laughs are usually reserved for more physical types of comedy. Why the difference? Let’s return to our 5 month old. Babies both smile and laugh. They laugh during rough housing and more robust play sessions. They smile when they recognize the face of their mother or a grandparent. Laughter seems to come from our danger/humor circuit. Smiling comes from a more social place in our brain. In chimpanzees, a smile signals social submission. So, what does this have to do with wit?

We admire wit. We aspire to be witty. We identify with the mental acuity that typifies a witty person. We all want to be Chandler Bing, Conan O’Brien or, in an earlier age, Dorothy Parker. Wit is a signal of social station. Again, we find that what we find funny and what we find socially desirably are inextricably linked.

Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. – Dorothy Parker

Now that we’ve looked at what we find funny, on the next post I’ll return to a question I started to ask: what separates a TV hit from a miss?

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