Is Humor a Science? An article by Tad Friend in last week's New Yorker discusses a scientific study being conducted in the UK attempting to uncover what it is that makes us laugh. It was pretty interesting because it points out quite a bit that we already know, or at least have contemplated in conversations about humor. Here are a few things discussed (some paraphrased, some word for word from the article):
1. The funniest animal is a duck. When substituting several different animals in the same joke (i.e. "A ________ walks into a bar..."), the joke was rated funniest when the animal was a duck.
2. Aristotle and Plato's "Superiority Theory" explains that laughter is provoked by the "sudden glory" of one's own mighty powers "or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another". This is why, in history, court jesters were always (at least in legend) ogre-ish, or hunchbacks, etc. This is also why comedians are usually described as "ugly", "clumsy", "weird", "dorky", etc.
3. "Incongruity Theory" explains that the funniest stuff happens when what is expected is not what one gets. A great example is Lenny Bruce's joke, which elicited 17 seconds of audience laughter: "If you've ever seen this bit before, I want you to tell me. Stop me if you've seen it. (long pause). I'm going to piss on you."
4. "Release Theory" explains that humor "mines repressed sources of pleasure in the unconscious." Which is exactly why we laugh when people say things that we would never be able to say ourselves, such as racist, sexist, and dirty jokes.
5. Humor works in threes (a rabbi, a priest, and a minister...a brunette, a redhead and a blonde). You need two straightforward examples to set up the pattern, and one to carry the punchline (this also is explained in Incongruity Theory).
6. Specificity is important, and can make a joke funnier (i.e. "Tropicana" elicits more laughs than just plain "orange juice"), but can ruin a joke if it clouds the punchline (i.e. the Emo Phillips joke "I'd like to die in my sleep like my grandfather did, not screaming at the top of my lungs like the passengers in his car" works great as is (note the "Incongruity" factor), but is ruined if you change "car" to "his rented, lime-green Yugo").
7. Some numbers are funnier than others: Most primes are funny. Seventeen is funny.
8. Certain words are funny: Woody Allen has used the following often in jokes: Herring, dwarf, feathers, butter.
9. Certain occupations are funny: A kamikaze is funny.
10. Certain names are funny: Chuck, Gladys, Hortense, Pierre.
11. Certain foods and products are funny: Twinkies, Alka Seltzer, nectarines.
12. K words, and K sounds are funny (also c, qu): Cupcake, kayak. Add in the "Release Theory" and it's funnier: Spick, Mick, Chink, Kike, Polack. Funny!
The following apply to TV humor: 1. "Digging the Hole Deeper": The character says something which gets him into trouble, then in trying to get himself back out, only makes it worse. Classic.
2. The "Whee-Wohn" (the flaccid sound that they make on really bad TV shows to emphasize the bummer). This is usually done with editing, for juxtoposition from one scene to the next. For example, guy says "You wouldn't catch me dead watching that chick flick", then cuts to him in the theater, next to his girlfriend eating popcorn watching that movie. (similar to Incongruity Theory).
3. The following five rules according to Brent Forrester, writer for the Simpsons: 1. wordplay, 2. comic irony, 3. combining the sacred and the profane, 4. reversal of scale, 5. the unintentional revelation of something negative. One of these on its own is not always funny. But add in two or three in one gag, and you can't fail.
This is all great. But it doesn't explain why just looking at Jack Black makes me laugh (is it Superiority Theory? If he looked like Anthony Robbins would he be as funny?). It also doesn't explain why things are funnier in quiet settings (maybe it's "combining the sacred and the profane" or "Release Theory"). I don't know. I do know that because I read that article, I will never listen to a joke or watch a sitcom without analyzing it. Which isn't very funny at all.