Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why are you laughing? — an exploration of the nature of humor

Photo by eliastar, used under Creative Commons License

Presented to the Club by David T. Noyes on Monday evening, Oct. 22, 2012
A new pastor was visiting the homes of his parishioners.
At one house it seemed obvious that someone was at home, but no answer came to his repeated knocks at the door. Therefore, he took out a card and wrote "Revelation 3:20" on the back of it and stuck it in the door. 
When the offering was processed the following Sunday, he found that his card had been returned. Added to it was this cryptic message: “Genesis 3:10." 
Reaching for his Bible to check out the citation, he found that Revelation 3:20 begins "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." Genesis 3:10 reads, "I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid, for I was naked.
Humor. What makes us laugh? I have come to the conclusion in the process of writing this paper that it’s terribly hard to define. And unlike Justice Potter Stewart’s comment about pornography, I don’t always “know it when I see it.” Something I might find hilarious may not even bring a smirk to your face. And vice versa! 
I thought it might be fun to delve into the topic of humor. This is not intended to be an exhaustive discussion—just think of the wildly diverse collection you could put together: Puns, limericks, sarcasm, caricature, slapstick, political satire, irony, parody, dark humor, ethnic/racial humor, bathroom humor, etc. And that doesn’t even begin to include the host of media involved—TV, movies, books, cartoons, billboards.

Let me start with some examples of one of the simplest, perhaps weakest forms of humor:—puns
  1. The butcher backed up into the meat grinder and got a little behind in his work.
  2. A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it.
  3. Did you hear about the fellow whose whole left side was cut off? He’s all right now.
  4. To write with a broken pencil is pointless.
  5. I wondered why the Frisbee was getting bigger, and then it hit me.
The reader prematurely commits to a misinterpretation, which in the end he realizes is unwarranted.

Of course an oxymoron, defined as a contradictory word pair, is a form of punning. George Carlin is generally credited with popularizing this form in his stand up routines. “Jumbo Shrimp” and “Military Intelligence” are two well known examples. But I’ve come across many others:  Authentic Reproduction; Microsoft Works; Gourmet Pizza; Resident Alien; Female Sperm Whale; Terribly Nice; White Chocolate; or how about--Religious Right!

Then there are the “Paraprosdokians”, which are figures of speech in which a sentence or phrase starts out in one way and then pulls a sudden dramatic reversal that causes the listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. Stand up comedians prefer them because the set up and the punch line are in the same line.
  1. The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on the list.
  2. If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.
  3. Oscar Wilde: Some people cause happiness wherever they go. Others whenever they go.
  4. You don’t need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.
  5. Will Rogers: “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Or this Rogers quote I’ve used several times at the Monday Evening Club: “When the Oakies leftOklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I.Q. of both states.”
  6. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three lefts do.
  7. Or the famous Winston Churchill line: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they’ve tried everything else.”
  8. Americans choose between two people for president, but among fifty for Miss America.
These are all examples of what is generally considered first person humor.

In ancient physiology the humors were the four fluids of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. The proportions of these fluids were thought to determine our temperament. The term humor came to be associated with mood—one could be in good humor, meaning one’s fluids were in balance. Eventually the word came to be associated with the positive notion of amusement. 
In Ireland every Saturday morning, the entire congregation makes their way to confession to cleanse their souls to prepare for Sunday mass. The priest enters his side of the confessional and waits for the first sinner to enter. A moment later he hears the door open and a voice say: 
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I have been with a loose girl. 
Father Flanagan, the Parish priest recognized the voice as one of his altar boys and asked, “Is that you little Sean O’Malley? 
Sean sheepishly replied, “Yes, Father, it is. 
Father Flanagan pressed, “And who was this loose girl you were with then? 
Sean stated, “I cannot tell you, Father. I don’t want to ruin her reputation. 
Father Flanagan whispered back, “Well, Sean, I am sure to find out her name soon enough so you may as well tell me now. Was it Mary Rooney? 
Sean replied, “I cannot say." 
Father Flanagan pressed further, “Was it Elizabeth Casey? 
Sean spoke, “I’ll never tell Father." 
Father asked, “Was it Patty Mulligan?" 
Sean replied, “I’m sorry, but I cannot name her.” 
Once more, Father Flanagan asked, “Was it Rebecca Muldoon, then?” 
Sean softly spoke, “Please, Father, you know I can’t tell you.” 
Father Flanagan sighed in frustration. He said, “You are a very tight lipped lad, and I admire that. But you have sinned and now you have to atone. Starting today, you will be relieved of your altar boy duties for three months. Now go back to your pew and say ten Hail Mary’s and ten Our Fathers.” 
Sean slowly walks back to his pew and his friend Mike slides over and whispered, “What’d you get?” 
Sean whispered, “Three months vacation and four good leads.”
This is an example of third person humor, which is more complicated and requires the telling of a story. The “set up” is designed to commit us to a certain belief based on our collective experiences, then, the tables are turned. In a way, they are very like short snippets of the classic Paul Newman/Robert Redford movie The Sting. 

Here’s another example:
Bert and Ernie are two radio talk show hosts from Maine. One day Bert says, “Ernie, did you hear what happened at the saw mill today?” 
“No, Bert.” 
“Well, Old Tom Warner forgot to let go of the board and suddenly found his hand cut off by the blade.” 
“What did they do, Bert?” 
“Well, they put his hand in a bag of ice, took him to the hospital and the doctors sewed it right back on. And now he’s good as new.” 
A month later, Bert says, “Ernie, did you hear the news from the sawmill last week?” 
“No, Bert, what happened?” 
“Silas lost his balance, and before he could right himself, the blade cut off his right leg.” 
“What did they do, Bert?" 
“Well, they put his leg in a bag of ice, rushed him to the hospital, and the surgeons sewed it back on. And now he’s good as new.” 
A month goes by and Bert says, “Ernie, it was a terrible day down at the saw mill yesterday." 
“What happened?” 
“Mike was still a little tipsy from drinking at the bar the night before. He tripped and fell head first into the blade and got his head cut off.” 
“Don’t tell me, Bert. I know exactly what they did. The put his head in a bag of ice and rushed him to the hospital, where the surgeons sewed his head back on and now he’s good as new — right?” 
“No, Ernie. Mike died. He suffocated in the bag.” 
There is tremendous variability in who finds what funny. Humor is heavily dependent on shared backgrounds, moods, attitudes, and, yes, even prejudices. So, ethnic or racial jokes might be enjoyed by some espousing similar beliefs, but be considered anathema to others. 

Just think of the extreme reaction provoked in 2011 by the French controversial weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo after it published a cartoon ridiculing the prophet Mohammed. Its Paris offices were firebombed - clearly no laughing matter. 

Or this example, of a professional nature:
Q. What’s wrong with lawyer jokes?
A. Lawyers don’t think they’re funny and other people don’t think they’re jokes. 
Also, depending upon the intensity of your political persuasion, one may not appreciate his/her candidate being the target of American political satire.

After the political conventions this summer, the talk shows were rife with such humor. The night after the Republican convention, David Letterman said, “Before we get too riled up about Clint Eastwood’s encounter with the empty chair, you have to keep in mind that I’ve made a pretty good living talking to empty chairs over the years.”

And just before the Democratic convention, another late night host described a conversation between the Clintons. 
Hillary said, “Bill, I hear you’re going to Charlotte.” 
“What? Who told you that? I don’t even know Charlotte. If she told you she’s lying!”
Of course, my favorite exploiters of this genre are the Capitol Steps.

James Thurber has written, “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”

So it is that we can turn our own misfortunes or near-misses into the prize of humor. This may take the form of practical jokes. When we endure some “uncomical” mishap, the experience may inspire us to realize that a reprise of the incident, with someone else as the victim, might be amusing to watch! A prankster who discovers that there is wet paint on a handrail may not find his own painted hand humorous, but upon removing the wet-paint signs, he might happily anticipate his victims making the same mistake. 

Isn’t this, after all, what makes the slapstick antics of The Marx Brothers, Peter Sellers, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and countless other comedians so much fun to watch!

Can’t you just picture The Three Stooges:  We see Larry with a long ladder on his shoulder standing next to Moe and Curly. Larry turns to look at something behind him. As the ladder is rotating, Moe sees it coming but expects it will hit Curly first. At the last minute, Curly ducks, and Moe gets hit in the face.  
And how about the delight that people take in watching serious mishaps. Week after week the television program America’s Funniest Home Videos shows a parade of people getting hit in the crotch by errant baseballs, golf balls, kicking animals, and—most excruciating of all—by their own bicycle crossbars as they crash after attempting some lunatic stunt. Ouch! We wince, but we laugh at the same time.

Or we find amusement in the weekly predicaments in which unsuspecting victims find themselves on Candid Camera. In these cases, we have been let in on the prank ahead of time. In a way, we are the pranksters.

Generally jokes are not as funny the second time around. Yet, we can watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail again and again. We know what’s going to happen next. We actually laugh before the joke in anticipation of what amuses us. This may be similar to watching Peter Falk’s Columbo.  There is no mystery—we know the perpetrator within the first five minutes of the show. The entertainment comes from watching Columbo ensnare his target.  

Or, in the years when Charles Schultz was still alive, we could eagerly anticipate the annual fall rendition of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute.

Of all the running jokes with which poor old Charlie Brown has been associated, none has a richer history – nor a longer one – than his attempts to kick the football. The fall of each year brought Lucy’s latest clever little ruse to persuade Charlie Brown to try one more time ... and her equally creative excuse for yet another failure.

With just a few exceptions, these Sunday strips appeared every September or October after the strip hit its stride in the late 1950s. That’s a lot of decades, and a lot of excuses. But how did it all begin? Believe it or not, with Violet, rather than Lucy.

Yes, Charlie Brown’s very first failed kick took place when Violet held the ball for him, in the November 14, 1951 daily strip. Clearly worried that he might accidentally kick her hand, she pulls away at the last second while saying, "I can’t go through with it!"

Lucy's involvement began with the November 16, 1952 Sunday strip. This was shortly after Lucy had been introduced, when she still looked (and was) several years younger than Charlie Brown. Aside from that, all the classic elements were in place ... and, as she pulled the football away at the last second, she explained, "I was afraid your shoes might be dirty."  [The Football Gags. Derrick Bang.]

There are perhaps tens of thousands of books about humor.  It is such a broad ranging topic, that it has been virtually impossible to claim an all-inclusive explanation. Most overviews condense to three theories—Superiority, Release, and Incongruity.

Superiority Theory posits that we recognize or sense that we feel some level of superiority over the target, such as the butt of the joke. We laugh at people or what they are doing. It isn’t so very long ago that travelling circus acts included the genetically or developmentally deformed. (If you saw The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer you know what I mean). This theory goes as far back as Aristotle, who said that humor was the recognition of a failing resulting from an implied comparison between the noble state of a person or thing and an ignoble state.

So, for example, how about this familiar exchange:
A visiting Southerner is walking across Harvard Yard.  He runs into a senior student. “Where is the library at?” he asks. 
The Harvard student replies, “Around here we do not end our sentences with a preposition.” 
“Okay—where is the library at, you asshole?”
Or this example:
A Senior citizen is driving on the highway. His wife calls him on his cell phone and in a worried voice says, “Herman, be careful! I just heard on the radio that there was a madman driving the wrong way on Route 128. 
Herman says, “Not just one, there are hundreds!”
Alternatively, Release Theory holds that underlying tension, often sexual in nature, is relieved by laughing. Since expending the energy required to laugh must have some underlying purpose—we seek out humor to relieve anxiety. So, for example:

A man and a woman who have never met before find themselves in the same sleeping carriage of a train. After the initial embarrassment they both go to sleep, the woman on the top bunk, the man on the lower.

In the middle of the night the woman leans over, wakes the man and says, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m awfully cold and I was wondering if you could possibly get me another blanket.”

The man leans out and, with a glint in his eye, says, “I’ve got an better idea…just for tonight let’s pretend we’re married”

The woman thinks for a moment. “Why not,” she laughs. 
“Great,” he replies, “Get your own damn blanket.”
Or this Steve Martin quote: "You know 'that look' women get when they want sex? Me neither."

Or how about this classic:
The Teacher calls on Little Johnny. “Johnny—I have a math question for you.” 
Little Johnny says, “Okay, fire away!” 
The Teacher says, “There are three crows sitting on a fence. A hunter shoots one. How many are left?” 
Little Johnny quickly responds, “None!”

The Teacher repeats, “Listen carefully: Three crows are on the fence. The hunter shoots one. How many are left?”

Sure of himself, Johnny answers again, “None.”

The Teacher asks, “Could you explain your answer?”

Little Johnny responds, “Sure. The crow that gets shot falls off the fence dead. The other two fly away, afraid of the noise.”

“Actually”, the Teacher replies, “the answer is two, but I like the way you're thinking.”

Little Johnny says,  “Now I have a question for you.”

The Teacher says, “Go ahead.”

Little Johnny asks,  “There are three women walking down the street eating ice cream cones. One of them is licking it, one of them is biting it and one of them is sucking her ice cream cone. Which one is married?”

After thinking for a moment the Teacher responds,  “The one sucking the cone.”

Actually,” replies Johnny, “she’s the one wearing the wedding ring,  but I like the way you're thinking!"
Perhaps the theory most generally advocated for is Incongruity-Resolution Theory. This theory says that humor happens whenever a contradiction occurs that is subsequently resolved. Or when a belief that you, yourself, are committed to, usually without even realizing it, becomes invalidated.

So, for example:
A man named O’Riley was on trial for armed robbery. The jury came out and announced, “Not guilty.” 
“Wonderful,” said O’Riley to his lawyer, “does that mean I can keep the money?” 
Or:
Taking his seat in his chamber, the judge faced the opposing lawyers. 
“I have been given bribes by both of you,” the judge began. 
Both lawyers squirmed uncomfortably. 
“You, Attorney Leoni, gave me $15,000. And you, Attorney Campos, gave me $10,000.’’  
The judge reached in his pocket and pulled out a check, which he handed to Leoni. 
“Now, then, I’m returning $5,000 and we are going to decide this case solely on its merits!”

In this category of humor theory, listeners are lured into committing to a presumption that is later disclosed as mistaken. The humorous effect comes from the realization and acceptance that one has been led down the garden path.

Or as Mark Twain so aptly said: “What gets us into trouble is not what we know; it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” 

Of course, there can also be a combination of theories at work as well.

So, for example, recall how you felt when you found the sunglasses that you were so frantically looking for on the top of your head.  Or suppose you get on an elevator, the door has closed, and you are distractedly texting on your phone. After a while, the door opens for a new passenger, and you suddenly realize you’ve forgotten to press the button for your floor and the elevator hasn’t moved at all. You ought to feel a sense of mirth for having assumed you were on your way—“silly me.” Or perhaps you discover that you’re waiting for the instant replay at a live game—and are ever so slightly embarrassed.

In these examples, it is a former/historical version of yourself to whom you now feel superior. Yet also there has been an “incongruity” or mistaken belief that has been discovered. Mirth can be defined as the pleasure of discovering a particular mistake—this is the response to humor.
Q.  How do you tell the sex of a chromosome?
A.  Pull down its genes.       
A new book by Mathew Hurley that arose from his 2006 dissertation at Tufts University — Inside Jokes —  posits a universal, “natural selection” derivation for humor. In other words it’s in the genes.  Much of the material for this paper comes from this analysis.

Biological theories observe that laughter occurs spontaneously in infancy and that the existence of humor is universal throughout human cultures. If evolution selected for the traits of laughter and humor, then those traits must be encoded in our genes.

It has been proposed that laughter evolved to promote group bonding, discharge nervous tension, or keep us healthy. The more laughter, the better. But, if true, we should laugh at any joke, however stupid, no matter how often we’ve heard it before--yet we do not. A good sense of humor implies a discriminating sense of humor, not a howling shriek at every turn. 

And so, Hurley argues, humor is intimately linked to thinking. There is the initial response—laughter and perhaps admiration for the cleverness of the joke—but then, also, the self-congratulation found in the satisfaction of “getting” the joke.

So the kind of joy that we feel when we complete a puzzle, master a new skill, discover a beautiful landscape, have a good day at work, or read a new author, may be the same basic pleasurable emotion that is triggered by getting a joke. 

All brains are anticipation generators. Their primary function is to extract information on the fly from the world around them and generate expectations that will serve the organism well in a potentially hostile environment. Yet this never ending series of assumptions is based on sparse, erratic, and incomplete information. The brain then derives predictions from experience. All these best guesses simplify our work and give us critical insights into the minds of others, streamlining our decisions. But mistakes are inevitable, and even a small faulty assumption can open the door to bigger and costlier mistakes. And yes, speed matters.  He who laughs last thinks slowest.  

A sense of humor is what keeps our brains alert for the gaps between our quick-fire assumptions and reality. This cognitive reflex is what Hurley calls the “the endogenous mind candy of mirth.”

On the other hand, when we are unable to solve a problem, there is a sense of bewilderment that is reminiscent of the feeling we have when we are unable to get a joke. 

Having to be told the inner workings of a joke is slightly embarrassing or demeaning. And, at the same time, often cheats the teller of the joke of his prize—your laughter.

In fact Max Eastman, in his 1936 book Enjoyment of Laughter, said, “The correct explanation of a joke not only doesn’t sound funny, but it does not sound like the correct explanation.” 

(As an aside, Eastman graduated from Williams College in 1905 where he was a roommate of Charles Whittlesey. You may recall prior Monday Evening Club papers by Tom Plunket and Martin Langeveld on Whittlesey, who was known as the Lost Battalion commanding officer and a World War I hero.)

I think this is why I generally do not enjoy the cartoons of the New Yorker—I don’t “get” them. First, it takes me too long to figure them out—humor should be more spontaneous and quick. Then, even when I do come to understand them, I might be able to admire the “trick”; but they do not provoke a laugh. Worse yet, I have to cringe when my wife, Sue, explains them to me!

Then, there is also the matter of timing. For the audience to commit to the  set-up, there must be just enough time to make the necessary faulty inference but not enough time to double-check it. Wait too long and there is an increasing chance that a conflicting piece of information will bring the key belief into doubt—i.e. the audience won’t take the bait. If that occurs the chance for humor is doomed. Too little time and the improper commitment may never be made.

Of course humor doesn’t have to come from made up jokes. Often, it just appears in real life.

Some of you may have read in the paper several months ago the story of An Inept Bank Robber:
It seems a man, wanting to rob a downtown Bank of America, walked into the branch and wrote "This iz a stikkup. Put all your muny in this bag." 
While standing in line, waiting to give his note to the teller, he began to worry that someone had seen him write the note and might call the police before he reached the teller window. So he left the Bank of America and crossed the street to Wells Fargo. 
After waiting a few minutes in line, he handed his note to the Wells Fargo teller. She read it and, surmising from his spelling errors that he was not the brightest light in the harbor, told him that she could not accept his stick up note because it was written on a Bank of America deposit slip and that he would either have to fill out a Wells Fargo deposit slip or go back to Bank of America. 
Looking somewhat defeated, the man said "OK" and left the Wells Fargo. The Wells Fargo teller then called the police who arrested the man a few minutes later, as he was waiting in line back at the Bank of America.
Or let’s hear it for the robber from Wichita, Kansas. The security cameras filmed the exploding dye packs surrounding him in a fog of red haze as he hurried off to the get-a-way car. 

Any of you who have been hospitalized lately know that every, nurse, dietician, or physical therapist, who visits you asks you your name and birth date. This gets tiring after awhile. Recently I overheard my patient having this interaction with an OR nurse:
Nurse, “What’s your date of birth, Mr. Jones?
Mr. Jones, “April 20th.
Nurse, “What year?”
Mr. Jones, “Every year!”
So, why do we laugh? Laughing is involuntary—we generally can’t make ourselves laugh spontaneously without a stimulus. Current theory holds it is a form of communication. It is a signal of our cognitive prowess –and weakness, similar to the way smiling suggests to the outside world a sense of contentment or happiness. 

And what about the contagion of laughter? Isn’t this the hoped-for effect of the “canned” laughter in television situation comedies?  Have you ever been provoked into laughing in response to hearing others laugh without understanding the joke? Has anyone here seen the recent Volkswagen commercial, titled “It’s not the miles—it’s how you live them?” Is it even possible to watch this 30 second segment without breaking into smile, if not outright laughter? 



I prefer to think of the goal of humor; however it evolved, as a means of providing group enjoyment. We value friends with whom we can share not just casual conversation alone, but also entertain the possibility of a laugh. Our dear departed colleague, Bob Newman always used to say that the best thing about the Monday Evening Club was that it didn’t do any good. Maybe that’s true in the larger, worldly context. But in the microcosm of the people in this room, I think a lot of good happens.

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