May 23, 2012
Today I want to talk about comedy, because it is an absolutely amazing subject. The fact that an entire dynastic profession exists to make groups of (hopefully drunken) strangers laugh on command just seems kind of unbelievable. Clearly there is something deep and transformative about laughter, but what does it really mean when a person is compelled to laugh at something? For any aspiring jokesters out there, how can a comedian create this situation and get paid?
Well, in scientific terms, laughter is probably caused by something that behaves like a central pattern generator in the nervous system. These neural structures generate rhythmic output patterns without relying on any external feedback, so it is a bit strange to apply this concept to laughter (a person has to hear or see every joke, for example). However, the laughter usually happens only after a person gets the joke, at which point the “joke input” has ended in almost every case.
Therefore we should probably be conceptualizing laughter as an internal rhythmic feedback loop that can be started by some “funny” input. The challenge then is to define a “funny” input. I’ll pause for a second here so you can try that…
But wait! Doesn’t the very incomprehensibility of the challenge suggest something profound about how we should understand humor? Everyone knows that jokes are hard to write because an original comedian has to be the first person to notice that a certain thing is funny. The whole art of comedy revolves around having some of that uncommon and funny knowledge, and choosing to reveal it in the most entertaining way possible. Knowing this, is it possible to imagine something that all funny things must have in common?
Well, sure. They’re all “correct” in some abstract sense. Comedy is the process of being so profoundly correct that other people are compelled to laugh as soon as they realize what is going on. Us college-educated folk can scoff at low-brow humor, but almost any example of “bad” comedy still does reveal more than a few simple truths to more than a few tragically underinformed people, and therefore it can still make a lot of money. The fact that a thing is not funny to every person does not mean that it is not “funny” in some platonic sense. Somewhat disappointingly, there is no such thing. That makes good comedy very hard work, but at least we don’t ever have to fear the funniest joke in the world.
(From this perspective, slapstick humor is a special case where the truth being revealed is basically how badly it must suck for the victim…)
Generally speaking, this is not a new idea at all. A government document says this:
The American comedian Will Rogers was asked how he conceived his jokes. He answered: “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” See what I mean? Sometimes the truth is funnier than “comedy.”
Several Woody Allen bits are included as example one-liners, like this one:
I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.
It’s funny because it combines and reveals several truths in a clever and efficient way:
- Wagner was a German imperialist.
- Music conveys emotion.
- Germany conquered Poland (and murdered millions of Jews) in World War II.
- Woody Allen is Jewish.
The joke actually depends on the audience already knowing all of these things, and the “trick” is that he alludes to each in such an efficient and thought-provoking way, in the space of two short sentences. When we realize, all at once, the absurdity contained in the idea of a modern American Jew savoring hypnotic war hymns that ushered in the Second Reich, the effect is very funny for a lot of people, even if they don’t want to think about it!
I’m particularly interested in this method of “humor analysis” because it seems to emerge so naturally from a feedback-dominated model of intelligence. Laughter happens when a person notices something that is interpreted as “true enough” to activate an unconscious neural feedback loop, forcing them to externalize their acknowledgement and understanding. That is the sole evolutionary function of laughter, a phenomenon which almost certainly had a pivotal role in the building of every human civilization.
This is not saying that Adam Sandler is the greatest American ever, or even that we should all start studying Internet memes for the sake of science. But it does mean that we should take a moment and bow our heads in respect to every person who has ever wanted to make another person laugh, and in recognition of the great things they have accomplished for the sake of humanity. Because when a country of people stop what they are doing and start laughing (against their will) at the same idea at the same time, you can probably trust it a bit more than usual.
How would I define a “funny” thing? Funny things are true enough to make people laugh.
Here is someone else’s definition:
There is no simple answer to why something is funny… Something is funny because it captures a moment, it contains an element of simple truth, it is something that we have always known for eternity and yet are hearing it now out loud for the first time.