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The Psychology of Comedy and Laughter

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Why do we laugh? What happens in our bodies and minds when we laugh? What benefits does laughter bring? What makes something funny? How does laughter vary across cultures? What can we do to benefit more from laughter?

Why do we laugh? To answer that question, we will have to conduct the cardinal sin of comedy and analyse it.

Barry Cryer famously said: ‘Analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs, and the frog dies.’ The problem with analysing comedy is that no one takes it seriously. Even musical comedians are not noteworthy. Trying to understand comedy is a marathon undertaking; it’s a running joke.

This may come as a surprise: almost all comedy is based on a straightforward premise: the unexpected. The unexpected can come in many forms; it can be unexpected behaviour, like slap-stick comedy or an unexpected reinterpretation of meaning or understanding.

Here is an example

If I make just one joke, I am not a comedian.
If I make one dish, I am not a chef.
Now, when I kill one person…

What was the meaning? Making one of anything does not confer on you the right to be given a label that demonstrates that you are that thing. The joke then points out that killing just one person makes you a killer. The meaning is changed to its exact opposite; there are situations where a one-off act will earn a lifetime label.

Here is another

A prime minister hosting other heads of state gives instructions to a waitress: ‘Please remember, Jane, when you serve my guests, don’t wear any jewellery.’

‘I haven’t anything valuable, madam,’ answered the maid. ‘But thanks for the warning just the same.’

Here the meaning was about service etiquette and status, and with one phrase, the waitress tells us that she thinks a warning was given about the heads of state being potential thieves.

I went to a place to eat. It said ‘breakfast at any time.’

So I ordered french toast during the Renaissance.

In this one, the unexpected reinterpretation is of what is meant by any time. Jokes, whether crafted or spontaneous, take place in the mind. In many jokes, we are led to expect one meaning, then, very concisely, we are told that another entirely different meaning was at play all along.

Having had the honour of speaking with several world-class comedians and asking them how to create jokes, they laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. They’re not laughing now.

Here, the meaning reverses the usual way the zero-to-hero tale is usually told. What is going on psychologically when meaning is unexpectedly changed? Here are some theories. 

Relief theory

The tension created by the change of meaning is released in the form of laughter. While that may be possible, there are cultural differences in what is and is not funny. Perhaps the creation of tension in a change of meaning differs from one culture to another.

Superiority theory

Advocates that we laugh because we feel superior to the person portrayed in the joke. While some comedy does poke fun at others, that does not explain comedy where we laugh at ourselves.

Incongruous juxtaposition theory

It suggests that the resolution of an incongruous scenario causes us to laugh.

Computer model of humour

It suggests that when we realise the first interpretation of events is wrong, the brain acts to delete it from consciousness, and that purge causes the muscular contractions of laughter. That theory falls down when we consider slap-stick. The social norms that are being broken are not deleted; they remain. It also fails to account for the fact that laughter is mood and context-based. People will laugh more when they see a live comedy show than when sitting and watching the same comedy alone on television.

Benign violation theory

It suggests that when some expected situation or norm is violated in a way that does not threaten our worldview, we find it funny. As with all other theories, benign violation theory does not explain what happens in the brain that causes us to laugh.

There are dozens of other theories, and, frankly, all are a loaf short of a picnic; they are about as much use as a cat flap on a submarine. (I’ve written several jokes over the years, none on purpose.)

The problems with understanding what makes us laugh to start with the individuality of humour. A side-splitter to one person is a pain in the neck to another. Then we have the cultural differences to understand, too. If humour were universal, academically dissecting that frog would be easier.

What is the difference between a genie and an academic?

One grants wishes, and the other wishes for grants. I grant that we have millions of comedians who know how to make us laugh and can create jokes on demand, some of whom are not in politics. I wish we understood what happens in the brain when we find something funny. So far, no amount of rubbing on the genie’s lamp has produced any verifiable answers.

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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