Stories, comedy, comics, essays, and stuff

YMIAFT Chapter 1 Part 4

Schrödinger's Punchline

“If you tell a joke in the forest, but nobody laughs, was it a joke?”

~ Steven Wright

Is it possible that within every punchline told, or funny image seen, or amusing instance that happened, there is some essential piece of information, some kind of meme, that forms a stimulus that we respond to? We often say that things “make” us laugh, which reveals both our experience of laughter as something involuntary, and also our expectation that when something is an involuntary reaction, there is an identifiable external cause. Like getting jabbed by a pin, and the feeling of pain that follows.

Stimulus and response is such a routine way of experiencing the world, it shapes our expectation of how the world should be experienced. We tear up when something gets in our eye, we jump when something startles us. The model of stimulus and response is so common and reliable that it's understandable that when we are presented with something like laughter, a largely involuntary response mechanism, we would try and identify just what the cause is and how it makes us respond the way we do. Even though no one can ever be sure what will make them laugh in the future, people are commonly quite sure about what was the cause of laughter in the past. The ability for most people to identify the experience that preceded the laughter leads to an understandable assumption that there must be something external that stimulates a laugh response. A distinct entity of its own, identifiably separate from the source and the recipient.

There's just one huge, monster sized problem with trying to peel off the outer layers of presentation and identifying exactly what the stimulus is within potential humour, which is that the response is nowhere near consistent. Unlike pins, occurrences of potential humour aren't consistent in terms of whether or not they will have any reaction at all. Maybe somewhere there are Shaolin Kung Fu masters who spend decades mastering the techniques of pain control so that they don't say “ouch!” when you jab them with a pin, but I think we can safely ignore the radical exceptions and state that the consistency of pain response is uniform among humans. Consistently uniform among just about all species of animal, in fact. If all the chairs in a comedy club were rigged to jab everyone with a pin simultaneously, there would definitely be reactions from everyone, leaving no doubt about the existence of the pins. It happens all the time, though, that a comedian will attempt a joke and some of the room will laugh and some won't. Further, not only can there be disagreement on whether or not a joke was successful, there can even be disagreement about whether or not it was, in fact, ever a joke at all. Very different from objective stimulus like pins. Even the Shaolin Monks who trained themselves to not say “ouch” when jabbed with a pin still all agree that it was definitely a pin that jabbed them.

If there were such a thing as a humorous occurrence that always got a laugh response, then the causes and process of humour would almost certainly already be as well understood as the relationship between pins and pain. Even if it were the case that a humorous occurrence was only funny the first time a person heard it, so long as it was always funny that first time with new audiences, then the study of humour would be in the low hanging fruit area of research projects. Just put someone in a brain scanner and trace the route between stimulus and response. Outside of the lab, there would be less need for comedians to innovate, as that old adage, “there are always new audiences for old jokes,” could be taken to the extreme. Jokes that worked hundreds of years ago wouldn't fall out of favour as new audiences were born, and at some point enough jokes could get written to keep people laughing without the need to keep coming up with more.

Not only does potential humour not work with that level of consistency, most humour fails to appeal to a significant majority. One study, called The Laugh Lab, directed by Professor Richard Wiseman, had 350,000 people in 70 countries look at 40,000 different jokes to measure which was the most successful. The top joke, a variation on a joke that seems to have originally been written by Spike Milligan, was rated by 55% of the people surveyed as being funny.

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services.

He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”

The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead.”

There is silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “OK, now what?”

The slight majority that rated this joke as funny didn't rate it as the most funny, it was just the joke that was most commonly rated as at least somewhat funny. Professor Wiseman described the impact of the joke by saying, “Perhaps we uncovered the world's blandest joke - the gag that makes everyone smile but very few laugh out loud.” Still, the fact that a little over half of the people surveyed found it amusing does indicate that it could be possible for some potential humour to have fairly wide appeal. Also, as our world becomes more globalized and there is more opportunity for our sensibilities to converge, we could see more consensus on what is funny. However, we're still a long way off from that, and the current evidence is that while the world's top comedians find audiences big enough to make fortunes from, in terms relative to society at large, their appeal is very limited. Most humour falls very short of appealing to 55% of the available audience. As Professor Wiseman says, “If our research into humour tells us anything, it is that people find different things funny... There is no one joke that will make everyone guffaw.”

Pins are so reliable as a stimulus, that we can just look at one and know what it will do in advance of using it. It seems potential humour might be similarly identifiable because we can write jokes down, describe what happened yesterday that was funny, or record a funny sketch on video. Despite all the forms of delivery, though, potential humour will not be known for sure to get the right response until after it's tried and at least somebody laughs. If no one laughs at something deliberately constructed to be a joke, is it still a joke? Was it ever? And then, if we try it on someone else, and that new person laughs, is it now a joke? Is the fault with the joke or the audience when it doesn't work? If I knew it was supposed to be a joke in spite of not laughing, does that count?

The cause of laughter is hard to pin down, pun intended. How can it be that we have such a specific response, laughter, to a stimulus that is so ethereal that we can only ever truly be sure it existed after it has given us results?

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