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YMIAFT Chapter 1 Part 8

Monkeys who can't find the remote

“Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny... Words with "k" in them are funny... Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny...”

~ Willy, from Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys

The idea that words with a K in them are funny floats around the comedy world, and was even tested a little by Richard Wiseman when he went looking for the world's funniest joke in the Laugh Lab experiment referenced earlier. People who were shown this joke:

There were two ducks on a pond. One said, “Quack,” and the other said, “I was going to say that.”

... generally responded better than this version:

There were two cows in a field. One said, “Moo,” and the other said, “I was going to say that.”

Are hard consonant sounds, or “plosives” as linguists like to call them, funnier than other sounds? Is “quack” funnier than “moo”? Maybe birds are just funnier to talk about than mammals.

It could be true that certain sounds can make a phrase a little funnier, but of course no one really thinks humour is just a matter of saying as many hard consonants as possible. There are more reasonable attempts to explain what's funny, and lots of them. It's often suggested that humour is all about status. Another common notion is that humour is a matter of surprise. You've probably heard people say that what's true is funny. Many assume humour is differentiated by, and therefore based on, culture. A lot of science is predicated on the idea that humour is linked to language. Explanations of humour go back at least as far as Aristotle, who seems to have believed humour was laughing at the misfortune of others. More current thinking is that comedy is all about “benign violation”, which is essentially making dangerous ideas safe. There are formal ideas, such as “incongruity resolution”, the idea that it's all about breaking expected patterns. And there are intuitive ideas, like how everybody knows comedy is all about timing, even though we might not know exactly how or why.

All of these theories have a hard time covering all the possibilities. Status can't explain why puns and silly word play are funny. Language doesn't adequately cover why people laugh when a dude gets kicked in the balls. Nor does culture, because as far as I can tell, getting kicked in the balls is laughed at everywhere. There's also the problem of adequately accounting for non-funny situations, such as why people can be surprised without laughing, or why resolving an incongruity is more often just resolving a problem and not creating a joke.

I could go on, and go into more detail, but it's sufficient to say that we don't already have a reliably working model of how humour works that everyone agrees on. Significantly, all these explanations only apply in retrospect, they have no predictive ability. No one has been able to use any existing model of humour to create a formula for making new jokes. Of course, no formula can ever exist, just like there is no sure fire gift you can give someone to make them love you. This highlights the problem with just about all of these explanations, which is that they attempt to explain humour by explaining the content of jokes. Like explaining love by measuring flowers.

Roses become symbols of love when passed between the right people, but so could carnations, or lilies, or any other flower, or anything else. Similarly, humour can use status, surprise, culture, language, or anything else as a method of delivery. Some of these contexts are so frequently used for humour that one could be forgiven for mistaking them for the whole thing. Status, for example, is something that we're so overwhelmingly concerned with as a species in almost all aspects of our lives that it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that we see it exploited for humour so much.

Explaining humour by trying to find commonalities, such as status or “benign violation”, in among all the wildly variable things people will laugh at, has the same problem as if people tried to understand how a television set works by seeing what is common about all the shows that appear on it. Imagine what crazy notions people might have about what was inside a television if they took the images on the screen as being somehow representative of what went on behind the screen. Starting with television shows as a way of working toward an understanding of television sets seems pretty silly only because we built televisions ourselves and so we can be smug about the distinctions between medium and content. We didn't build our brains, though, so it's harder to be sure about the dividing lines between perceptions and processes. Since we figure out a lot of what goes on inside a brain by looking at how people behave, when it comes to understanding our minds, we're actually a lot more like chimpanzees watching television than maybe we'd like to admit.

What we want to do is find an explanation for comedy that is designed from the start around the observable evidence that anything can be funny and anything can be not funny, and the only way to know when we have funniness is when we have sincere laughter. If we do that, then we can encompass all the existing notions about what humour is, and more. The place where all that can happen is the brain. It's the television set that displays all our shows about status, surprise, language, visual gags, culture, incongruity, and any other format humour can be delivered in.

We can do better than chimpanzees dazzled by all the activity on a screen. We can open up the back of the television set and see what's really going on.

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