YMIAFT Chapter 2 Part 1

Goldilocks and the three jokes

“You want to know what's not funny? Thinking about it.”

~ Chris Rock

Jerry Seinfeld once described telling a joke as setting up a gap between two conceptual cliffs, and the audience has to make a jump over that gap. If the distance is too short, then it's too easy, so there's no challenge or excitement. It's like a joke that is boring or obvious. If the gap is too far, then you can't reach the other side. Like a joke that's too weird or unfamiliar, so the audience is just left shrugging. But if the gap is just right, so that when the audience makes the metaphorical jump, they just barely make it to the other side. It was an exciting jump that was fun to do. Getting a joke is a similar matter of it not being too “close” that it's obvious, and not too “far” as to be beyond the ability of the listener to get it. It's not a complicated, nor very controversial model for evaluating potential funniness.

Turns out that this analogy is extensible beyond the finely honed verbal jokes Seinfeld uses in his act. In any situation, in any media, in any interaction, in any relationship, anything that you can perceive through any of your senses, anything that is potentially humorous follows the same model. Any thought that is either too obvious or unfamiliar, too close or too far, does not inspire laughter. Most of our day to day thoughts fall into these categories, but concepts that are just right, wherever they come from, if they land on the razor's edge between the two possibilities, can inspire laughter.

Seinfeld's gap model works as a handy tip for aspiring comedians to think about how to construct a joke, but to go beyond that, to give it any credibility as a foundation for humour in a broader sense, it needs something more concrete than just a metaphor. There is a physical process in the brain that makes Seinfeld's description manifest, and this chapter will outline exactly how it works. Then, armed with that knowledge, the chapter following will explore why this humour process matters to us.

Before we explore the inner workings of the mind, though, there is just one caveat, which is that unfortunately, current technology does not provide us with the ability to see deep enough into the brain to see the process of humour in action. Even when you've heard of particular brain parts being linked to humour, as in some of the studies I referenced earlier, they're only trying to describe where things might be happening, without any ability to see how. The best brain scanners science has can see down to a resolution of about one cubic millimetre, which may contain tens of thousands of brain cells. The activity that we'll be talking about is most likely much, much finer than that, occurring on a level between brain cells.

Why, then, go into such detail, pushing a little past the boundaries of measurement? Partly because doing so will set up a vocabulary that can be used to make sense of a lot of the topics within the book. Much more importantly, though, the key point is to see exactly how a sense of humour could work on a completely biological level. If we can, then that completely divorces us from the need to explain why the content of any one joke is funny. That puts us in the position of looking inside the television set, and not at the flickering screen.