What’s so funny?

Using humor to reverse-engineer the mind



Books about humour are rarely funny. Why should they be? Their goal, after all, is to explain the workings of the comic, not to make people laugh. Understanding why jokes are funny isn’t amusing in itself, just as the process of understanding why ice cream tastes good doesn’t produce pleasurable gustatory sensations. The big problem with theories of humour is not that they are sombre; it is that they are often implausible or myopic.
All of the usual suspects have their shortcomings. Surveys typically list three broad varieties of humour theory: superiority theories, release theories and incongruity-resolution theories. Superiority theories say that humour illustrates the inferiority in some respect of the joke’s butt, provoking laughter as a sort of small triumph in the superior witness. This works well in some cases, but struggles to account for “butt-less” humour such as puns, or the kinder forms of imitation. Release theories have a Freudian pedigree: humour provides a sort of relief from a build-up of nervous tension. Again, it is not clear that one can plausibly think of simple puns as having such therapeutic functions, and many of today’s cognitive scientists are sceptical of the more general hydraulic metaphors used to depict build-up of energy, overflow, release and so forth. Incongruity-resolution theories are more popular: they assert that humorous situations involve the presentation of an incongruity that is subsequently resolved. Here we might be concerned about whether “incongruity” and “resolution” are understood in suitably precise ways: without such tightening, the theory seems vulnerable to counter-example. In The Emotions and the Will (1875), Alexander Bain complained that “There are many incongruities that produce anything but a laugh”, and went on to list many examples that are not funny, and that would remain unfunny even if they were, in some sense, resolved: “snow in May, Archimedes studying geometry in a siege; . . . a wolf in sheep’s clothing; . . . a corpse at a feast, parental cruelty”.
Wordplay is amusing because the lead line encourages one understanding of a term, while the punchline shows that we should have had a different meaning in mind. Some of the earliest humour experienced by children can be induced by deliberately singing the wrong words of nursery rhymes that they know well. Conceptually richer humour often involves brief vignettes that invite one understanding of a situation, only to make clear that a very different one was intended all along. One of the few funny jokes mentioned in this book, which we owe to Bob Monkhouse, is of this kind: “I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my father. Not screaming and terrified like his passengers”.
We find things funny when our expectations are overturned. Things get more complicated when we move away from jokes and riddles, where the theory performs best, to other forms of humour. The authors are on less secure ground when it comes to the comic effects of mimicry, for example. And it is arguable that their cognitive thesis focuses too much on the more cerebral and sophisticated sides of humour, while neglecting the puerile. The farting scene in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles is thought by many to be hilarious. For those who have managed to avoid it, the scene depicts little more than a group of cowboys sitting around a campfire, eating beans and breaking wind noisily and shamelessly. How could the authors explain the comic appeal of this? Which committed beliefs are challenged by this crude display? Their theory is deliberately framed in a speculative way that gives them plenty of potential escape routes in the face of examples such as this. Brooks’s cowboys are a rough, uneducated and vulgar bunch. It would be hard to argue that the audience has a committed expectation that these cowboys are the sorts of people who wouldn’t fart in company. Perhaps instead we have committed expectations for the frequency or loudness of farts, which the cowboys’ exuberance overturns. Or perhaps the expectations that are overturned instead relate to the norms of the genre itself. Some will worry that any of these responses might undermine the theory, for they threaten either empirical implausibility or conceptual vacuity regarding the notion of foiled expectation. The learned and even-handed stance adopted by Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett and Reginald Adams regarding problem cases is far more upbeat: they regard their theory as a provisional staging post, and a prompt to further empirical enquiry into these open-ended issues. On balance, that is probably the right attitude to take.

(The Times Literary Supplement)
(Tim Lewens teaches in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.)

Lastupdate on : Fri, 28 Dec 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Fri, 28 Dec 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sat, 29 Dec 2012 00:00:00 IST

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