Emotional Intelligence

What makes something funny or not?
Answered by Lu Fong and Discovery Fit & Health
  • Lu Fong

    Lu Fong

  • Discovery Fit & Health

    Discovery Fit & Health

  1. Comedian Dave Chapelle was once a guest on the television program "Inside the Actor's Studio." James Lipton, the buttoned-up host, plays a clip from Chapelle's film, Half Baked (1998), and remarks with utmost gravity: "That was a remarkable piece of acting." A moment of silence passes and Chapelle explodes into torrential laughter.

    The outburst is a perfect example of E.B. White's assertion that "analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies in the end."

    The risk of frog-killing notwithstanding, a growing number of academics have dedicated their research to pinpointing exactly what makes something funny? Their theories are, well, quite serious. Some assert that humor is psychologically driven by the people around us. Charles Darwin himself suggested that humor is a crucial social cohesive, one of the primal forces that has bound tribes together throughout evolution [source: Gompertz]. One study found that we're 30 times more likely to laugh in the company of others than we are by ourselves [sources: Gompertz, Martin]. A recent study of chimps found that they will laugh with each other in the same ways we laugh during conversation in order to bond with other members of their group [source: Connor].

    Another explanation for finding things funny comes in the form of the incongruity theory, the idea that we laugh when we're surprised [source: ScienceDaily]. Neurologically, we're hard-wired to expect certain patterns in behavior and storytelling. When a joke bucks these expectations, the brain is forced to perceive an idea in two separate frames of mind. A sort of tickle for the brain [source: Martin]. 

    Take this joke, for instance: "How do you get a philosopher off your porch? You pay him for the pizza" [source: Shea]. The punch line twists your preconceptions about philosophers as stodgy, old men and casts them in a completely unexpected light. Or, take the recent viral mash-up of New Yorker cartoons captioned with Kanye West tweets. Totally weird, yet totally funny [source: Mankoff].

    Other reasons for humor include the so-called "superiority theory," which claims that we laugh in the face of other people's misfortune (see: dumb blonde jokes and the show "Jackass"), as well as the relief theory, which asserts that "funny' is derived from fear. One study deliberately startled test subjects with a convincing fake rat, eliciting a lot of relieved laughter [source: Shurcliff].

    Finally, a recent idea called the "benign violation theory" hypothesizes that we laugh when we're harmlessly violated. This could mean anything from tickling -- which most people hate but still laugh at -- to vulgar stereotype-based humor like Sarah Silverman's musings on race, sex and bodily functions. The hilarity hinges on our being properly distanced from the violation. We don't laugh when we tickle ourselves (or when we're tickled by a stranger) but we'll laugh when it's a friend doing the tickling [source: Warner].

    Ultimately, we may not know the exact reason for what makes something funny, but one thing we do know is that it's innate. After all, people born deaf and blind are able to laugh without having ever seen or heard it done. So whatever our internal motivation to laugh, it's probably best not to over-think it -- just sit back, grin and enjoy it.

    doctor dressed as clown with two young patients
    Paging Dr. Clown! (© iStockphoto.com/petrzurek)


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  2. Humor is always going to be a bit subjective, but three main theories about of humor have been identified. The first is the "incongruity" theory of humor. This theory holds that certain incongruities of expectation and/or emotion can make you laugh. When someone starts telling a story, you have certain expectations about how it will develop. If the story (or joke) takes an unexpected turn, that can be funny. Even funnier is if that unexpected turn now brings up emotions or ideas that are incongruous with the emotions and thoughts you were originally having.

    A second theory is the "superiority" theory. Humor in this category is funny because you get to laugh at someone else's mistakes or stupidity.

    Finally, there is the "relief" theory of humor. This is essentially what dramatists call "comic relief." After building tension in a story, a moment of lightness will be injected to calm the mood. Often this moment elicits laughter.

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