December 9, 2012

Why do we laugh?

In the Times Literary Supplement, Tim Lewens reviews a book on humor by three philosophers: Inside Jokes: Using humor to reverse-engineer the mind by Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett and Reginald B. Adams, Jr.
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”.

Actually, those examples of unfunniness sound pretty funny to me. A wolf in sheep's clothing is a standard for cartoonists, such as Gary Larson's Far Side panel where an entire flock consists of wolves wearing blatantly phony sheep disguises and one disgusted wolf, fake head under his arm, says to another, "Wait a minute! Isn't anyone here a real sheep?" (Warning: Far Side cartoons likely to disappear off the Internet.)

Perhaps the more that something seems comic rather than tragic is a sign of economic progress?

As for snow in May, admittedly, that wasn't as funny back in a more Malthusian age when it was likely to wipe out your crop and put your family in the poorhouse. But in Seventies Southern California, it was pretty hilarious. As Woody Allen pointed out in Annie Hall, most things in 1970s SoCal were pretty funny.

On May 28, 1977, my friend Steve (yes, it was a common name, mid-century) and I started backpacking from Crystal Lake above Azusa in the L.A. sprawl. 

We started up the dry south-facing slope of the San Gabriel Mountains under a scorching sun on our way to Little Jimmy Camp at 7,500 feet elevation over the Angeles Crest onto the north-facing slope.

What we found to our surprise when we reached the pass was that the north side of the mountains on Memorial Day weekend were covered with two feet of snow, and we hadn't packed anything warmer than those embarrassingly short shorts that were in fashion in 1977. You can crack up Steve to this day by reminding him of this snowy May campout I dragged him on.

I presume laughter has a variety of causes (as, clearly, do tears, although philosophers seem less baffled by crying than laughing). So, there's no apparent need for an all-purpose explanation. Still, I would suggest that humor often serves as a sort of brain candy to reward noticing stuff. For example, ever since I've been fairly obsessive in thinking about which directions slopes face. 

I learned my lesson.

53 comments:

Arg, said...

that bit about the Gary Larson reminds me of an online strip. It had I think Sunday (.. School? ..Morning?) in the title, and one toon, of a wolf in sheep's clothing among the sheep all looking into the back of a truck, and last frame, a package of grey meat in a supermarket freezer. They were great; smarter and nastier than Larson.

Anonymous said...

book of biology. bioble.

irishman said...

Off Topic...

A lot of people who comment here have been whaling on Northern whites who voted for Obama in the election.

Read this article and see the madness in your mentality. Solidarity is a two way street. Bastards like Mitt Romney show none for the fellows in the picture so they should expect no votes from them either.

http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20121208/POLITICS02/212080342/

bjdubbs said...

This was on the radio Friday.

http://sciencefriday.com/segment/06/05/2009/tickling-gorillas-and-the-evolution-of-laughter.html

Theory is that laughter (heh heh heh) is derived from rough and tumble play engaged in by our primate ancestors. The audible breathing in and out of the roughhousing chimps is a sign to the other chimp that the rough play is OK, don't stop. Laughing is signaling non-aggression.

Anonymous said...

Dog biting Man is no News; Man biting Dog is Quite a News

bjdubbs said...

Wrong segment. This is it.

http://sciencefriday.com/segment/12/07/2012/no-joke-why-even-tragedy-gets-a-laugh.html

Anonymous said...

This one caught me off guard and made me spit my Cheerios many years ago. I've never forgotten it.

Anonymous said...

As Freud said 'laughter is subliminated orgasm'.

Sexual/scatalogical jokes are found humorous because of the embarrassment humans feel in their failed attempts to distance themselves from their true (animal) nature, and how our arrogance and pomposity in aspiring to a 'god-like' state is inevitably brought down by the brute fact of bodily functions.
Schadefreude, or the laughing at a stock clown (either a real person or a comedian impersonating one), has its root in the ecstasy of disavowal from the 'chump'. You know the despised chump could be you 'there but for the grace of god' but in this instance (thank god) it isn't, it's someone else, so you can take out your anxieties and loathing on the chump as a 'whipping boy', and feel a bit better about yourself.

Young Philosopher said...

"Still, I would suggest that humor often serves as a sort of brain candy to reward noticing stuff."

Well... then you agree with them.

That is Hurley, Dennett and Adams' whole thesis. They think humor started off as an epistemic emotion that helped us avoid false beliefs. (Other epistemic emotions include confusion, curiosity, and boredom.)

Anonymous said...

Arg:

http://smbc-comics.com

Baloo said...

It's the incongruity thing. We cartoonists know. And puns aren't funny. What's funny is the punner exhibiting playful sadism by _making_ the pun.

elvisd said...

Gary Larson is nothing but rip off of B. Kliban, from the humor to the drawing style.

Anonymous said...

If you have ever worked with Indians and know a bit of Cantonese, then this video about Indians speaking Cantonese is pretty funny as well!

Of course, it will likely only appeal to people more intelligent than the authors of that book.

Anonymous said...

If it's any consolation to you Irishman the Irish still haven't become white to me so when I whale on Northern whites I am not including you.

No one is asking for solidarity which is code for a helps b take something from c. We are asking for whites to band together to prevent NAMs from taking our patrimony. You don't get the distinction. I am not asking that you support oil tariffs to increase the value of my drilling company just that you don't vote yourself into a minority and take me down with you.

Henry Canaaday said...

There’s the Walter Kerr theory that comedy completes tragedy. According to Kerr, humans are drawn first and most naturally to tragedy, because it mimics the progress from purposeful struggle through suffering to death that is the essential nature of our lives. But this dark progress to doom is interrupted and circumstanced by trivial inconsistencies and incidents irrelevant to the main theme, so comedy satisfies our need to acknowledge that we are not merely bound for an inevitable death, but an utterly meaningless and perhaps a pathetically ridiculous one.

There, that should keep John Derbyshire happy.

Porter said...

Irishman,

It should not be a surprise that northern whites voted for the malicious mulatto who offered them solidarity via Somali. You see, whites in the North are very stupid. Ignorant. Obtuse. So dumb that contrarianism is thought to be when one makes a 360 degree turn.

Also, they routinely engage in intrafamilial sexual congress and have few teeth but many chromosomes. I know all of these things because I have seen them with my own eyes...on TV and movie screens.

Anonymous said...

I thought that lefties - like the embarrassingly misnamed "irishman" above - would bugger off back to Kos after the election. Look's like some of them are here to stay.

Auntie Analogue said...


In view of the Obesity Epidemic, my dear irishman, "A lot of people who comment here have been whaling on Northern whites" seems entirely apropos. Under U.S law and proliferating race preference policies it has, of course, been off-limits for anyone, let alone a lot of people, to have been whaling on obese People of Color.

Anonymous said...

Old fashions are always embarrassing. I'm hanging on for the day when the current men's "shorts" - what might have been called "plus fours" in a different age - are also viewed with embarrassment.

agnostic said...

Right, there are too many distinct kinds of laughter that a single theory would be wrong. That shows in facial expressions, too.

When you're laughing-at, your eye tends to stay more open, and the top has a squared-off line like you're locked in an angry glare. When you're laughing-with, your eye squints, even closing if it's really hilarious, which is just an extreme version of the eye in an honest smile.

The authors seem to be missing the public vs. private differences in humor and laughter as well. The "epistemic" kinds of laughter are mainly for private amusement. There may not even be a performer-audience relationship -- like you said, sometimes just noticing stuff on your own is funny. It doesn't need to be conveyed by a comedian.

The superiority and release forms work best in a crowd setting, and people who like that kind of humor seek out those settings -- watching a comedy movie in the theater, sitting in the audience at a stand-up club, etc. They are all performances before an audience, whether recorded or live.

Busting a gut just feels more cathartic when you're sharing that experience with a crowd. And so does ha-ha-ing at the butt of a joke -- you feel emboldened in your superiority when there's an entire in-group that's laughing-at, not just you alone.

agnostic said...

Here's some data across time on the function of humor. Any theory of humor should explain changes over time in the popularity of different forms.

Popularity of comedy movies, 1915-2011

That shows how many of the top 10 movies at the box office were comedies. It closely follows the murder rate (and presumably the crime rate in general). There's a peak in the early '30s, falling off to a bottom in the early-mid-'50s. It really picks up during the '60s, reaches a peak in the late '80s, and has fallen off a cliff once more since then.

Since box office success is determined by people showing up to split their sides laughing in a crowded theater, these tend to be more cathartic / release comedies. The inference is that when you see more crime and danger around you, you turn to release humor as a way to cope with the rising-crime environment.

So, it will tend to focus on the topics that distressed you in the first place, like crime (Beverly Hills Cop), war (Stripes), ghosts / devils / demons / the apocalypse (Ghostbusters), and social relationships that you use to make it through an unstable or topsy-turvy world (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles).

The laughing-with experience has just about dried up in the past 20 years. To the extent that people make and listen to comedy anymore, it's mostly laughing-at. It's yet another way that we've returned to the mid-century culture, the heyday of snarky and superior Jewish comics like the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and Jackie Gleason.

Anonymous said...

wailing, not whaling

David said...

The guy seems hung up on puns. First, most puns are not funny. Second, puns that are funny clearly are funny because of one or more of the causes he dismisses as insufficient. For example, incongruity-resolution is clearly involved in punning. So is superiority: the butt is both the punner and the audience (sometimes a third party, but rarely).

Steve said, "The big problem with theories of humour is not that they are sombre; it is that they are often implausible or myopic."

Another way of saying this is that people who are strongly motivated to study humor lack it.

Melendwyr said...

You're thinking of The Perry Bible Fellowship with the nastier version of The Far Side.

Many of its comics are not work-appropriate. Be advised.

Anonymous said...

Why do we laugh?

Because comedians are a story of bravery of laughter.

Derek Brown said...

They were punning on Moby Dick and whiteness I imagine.

Anonymous said...

"First, most puns are not funny."

But they are punny.

Baloo said...

Jackie Gleason was a lot of things, but I'm pretty sure Jewish wasn't one of them, unless you're privy to some occult knowledge I missed.

gummedy said...

Laughter is a form of joy and fun. Dogs have joy and fun too. Dogs especially have joy and fun when play-fighting with other dogs and cats.
They don't fight for real but for the fun of it. Comedy is like that. It's playing around. It's a way of poking stuff to make it fun.
Things as they are are boring. If everything was as it should be, we might as well be data crunching computers.
But things are not what they are and often, this can frustrate us. Laughing about the imperfection, absurdity, and such stuff makes us enjoy life more. We don't take stuff so seriously. Indeed, a person who cannot laugh at oneself is one who is emotionally most troubled.
Laughing is also a way to learn to be competitive without hurting others. It's like play-fighting among beasks. The skills are honed without any real hurt.
By verbal play and poking fun at others, we sharpen our wits, and that improves our mental skills, and makes us more adaptive to the world that doesn't conform to our plans. Laughter makes us looser, more flexible, more adaptive.
And if a bully tries to kick your butt, you might get off by making him laugh.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqYHb41OlSE

not a hacker said...

most things in 1970s SoCal were pretty funny.

Yeah, I remember thinking, in Costa Mesa in '79, how funny it was that I didn't have to worry about gangs, could drive almost anywhere in an hour, and could meet untatted, unsnarling women just about any time even without membership in any edgy subculture.

Anonymous said...

"Jackie Gleason was a lot of things, but I'm pretty sure Jewish wasn't one of them."

I think his lines were written by Jews.

Jews are the funniest people, and maybe we should consider the role humor played in Jewish life. It was a way to sharpen their wit and skills--useful as they were middlemen businessmen--,a way to mock the goyim but also way to win over the goyim by making goyim laugh.

Or consider the funny guy in Andrei Rublev. It kept him sane in an insane world.

Of course, comedy is a double-edged sword. It can disarm your enemy or make him hate you even more--if he feels he's the object of mockery.

The role of comedy is there in Kurosawa's Men Who Tread on Tiger's Tail, Seven Samurai, and Ran.
In Tiger's Tail and Ran, there is a jokester who sees things that serious men do not. Comedy can thus be wise, seeing outside conventional patterns of understanding. This 'brilliance' can be useful. In this sense, there is something similar between comedy writers and creative lawyers.
It's a way of revealing new ways of seeing reality so as to change people's minds.

In Seven Samurai, the clownishness of the jokester samurai--first one to die--and Mifune's pseudo-samurai reduce tensions among samurai and between samurai and peasants.

We know the role comedy played since 2008. No jokes about Obama. Why, that would be a laugh crime. So, no matter how ridiculous the cult of personality around Obama, we swoon than laugh.
Comedy gap hurts the GOP. Most Jews are liberals and they are funniest and own the media.

alonzo portfolio said...

None of these theories explains why I laugh hysterically at the term 'Poindexter' (Bravery of Love thread).

Anonymous said...

"None of these theories explains why I laugh hysterically at the term 'Poindexter' (Bravery of Love thread)."

Babies laugh without knowing, and you're still a baby.

Anonymous said...

Comedy favors the brains over brawns, the nimble over the numbskull, the gibbonic over the gorillian.

I was once at a zoo and a small child chimp was harassing a much bigger chimp, the champ chimp. He small chimp would swing around and around and when the big chimp wasn't looking, poke its ass and then swing around and then return and poke the big chimp's ass. And this happened over and over.

Among lower animals, power is what counts. Brute power. But among more complex animals, power can be more creative. I can't imagine a little lizard harassing a much bigger lizard like the little chimp did. But we see that kind of harassment among higher animals.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qqdovHOgvU

As animals grew more intelligent, they found more creative ways to use power and mock/undermine power of bigger animals.

Among humans, if a small guy outwits a bigger guy and if the bigger guy loses his cool, we feel that the small guy won.

slumber_j said...

Auberon Waugh's accounts of his father Evelyn's studied, teasing cruelty toward his large brood of children are in fact hilarious. For examples, I strongly recommend the son's excellent and excellently-titled autobiography "Will This Do?."

Anonymous said...

Jews are the funniest people

You publish shit like that and yet you censor everything which I try to say now?

Seriously - even my teeny-tiny eentsy-weentsy little point about Lucas's library and the deterioration of the trades?

I mean - WTF could possibly have been wrong with that?

Unless maybe you suspect that Lucas MIGHT be a lurker here and you're determined to kiss his ass?

Are you hoping that he'll take you with him when he emigrates to Australia?

Anonymous said...

"You publish shit like that and yet you censor everything which I try to say now?"

You're funnier than the Jews.

Norville Rogers said...

Despite being a stereotypical Seattle animal-rights science-fair dweeb, Larson was a loyal proponent of "Brooks's 1st Law of Tragedy" from The 2,000 Year Old Man sessions (or whomever they stole it from) and used it for the epigraph to one of his Far Side anthologies

Anonymous said...

I have - and have had - a great many Jewish friends and acquaintances in "the real world". Not on-line, in other words. I've found some element of truth to most of the stereotypes about them - that they're smart, that they're neurotic, that they're cheap, etc. But I've never found them to be well-endowed with humor, either in the sense of laughing a lot themselves or in the sense of being able to make other people around them laugh.

Anonymous said...

"Why do we laugh?"

Better question is why do we stop laughing? World is a non-stop joke.

Anonymous said...

“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”.

Parental cruelty can be funny.
All those black jokes about 'mama gonna whup my ass.'

Anonymous said...

Maybe irony plays a bigger role than incongruity.

Irony involves intent. A person tries to be something but fails at it, and what's funny is he's just a parody of his ideal. It's the conceit or pretension that makes it funny.

John Wayne being tough isn't funny. But Don Knots acting tough would be funny.

Anonymous said...

Amy Chua's parental cruelty shtick was pretty funny. burning the teddy bear.

Anonymous said...

Universal grammar. Universal laughter.

Kids grow up naturally laughing at everything. Parents have to restrain and civilize this laughter and teach kids what is appropriately funny and what isn't. And kids learn in school that if they laugh at the wrong moment, they can be punched in the nose or shunned.

So there developed comedy with rules of do's and don'ts. And there was a class of people--clowns or jesters--with the license to mock and be mocked.
Whatever makes us feel pleasure make us value life more. It's like the ability to taste sweetness.

Baloo said...

First, laughter and humor aren't always congruent. Some humor doesn't make you laugh, and some laughter isn't about humor. Second, different cultures have different strengths in humor, just like they do in other creative fields. In the US, Jews and actual Scotch-Irish seem to be the funniest groups. Some people, like Germans, are famous for not being terribly funny. And different groups have different _kinds_ of humor. The French, for example, tend towards a lot of irony. Here's a puzzle: Why do the Japanese produce so much humor that Americans like, in the form of manga and anime, while White countries like France and Spain and Germany don't? I mean, outside of Tintin and Asterix, European comics never get read over here, but hundreds of Japanese publications do.

Anonymous said...

"Why do the Japanese produce so much humor that Americans like, in the form of manga and anime, while White countries like France and Spain and Germany don't? I mean, outside of Tintin and Asterix, European comics never get read over here, but hundreds of Japanese publications."

So does this qualify as Dale Gribble, or Dwight Schrute? I still haven't gotten the hang of the nerd/ not-nerd distinction.

mark said...

Wow, many very smart commentators. I would have no problem recommending movies that had long stretches of boredom in them if they had a really, really funny scene or moment. The botched payoff scene in the Big Lebowski for instance. I don't enjoy many popular comedies because they don't seem to have many big laughs in them though they may have more laughs then the Big Lebowski over all. I like to think my intelligence prevents me from enjoying these popular comedies (Wedding Crashers) but it really is that I want a good deep, memorable laugh.

Anonymous said...

61 comments about rich people's libraries and 47 comments about what makes us laugh - we are a dour group.

Mr. Anon said...

"irishman said...

A lot of people who comment here have been whaling on Northern whites who voted for Obama in the election.

Read this article and see the madness in your mentality. Solidarity is a two way street. Bastards like Mitt Romney show none for the fellows in the picture so they should expect no votes from them either."

Supporting the working man is not the same as supporting unions. Unions have become nothing more than campaign contribution bundling organizations for the democratic party, who don't give a damn about what their rank-and-file think. Also, unions, with thier insistence on idiotic work rules and feather-bedding have also done their bit to destroy American industry. You want to stick with a union and it's unrealistic demands? Fine. Then you can end up as the unionized unemployed.

And, given that your only a troll who seldom even posts here, perhaps you hadn't noticed that a lot of people here did dislike Romney exactly because he didn't care about white blue-collar guys.

Anonymous said...

Nature of comedy may essentially be paradoxical.
Smart as smart isn't funny. Dumb as dumb isn't funny.
But dumbness handled smartly is funny. Marx Brothers were a prime example. They played zany nuts who did incredibly stupid things, but it was brilliantly done.
Comedy is the wedding of smart and stupid.
When dumb people try to be funny, they are not funny.
Beavis and Butthead is funny because the stupidity of B&B has been contextualized to the larger culture in a very smart way.

Anonymous said...

Comedy makes us see how everything can be smart/talented, everything can be dumb/hopeless. It's all a matter of context. So, a dog is said to be smart but is dumb compared to man. A smart Negro may be a dummy at Harvard. A top white high school athlete may be a joke among black athletes in college.
Empires are awesome... but seen from the heavens, it's just another anthill. It's all very funny.

The smartest scientist could find that the joke is really on him. He could build a great weapon only to find that it's to be controlled by dumb politicians. This is why Dr. Strangelove is so great. He sees how the whole world and all of humanity is really just a joke.

Man seeks perfection but is imperfect. Man thinks himself rational but is driven by animal emotions. Man wants to be immortal but is all too mortal. Man thinks himself the center of the universe but earth is a speck in space.
Hitler dreamed of 1000 yr reich but it lasted 14 yrs. Communism was gonna unite mankind but it all crumbled. GOP thinks it can win over Jews and Hispanics. Rotfl.

Maybe this is why Jews, the most brilliant/witty/funny people came up with their version of God. They were used to making fun of everything. Every pagan god and idol could be mocked. So, they needed an idea of God that couldn't be mocked, and so their God came to lack form and transcended everything. And I'll bet Jews told a lot of dick jokes, and so, their God sobered them up by saying 'lop off the foreskin'. So, dickology became serious than a source of joking.

Anonymous said...

"61 comments about rich people's libraries and 47 comments about what makes us laugh - we are a dour group"

But rich people's libraries are a bigger laugh.

I'd like to see Britney Spears's.

Oddly enough, Elvis was a book lover.

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/I_understand_Elvis_Presley_was_an_avid_reader._What_were_Elvis'_favorite_books

Whole lot of readin going on.

Anonymous said...

"But rich people's libraries are a bigger laugh."

Really funny, because, let's face it, 99% of those books will never leave the shelf, they just serve to help insulate the place as they read away on their iPads. Rich people are deep down just hoarders with shelf space and the staff to organize the stuff.