July 21, 2008

A reductionist theory of humor

Why do we laugh?

Lots of theories have been constructed to answer this question, but most haven't been terribly successful because we laugh at so many different things. (Here's a New York Review of Books essay on some of them.) So, let me try out a two-stage theory, which I haven't actually tested yet against all the different kinds of humor, but it may be promising:

Stage One: Let's start out with a negative but useful definition of humor: it's not serious.

The more something seems serious but is not serious, the funnier it is.

King Lear topples rigidly to the ground -- uh-oh, that's serious. Buster Keaton topples rigidly to the ground -- oh, good, that's not serious, ha-ha.

A young husband and wife get into an argument over who, exactly, is the father of her unborn child. Generally speaking, that's not funny. It's serious.

A young husband and wife get into an argument before her parents come for dinner over whether you should set the salad fork to the right of the main fork or across the top of the plate. They start yelling, but eventually start laughing at themselves for yelling because it's a silly thing to get worked up over. It's not serious.

Laughter happens more in public than in private. To say, as readers often do, that A Confederacy of Dunces or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are "laugh out loud funny" is to admit, via the logic of the exception that proves the rule, that the great majority of books don't provoke loud laughter in solitary readers. In contrast, to say that the recent Katherine Heigl romantic comedy "27 Dresses" is "laugh out loud funny" is ho-hum praise because any movie labeled a comedy is supposed to set the audience in the theatre off laughing.

Public laughter can serve as an expression of relief and mutual reassurance that something that could be serious -- e.g., the bride's bedraggled ex-boyfriend crashes into the church just before she says "I do" to the rich guy who doesn't really love her -- isn't serious, it's just, say, romantic comedy behavior. Weddings are almost omnipresent in movie comedies these days because we have so few formal ceremonies anymore where A. Americans are supposed to act like proper protocol is all-important; and B. It really isn't.

In mildly stressful social occasions, such as at cocktail parties, people laugh constantly at things other people say that aren't very funny. (Social scientists have taped and transcribed run-of-the-mill repartee and it's usually pretty dire). When my feeble witticisms elicit constant giggling, that is people laughing to reassure each other that it's not serious.

That's laughing-with-you humor, which isn't normally terribly funny to an outside observer. Professional comedians tend to use laughing-at-somebody humor, which often is. The point of hostile humor is to show us (the audience) that they (the objects of ridicule) aren't serious. They are ridiculous. It's reassuring.

Top comedians, of course, tend to be notoriously hostile. In the 1990s, a friend once had dinner with Jackie Mason, who spent the entire evening complaining morosely about how Ed Sullivan had ruined his career in 1964. (That's pretty funny, but only because it wasn't serious: Mason went on to have a highly successful career, and thus it was funny that he was bitterly lamenting the incident 30 years later. If he had never gotten another break, it wouldn't be funny, it would be sad.)

Perhaps the positive feeling we enjoy when something is funny has evolved as a sort of brain candy to reward us for realizing when something is not serious. Hunter-gatherers can better afford to be ornery because they can just leave when other people get on their nerves too much. Settled humans living in dense populations need other mechanisms for coping with frustrations, such as a sense of humor to reward them for deciding something isn't really a big deal. Thus, we are primed to search out funny experiences.

Stage Two: Assuming that we evolved a craving for the feeling that's something is funny, then that kind of positive reinforcement could then have evolved to apply to other helpful things. For example, pattern recognition is, generally speaking, a good thing from a Darwinian point of view. So, it's not surprising that a lot of humor involves pattern recognition.
Q. How many lesbians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A. That's not funny!
That was funny the first time you heard it (1983) because it crystallized for you something you'd observed evidence for -- that lesbians are likelier to be humorless and irritable -- but hadn't yet recognized consciously. Like a trainer teaching Shamu a new trick at Sea World, your brain tossed you some brain candy as a reward for noticing something new. The joke is not very funny now, however, because you already knew lesbians tend to be like that. (By the way, here's a hilariously unfunny Wikipedia article on Lightbulb Jokes.)

So, that's the theory. Does it account for all types of humor? Well, you can more or less extend stage two indefinitely: Puns are funny because our brains reward us for noticing ... uh ... incongruity. Or maybe our brains toss us some brain candy for noticing that things that seem alike (e.g., homonyms) might not be actually alike (i.e., puns are the inverse of pattern recognition humor).

Of course, like most Darwinian explanations, this starts getting unfalsifiable the more you push it.

But that leads to the question:

- If pattern recognition is funny;

- And if Steve Sailer is good at pattern recognition (e.g., this blog post);

- Then why isn't Steve Sailer funny (e.g., this blog post)?

For example, consider my 1994 article "Why Lesbians Aren't Gay," which includes a table of three dozen traits upon which lesbians and gay men tend to differ. This prodigious exercise in pattern recognition includes bits and pieces that could be incorporated into dozens of stand-up comedy routines and Saturday Night Live skits. But my article on the whole isn't funny. Indeed, it tends to get readers angry.

Lots of funny people read my stuff (e.g., Stephen Colbert or one of his writers), because I'm good at coming up with the raw material for observational humor. But, I generally don't choose to be very funny myself.

How come? Well, I suspect there's a conflict between the Stage Two type of humor (pattern-recognition) and Stage One ("It's not serious").

The problem is: I am serious.

An observational comedian says, "Have you ever noticed ..." and then mentions something paradoxical. "Why is that?" he adds with a look of exasperation and confusion, and then rushes on to some other wry observation.

With me, though, the question "Why is that?" leaves me dead in my tracks, goggle-eyed in fascination. "I bet I can figure that out," I say to myself, even though nobody cares. It's already been established that it's not serious and that's enough for most people. Me, I've got to be Mr. Explainer.

I can be funny in short bursts (here's a 1992 American Spectator parody I wrote that was pretty funny at the time), but I find it hard to maintain the needed level of scattershot hostility for too long. I'm too empathetic toward people (at least those below the top 0.001%), too interested in understanding what makes them tick, too disinterested and philosophical to be terribly funny.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Glaivester said...

That also explains why innuendo can be funnier than saying something straight out - because it is forces you to use your brain.

I think that currently, ethnic humor is also funny partly because of the relief of being able to point out things that are normally taboo. Chapelle's racial humor is funny for white people partly because we can say "Aha! It really is true!!!

Jody said...

Then why isn't Steve Sailer funny?

Part 3: Surprise. (or... ummm... pattern jerks)

That's a key difference between interesting (steve sailer) and funny (Mason). Properly setting up the surprise is the element of humor more frequently referred to as delivery.

Or in other words, if you reveal the pattern slowly and deliberately it'll come off as interesting, but not funny.

rast said...

Steve, are you feeling sorry for yourself about SWPL? Please don't.

Comedy, like calculus, is hard work. And like calculus, some people have a lot of natural talent for it, and some don't.

In this case, the market has chosen to reward the insightful and very funny SWPL, and not reward your unpleasant and very insightful truths. Unfair, but so is life.

Peter said...

How many mice does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Two, but don't ask me how they got in there.

Anonymous said...

You're right that explaining a joke ruins it. In fact, "No getting it" is funnier. (See: No soap radio.)

But I'm suprised. If you want to be reductionist, you have to reflect upon an important point: Babies are decidedly capable of laughter:


...it's perfectly human laughter, and everyone's laughing with them, but there's no question that they aren't processing a joke in an especially complicated way. Where is the correspondence between a baby's laugh and a comedy-viewer's laugh?

*that the great majority of books don't provoke loud laughter in solitary readers*

One big exception: Al Franken's "Why not me?" It almost killed me when I read it. And that guy is painfully unfunny is other contexts. One joke he told (while on the political trail, giving speeches to a veteren's group, iirc):

"Everybody remembers where they were when JFK was shot. And so do I. Yep, I was on the top floor of the Texas schoolbook repository."

Ron Guhname said...

I would add that a lot of humor involves a surprise, quick shift in reference.

Just last night, I watched watching an exchange between Groucho and Chico in a Marx Bros. documentary. Groucho is helping a woman plan a party, and Chico is the leader of a band:

G: What do you fellas get an hour?

C: For playing, $10 an hour.

G: And how much do you charge not to play?

C: $12 dollars an hour.

G: Well, clip me off a piece of that.

C: For rehearsing, that's a special rate of $15 an hour.

G: You get that, for rehearsing? And what do you get for not rehearsing?

C: You couldn't afford it.

Groucho is a good example of this quick, switching frame of reference. He seems like a serious, sincere guy asking for information, and suddenly he's the smart-ass grouchy guy who is belittling your musical talent. You think he's going in one direction, and he jerks you in another. Seeing the situation in an unexpected way--routine then suddenly absurd--is a form of playing, and play is amusing.

The switch is tied in with pattern recognition too. In the sketch, they play on the stereotype of the annoyingly bad musician.

Fear and anxiety come into it as well. The one guy just insulted the other guy, and one has an impulse that conflict and violence is about to occur, then one feels relief and laughter to discover that the guy was just kidding. It's like the child who laughs when you pretend to be a monster. Fear becomes relief, and relief is expressed in laughter.

I'm not helping with the reductionism, so I'll shut up now.

R J said...

A lot of humor springs from sheer misanthropy, and perhaps Steve Sailer lacks the sheer misanthropy needed to be a full-on blowtorch-wielding cojones-crushing satirist in the Gulliver's Travels or South Park tradition. But it would be nonsense for anyone to allege that he isn't witty.

The persistent liveliness of his prose ensure that there's at least one phrase - and normally there are several phrases - to make readers smile in most of his articles. I think particularly fondly about a passage in his review (The American Conservative, September 8, 2003) of American Splendor: "The joke is that there are no jokes. That wasn't a bad little joke back in 1976, but it got old in about 1977."

Anonymous said...

A young husband and wife get into an argument over who, exactly, is the father of her unborn child. Generally speaking, that's not funny. It's serious.

Hahahaha. Steve, you must not watch Jerry Springer or Maury Povich.

"YOU...are NOT the father!"


That video clip is an h-bd extravaganza...

Anonymous said...

This one is even better:

Sholonda has a daughter, doesn't know who the father is...after they tested *16* men! As for number 17...just wait and see.


Anonymous said...

Also, Steve, cheer up. You have a lot of supporters in important places. Without going into further details, you know that you have facilitated the publication of important scientific results. You are a journalist's journalist, the kind other writers crib from and read on the sly. You are right, and you will be remembered when idiots like Podhoretz or conventionalists like Gladwell have long since been forgotten.

Reg C├Žsar said...

Who says hunter-gatherers are humorless? I once knew a subsistence-fisherman-turned-cannery-drone who was quite good natured. (How much closer to a true hunter-gatherer can you get nowadays than a subsistence fisherman?) Though his funniest moment was unplanned. He weighed over 300 lbs. When he collapsed in a stupor outside a boardwalk bar one night, they needed the company forklift to bring him back to the plant.

The Wikipedia article had its (pardon me) bright spot: the picture, with the caption "a light bulb".

Anyway, it takes just one to screw the light bulb in. The real question is, will he need an EMT, an RN, or an experienced surgeon to screw it back out?

Born Again Democrat said...

And, besides, often you are very funny,especially with names. Sader and Bader, and in person a lovable lunk. Keep up the good work.

Proper White Person said...

When I become emperor humour will be banned. It's more trouble than it is worth.

I'm told the Spartans were sarcastic, often replying to the demands of the Athenians with the ancient equivilent of "Sure. Did you want us to paint your acropolis too?", and that the term laconic derives from them, so I suppose in limited circumstances it has its use.

IT just seems that in political discussions "irony" "satire" and "parody" lets people say whatever they want and if they get called on it they can say they were "just kidding", sort of like an escape hatch.

We're having a bit of a problem with this over at the SWPL blog: guy can write that white people are bad at math, and when he gets called on it, he can say he was just kidding. Well, why even speak?

"Then why isn't Steve Sailer funny"

I find you funny as hell. I did in fact laugh out loud and to tears when you asked Manzi if he was from "htraE in the year DA 8002", for example, and have often wondered how you keep a sense of humour when dealing with the subject matter that you do.

Your jabs at Obama are pretty funny too, but it's the unintentional "golf as gay metric" out-of-the-box sort of thing that makes me smile and say "that's our Steve".

Anonymous said...

Interesting confirmatory example.


By the time 35th-birthday-brunch celebrations roll around for still-single women, serious, irreversible life issues masquerading as “jokes” creep into public conversation: Well, I don’t feel old, but my eggs sure do! or Maybe this year I’ll marry Todd. I’m not getting any younger! The birthday girl smiles a bit too widely as she delivers these lines, and everyone laughs a little too hard for a little too long, not because we find these sentiments funny, but because we’re awkwardly acknowledging how unfunny they are. At their core, they pose one of the most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?

Outland said...


I actually find some of your stuff pretty funny. Often very ironic.

For example, you once wrote a column on rivaling whiteness studies. One of them kept banging whites for all bad, the other kept insisting whites were responsible for all good.

Steve: "Busy little beavers, those white folks"

LOL. I kept thinking about this real life idiocy for days. Things like that are really happening.

Funny guy.

Anonymous said...

Here's some funny ethnic humor, Steve. It's a full blown racial attack by your good friend, Razib!


Yes, race warrior Razib ponders the lack of infinite supply of white chicks for him to plunder and applies the Frankfurt School Marxist techniques:

I will add one more thing, though I'm hesitant. As a man of color I feel less than empowered when criticized by heteronormatively privileged white males on this point on the comment boards as they can silence my voice with their command of the English language which has long been the tool of the master, but could it be the white male patriarchy? Perhaps women, long oppressed by males have internalized the racism which is implicit in the current dispensation. One might wager that women perceive that the choices they make are fraught with far greater long term import than those men make, and so they stick with what they see as the "safest" option in the white male heteronormative patriarchy? Those who might be able to protect them? For white women it would be the white men who control the levers of power, and for women of color it would be the men who have been oppressed by the phallocracy and have been their allies of necessity against oppression.

"...heteronormatively privileged"! Isn't that hilarious? Razib is funny.

Razib should be in Hollywood with all the other really funny people.

Parsi said...

> Puns are funny ..

except that most aren't. Even the famous "peccavi" isn't exactly funny -- it's just a brilliant play on words.

And, as Harvey Sacks noted many years ago, banal puns are ubiquitous and we do not even notice them (Harvey Sacks 1973, "On Some Puns with Some Intimations", in 23rd Annual Georgetown Round Table Monograph Series).

Indra Maghavan said...

Gads, that Wikipedia article is horrible.

But I did laugh at the middle part of your piece! But wait, that was "laughing with you", right?

Billare said...

Steve is often very funny, because he minces few words about exactly the way he feels about political correctness.

I suppose it's a mix of the idea that humor defuses "serious" situations combined with my cynical nature, but almost every time I read some of his old V-Dare columns I can't hold back a few chuckles.

His exchanges with Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution exposing the "richness" of illegal immigrant culture and cuisine, for example, leave me in peels. The word "lumpenproletariat" itself just suggests hilarity, and the discordant clash between the tastefulness and elegance of the average yuppie's taste and the garish pastel hideous tastes of your average immigrant just add to the amusement.

His best comment this week: "Now Harvard has lots of things that AEI doesn't have, but, let me ask you this: Does it have its own war?"

Imagine middle-aged, pointy-headed economists busily trying to take over the world...

Ash said...

I thought you were hilarious when you said we would experience blowback for being on Ethiopia's side when they overthrew those Islamists in Somolia.

nsam said...

the gay vs. lesbian piece reads well after 14 years.. maybe a retro-steve section could be a home for these articles?

Henry Canaday said...


Your only problem is that you are too tall to be funny. Yes, it comes across, even on the Internet. People can detect a tall guy behind the cyber mask. To be funny, tall guys have to pair with short, fat guys, ala Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Mutt and Jeff.

Tall, handsome guys cannot be hostile. This threatens the audience because they do not think tall, handsome guys have a right to be hostile. So comedians like Hope and Seinfeld have to do gentle, observational humor. Short, fat, bald or ugly guys can be hostile, and the audience figures, yeah, I'd be hostile too if I was like that.

I guess all comedy starts out with, "Isn't it odd that _________, and yet ________." The thinker tries to figure out why this sequence is odd and what it means. The comedian finds the most compressed way to say, "It's odd that ______, yet_____."

Edward said...

Since when has reality been funny? Reality is serious.

Elephant with top hat on using phone booth vs Steve Sailer in jeans using phone booth.

Humour is mostly a deviation from reality. If you're surprised to have reality presented in a way that's unfamiliar you will laugh.

If you expect to see all manner of Proboscidea using telephone booths as a daily occurance that fact ceases to shock, thus no emotional release.

Michael said...

Steve Sailer is often very funny.

I think something that may not get pondered enough in the "what is 'funny' all about?" discussion is the many different genres of humor. Satire is one thing, parody another, ditziness a third, slapstick its own thing ...

Hey, here's one thing that's struck me. The usual thing is to say that guys tend to be (or try to be) funny where gals aren't. And there's something to it, god knows. But maybe there's something else, which is that guys are more driven to joke, where many funny women (and they exist, I'm married to one) aren't jokers, they're eccentric, or cute, or ditzy, or charming. Maybe so far as this contrast goes, guys tend to observe and jab, where women tend to "be," and the way some of the "be" is in and of itself funny.

Anyway, in my tiny experience satirists are different kinds of people than jokesters, funny women are funny in different ways than funny men are ... Many exceptions allowed for, natch.

Truth said...

Here's a joke that should make a few of you gentlemen spit your coffee onto the keyboard:

A 65 year old white man is walking along Santa Monica beach among the unwashed hoards wondering what has happened to this country when he notices an unusual old bottle. His wife collects knick-knacks and he thinks she may be interested in it so he picks it up.

Instantly a 9 foot genie appears.

"OK old timer, you know the drill, I'm a genie that has washed up upon the beach from the red sea after churning through the ocean for 80 years. I will now offer you three wishes, whatever you want.

The old man is startled and can hardly believe his good fortune.

"Three wishes...WHATEVER I want?"

"Yes Sir."

So he looks at the multi-racial beach around him the blacks playing with whites, the Arabs and Mexicans everywhere but he is still highly doubtful so he decides to test the genie.

"OK, genie, if I can have whatever I want, I want all the blacks back in Africa, permanently!"

The genie is a little shocked, but he crosses his arms and says 'hocus pocus alakazam" and Poof, a cloud of smoke ensues and suddenly there are no blacks left on the beach.

The blowback from the spellknocks the man to the ground, and he does not know whether to be scared or crestfallen so he quickly hurries to his feet and blurts out:

"For my second wish, I want all of the Mexicans back in Mexico, Permanently."

"Hocus-pocus Alakazam" and Poof! Instantly another 2/3 of the beach population is gone, the beach is nearly deserted now just a few stunned whites walking around."

The man is still not sure whether to be thankful or scared, but he knows the wonderful contribution he has made to mankind.

He says "thanks a million Genie, have fun" and begins to walk away.

The Genie, in no hurry to return to the bottle, hurriedly exclaims:

"Wait...sir...sir...I offered you three wishes and you have only used two. You have one wish remaining!"

The man stops in his tracks and says "Oh yeah, that's right. So let me get this straight: All of the blacks in America are now in Africa?"

"That's right sir"

"And all of the Mexicans in America are now in Mexico?"

"Indubitably sir." Replies the Genie.

"Great!!! I'll take a Pepsi, no ice."

Concerned said...

Why do we laugh?

Laughing increases repro. fitness.

A hysterical chick is easy to bed.

Guys who make chix laugh get laid more often.

More studies are needed.

Zen Redneck said...

You're as funny as you ought to be on this blog. Usually dry humor. As an aside, I do funny for a living (cartoonist/gagwriter) but in person I tend to be dead serious about everything.

Anonymous said...

"Truth", that joke is older than America, and not really that funny. It's mean, but has no element of surprise.

paul k. said...

I don't know that Steve Sailer is funny, but he has a non-rancorous acceptance of reality that makes his writing very pleasant to read. The Elvis Costello "I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused" approach. On the other hand, most successful comedians seem to have a lot of rage, so maybe that's what keeps Steve from being funny.

TomV said...

This single tidbit from "Why lesbians aren't gay" delivers more humor to me than Jon Stewart can do in an hour:

Feminist Issue: Diversifying the "Canon" Victim: The Marginalized
Opressor: Heterosexist WASP's
Paradoxical reality: Gleaming pantheon of gay Dead White European Males from Plato to Proust

Keep it up, Steve!

Anonymous said...

Hey steve, congrats on being mentioned on the front page story of CNN. Too bad they made you sound like a liberal lecturing white americans on how they should do more to help blacks.


"Yet there are a few political commentators who warn African-Americans that an Obama victory could be twisted to suppress the push for racial equality. Most of these commentators are African-American, but they also include white, Latino and conservative pundits.

These commentators say that there is a subliminal appeal to Obama's presidential candidacy that has been ignored. Obama doesn't just represent change; he represents atonement for America's ugly racial past for others, they say.

Steve Sailer, a columnist for The American Conservative magazine, wrote last year that some whites who support Obama aren't driven primarily by a desire for change.

They want something else Obama offers them: "White Guilt Repellent," he wrote.

"So many whites want to be able to say, 'I'm not one of them, those bad whites. ... Hey, I voted for a black guy for president,' " Sailer wrote.

Sailer cited another reason why many whites want Obama as president:

"They hope that when a black finally moves into the White House, it will prove to African-Americans, once and for all, that white animus isn't the cause of their troubles. All blacks have to do is to act like President Obama - and their problems will be over.""

Ronduck said...

Look at this:


Anonymous said...

Steve, I think another important part of humor is its testing aspect. Women want a guy with a good sense of humor as it indicates that they know where the societal boundaries are, and are capable of perceiving meaning on multiple layers.

For example, consider the guy above who wrote:

a full blown racial attack by your good friend, Razib!

Whoosh! Went completely over his head. Razib does that from time to time in his Chet Snicker persona. It is amazing how many people go for the most ridiculous po-mo gibberish hook, line, and sinker...he got a sucker on the left here:


The first thing you might ask is how can both male and female "science IQ" be below average? Remember that the scale is standardized to the white average, and as you can see both blacks and Hispanics have lower scores than whites, resulting in an total population average score below that of the white median. So with that out of the way, what do we notice? Nothing much that should surprise us. Blacks and to a lesser extent Hispanics know less about science than whites. But since science is logocentric and linear that makes sense, proficiency is directly proportional to white cultural content. So Hispanics, who are generally of part European cultural heritage do better than blacks. Men do somewhat better than women, probably because of the patriarchal structure of modern science, which discourages female involvement. Knowledge of science is directly proportional to education; 'nuf said.

Read that whole thread, it's hilarious. By straight facedly reciting the most ludicrous lefty rhetoric in a lefty stronghold (i.e. ScienceBlogs) it's much harder for them to criticize him. It's a lot harder to criticize someone for insufficient earnestness or for being sarcastic...

Svigor said...

Babies are decidedly capable of laughter

Which is why I'm more in the camp of "laughter is somehow roughly analogous to a troop of primates jumping up and down on their tree limbs and screaming."

Okay, so one guy isn't much of a camp...

Anonymous said...

From a very, very funny movie:

Mrs. Hammen: Dr. Rumack, do you have any idea when we'll be landing?
Rumack: Pretty soon, how are you bearing up?
Mrs. Hammen: Well, to be honest, I've never been so scared. But at least I have a husband.
[Randy cries harder]

Thanks, Steve, for the reference to Confederacy of Dunces. I hadn't heard of it until about a month ago and I'm in the middle of it now. I absolutely can't believe how amazing it is, and it is very, very funny. I can read only a few pages at a time, though, because it's so graphic. It's like it's in Smello-Read.

Anonymous said...

Neurologists explain this better than you do. For example VS Ramachandran wrote that laughter is an involuntary response that takes off where a truncated flight-or-fight freakout happens. The involuntary response of infectious laughter is a "the coast is clear." Scientists explain this better since they can point to biological evidence instead of just wave hands.