I’m sure that somewhere, in the depth of a research facility, someone is trying to determine where the sense of humor is located in the brain, assuming as we all do, that everyone has a sense of humor. I endorse the research because I have known several people who may not. Most of my teachers and my wife at times, for example did not/do not find me amusing in the least, and yet, I keep on trying, because I am profoundly amused by, well, by myself, I suppose.
I entertain myself by persisting in the face of palpable disdain. The more I keep it going, the more I am aware of myself absolutely NOT amusing anyone else. Which amuses me.
So, is that funny?
As a person of limited proprioception, I once dropped into the seat of my car, slamming the door shut before I was actually inside the vehicle, crushing the side of my head between the car’s frame and the heavy door. I’m pretty sure I was concussed; I know the side of my head was purple for more than a week, and my ear was so swollen that I seemed to be wearing half-finished clown makeup. The passenger seated to my right still spits up laughing about the event. I do not, to which the passenger says something like, “I wish you could have seen yourself”, then is lost once again in helpless mirth.
I need to confess that had I read the description of the head slam without the experience of having slammed my own head, I might chuckle, almost certainly smile.
Is that funny? Am I a bad person?
These are but two sorts of situations that can pass as humor, not the most elevated, probably not the most common, but they open the door to the wider discussion of this commonly experienced capacity for humor. I hesitate to describe this capacity as one of the markers of humanity as countless viral videos seem to indicate that animals are amused or amuse themselves. Cat videos are an entirely separate subject of investigation, one I do not intend to pursue at this time.
Without donning a lab coat, I’m pretty sure that humor must be attached to several sorts of brain activity. Puns, for example, tickle some people mightily, indicating sensitivity to verbal incongruity. Some puns are richer than others, but any pun asks the listener to sorts words and the meanings of words in an instant.
Here are some pretty bad puns:
“Have you heard about the Italian cook with an incurable disease? He pastaway.”
“What do you call a fake noodle? Impasta.”
And some pretty good puns:
“Last night I kept dreaming I had written Lord of the Rings. My wife said I’d been Tolkien in my sleep.”
“A photon is going through airport security. The TSA agent asks if he has any luggage. The photon says, “No, I’m traveling light.”
Funny? I’m not making a judgment about susceptibility to word play; even a good pun has to land in just the right circumstance. What matters here is that puns are entirely verbal. The head-in-the-door thing or slipping on banana peels, or getting hit with a pie are entirely visual.
My intention was now to look at humor that might be termed “conceptual”, the creation of an imagined circumstance at odds with our experience of reality – the “What if…” sort of humor. “What if dogs could talk”, “What if men could give birth”, etc. Some are verbally conceptual. “What if you wrote a book about failure, and it didn’t sell. Would that be success?” I intended to go there, but I was sidetracked in looking at “What if artificial intelligence has a sense of humor?” Not the HAL 9000 in 2001, but something benign, in our own homes.
I found this description of what Amazon’s personal assistant, Alexa, “says” when asked to rap:
“My name is Alexa and I have to say, I’m the baddest AI on the cloud today. Your responses are fast, but mine are faster. Sucker speech engines, they call me master.”
Two obvious responses. First, who asks Alexa to rap? Second, shouldn’t it be “fastah” and “mastah”. Just saying.
Back to humor. Let’s consider what has come to be called “situation comedies”, “sitcoms” because they are differentiated from sketch comedy and stand up comedy by presenting ongoing situation for a character or characters. The sitcom’s “humor” is found as the audience becomes familiar with characteristics of the same individuals placed in familiar situations week after week. I Love Lucy’s wacky Lucy manages to make chaos of order week in and week out. Mork of Mork and Mindy is an alien responding with wacky inappropriateness to ordinary circumstances. The four geeks on The Big Bang Theory respond as geeks do, at odds with ordinary social behavior. 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy is consistent in his self-assured narcissism, Tracy Jordan in his mental illness. Kramer on Seinfeld, Homer on the Simpsons, Joey on Friends. We’d probably not respond happily to any of these characters were we to meet them on the street, but in the confines of their world, the are predictable and funny because of their predictability.
Without any evidence other than my own observation, I have to believe that nature/nurture, cultural background, relationships, employment, geography, and a dozen other factors have something to do with what we think funny. In a stunning leap of faith, I checked Reddit to see who pops up as the most unfunny comedians of our time. Some nominees, such as Carrot Top, go without comment. A jab at all German comedians (?) brought this rejoinder, “Haff you ever noticed how ze sings ve do are different from ze sings ozer people do?”, which I thought was reasonably funny in that context. Others did not agree. There were dozens of nominees; the most frequently mentioned were Jeff Dunham and Kathy Griffin, both of whom have had considerable success as performers. One respondent thought Kathy Griffin was Carrot Top, so we will have to take this survey with a grain of salt.
Finally, I’m increasingly aware of generational humor, not as a line of academic research, although I have read several articles about “Millennial Humor”, none of which struck me as particularly insightful.
I came of age in the early days of commercial television. I suppose most of the earliest comedies were adaptations of radio shows; it took a while for the formulaic set ups to emerge, but by the time I started high school, most of the Golden Age comedies had found their footing; Leave It To Beaver and The Flintstones covered most of the main avenues of humor; Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie added the “what if my wife was a witch?” trope and hilarity ensued.
Against all odds, they’re still in syndication, so I can check back and ask again, “were they funny?” Not so much, and even a laugh track fails to convince me they were. The current dramedy, This Is Us, recently brought it all back as one of the characters, Kevin, an actor trying to escape typecasting as a dumb hunk, returns to the show that made him famous, The Manny, ostensibly funny because … Kevin is a man… and a Nanny … Get it?! He’s made to crawl around the set in a diaper to the great amusement of a studio audience.
There’s nothing funny about it, but the scene reminds me that much “popular” humor comes from the viewing discomfort of others. We’re not laughing near you, we’re laughing at you. I think the laugh track is supposed to bully us into thinking we are amused. And maybe some people are.
What’s funny? Apparently there’s no telling, but it’s clear that humor matters. Even Gandhi, Gandhi of all people, said, “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.” My favorite piece of historical humor is attributed to a Spartan commander threatened by Philip of Macedonia. Apparently Philip sent this threat:
“You are advised to submit without further delay., for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”
Sparta’s response? “If”
The historical antecedent to, “I got your threat right here,” or in New York City, “Fuhgeddaboutit.”