What makes you laugh?


I’m sure your sense of humour is unique and wonderfully nuanced. I’m also sure that it’s based entirely on stupidity. You may laugh when you are impressed or surprised, but these are not ‘humour’ laughs. The laughs that follow jokes are bonding in the observation of our own faults or those of others. It’s a commentary on the world that says ‘I see a mistake but I don’t find it threatening’. In laughing, we are showing the world that we have made the effort to improve ourselves. We are signalling to other similarly improved people that we have spotted a mild misdemeanour.

The most obvious example of this is when somebody simply misunderstands something. This type of humour is at its funniest when we clearly appreciate both the way that the mix-up happened and how unfortunate or unlikely the mistake would be in our own lives. This is also the root of the most maligned of all joke forms: the pun.  A classic pun is simply changing the smallest phoneme in a sentence to give it a completely different meaning. This is then used in two ways.  Perhaps a scene is constructed in which a character (ignoring contextual clues) assumes the wrong meaning with disastrous consequences.  On the other hand, perhaps the joke is about pretending make elaborate puns when you are actually parodying those who attempt to show off with their fancy wordplay.  In this case the stupidity is on the part of the fictional show-off who thinks they are being clever when we know they are not impressing anyone.

With so much of our concentration and intelligence spent on acting correctly toward others, we take particular delight from noticing the social ineptitude of others. In general, huge swathes of comedy are based upon people failing to read contextual clues. This is one of the reasons that amusement at a joke is often heightened when the comedian or those around him are straight faced.  In addition to the original joke, we find it hilarious that those nearby are able to ignore or fail to notice the comic genius they have just witnessed.  This is why a sitcom is played fairly realistically, but when the entire audience is falling around laughing over a slapstick incident, the cast remains serious.

Subverting expectations is funny. When an audience knows that something is expected by the genre or by society at a certain moment, it is funny to simply do the unexpected.  One example of this is to tell the same joke many times.  The difficult balance here is that the joke is the idea that the people telling the joke don’t know what they are doing and have failed to learn the expectations that even the audience know.  Without proper execution, however, the audience might therefore think that their expectations were subverted accidentally, which isn’t funny at all.

There are times when we laugh because somebody is feigning extreme anger, propriety, impatience or arrogance. These character flaws have to be exaggerated enough that they cannot possibly be a reasonable reaction in a given situation before they are actually funny. We all have character flaws, but people have them to extreme degrees are a laughing stock to the rest. The reason is simply that reacting in these ways is clearly going to hinder them in their lives.  An audience laughs because they agree that the behaviour presented is simply stupid.

In real social situations, we laugh if someone suggest or does something in jest that would otherwise be unthinkable.  Most practical jokes are similar to this, but include that added curiosity that one person thinks that the joke is serious.  We laugh because the person playing the prank or the person being pranked is made to look in some way stupid.

Observation comedy of its various kinds works by finding stupidity in the real world.  Sometimes the real world is crazy enough on its own but often the comedian will find an interesting point of view or decision and caricature it to fantastic proportions.  At this point the joke is partially at somebody’s actual expense but the blow is softened by the exaggeration because there is a mutual understanding that the real person was not as bad as the caricature.

Irony always improves comedy.  If somebody accidentally gives the impression that they are racist, this is much funnier if they were at the very same moment attempting to impress those around them. This is because a character who clearly cares about their image is much more stupid for ending up looking stupid than somebody who doesn’t appear to care.

There are clearly other things that affect comedy. The target of jokes is often quite telling about an audience. If the target of a joke is themselves a likeable character, the audience probably identifies with the characters on screen and are likely to be thinking, “I can relate to this in my own experience”. On the other hand, if the characters are repulsive, the chances are that the audience is recognising a real observation or stereotype that they dislike.  Another factor is the cleverness of the comedy. Jokes are inherently an intellectual activity that require the ability to understand and comment on the world around us. If the joy of a joke comes from our shared superiority with the comedian, we like the comedian to demonstrate his cleverness.  Weaving multiple story elements together, choosing pleasing and musical rhythms of speech (timing and delivery) and simply throwing in geeky amounts of knowledge about certain subjects can show that the comedian who is playing the fool is clearly not all that he seems.


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