There is a dead frog with its guts all over the place. More about this unfunny amphibian later.
For now, the challenge is to figure out what’s funny, why it’s funny, how funny is constructed, what happens inside our brains when funny is happening, how funny works in different countries and why funny often misfires. Although I want to believe that this is a fascinating intellectual and scholarly pursuit, the whole idea of studying funny seems, to me, to be an odd pursuit that’s not likely to yield meaningful results. And yet, there are these two books, each with an embarrassingly unfunny cover, that have been staring at me all summer long. One puts Groucho glasses on a globe and calls itself The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny and the other has a big goofy grin with the word “Ha!” writ large with “The Science of When We Laugh and Why” down below. The former was written by a University of Colorado professor named Peter McGraw; he runs the Humor Research Lab (or, “HuRL”) and promises to be “a leading expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics.” His co-author us a free-lance writer named Joel Warner. HA! was written by Scott Weems, whose Ph.D. is in cognitive neuroscience.
Weems taught me that it’s possible to make a rat laugh. How? Tickling works pretty well—scratch its belly and a rat will emit a high pitched screech at around 50kHz (which other rats can hear, but humans cannot). If you stroke a rat, it doesn’t laugh. Young rats are more likely to laugh, and laugh bigger, and more often, than older rats. Apparently, humans are the same way. If you leave a rat alone for an extended period, then tickle him, the rat is more likely to laugh a lot.
And then, things get weird. A rat scientist named Burgdorf (I’m sure there’s a better title) inserted electrodes into each rat’s dopamine-producing center and “achieved the same result.” Then, Burgdorf taught his rats to tap a metal bar to administer the dopamine provocation on their own. Similar result. All of which leads Weems to this conclusion, “Apparently, rats aren’t so different from humans, which suggests that laughter might have been around for a very long time.”
Yeah, you’re seeing the same problem I am. It’s cool that we can make rats emit a sound by tickling them, but there’s a pretty large gap between explaining that screech—which may or may not be laughter—and, say, what Richard Pryor or Robin Williams could do on their least productive days. Or why, when I’m bored, I will try (and often succeed) in making others laugh and lose focus (I’ve been doing this since fourth grade). Or why elephant jokes are still funny.
Q: Why did the Elephant stand on the marshmallow?
A: So she wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate.
Men and women seem to laugh at different things, at different times, in different ways. We don’t yet understand how computers might make us laugh. Research related to laughter, short-term health and longevity is inconclusive (but it couldn’t hurt). Ethic humor remains popular (throughout the world), but the 21st century’s political correctness limits its use in polite company. We’re still okay making fun of animals, and even in our enlightened world, nothing succeeds like a good poop joke:
All in all, I didn’t learn much, but I did find out that scientists are taking an interest. That’s nice, but frankly, I’d rather watch a funny movie.
The comedy team of McGraw and Warner trekked a lot further (“two guys…19 experiments…five continents… 91,000 miles…”) but didn’t manage to cover any more ground. Studying humor is exceedingly difficult, probably because we’re not smart enough to understand what’s happening, which is why scientists come up with theory and do their thing, but the process is not much fun to watch. McGraw’s intrepid performance at a comedy club—these guys really are trying—is a flop. Their Venn diagrams are promising (one circle: “vomit in church” and the other “causing mass vomit in church” with the intersection marked, simply, “funny”). Both books tell the story of the girls in Tanzania who couldn’t stop laughing and comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s “too soon?” excuse to roll into the Aristocrats schtick shortly after NYC’s towers came down; and, sure enough, on page 81, the authors are talking about tickling rate here, too.
Their world tour is interesting, mostly for people who don’t usually follow the comedy business. This book attempts to be a global comedy road trip, and it’s interesting to visit Yoshimoto Kogyo in Japan: a comedy school that also manages 800 Japanese comedians (not sure why, but the image of 800 Japanese comedians makes me laugh). The company owns many of Japan’s comedy clubs and used to own a comedy theme park, too. There are Yoshimoto Kogyo golf balls, and instant ramen meals, too. The authors make good use of their travel budget, visiting Scandinavia where their obsession with the Danish cartoons that rattled Islam sensibility tends to overshadow the warmth and classy outrage that has been part of Danish humor since the days of Victor Borge (don’t miss this!). Humor on the Gaza Strip (conflict and humor are often linked), and in a chapter about the Amazon (where the inevitable Norman Cousins story about laughter as medicine is told, along with some notes on Patch Adams).
In the Montreal chapter—which is about the world’s largest comedy festival, the authors summarize what seems to be a list of items that didn’t require a full volume:
- Make fun of yourself before others get the chance to do so.
- Laughter is disarming. Make light of the stuff everyone’s worried about and you’ll negate its power.
- Create a safe, playful space where folks are free to laugh.
And so on.
I read these two books because I was hoping that the state of the science had greatly advanced (two books from two major publishers in the same year), but I was mostly wrong. We don’t know much more than we did before. And after thinking about that on a rainy weekend afternoon, I came to the conclusion that there is no problem in not understanding comedy. Maybe there is a point in studying it—or, at least, continuing to study laughter—but in some ways, I hope we never figure it out. I don’t think I want a science of humor. And I certainly don’t want a funny robot to be programmed into my brain to provoke dopamine provocation. Really, I’m good not knowing, I’m great knowing that Robin Williams and Victor Borge were funny, and not knowing or caring how or why that happened or how to replicate his magic.
So what about the frog? For that answer, everyone seems to refer to what E.B. White wrote in 1941:
“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but
the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging
to any but the our scientific mind.”