Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Theory of Comedy

I like to read books on psychology. People fascinate me. They are like the ultimate puzzle.

While most behavior is explainable, one aspect of personality that has always bugged me is laughter. Every other behavior seems to have an underlying purpose. But why laugh? Why make jokes? There seems to be no practical use. Meanwhile people are basing their choices of friends and lovers on it, so there must be something to it.

I've read books on comedy that tried to explain what funny is, such as "Comedy Writing Secrets" by Melvin Helitzer. I've also read a few accounts by comedians who try to explain why the jokes they tell are funny. None of these have completely explained the phenomenon to my satisfaction and so I have developed my own theories.

Describing how to write a joke is a lot like describing how to walk. "Well you just put one foot in front of the other." But it isn't that simple. There is a lot of wiring underneath that we simply don't understand. What makes one punchline funnier than another? What about timing and execution? Most people learn through trial and error and emulation.

So, let's break it down. Laughter can be broken divided into two categories.

Laughter derived from status

When someone wants to impress someone else, they will laugh at their jokes as a form of flattery. Even if the jokes are horrible. If you stand back and listen to people talk you will often notice women are laughing at the stupidest jokes men tell. This aspect of comedy plainly obvious to anyone with ears. Sometimes this is known as the Dane Cook Effect. Conan O'Brien describes it as courtesy laughter.

This is also the origin of the much despised laugh track. They have done studies where they found that people laughed more when there was a studio audience to laugh along with. The studio heads naturally believe that adding in a laugh track is a cheap way to make their shows funnier and it is typically forced onto content creators.

Unfortunately, any laughter derived from this effect is not real and doesn't generate enjoyment or increase status. Based on conversations I've had with others, I think I'm not alone in thinking this. If you don't think a gag is funny, no amount of forced laughter is going to make you enjoy it more.

In other words the problem with exploiting this property is that in order to make people laugh in the first place you have to acquire status to get the ball rolling. If you were attempting to tell jokes to obtain status in the first place, and the jokes were bad, you are in trouble. People can only handle so many so-so jokes before they will tune you out. On the other hand, telling good jokes often enough will raise your status so that when you finally do bomb a joke, you will get a courtesy laugh instead of cricket noises.

I don't think anyone is going to argue with this so far. Real laughter is derived from this second idea which I've never seen written in any book.

Laughter derived from the unexpected

More specifically: laughter derived from the unexpected, but from what should have been obvious. Actually it isn't quite that simple.

Imagine you are five years old and you are watching the Three Stooges. Moe has a pie in his hand and Curly says something stupid. At this point, we all know what is about to happen. But a five year old doesn't. He might not have seen it before, or at least, not often. When the pie hits Curly in the face, to the five year old, that was completely unexpected, but at the same time in his mind he realizes he should have seen it coming. That is, the scenario was laid out such that there was only one logical conclusion, the conclusion of which escaped the mind of the child until the event occured.

That triggers a laugh. For the kid, anyhow.

But I didn't laugh. I saw it coming a mile away. My brain had already processed the scenario and come to a conclusion. The only way to make me laugh now is to extend the situation by having Curly retaliate in a particularly creative fashion. The only way I will laugh is if something is about to follow that should be expected, but that I haven't yet grasped.

Maybe this isn't clear. Let me use another example. Perry Bible Fellowship is one of my favorite web comics. It is usually very funny, but it is often hit or miss.

What is the difference between these two jokes?

Both follow the same format but one is kind of lame and the other is hilarious.

In the first comic, you see the janitor is going to write something on the chalkboard. In your mind you narrow it down. He's either going to answer the problem (not funny) or write something lewd (expected). You ran it through your head and those possibilities are what you came up with. In the last frame you were let down when you found you had guessed correctly.

In the second, a scenario is set up where there are corpses everywhere and there also seems to be some sort of relationship, the nature of which you can only suspect. Examining the environment, her reaction, and the dumpiness of the bald guy, your brain goes into overdrive to figure out how they are related. It is fruitless, there are too many possibilities, none of which seem likely. When the final frame hits, you realize how it all fits together. The joke has beat you to a seemingly obvious conclusion. So you laugh.

There are two ways this comic could have fallen flat. You could have guessed what was going to happen before you read it. That is a killer. The other alternative is that the punchline didn't follow from the setup. In that case your brain would continue searching for some connection and not finding one you would close the comic in disgust. I should also mention a third potential for failure is if the content is morally objectionable to the reader, they will steel themself against laughter. This is a special case I won't dwell on.

So to summarize. A joke needs to set up a problem and reach a seemingly obvious conclusion before you can. Then it is funny. If you reach it first, it isn't funny. If you can't figure out how the punchline relates to the setup, it isn't funny. Simple.

Now you may have already started mumbling exceptions to this rule. For example deadpan humor. Mitch Hedberg:
"I order the club sandwich all the time, but I'm not even a member, man. I don't know how I get away with it."
Funny, but not so funny it'd pay the bills.

For a stand up comic, setting up a joke is more than just speaking words. Any comic knows you need a persona. In Hedberg's case, he is a stoner. Stoners in and of themselves aren't funny. What makes it funny is that he is making observations from a stoner perspective that seem fitting, once he makes you think about it. The persona ends up being half the puzzle. Putting the persona together with a joke is sort of like putting the first couple of frames together in a comic. It is part of the setup.

What's the point?

With the anatomy of laughter in hand the purpose of humor starts to become clear. If I'm correct, laughter is a human instinct used to measure intelligence.

To the joke teller, a successful joke shows that you are capable of complex thinking. You created a clever logic puzzle for others to solve.

On the recipient side, laughing at the appropriate time lets others in the group know that you are intelligent enough to understand the logic behind the joke. Anyone who is incapable of laughing at the right time will quickly become an outcast. Knowing a good joke from a bad one is not fakeable. You only have an instant to decide.

That is my theory. Maybe you agree with it, and maybe you don't but in my mind this is an open and shut case. Good day and beware people with no sense of humor.

No comments: