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Learning to Be Funny

Psychologist-comedian Mitch Earlywine's new book on humour and psychology.

A friend once asked me what comedy was. That floored me. What is comedy? I don`t know. Does anybody? Can you define it? All I know is that I learned how to get laughs, and that`s all I know about it. You have to learn what people will laugh at, then proceed accordingly.  Stan Laurel

Is there a psychology of humour?  And is it even possible to develop a scientific understanding of what is “funny”?   Much like Stan Laurel’s famous quote above, humour is often seen as purely intuitive with comics “feeling out” their audience to see what will make them laugh.   Those brave academics who dare study humour serious are typically accused of missing the point completely.   According to E.B. White in his 1941 book, “humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”    Essays on the psychology of humour tend to be long and serious with no trace of the humour they are supposedly explaining.   You’re certainly not likely to see Stephen Colbert or Jerry Seinfeld consulting them for helpful tips on entertaining people (but then again, who knows?).  

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Bridging the gap between comedy and psychology takes a very special sort of psychologist.   One much like Mitch Earlywine, in fact.     Not only is he an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany with specialties in addictions and drug use, but he is also a successful stand-up comedian.  That makes him a unique sort of ambassador between serious science and the not-so-serious world of comedy.   In his recent book, Humour 101, released in 2011 by Springer Publishing Company, Earlywine carefully counterbalances existing research with his own experiences as a stand-up comedian.    While the book certainly has a serious side, Mitch Earlywine also includes various jokes and puns to demonstrate his own particular brand of comedy which makes Humour 101 as entertaining as it is educational. 

The book begins with an overview of the different strategies stand-up comics use to entertain audiences such as “calling the room” (gauging audience response to jokes with comic responses such as “tough room” when the joke falls flat).   He also stresses the importance of winning audiences over by being as sympathetic and open as possible.   Although he acknowledges that the psychology of humour is often a dry subject based on the need to pick apart jokes to understand why they are funny, he also defends the relevance of humour research as part of the overall shift away from more “negative” research topics towards a positive psychology orientation. 

As Earlywine rightly points out, there is no “grand theory of humour” and jokes have a way of being funny for some audiences but not for others.    Jokes about recent events, whether funny or tragic, can leave audiences laughing or calling for the comic’s head, and there often is no way of knowing for sure how an audience might react.   Just as there is no one theory of humour, there are different ways of getting through to an audience.   As Mitch Earlywine points out in his book:

“…humor’s not just one thing.  There are anecdotes, wisecracks, witticisms, parodies, cartoons and comics.  There’s sarcasm, irony, parody, caricature and mockery.  There’s banter and joking and repartee and teasing and wordplay and Sneezy and Dopey.  This is serious business.”

Well, maybe not quite so serious.   In any case, doing a proper job of categorizing humour is likely not something that would appeal to anyone simply trying to make an audience laugh.   Earlywine also describes some of the problems involved in trying to study humour in laboratory settings with researchers conducting anonymous surveys on subjects who give subjective ratings on different kinds of comic material.  He describes one classic study by Ruch and his colleagues in 1992 with multiple raters evaluating more than 600 jokes or cartoons.   Along with sexual content as one factor in what makes some jokes funny (hardly a surprise there since sexual humour dates back to Aristophanes), Ruch identified two other factors which he labeled “incongruity response” and “nonsense”. 

The incongruity response theory of humour states that jokes are funny when they have a first part which sets up the expectation of how the joke will go (the “setup”) followed by an unexpected element that violated that expectation (the “punchline”).   One example Earlwine gives is the Emo Philips joke:  “My grandfather died peacefully in his sleep, but the kids on his bus were screaming.”    It is the incompatibility between the setup of the joke and the “reveal” provided by the punch line leads to surprise, how an audience processes that surprise marks the difference between success (getting a good laugh from the audience or failure (the joke falls flat or audience members are offended instead).  

According to Ruch and his colleagues, incongruity resolution underlies almost all  comedy and also helps define the different roles that comedians can play.   That includes classic comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy with Oliver Hardy acting as the straight man providing the setup and Stan Laurel delivering the incongruous punch line that gets the laughs.   The final factor that Ruch suggested is the simple use of nonsense- incongruity without resolution, which can trigger laughs simply because they are so bizarre.   Whether it  involves bacon on cats or monkeys on pigs, the unexpected and absurd can be hysterical in its own right. 

Though there are no shortage of other theories about humour, including viewing it as an interrupted defense mechanism, as tension relief, or a way for individuals to participate in crowd situations,  no one theory seems suited to explain comedy as a whole.

But was E.B. White right in suggesting that overanalysing humour essentially kills anything funny about the process of making people laugh?    Mitch Earlywine manages to avoid that outcome in his book by keeping the dry scientific analysis to a minimum and interspersing the technical parts with  jokes and anecdotes about his comedy career and, to a broader extent, about the funny side of life.

Along with an introduction to the psychology of humour, Mitch Earlywine’s book also includes chapters on the interpersonal nature of comedy, different humour styles (whether positive or negative), gender differences in humour, the link between humour and creativity,  as well as the problems psychologists have identifying specific personality traits that make for good comedians.  

There are also chapters on the “practical” side of humour and how having a good sense of humour can make even the grimmest situations a little more bearable.   Whether as a coping mechanism or a way of cementing relationships at work or in your personal life, there is always a place for comedy.   Especially when it comes to physical and psychological well-being.  Perhaps fittingly, Mitch Earlywine ends his book with a section on “Humor in the future” where he shows that humour will still be humour no matter how the world changes since there  is nothing like a good joke to ground us all in the here and now. 

While Mitch Earlywine’s book is obviously not meant to be a technical guide to the many different aspects of humour, he provides enough of a background to give professionals and non-professionals a glimpse at some of the research into humour and how it relates to life.  Whether as a supplementary textbook in a class dedicated to studying humour or simply as a good read for interested lay people, Humor 101 is a book I would heartily recommend. 

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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