Psyched!

The science of psych

Joking by Numbers

Can you learn to be funny?

On Monday I mentioned my habit of deconstructing humor. In the current issue of Psychology Today there's an interview with Bob Mankoff, The New Yorker's cartoon editor, where I ask him "Are there formulas for funny?" He says:

It's an interesting cognitive process because the more you try to do a joke, the more you can't do it. You choke. For instance, you can use "clash of context"--make children sound like adults, or imagine hell is good--but you have to put that algorithm out of your consciousness to make it really work.

In his office he went on to say: "If I were to write a computer program for really mediocre jokes, this is what it would be like. But [you need] that little extra spark, where all of a sudden your mind skips past the first thing."

Tuesday I interviewed comedian Chelsea Peretti for the June issue of PT and asked her if a sense of humor could be cultivated. She said:

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There are people who want desperately to be funny people, to be the funny guy in a group of friends or whatever, and that’s just not their gift. You can read joke books, and people even take comedy classes, but I tend to think that’s pretty much retarded.

She later added, "There are people like Mystery"--a chauvinistic pickup artist with a patent-pending method of female-attraction (that advocates, in part, wearing attention-grabbing accessories.) See Mystery below, right. "There may be strategies that can improve your social role, in terms of like, maybe you can be a little funnier, but I think that might just slightly improve you."

"Like putting lipstick on a pig," I offered. Then revised: "Or putting a Jamiroquai hat on a pig."

Ok, to be fair, I'd read that one in a joke book.

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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