Funny People

Why our brains like to be tricked, teased, and tormented by humor.

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Can—and Should—Humor Be Explained Once and for All?

Taking a crack at the humor code.
This post is a response to Why Is Humor So Hard to Figure Out? by Nina Strohminger

"Trying to define humor is one of the definitions of humor." So said Saul Steinberg, someone who wielded humor so expertly that he became one of America's most beloved cartoonists. If Steinberg didn't need to define humor in order to use it beautifully, why should anyone else need to?

It doesn't help that for millennia, philosophers, scientists and entertainers have tried and failed to define exactly what makes things funny. Plato, Socrates Hobbes, Kant, Freud: They all attempted to derive a parsimonious set of principles that can explain humorous reactions to a wide range of situations from puns, to satire, to tickling. Yet the complexity of humor has proved too daunting. As fellow Psychology Today blogger Nina Strohminger recently quipped, "Trying to come up with the one true explanation for humor may be akin to trying to figure out the one true function of Oxytocin." No wonder lots of people are ready to throw in the towel when it comes to explaining comedy once and for all.

Steinberg isn't the only successful humorist who believes there's no simple explanation for how they make their living. In a scene painfully captured in Wired magazine, when red-hot stand-up comic Louis C.K. was probed about comedy theories, he snapped, "There are thousands of kinds of jokes. I just don't believe that there's one explanation."

Of course, C.K. could just be protecting the sanctity of his craft; there are lots of folks, after all, who believe that even if it is possible to understand what makes things funny, we shouldn't try. In the same way that magicians don't want the audience to know the trick behind sawing the lady in half, humorists, the gatekeepers of comedy, may want to maintain the mystery behind what they do. Many in their audiences agree. Newspaper columnist Jeff Mullin recently concluded, "Perhaps humor is one of those things that we are better off not dissecting. Funny is funny, let's leave it at that."

Maybe Mullin, C.K., Steinberg and all the others are right: Comedy works, so why bother poking around under its hood? Since it's bound to not get us very far anyways, maybe it's time to move on to other, more serious subjects.

Or maybe not.

To assert that something about humor is too complex to be fully understood does a grave disservice to the role that time and technological advances play in scientific discovery and innovation. Charles Duell, the Commissioner of the U.S. patent office, made that mistake when in 1899 he uttered, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Had Duell locked up the patent office for good, we might not be blessed with things like Scotch tape, the iPhone and the Thighmaster.

One of the hallmarks of civilization has been to take the disparate and chaotic elements of the world around us and wield them together in tidy, eloquent explanations and then test them. A wide range of phenomena throughout history seemed too daunting to understand, yet inventors and scientists have regularly achieved what their peers, the public and the media have said was impossible. We now fly in heavier-than-air machines, utilize maps of the human genome and clone livestock. In the 19th century, phrenology was all the rage, and in the 20th century, personality was characterized by an Id, Ego, and Superego. Yet present day experimental and neuroscience techniques easily and decisively discredit these notions.

As for those who wish to maintain the inherent mystery behind humor? That view, when you think about it, is strikingly selfish. The humor found onstage, in the multiplex or in the pages of The New Yorker is just a fraction of the humor in the world. Humor doesn't just entertain. It has many benefits that could be enhanced by understanding the psychology behind it. Humor plays an important role in helping people cope with pain, stress and adversity - whether it be the patients in a cancer ward, or the victims of the Holocaust. Humor also lubricates interpersonal interactions, easing the sting of criticism and helping people of disparate cultural backgrounds get along. Finally, humor is an effective weapon of subversion that the masses can use to criticize their government while reducing the threat of retribution. Better understanding the intricacies of what makes things funny will prove fruitful in all of these realms, and many more.

Plus, successful comedians have nothing to worry about. Even with the correct theory, not everyone will be able to crack zingers like Seinfeld or doodle comedic gems like Steinberg. Just because we understand the laws of physics doesn't mean that we can expertly defy it like snowboarder Shawn White. Nevertheless, grasping those laws are beneficial in other ways.

Debating whether or not the humor code can and should be cracked is a fun philosophical exercise. Folks are free to continue to do so - but meanwhile, we'll be actively working to crack it. For those who believe that it can't be done, it won't be done. Or, as Wayne Gretzky is known for saying, "You miss 100% of the shots that you don't take."

Professor Peter McGraw (@PeterMcGraw) and journalist Joel Warner (@JoelmWarner) have embarked on the Humor Code, an around-the-world exploration of what makes things funny. Follow the Humor Code on Facebook and Twitter.