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The "Haha" Moment

[ 3 ] April 5, 2010 | Sam McDougle

Where did humor come from?

“I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”

The famous Groucho Marx-via-Woody Allen witticism packs a comedic punch rivaled by few other one-sentence quips.  The joke manages to conjure both chuckle-worthy humor and poignant commentary on familiar truths about self-esteem (like much of Allen’s Annie Hall).

But what makes this line funny?

What is “funny”?

The human sense of humor is a mystery.  It’s no surprise that humor is referred to as a “sense” – Like other senses, Humor is a pan-human trait that seems to be an integral part of human biology and has been so through all recorded human history.  Some form of humor exists in all cultures, in every corner of the world.  What would a gathering of friends be without a laugh?  A Thanksgiving dinner without amusing family dirt?  Can a date go well without a successful joke?

Theories concerning the evolution of humor abound.  Linguist/psychologist Steven Pinker has argued that humor is a mechanism to assert oneself in social relationships and strengthen bonds.  Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico thinks it is a display of attractive cognitive abilities, designed to charm potential mates.   Aristotle contended that humor exists as a means for us to laugh at others and establish superiority.

Theories like this are interesting, but merely offer descriptions of the ultimate function of humor – they do not give us insight into why specific utterings are, by definition, humorous.  How does simply substituting the “me” for “you” in Allen’s above quote quickly turn a funny one-liner into a dry declaration of spite?

A young anthropologist at UCLA has recently made a compelling attempt to address the issue.  Thomas Flamson argues that humor is a way for an individual to convey “encrypted” information, and “functions as an honest signal of the fact of common knowledge, attitudes, and preferences.”  To Flamson, “getting the joke” is, oddly enough, the reason why the joke is funny in the first place.  This may seem circular but it works – perhaps we feel joy, manifested in laughter, from humor because we are pleased with ourselves for having the knowledge needed to “get it.”

Flamson illustrated this idea with an experiment.  He showed subjects this pictorial one-liner from the online humor magazine The Onion.  One version displayed the cartoon with a paragraph that described Frank Gehry’s work (“he is best known for building curved, unevenly-shaped buildings…”), while another version had a control paragraph of equal length that merely described where Gehry was born and raised.   Subjects were grouped according to their previous knowledge of Gehry’s quirky work.

Subjects whom already knew about Gehry’s architecture found the first version (the one that did not explain his abstract tendencies) significantly funnier.  If the subject did not previously know about his work, they found the explained version much funnier.  In other words, the knowledge required to “get” the joke – to acknowledge the impractical silliness of an abstractly erected Gehry-esque ham sandwich – predicts its funniness. Jokes are, as Flamson perceptively affirms, “purposefully oblique.”

Flamson theorizes about a universal function of humor as well.  By encrypting nuggets of knowledge (i.e. facts about famous architects) in jokes, we can pinpoint people who have important similarities to us – after all, “knowledge” is a good indicator of upbringing, values, and cultural status:

“Humor could have evolved as a tool that allowed ‘cognitively similar’ individuals to identify each other and assort, leading to the fitness benefits that accrue to individuals that successfully solve problems of coordination and cooperation.”

Additionally, our superlative ability to spot and produce fake laughter could be viewed as an important behavioral fail-safe/means of deception.

The encryption theory will hopefully inspire more research, as it is the most convincing theory of humor I’ve come across.  After reading Flamson’s article, I was compelled to ask him why puns are funny — Why are some jokes accessible to almost everyone who speaks a given language if humor evolved as a precise sorting device?

His response to my query hit on an important point:  He wrote that it is important to “draw a distinction between the ‘proper domain’ of an adaptation (the set of things it was selected to act on) and the ‘actual domain’ (the set of things humans use it for in the modern environment), where the actual usually has a considerably broader range than the proper.”

In other words, certain “adaptive” behaviors have been manifested in the modern environment beyond their basic original function (i.e. human eye-hand coordination and video gaming). Perhaps puns are a “watered-down,” low-value signal of weakly encrypted common knowledge, and are thus a rather ineffective social sorting tool (this also explains why puns often elicit groans instead of laughs).

Ultimately, it will be interesting to see how the study of humor progresses.  While the dissection of jokes may seem to ruin them for some, it is nonetheless an intriguing practice.


Perhaps we can add another layer to Woody Allen’s onion – In a turn of irony, musing on his disinterest in clubs that seek his own membership, the narrator obliquely recruits the listener to join his.Hals_Malle_Babbe

Comments (3)

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  1. Jeremy says:

    Nice. One explanation that I’ve always liked was that we often have to laugh at things that are scary or dangerous or anxiety-provoking in order to make them less overwhelming. In that way, humor acts as a sort of psychological buffer zone, so that when we face adversity, we’re not always thrown for a loop. Instead, we can just laugh at the silliness/absurdity of it all. I know that’s not really what you are exploring in this article, but that always seemed to make sense to me.

  2. Larry Fleming says:

    I agree with Jeremy’s point of a buffer or defense mode. There is a scene in the movie Clue where Leslie Ann Warren’s character finds the dead cook and she says that “The food wasn’t that bad”. The response was “This is no time to joke” and her answer. “It’s my defense mechanism.” We see that we feel a full range of emotions, but if we feel good, our health is better. “Laughter is the best medicine.” When we can laugh we lesson the empathy we feel for someone, we lesson the life draining flow out and seem to pull in that life energy for ourselves. It’s a balancing act to staying healthy. The question I have, is there a danger in finding too much laughter? The answer is Yes, but why?

  3. Emily says:

    It’s also interesting how extreme uncontrollable laughing so closely resembles crying. If the chemical reaction is similar, the cause could hardly be more different. Then again, if the whole defense mechanism theory is right, perhaps laughing is just another version of crying: a different way of responding to painful truths about the world.

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