Posted in Psychology of Art
December 22, 2020

How Humor Works – A Clear Proposal For A Classic Question, Part 2 (E. Garrett Ennis)

The following is the second of a four-part series. The first can be found here.

Alright, let’s apply this to some common examples.

Pranks. The basic point of pranks is to fool the victim into reacting to something they shouldn’t, thus allowing observers to laugh at them for their error in judgement. Thus, the most humorous pranks put the victims into false and highly outlandish situations, with the goal being to get them to show that they believe what’s happening and are frightened, angered or otherwise effected by it. Note that the situation can be as crazy as possible, but for laughter to trigger, the victim’s reaction is what must feel valid.

It should probably also be said that if the prank causes anxiety, like if the observers are worried that the victim is being overly traumatized, or that the victim may get violent, then it will also not be funny. Also similarly, if a “prank” involves a situation that someone should react to, by being a real threat or bother to them, then it won’t generate laughter (unless there is some other reason it’s funny, like as said, that the prank is so bad you laugh at the pranksters instead of the victim, which may help demonstrate why laughter can be complex).

Farts. There are several reasons a fart can be funny. Some of which are when the fart shows a person’s inability to conform to a certain social environment despite their best efforts, or when the fart demonstrates that a group of people attempting to be cultured and controlled are nonetheless human, in a manner that is distinct and highly-noticeable. For another example, if an infant is struggling or seems to be in pain, then unleashes a tiny fart and is immediately happy, it can indicate that our expectations of the infant having a potentially huge problem were unfounded and make us laugh at ourselves. Speaking of infants…

Peek-a-boo. This example is very relevant because studies have indicated that babies tend not to laugh until they reach about 4 months of age. This theory predicts exactly this, because the brain must have formed some expectations before those expectations can be violated (though before that, they may perhaps still be ticklish, see below). Peek-a-boo likely springs from some of the most basic expectations that the brain forms about the world, which is that objects stay where they are and don’t disappear. When a person makes their face “disappear” by covering it and then uncovers it, appearing again, the infant’s brain would logically detect instinctively that the person is doing something they shouldn’t be able to do, and they thus laugh at either the person or their own expectation being wrong (instinctively of course).

Tickling. This is blank in our chart, because I don’t think tickling laughter is humorous. It may be a reflexive diaphragm-spasm for other reasons. But it’s still under consideration.

Puns. These trigger one of our most basic laugh instincts, which is recognizing low quality by misplacement (slipping is a classic physical failure, misplacement is mental failure). A funny pun puts a thing in a noticeably wrong place, but where it still has things in common with its surroundings, triggering the brain to recognize what in the village days was a likely genuine error by someone else. The funniest puns layer this misplacement with other things, like fitting insulting terms in place of normal ones. Note again though that we often laugh at puns because they’re bad, with our laughter caused by the person’s failed attempt at humor.

Jokes. Obviously they function in many ways. Usually setting up puns, but also often as a story ending with a sharp low-quality demonstration. Note that the listener’s brain itself must notice the thing to laugh, which is why, “if you have to explain the joke, it’s not funny.”

Leeroy Jenkins. A more modern example that demonstrates several aspects of the theory, including the powerful effect of layering, where multiple quality gaps can be noticed. For one, “Leeroy” himself screams his name with believable conviction, making him seem more foolish/low-quality for being so unaware of how ill-fated his actions were. Plus he has a deep voice, which is typically associated with maturity and strength, creating a higher expectation of quality that’s also violated by his moronic charge.

Furthermore, he leads his entire group (which moments before was precisely calculating their probability of success, a cause to expect higher quality from them) to follow foolishly and die with him. At the end, we hear the other players basically sigh at Leeroy, and he replies “at least I have chicken,” making it clear that no one is really angry, insuring low anxiety and creating huge laughter in a lot of viewers. Note that, similar to what we’ve said before, the stereotyping associated with the name and chicken comment wouldn’t be funny to many who watched, but the other factors clearly were.

Doge. There wasn’t enough space to address this previously, but we can do so now. There may be multiple Doge memes, or multiple reasons other people may laugh. The same is true of most of the other examples we’ll use. They may each have other ways in which they are funny, and we are describing our own humor and what we found by investigating it using the theory.

Now, in regards to Doge, notice that the three above pictures all have something in common, which is that Doge is in a position of respect or power, and the captions are childishly describing the situation.

The humor here is that Doge, who writes (or thinks/speaks) so childishly, has not only taken over the respected human position in the picture, but seems to be mocking it, and in the process easily exposing the “lofty subtext” of it. The idea is that this supposed high-expectation human position has been conquered by a dumb animal, who not only understands it completely, but is making fun of humans for finding it so impressive.

Remember though, as stated in the previous paper, though it isn’t believable that a dog would do these things, the error exposed by the meme or joke is what must be believable. Thus, Doge’s simplistic comments should accurately reflect the subtext of whatever he’s mocking.

With these things in mind, it’s easy to imagine and construct other Doge memes that would also be funny. One example being Doge on stage at the Academy Awards, receiving an Oscar, with similar captions such as “wow, such accomplishment, much speech, so tears.”

Plus, particularly, the higher the position of respect he has, the funnier it seems to feel, such as if the background graphic at the awards is for “Lifetime Achievement” or some other major award that Doge was receiving. There’s also a classic form of humor that uses similar devices…

Clowns and Court Jesters. These are two of the most common types of “comedic character” in recent human history. These have actually been in practice for so long that they’ve been distilled to consistent, known conventions that are very functionally humorous and that we can easily see and analyze.

The first role of clowns or jesters is to make fools of themselves, particularly through dressing in bright mismatched colors that draw attention to themselves, along with bells or squeaking horns that make distinct noise and thus make them even more noticeable to their audience.

They also typically paint their faces sickly-pale colors, though they will include bright smiles and cheery demeanors to both lower any anxiety about their health, and make themselves seem more foolish for not being aware of their appearance.

But, on top of that, the Court Jester will typically mock and make fools of other people. The function here being that the victims of this treatment have their value lowered even more sharply, because such a foolish person could outthink them.

This device is nearly identical to Doge’s foolish (and also often brightly-colored) comments exposing the supposed sophisticated subtext of traditionally high-class people and positions. Let’s continue.

The Three Stooges. The first example here will specifically be the “high society” pie fight that you can see at youtube.com/watch?v=a4-spBDcJyk. This is an interesting case because the Three Stooges were known for being incredibly funny, but attempts to imitate their humor in the years since seem to have failed repeatedly.

This may be because people focus on the violent aspects of their humor and don’t realize the actual source of the humor, which is, in fact, status loss, via quality gaps that the violence (or pies to the face) allow them to show.

In the case of the pie fight, you’ll notice that Moe is trying to regale some women with stories of his world travels before he gets pied in the face mid-sentence, deflating the haughty image he was trying to put across.

The entire fancy party then descends into a much more humble, chaotic and childish pie fight. With other people getting hit in similar situations, like the woman who indignantly commands everyone to stop before getting nailed with her own pie to the face.

In addition, there’s the traditional “slapstick” violence that the Stooges made famous, but which proved very difficult for others to recreate. This is because when Moe slaps Larry or Curly, it’s pretty easy to see that he slaps them extremely hard, with heavy sound effects.

But the point here is not the violence, it’s that the violence shows that the normally highly- intelligent Moe is utterly flustered and defeated by their stupidity (one quality gap to notice), and in hitting them so hard, shows that he doesn’t care in the least about their feelings, their well-being or even any risk of retaliation.

This is a further quality gap shown in all three of them, Moe for being so flustered that he loses all empathy, Larry and Curly for accepting this treatment. Furthermore, Larry and Curly’s non- violent acceptance of this insures low anxiety for viewers.

Clearly, as talented comedians, they (or their director) recognized or felt correctly that this was the point of what they were doing, and their dialogue, mannerisms and micro-expressions communicated it properly to the viewer’s instincts.

You can even see the frustration in Moe’s face in the above graphic. When this is done without this knowledge and proper performance, it’s just pointless hitting that doesn’t create humor.

Silent Library. This is a comedy game show in Japan, where six players hand out random painful-but-harmless punishments to each other in a library, and it’s very successful, to the point of spawning many spin-offs. It became so due to some unique methods that can be explained through the humor equation.

First is the setting. Libraries are traditionally seen as places of intellectual study, and actually require silence amongst their users, and the game players also struggle not to make noise as they play.

Settings like this greatly heighten the “Quality Expectation” feeling in everyone, while also avoiding the anxiety that would be created in many viewers if they were playing at a funeral or hospital and potentially disrespecting grieving families or disrupting the care of hurt people.

In addition, the new punishment is revealed first, then handed out by mixing a series of face- down cards, with each player selecting one and then turning them all over at once to reveal who has the “punishment face” card.

This creates a sharp moment when all realize who’ll be punished, where the brain can have the image of them suffering the punishment immediately, in the split second that the card is revealed, thus making the image of their suffering very noticeable, but low anxiety, since they are harmless things like having a nose hair tweezed.

Note also in the clip (the episode featuring kickboxer Ernesto Hoost, if the link is dead) that the background people in the library almost always remain silent and unbothered by the barely- restrained hijinks of the show’s participants, insuring that there’s no anxiety in viewers about the library’s other patrons being disturbed, and even potentially creating a quality gap if the viewer notices how strange it is for them not to be aware of what’s going on at the other table.

One may also notice that since the high “Quality Expectation” feeling comes from the setting and not the players themselves, this indicates that it can be an external feeling unrelated to what one’s observing, similar to how a feeling of anxiety from one situation can stop a person from laughing at something else that would otherwise be funny.

Nitrous Oxide. This gas is typically used in medicine, particularly dentistry, to relieve pain, and also to relax the muscles and remove anxiety (due to a type of disconnection from reality). As you probably know, this also is called “laughing gas,” as it has the side effect of making the patient suddenly find all kinds of things to be abnormally funny.

The Status Loss Theory and its accompanying equation include the claim that the brain’s urge to laugh at things scales in reverse proportion to the amount of anxiety the brain feels at the time. It’s easy to see why Nitrous Oxide’s relaxation and anti-anxiety effects could naturally cause this.

It may also be that the brain has a “button” that’s triggered when the right humorous proportion is reached in something it sees, and Nitrous Oxide artificially hits this, causing the person to believe they’re laughing at whatever’s in front of them, or both.

But the “manically humorous” results of Nitrous Oxide’s relaxation and anxiety-lowered effects are natural predictions of this theory. Note though that not every anxiety treatment increases humorous feelings, but some probably simply reduce anxiety to normal levels rather than push it below normal.

Impressions. Another classic form of humor that demonstrates some fundamental aspects of the theory. Most commonly, a great impression allows the audience to imagine the target of the impression doing or saying foolish or low-quality things, or simply exaggerate the person’s natural mannerisms to a degree that they look highly unnatural and wrong.

Thus, one of the keys to a good impression is accurately matching the voice and innate mannerisms of the target, making it easier to imagine the target doing or saying those things, and thus creating higher validity for the audience’s humor reaction.

On top of that, a good impressionist can study his subject and find certain aspects of their personality that might be odd or seem wrong in small ways, that they can exaggerate and thus draw attention to for the audience’s enjoyment. But as said, everything springs from the natural mannerisms and voice of the subject.

In addition, the theory (via the equation) predicts that impressions will be more effective when targeted at people that have high expectations, like for example the President, or well-known actors that have strong or “tough guy” reputations which appears quite clearly to be true in reality. Combine that reputation with unique mannerisms ripe for exaggeration into absurdity, and you have a classic impression target like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Ball-busting.” Also known as “ball-breaking.” This is a common practice amongst friends, particularly in the Northeast United States in the last few decades, but reflects similar friendly mocking that is far older and a common part of social behavior.

The basic idea behind this type of humor is that the person says something to or about their friend that given their relationship would be extremely out-of-place and thus absurd to imagine (absurd, of course, meaning very wrong, which per our equation greatly aides in creating humor).

The key to this type of humor is a strong relationship between the friends. This causes a high expectation of how they treat and regard each other. From there, negative or insulting comments are presented in the context of showing how absurd it would be if the friends really meant it, given their well-established closeness and respect.

That closeness and the mildness of the insults (they may be exaggerated in degree, but they rarely are about anything that might actually hurt the person’s feelings) also generally stops them from causing real offense. Thus, “ball-busting” and “friendly teasing” in general allow close buddies to share a unique type of pleasure.

Sarcasm. Similar to “ball-busting” in its large-scale popularity, especially in urban areas. Sarcasm actually works in a similar fashion as well, saying something that would be absurd if it was truly meant, given that the opposite is so obviously true.

Possibly due to other cultural reasons, most people who use sarcasm don’t like to display emotion and speak very flatly. This hurts the noticeability of their statement’s absurdity (since saying it with conviction would help push it into noticeably wrong territory), but it’s made to work by exaggerating the degree to which the wrong statement is made.

So, instead of looking at a bad dancer and saying “he’s pretty good!” with huge amounts of emotion in order to show a noticeably wrong scenario that people can laugh at from being able to easily imagine you actually meaning it, the sarcastic response is to have very little emotion, but to say “he’s the best dancer I’ve ever seen,” which still goes so noticeably wrong that it can get laughs.

It should be noted too that in this case the absurdity comes from the sarcastic statement, but the validity comes largely from the error or low-quality of the thing that is being mocked or exposed by the sarcastic statement, making it a good demonstration of how aspects of the equation can be fulfilled by different things in the same observation, which nonetheless combine to create stronger humor. We’ll bring up another example of that when we discuss song parodies below

In the meantime, there’s also an offshoot of this we should address, which we’ll call “damning by faint criticism,” where someone will try to be nice by responding to something terribly bad with only a slight indication that it might not be good (as in “well, it’s not exactly the fastest car in the world”). This is often humorous or funny because the criticism is so clearly not enough.

Thus the idea of someone responding to something so totally bad with such a slight criticism is noticeably wrong and causes us to laugh, either due to them truly meaning their response (and thus displaying low-quality themselves), or them just trying to be polite, with us imagining for a moment that they really did mean that far-too-slight criticism.

These can also layer, which, as we’ve said, is extremely powerful. For example, if the same statement makes us aware of both the terribly bad quality in the thing AND of poor judgement in the person giving too-slight criticism, we’ll laugh much harder. Now, speaking of criticism…

Baba Booey. This is a classic element of Howard Stern’s radio show, which has run so long and produced so much humor that it could be the subject of an in-depth paper by itself. But here, we’ll focus on a specific example, which is a key to the show’s humor in multiple ways.

Stern has spent years getting laughs by mocking his producer Gary Dell’Abate’s physical appearance and mistakes. But, similar to the Three Stooges, this is not about the insults by themselves, as most of the humor results from the way they occur.

First of which is that “Baba Booey” (a nickname coined from the way Gary mispronounced a cartoon character’s name) himself accepts the mockery without much anger. Other people on the staff take the treatment the same way when they are mocked. Gary may argue about his mistake, but there’s no implied threat in it, and it often only serves to allow Howard to defeat him in the argument and make him look even worse.

This lack of violent or angry response keeps anxiety low in listeners, as well as displaying even lower quality in Gary for not sticking up for himself. In the past though, Gary has become genuinely upset by this and tried to threaten or angrily insult Howard back, and the result (at least to us) feels unfunny and uncomfortable, but he eventually settles back into the proper role

It’s clearly hard for most normal people to passively accept this kind of torture, even if they realize it’s for comedy’s sake, which is probably a large part of why the Stern Show’s humor has been so difficult for others to emulate.

Let’s also note here that mocking Gary repeatedly for the same things would get old quickly (since as we’ve said, expectations adjust downward as low quality is displayed, thus lowering the humor as one hears something multiple times), so Howard takes every opportunity to go after Gary when he makes new mistakes.

Furthermore, the insults and mockery that Howard uses against Gary are genuine criticisms of him and his shortcomings. This adds validity. Both Howard and Gary realize this also, as Howard himself has said that “the secret to my show is honesty,” and Gary has stated “he doesn’t want you to act mad, he wants you to BE mad.” Though again, Gary does not show this anger in his responses. This is also referring to starting genuine arguments among his staff for the sake of better drama, but that’s not a matter of humor so we won’t go into it.

Let’s add also that “song parodies,” where lyrics of popular music are replaced by ones that mock someone, are a common part of Stern’s humor. These combine the sense of misplacement (which, in line with what we’ve said previously, will work best when the new lyrics fit the song seamlessly), with trivializing the insult towards the victim.

This, depending on the listener, can come off as further lowering the victim, since a grave insult to them is being made so casually and publicly that it’s being sung out loud without fear of consequences, or lowering the singer, if it comes off as him being so clueless about the nature of the insult that he sings it publicly with no awareness that there might be retaliation.

Both will work to create humor, and since the technique allows it to be combined with misplacement, it becomes doubly effective, and thus is a humor-device that Stern’s show, and other shows, have used consistently for years. Now, since we’ve mentioned other shows…

E. Garrett Ennis is a writer, vlogger, and columnist with an academic background in philosophy who has published widely on the subject of irrationality and has a popular YouTube channel known as StoryBrain.

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