Posted in Psychology of Art
January 13, 2021

How Humor Works – A Clear Proposal For A Classic Question, Part 3 (E. Garrett Ennis)

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

Chappelle’s Show. While not running as long as Stern’s, Dave Chappelle’s TV show was enormously successful in the limited number of seasons that it did exist. Chappelle also, instinctively or purposefully, had comedy skits with heightened humor due to aspects similar to Stern’s mockery of his employees, which as we’ve shown fit neatly with the Status Loss Theory’s equation. The lack of response by a mocked person being one common example.

You can notice many examples of someone getting insulted in the skits, such as when his above “playa-hater” pimp character, Silky, gets insulted by other haters, and taking a moment to simply look down at themselves awkwardly without responding.

The example that springs quickest to mind being from, I believe, Season 1 Episode 9, when “Silky” gets insulted by “Buc Nasty” as played by Charlie Murphy, but these clips are nowhere I can find on YouTube. He does eventually insult them back, but not before milking a few moments doing what might be commonly called “standing there and looking stupid,” to increase the humor of the insult.

It’s well-known also that Chappelle did lots of ethnic humor, but actually left the show entirely, largely due to one incident where he was doing a black parody character and noticed someone on the set, who wasn’t black, laughing in a way that made him very uncomfortable. We can actually use the Status Loss Theory to understand what happened.

The way Chappelle describes it, it seems pretty clear that he did these type of skits in the “imagine this being true and laugh at how absurd (noticeably wrong) it would be” vein, but he sensed from this person that they were laughing in a way that indicated they WERE taking it as true, and the low-quality the person was responding to in the skit was, to that person, not imaginary at all.

It may be that the anxiety Chappelle felt from this contributed to him not being able to enjoy his own show’s humor anymore, but regardless, the anecdote demonstrates some of the important subtleties in our humor instinct, and how fragile it can be.

Straight Men. Most comedic teams, especially in older TV performances that we can study, use what’s called a “Straight Man” for various effective purposes. These are easy to list within the theory. For one, Straight Men provide easy targets for the sillier character’s mockery, and their very “straightness” creates the high expectation that is often undermined to create the humor. Also, someone acting “normal” in the routine adds to the validity of it for the audience.

As we’ve seen, many of the above examples also clearly use people who can be classed as Straight Men. But some repetition here and in other conventions we’re discussing may help to establish the concepts. It also helps to occasionally couch things in more general principles.

Also, an aside that seems relevant: There’s a joke that could be attempted here by starting this entry by “clarifying” that this isn’t about a TV show with no gay characters, but it doesn’t feel like the joke would work that well. We can apply Status Loss Theory and the equation to figure out why.

At first consideration, it probably came to mind because it would represent a pretty valid and noticeably wrong error, since we just discussed two other shows in a row, and thinking it’s a program related to LGBT issues (particularly one that for some reason targets heterosexuals which would make little sense since most normal shows can be seen as doing that without needing to point that out) would be way off the path from what we were actually discussing with the phrase

However, it’s difficult to phrase the “clarification” in a way that’s short enough to be really effective (we’ll explain that below when we discuss the phrase “brevity is the soul of wit“). Also, given that we made no reference to homophobia when discussing the “ball-busting” picture that contains “Die Homo” (we addressed why this type of humor isn’t funny to many in the previous paper), there’s a concern that a joke here about LGBT issues may come off as though we ourselves don’t have a sensitivity to them, which would cause anxiety in many readers and thus also not be as funny.

Furthermore, I don’t think the error is THAT unexpected, since a lot of people will know what a “Straight Man” is in comedy and feel that it could be misinterpreted already, so it’d be hard to get a real wide gap between the expectation there and the very wrong but believable error we’re trying to quickly get people to imagine.

As we’ve thought about it now, simply saying “no, this isn’t a homophobic TV show” would have much more brevity, probably enough to have gone for the joke. But the discussion of why we originally didn’t is probably more useful given our paper’s subject than a simple gag line.

Funny Faces. Also known as “mugging,” and used to great effect by comedians like Jim Carrey. Much like farts in the previous paper, there are many situations in which a simple facial expression can be funny, and we can discuss a few here.

For one, an unnatural facial expression is typically associated with bad acting, and when there’s a close-up of an actor making an unnatural face (which is what “mugging” most often refers to), it becomes a double (or layered) quality-gap to notice, as not only does the actor look bad, but the director does too for putting the very wrong face front-and-center on camera, so people will laugh extra hard at it, and as a result most directors in serious movies won’t risk doing extreme close-ups of emotional faces at all.

Obviously though, in the case of actors like Jim Carrey, you’ll see close-ups of his faces in his comedies all the time, for the same reason that serious movies avoid them. Also, Carrey’s highly-flexible face allows him to stretch any expression to the point that it noticeably becomes too much emotion, even if it was originally correct.
He can use this to make a fool of himself, as being overly emotionally effected by a mild moment seems to come off as a sign of low-quality or weakness in a person (which thus makes us laugh at some faces in real life as well), or to make a fool of others, using the exaggeration of his expression to mock the idea that he would really care, in a manner similar to the way sarcasm functions.

Most of Carrey’s exaggerated expressions as the Riddler in Batman Forever were done in this vein. We’ll focus more on this type of concept when we get to “Maniacal Laughter” in our later sections.

Slipping on Banana Peels. A classic type of humor, that we can touch on briefly. As we mentioned in the first paper, misplacement is the classic sign of mental error, and slipping is the classic sign of physical error, probably because it indicates both a lack of dexterity and a lack of visual awareness, as well as likely exposing both people who were too young and people who were too old to be attempting whatever physical feat they were trying.

For this to work well, the “slipper” must be someone who isn’t of close association to the viewer (so there’s no anxiety about them losing status or getting hurt, though if the slipper looks very hurt it may still cause anxiety in the viewer and thus kill the humor regardless of their relation).

It also will be funnier if the slipper is someone who has a high expectation (like a stuffy gentleman in a suit), though an awkward-enough fall can still be hilarious even if the person looked shaky to begin with, since it can surpass the type of fall one might expect.

Generally, this type of laugh seems outdated. Possibly because people no longer throw banana peels on the street, or this slip was only done as part of a popular comedy routine of many decades ago (we can probably look more into that), and doesn’t really work because banana peels don’t seem that slippery to begin with.

But regardless, anyone who’s seen the popularity of “fail compilations” on Youtube knows that slipping in general is and probably will be a potential source of humor as long as humans exist.

Funny Music. We discussed song parodies above, but here we’re referring specifically to instrumental music that nonetheless can get humorous laughter, such as “BrodyQuest” by Lemon Demon.

The visuals in the video have a humorous element, but for the purposes of this example the music itself is all that matters. It seems to be a good illustration of how humor, despite often being stimulated verbal means, doesn’t need language to function, and due to evolution probably developed before we had it.

In the case of BrodyQuest and a lot of other funny instrumental songs, the type and tone of instruments seems to play a key role. Here, the melody and a lot of the accents are of an abnormally high, and thus immature or childish tone.

You might note also that at various points the instruments interrupt each other slightly, giving a feeling that they aren’t quite in harmony and are getting in each other’s way. Overly-enthusiastic pounding on the drums or strumming on the instruments can also give a feeling of childishness, eagerness to please (often a sign of low value), or improper amounts of emotion by the musicians

When these are combined, one can enjoy the song while also unmistakably feeling some pleasure from the humorous things they’re also sensing.

“Poo-Poo” and Butt Humor. It seems natural to move onto this here. This helps to illustrate how people of different ages tend to find different things funny also. Children won’t notice a lot of more subtle adult errors, but the problems of potty-training, farts, and pooping oneself and so on are close to their experience, as well as highly noticeable in the sounds, smells, and dramatic incidents associated with them.

Moving out of diapers and learning to control one’s bodily-functions is also a large part of their transition away from being toddlers (by contrast, adults are past these problems and thus find references to these errors to be hard to imagine as actually happening, and as such have low validity). Thus, the signs of low-quality that children most-readily recognize and respond to would naturally be butt and toilet-centric things.

Public references to private bodily functions are also probably among the first ways children learn to break or disrespect social convention. And disrespecting social convention is also a convenient way to demonstrate layered humor, with potential quality gaps shown in either the self (of the “imagine how wrong it would be if I meant this” variety), or in other people (by happily offending them without any acknowledgement of consequences). Thus, children naturally would love to joke about butts and what comes from them.


That’s probably enough examples to demonstrate the basic functions of the humor equation in things that cause humorous laughter. Let’s move on and discuss a few examples of things that are NOT funny, and the reasons why.

Bullying. It’s probably clear by now that the anxiety created by seeing someone legitimately threatened or frightened would render bullying largely unfunny to a viewer. But it’s also worth pointing out that the “Quality Gap” comes into play here, further reducing any potential humor.

This is because “bullies” purposefully pick on people who they think are weaker than them. Thus, as an observer, assuming you feel the same way, there’s no high “Quality Expectation” that’s going to be violated. The “power balance” between the two is already what one expects.

On the other hand, bullies who find that their victims aren’t as defenseless as they imagine, or who otherwise fail miserably, are ripe for laughter for the same reason. That course of events would violate the expectation of who has the strength or power in the situation.

Mainly though to detached observers, not those in the immediate vicinity who may have anxiety about whether the newly-embarrassed bully would get violent.

Accounting Errors. This is a good contrasting example that’s been brought up in earlier discussions of this idea. The question being why one does not automatically laugh if they’re checking the numbers on a company’s accounting and find something incorrect.

The key reason is that, while you have found a small sign of low-quality, your Quality Expected wasn’t high. After all, if you fully expected already that the accounting would be perfect, you wouldn’t have checked. For a thing to potentially be funny, it must violate something you’ve already taken for granted. In this case, you aren’t taking for granted that the numbers are right, but you probably are taking for granted that the people could write like functional adults.

Thus, if you opened up the accounting books and found them written in crayon (this wouldn’t be very believable but work with me here), that would be the type of thing that would violate something you were expecting and could potentially make you laugh.

That’s provided of course, that you weren’t in any grave trouble due to this (meaning low anxiety), you realized that accounting books really shouldn’t be written in crayon (so it was noticeable) and that as we said, you believed that someone had actually really written the books that way (so it’d be valid). Note also though that weaker quality expectations can still be violated if something very wrong is found (in other words, if the quality noticed is low enough).

Literal-Mindedness. This refers to a type of thought process that causes people to rarely laugh, or have no apparent sense of humor. If someone is uncomfortable with social interaction, they will feel uncommonly high amounts of anxiety in most conversations, which will kill their sense of humor.

But generally, “literal-mindedness” refers to an inability, for one reason or another, to recognize what other people will and won’t normally say or think. They’ll assume every statement is meant sincerely.

Therefore, when a person tries to “joke” by saying something obviously wrong or foolish in the “imagine if I meant this” vein, the literal-minded person doesn’t have any expectation for what the other person will usually understand, and thus can’t feel any difference. In terms of the equation, their “Qe” is essentially zero in those situations.

Note that everything else may be in place. They may find the person’s statement to be wrong AND noticeable, and valid, and even feel no anxiety, but they won’t laugh without a pre-defined expectation of what that person (or a person in general in that situation) should understand.

As long as that “Quality Expected,” or Qe, is 0 in the equation, the result of the numerator (the top part of the fraction) will be 0 or negative, which means the fraction as a whole can’t have a positive value (which, as stated in the original paper, is when things become humorous).

Another way to picture this is to imagine yourself pulling the string on a talking doll. The doll says the same thing over and over, which clearly is not what a normal person would do, and you aren’t frightened of the doll or anything like that. But you didn’t expect anything better of it. You didn’t think the doll would be able to carry on a real conversation. So you don’t laugh.

Lastly, these same “literal-minded” people who are dead-silent in normal joking conversation may become giddy with laughter if you discuss something that they do know, like in “Sheldon Cooper’s” case, math. They will have an expectation for what the average person should understand (which for most real people will be unattainably high), and thus might laugh at any math-related question you try to ask. Thus, different people’s knowledge bases and amount of social experience will effect their sense of humor.

“Sticks in the Mud.” Also known as being humorless, stiff, stern, stodgy, or many other things. A chief example is Animal House’s “Dean Wormer,” seen above. A “Stick in the Mud” person is different from a “Literal Minded” one, in that they may deal with others all the time, as

Dean Wormer spoke to his students regularly. As such, they can know perfectly well when you’re attempting to joke, but will just stare at you all the same.

Why? Well, in their case, their anxiety is triggered differently. The students in Animal House aren’t worried about their education, but Dean Wormer is. To him, flunking out of school is a terrible thing for a young person, so he feels a level of seriousness, or associated anxiety, with the situation that the students don’t.

The same seems quite true of many bosses, authority figures, “career-driven” people or others who have an uncommon amount of anxiety associated with errors or failure and thus seem humorless to others.

It might be good at this point to note that these types of concepts can be checked against one’s own instincts. I find it easy to put myself in the place of the Dean, with those same types of thoughts about the joking students in front of me, and find myself just as unamused by their behavior. Hopefully you can do the same, if you haven’t been doing so with the examples already. I find this to be the best way to investigate and verify these ideas, and this will especially come into play with our next example.

Bad Jokes. It’s generally easier to investigate one’s humor and figure out why something does make you laugh, but the Status Loss Theory can also be used, with some thought, to figure out why bad jokes fail and even improve them. We’ve shown a bit of how this can be done with already funny material earlier, but now will focus on a joke that’s actively bad and see if we can salvage it.

Our patient in this case will be a joke I recall that actually won a “bad joke” contest on a cruise. Which is quite simply, “what kinds of beans do animals like? Human Beings!” “Beings” and “beans” are pronounced similarly. On the cruise, this won the contest because it was so generally poor that it allowed people to laugh at the joke teller, but we want to see if we can make the joke itself funny.

So what can we gather from looking at it now? Well for one, it’s intended to be a short set-up for a pun. This means based on what we know already that the humor should come from sensing misplacement.

In those cases, there laughter is based on pre-set standards of what should go where, so we can’t really raise expectations, nor is there any anxiety involved that would be lowering the humor, so we must instead focus on the other variables, making the misplacement as valid as we can while also being as low a quality (or wrong) and noticeable as we can muster.

In the case of the joke as it is currently, the pun attempt seems to fail for several reasons. First, it has validity problems. The statement itself is not valid even once you fix the intended misplacement.

Animals aren’t known for liking “beans,” nor are “animals” in general known for eating human beings. So if we’re looking for an instinctive sign that someone has screwed up a normal course of events, we can’t find it because we can’t sense any normal course.

So what can we do to improve this? We have to make the initial statement closer to something that makes sense. In this case, we know animals aren’t known for eating beans, so who is?

Well, people are. Are there people who are known for eating people? Yes! Cannibals. So we’ll replace “animals” with “cannibals.”

Now, “human beings” still doesn’t sound that close to “beans.” And that “forced” feeling takes away from the validity of the misplacement, since we want the misplaced thing to have a lot in common with its surroundings, which in this case is something that might normally fill the end of that spot. So, is there an ACTUAL bean that might also sound like a body part? Yes. Kidney beans.

Finally, the best context I can think of to make this statement would be if you were actually telling someone an interesting factoid about cannibals. In that case, let’s change the phrasing to sound more like that. Which gives us: “Did you know cannibals eat beans?” “Really?” “Yes. Kidney beans.”

I can imagine that if you actually got someone to believe you were telling them something you’d read, then hit them with that, you could get a small but real laugh at the joke.

Hopefully this demonstrates to some degree that this theory can be used to create as well as improve humor, which makes it unique from basically all previous theories on humor.

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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