Column: Punch Line

Woman to Winston Churchill: Sir, you are drunk.
Winston Churchill to Woman: And you are ugly. But tomorrow, I will be sober.

Humor is as much a part of being human as anger, sadness, joy or any other emotion. Even more fascinating is the fact that humor spans every single culture on earth. Regardless of language, religion, ethnicity or geographic region, humor permeates written letter and spoken word. This pervasiveness exists because humor comes from within. It is hardwired into every one of us. We can stop laughter if we really try, but that feeling of laughter we experience on the inside is impossible to fake.

Take a look at any comedian who performs on the stage and you will notice that it is almost never the content itself that is actually causing you to laugh; it is the context and the way it is delivered. Content plays almost no role in determining what is funny.
Why is it funny to watch Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner and see the coyote get flattened by an anvil, or blown up by copious amounts of dynamite? Why do we watch “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and burst with laughter when someone falls through a trampoline, and why is it funny when someone trips on the sidewalk but doesn’t get hurt?

As a scientific experiment, and not just for laughs, researchers tickled three human infants, seven orangutans, five gorillas, four chimpanzees, five bonobos and one siamang. The “family tree” that was created by analyzing laughter vocal patterns was an exact match for the true genetic family tree.
The evolution of laughter is intrinsically linked with the evolution of the human brain. Laughter and a sense of humor are part of what make the human brain so amazing, and so superior in capacity to even our closest relatives. Humans are social species, and so are the chimps and bonobos that we share an ancestor with. In chimps, an essential aspect of social behavior is the act of grooming. Grooming, an activity usually practiced in pairs, fortifies bonds between members of a group.

As group sizes increased, and the first humans began to emerge, complex language also emerged as a way to form bonds between multiple members simultaneously. While grooming can only accommodate two or three individuals, conversation can include 10 or more individuals, and a verbal presentation can reach hundreds or thousands at once. Of course, not every group member can actively participate in a conversation, so laughing emerged as a signal that individuals could use to show that they were engaged and part of the larger group.

Laughter has even been proved to be closely related to blushing, an involuntary act. When a member of a group is not participating in a conversation, neurons in parts of the brain responsible for vocalization become overexcited, but without any language passing through the vocalization areas, the result is a “panting cackle” that we call laughter. It is the social importance of laughter that has evolved, not laughter itself.

Laughter is so important to the human sense of socializing that we have come to associate socializing with substances that lower our inhibitions and make us laugh, such as alcohol and marijuana.

But what exactly is humor? What is it about a certain sentence, phrase, action or expression that makes us laugh? If laughter is meant for bonding, what makes us laugh at Coyote’s plight and something embarrassing that someone did, versus not laugh at someone falling out of a 10th-floor window?

Perhaps laughter comes from a desire for superiority, when laughter from thousands comes at the cost of shame for a few. Public shaming or bullying causes many people to laugh, but directly hurts those who are at the receiving end of it.

Maybe humor comes from the hilarity of incongruity; when something happens that is completely opposite to what we were expecting.

A man at the doctor’s office is reading a pamphlet on relationship facts. One fact states that one out of every three people in a relationship is unfaithful. The man thinks to himself, “Hmm, I wonder if it’s my wife or my girlfriend?”

The joke gets set up, but the punchline causes the brain to correct its first assumptions. Writer David Sedaris has managed to turn this incongruity/resolution form of humor into an art form in his books and short stories. He tells a story about learning that the first person on earth to live to be 200 years old has already been born, and prays to god that the person is not his father.

Of course, not all incongruities are funny. Grave injury, child abuse, severe gambling losses … these are all incongruities to social norms, but are not funny.

These do not trigger laughter because we have developed a preference for what is called “benign violation.” The incongruity, or violation, only evokes humor and laughter if it is benign. If Coyote had an anvil fall on him, he would be crushed to death and there would only be one episode of the show. The fact that he only gets flattened, proceeds to spring back to normal and continues his mission without a scratch on him is what makes his pain humorous, benign.

Sarcasm and irony are essentially an artificial creation to elicit the feelings of humor that we so enjoy. We find humor in the irony that the Alanis Morrisette song “Irony” has absolutely no irony in it. Or we may find a mirthful pleasure in learning that a meter maid gets their drivers license suspended for having too many unpaid parking tickets.

Freud had a theory that humor and laughter were related to sexual tension. But of course, what wasn’t related to sexual tension in Freud’s mind? Freud’s idea ties back to the incongruity idea, but it’s more sex-oriented. A sexual topic is brought up in conversation, but the conclusion or punchline is not what the brain was expecting.

Roses are red, violets are blue, I suck at poetry, show me your boobs.

Humor evolved because it rewards humans for being able to resolve false mental assumptions. Humor is the brain’s way of keeping itself in check and preventing runaway assumptions from harming us.

Children learn the humor of irony when their parents tell them that they have no idea how the presents got under the tree, and that they have no idea who ate the cookies and drank the milk.

Humor, sarcasm and irony can be painful and humiliating, but it is often that pain and humiliation where we find the lessons we were supposed to learn from the situation. So when your friend asks if you actually paid money for that new haircut, learn from it. Get a different cut next time.

HUDSON LOFCHIE tries really hard to be funny. Sometimes, it works. He can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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