What is so goddamn funny?
Why is something as ubiquitous as humor so impossible to explain, even for scientists? Studies show that laughter (the physiological response to humor) is a tool for building relationships, learning information, coping with stress, and even improving the immune system. Nevertheless, scientists lack consensus on how such a seemingly frivolous activity is universal among humans. The limitations of our understanding of comedy are primarily due to the fact that theoreticians don’t perform comedy, and comedians lack the training to speak about it academically. As two Ph.D.s who perform comedy, we feel we are uniquely suited to bridge this gap, and develop a more unified theory of humor.
Jerry Seinfeld, in an article on humor in The Telegraph, described telling a joke as attempting to leap a metaphorical canyon with an audience. “The set-up is the nearside cliff, and the punchline is the far side. If the cliffs are too far apart, the listeners don’t make it to the other side. And if they are too close together, the audience just steps across the gap without experiencing any exhilarating leap.”
Our theory of humor is akin to Seinfeld’s hypothesis; however, our purpose as scientist-comedians is to explore the process of “canyon-making” in humor. We will examine how the performer creates a scenario (be it by joke, story, sketch, prop, etc.) for the audience to make a leap. This creation of joke structure we define as entanglement, and it is up to the audience whether to engage in one of three cognitive processes: don’t make the leap, make the leap and fall, or successfully make the leap. The decision of an audience to make a jump and how far they jump are determined by engagement.
The purpose of our research is to examine the relationship of entanglement and engagement in the creation and appreciation of comedy.
We believe that our theory, called the Humor Spectrum creates a new theoretical framework to understand comedy in a way that is meaningful and practical. The Humor Spectrum proposes that, as social creatures, humans use humor to create social groups and networks. Therefore, the structure of our society is built based upon hierarchies and clusters of “canyon-makers” and “canyon-leapers.”
Considering that there is a significant societal relevance for humor, it seems silly that the only people doing research on it are stick-in-the-mud scientists and dumb comedians. Therefore, we feel that we are ideally poised to study comedy as dumb stick-in-the-mud comedian-scientists. To do this, we propose a line of experiments that will:
- Discover how information is structured to create a “canyon”.
- Determine what influences an audience to make a cognitive “canyon leap”.
- Identify how humor promotes learning, interpersonal interactions, and human health.