How to solve the ‘PC problem’ with a literal flip of a switch

By Jono Zalay

A couple weeks ago the comedy subsection of the internet was set ablaze when it was reported (blogged) that Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t perform for colleges anymore because their audiences are too politically correct (PC). Prompting the idealistic rebuttal that “college students today are looking to be provoked, to be offended by comedy, and to think about these issues within the context of comedy.”

MartinThe good news is both are technically correct. And I intend to explain that using science! This know-it-all essay (blog) is my version of sitting in the back of the internet with my hand up pleading “Call on me teacher, I’m ever so smart!!”

Initially, I was surprised this was a trending story at all. Not just because Seinfeld said something true (and obvious to any comic who has ever performed at a college), but that any college has hiked up tuition to the point where they can afford his billion dollar performance fee. Ultimately, this debate is only a portion of a larger discussion over whether or not the socio-political atmosphere on campus is too PC.

The subsequent debate in the comedy community was not really whether college crowds are more PC than other comedy crowds. They are. There is consensus. Jokes about race, religion and politics are attempted with a higher degree of difficulty at college shows. Weirdly, sex stuff is totally fine. Kids want to hear about dicks and vaginas, so long as they are not attached to anyone with an identifiable race, religion or political party. Tough luck Rev. Sharpton! What could have been an interesting discussion on WHY college kids are so PC and WHETHER this is a good thing quickly devolved into “These kids won’t laugh at my brilliant ‘retard’ joke because of the feminist internet!”

Our hypothesis is that comics AND audiences would be so much happier if someone lit the room correctly. Poor lighting is not the only factor*, but it’s the main one. The problem with “college shows” is that they are on college campuses, which means comics deliver their artfully crafted material in lecture halls, student unions, conference centers, or the gallows of comedy: the cafeteria. The variable these places have in common, besides college kids, is that they are extremely well-lit. The architect did not design these rooms for kids to listen to your Caitlyn Jenner bit, they were designed for note taking, sweatpants wearing, and oatmeal eating. Which means Bright. Ass. Lights.

Here’s where science comes in to explain why over-lighting ruins comedy! Environmental psychologists found that “brightness leads to public self-awareness and a reflective self-regulation.” An illuminated audience acts less on impulse, more on thoughtful response. Unfortunately, laughter is a reaction, not a reflection. By the time you decide a joke is funny, it has died a silent death for all to see. Timing is essential for comedy, as it affects how you mentally process the joke (which we call disentanglement). Disentangling a joke is like running over a rickety bridge that is collapsing behind you. You’ll never make it to the punchline of a poignant Ferguson joke if you trip over the phrase “black teens” along the way.

Over-lighting also diminishes engagement in the comedy show, the other aspect we believe to be critical in comedy. Comics need to be the center of attention. Any visual stimulus other than the comic will distract an audience. Which means more talking and texting, less laughing and applauding. Below are visual approximations for a typical comedy show at a club vs college. I won’t point out all the differences, but a first-grader who has flipped through a Highlights for Children would have a goddamn field day.

Comedy Club:                                           College Show:

Colin QuinnBadComedyRoom

The part of our theory that is relevant to college shows in particular is that laughter “exists in order to create groups of like-minded humor appreciators.” Basically laughter is a tool to make friends. Notice how all your closest friends share your sense of humor? You gravitate towards people who laugh at the same things in natural group settings. But when you are in an artificial group setting, brought together not by your sense of humor but by your college dormitory, you cannot be certain if you all share the same proclivities to laugh. In a dark room, this matters less because no one can judge how you react to a joke. But when you are bathed in fluorescent light and the aroma of 3-day-old popcorn, the safest behavior is to NOT laugh. You avoid any risk of being socially ostracized, because you can either agree it wasn’t funny, or later agree that it WAS funny but you’re just not a big laugher. Whereas if you DO laugh, you forfeit deniability: “of course I was offended by that rape joke, didn’t you hear me laughing in disapproval?”

By gathering socially-conscious kids in an environment that makes them self-conscious, college shows create a perfect storm of silence. That said, more PC crowds outside of campus would probably be a welcome change to the comedy landscape. A discerning audience can make a good comedy club a great one. Nothing will ruin a comic’s high after a good set than seeing the next comic kill with his impression of an Arab cab driver.

Another reason I am convinced it is the context of the college shows and not the audience is that some of the best comedy clubs in the world are in college towns: Comedy Club on State in Madison WI, The Comedy Attic in Bloomington IN, Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase in MI, The Comedy Studio in Cambridge MA. Those clubs are closer to campus than many fraternities (where the rape jokes are the MOST horrifying). College kids come to these clubs and laugh because: they come on their own volition, pay admission, and sit in uncomfortable chairs among close friends or strangers as part of a packed crowd that is shrouded in darkness.

So the solution is fairly simple. Get to college gigs a littler earlier than normal**, explain the lighting issue to the tech guy (usually a sophomore), and if they can’t lower the lights, start flipping switches until at least some of the lights are off. Or just do the show you big baby. The students may not laugh, but with the amount of their money you are getting paid to bomb, it will ruin their credit for decades.

In conclusion, let’s keep this all in perspective. A couple years ago I wrote an essay about rape jokes for a website that never published it because the morning it I submitted it, a psychopath murdered 20 children at Sandy Hook. I waited an extra week after the shooting in South Carolina to post this one. Comedy shows aren’t life and death. But hopefully we can better deal with national tragedies by talking about them. Or joking about them, carefully, in a dark room.

Jono Zalay is available to perform any college that un-PC cowards are unwilling to. If he is unavailable, you can consider Raj.

*Other important but secondary problems with college shows:

  • They are often events of “mandatory fun” like a dorm hall or campus club attending as a group. No one likes mandatory fun. It’s a paradox. Ice cream is less delicious with a gun to your head.
  • There is often no admission fee. The show is paid for by the student activities budget. If you don’t pay to get in there is no personal investment and you are less engaged.
  • They are run by college kids. But give ‘em a break, full time comedy clubs often get this wrong. 19-year-olds don’t know how to light the room any better than they know to NOT book YouTube celebrities.
  • The seating is all off. The crowd is spread out and they sit in comfortable chairs or couches. Basically begging kids to zone out and fall asleep.

**We would be remiss to not mention hero to comedy and specifically comedy atmosphere: Todd Glass. No one has championed the cause of perfect lighting more passionately than Todd. He has famously shown up early to comedy clubs to make sure the room is lit correctly. It may have been un-PC of Todd to perpetuate this stereotype, but it took a gay man to fix the lighting.


Why do we laugh?

One of the great fundamental questions related to humor is: “Why do we laugh?”  And most theories of why we laugh fall into one of three categories: creating a superiority effect, resolving a mental incongruity, or releasing tension.  We at NERHD propose that all previous theories of humor don’t answer the “Why do we laugh” question, but instead answer the question “What makes us laugh?”  Before addressing why do we laugh, we’ll summarize the other theories and describe their limitations in explaining humor.

Plato and Aristotle both believed that humor was derived from a desire for individuals to believe they were superior to others.  For instance, when we laugh at someone slipping on a banana peel, we are laughing at their foolishness for not seeing the banana peel.  For this reason, Plato and Aristotle were against the malicious nature of laughter, and believed, due to its negative influences, that humor should be restricted to slaves and foreigners, and not Greek citizens.  While superiority theory explains a lot of what what we find funny, it doesn’t explain why puns or irony are amusing.

Incongruity theory, espoused by Immanuel Kant, explains that humor in wordplay and irony comes from the “sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing”.  Ironically, his description of humor is similar to his writing style.  Nevertheless, incongruity theory is really an umbrella theory of other theories (Benign violation theory, Bergson’s Living and Mechanical Theory, Incongruity Resolution Theory, Bisociation theory, etc.) that explain how humor is elicited by the brain cognitively resolving a problem.  For instance, jokes that fit Incongruity theory are enthymemes – logical arguments that require an assumption.  Humor is produced from these arguments when that assumption is realized to be false.  Such as:

Two fish are in a tank.  One turns to the other and says “Do you know how to drive this?”

The argument is that “two fish are in a tank”, and we naturally assume that these fish are in an aquarium, but when the fish says “Do you know how to drive this?” we realize that the fish are actually in a military vehicle.  This disruption of our assumption is what creates humor.

However, incongruity theory, while explaining many types of jokes, as well as being contorted to cover up for humor derived from superiority, doesn’t explain the humor in many awkward shows.  For instance, this famous episode of the US version of the Office:

In this episode, the humor is not really coming from the fact that we think we’re better than Michael Scott (who promised a class of 3rd graders to pay for their college tuition, then reneged on that pledge).  The humor comes from the fact that the students are so excited about their college tuition paid for that they treat Michael Scott like a king, and he has to inform them (in the most painfully funny way) that he can’t pay for their tuition, and instead offers them batteries.

Freud offers the best explanation for why we would laugh as the high schoolers dance in celebration of receiving a college tuition which only the viewers know they won’t actually get:  Emotional release.  We see the stress of that moment for Michael as a mirror for our own individual stress, and the humor comes from the emotional relief of not actually being under that stress.

Freud’s Relief theory also explains why we’ll laugh at someone who hit his thumb with a hammer and just starts yelling “S***! F***! C*********!”  Proponents of superiority theory will argue that we laugh at this because we think we’re better than that person.  Proponents of incongruity theories would argue that this is funny because the person hit his or her thumb as if it were a nail.  But both of these explanations seem like trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

So, why do we laugh?

As we’ve described above, all the previous theories of humor seem to define some reasons of why we laugh but not others.  Evidence suggests that laughter is a conserved evolutionary process among apes (orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos all laugh), and laughter is even found in rats.

If laughter is so common among higher species, what is its function?  Some have argued that laughing is a form of communication, and may even be the precursor to human speech, co-evolving with bipedalism in humans.  In apes, laughter is associated with tickling which encourages social bonding and play behavior.  Since rats and apes are social animals, it is perhaps not surprising that behavior that promotes sociability is evolutionarily conserved.

One of the major flaws with previously mentioned theories of laughter is that they are all post hoc theories.  We see laughter and say, “You laughed at this joke because of incongruity, or because you needed a relief”.  These theories won’t take a joke on paper and tell you whether it will make an audience laugh.  The theories are handicapped by their lack of predictive power.  Furthermore, outside of tickling (which cannot be adequately explained by any of the theories described previously), there are many other examples of how these theories inadequately explain laughing phenomena:

  • Pretending to laugh at a joke that other people are laughing at
  • “Inside jokes” among friends
  • Why people are offended by joke

Why do people pretend to laugh at jokes they obviously don’t get?  No theory really explains this phenomenon, and it is generally believed that fake laughter is not real laughter, which is what the theories are meant to define.  If there are two types of laughter,  why is it that fake laughter can become real laughter?  Clearly there is a gap in the theories.

Why do we find inside jokes funny?  There are no good explanations for this, and as evidenced from this episode of Seinfeld, inside jokes go beyond simply being a product of superiority, incongruity, or relief:

Finally, why do people get offended by jokes?  In many cases jokes are well-constructed incongruities, or reflect superiority to another group, or even provide a stress relief.  Yet, people don’t find the jokes funny, and in many cases, people find the jokes to be abhorrent.  How can one explain why the joke is funny to one person and offensive to another?

The Humor Spectrum Theory

We at NERHD propose a new theory to explain “Why do we laugh?” that reflects the evolutionary origins of laughter.  Our theory proposes that laughter is a product of humor appreciation, and exists in order to create groups of like-minded humor appreciators.

The logical outcome of this theory is that individuals form the strongest bonds with people they find the most funny things in common.  Considering the significance of laughter in business, relationships, education, and health, it seems essential to identify the factors that create humor; furthermore, we will identify the factors that convert humor (an absolute concept) into laughter (a relative phenomena).

Our theory proposes that there are two factors that influence laughter, entanglement and engagement.  A humor-deliverer communicates information that is entangled cognitively, and the humor-receiver has to be sufficiently engaged to laugh at that information.  We propose that the incongruity, superiority, and relief theories help define what entangles information for humor, which is only one facet of how laughter is created.  The other facet, how engaged a humor-receiver is, can explain why people fake laugh for jokes, why inside jokes are funny, and why “offensive jokes” are not funny to some people.  Our research will focus specifically on what criteria define entanglement and promote engagement to create a more predictive theory of laughter.  If you are interested in helping, please visit our current research projects, or contact us.