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Opinion It is laughable how little we know about the mechanics of being funny

Andrew Stark is a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death (Yale University Press, 2016).

Humor, the International Journal of Humor Research, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, a milestone that invites anyone who likes to make others laugh, and especially those who regularly fail in the attempt, to reflect on what cutting-edge science has to say about the phenomenon of funny. And, as one might expect, the psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers and literary scholars who have contributed to the journal over the years are nothing if not self-mocking about their enterprise. One early article discusses a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon in which a professor breaks down a complex diagram of the elements of Borscht Belt comedy to his class of students; meanwhile, a “Kick me” sign has been affixed to the back of his lab coat. The caption: “Analyzing humor.”

At some level, Mr. Larson is saying, funny is unanalyzable. We can show what it is, but we can’t tell what it is. Jonathan Swift wrote the same thing: “What humor is, not all the tribe/Of logic-mongers can describe.” And yet, as the articles and professorial theories in the journal Humor reveal, the telling can often be quite funny, if inadvertently. But the showing? The jokes the academics use to illustrate those theories? Not so much.

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That gap is something that any of us who have delivered a zinger to awkward silence or found a quip to crash-land – in short, all of us – should care about. We need to know about the inner workings of a good joke – but not enough is known about what it means for one to not quite work.

The dominant academic theory of humour goes back at least to the 18th-century philosopher James Beattie: For a joke to hit the mark, it must contain some type of incongruity. The Einsteinian-sounding General Theory of Verbal Humour, so named by former Humor editor Victor Raskin, holds that for a “text” to be funny, it must be “compatible … with two different [and opposing] scripts.” We think we are heading in a particular direction with the story and it suddenly takes an unexpected turn that remains consistent with everything that’s gone on before: That’s when we laugh.

But the General Theory is very general. It would seem to describe suspense thrillers as much as jokes. And so a fair bit of scholarly effort has been devoted to getting into the weeds. As one recent article in Humor recounts, communications professor Arthur Asa Berger took an initial stab in the 1990s, proposing the existence of 45 distinct “humour tropes.” Then a subsequent research team “dropped 16 … from the original typology and added 12 new ones.” Then in 2016, another set of findings “discarded 17 … and added six.”

Such theoretical parsings call to mind the story Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber recounts in his wonderful book Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. According to Talmudic law, a “baby pigeon that is found within 50 cubits of a coop belongs to the coop’s owner. If it is found outside the 50 cubits, then it belongs to its finder. Rabbi Yirmiyah asked: If one foot of the pigeon is within the 50 cubits and one foot is outside, to whom does it belong? … It was for this that they expelled Rabbi Yirmiyah from the academy.”

The empirical research in the journal Humor also doesn’t necessarily advance that General Theory. In one article, which compares public reaction to a U.S. President’s remarks during the State of the Union Address to his jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) using impressive quantitative analysis and vast number crunching, the authors ultimately conclude that “viewers … classify the WHCD performances as speeches that are not to be taken seriously.” Such observations remind us that Gary Larson’s professor would perhaps be funny even if there wasn’t a sign taped on his back.

What’s missing from contemporary humour research is what used to be known as “mid-level” theory, which explains the things that are funny but are neither vastly general nor bewilderingly particular. We see this in the dichotomy between “wits” and “humorists”: Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker are more often called the former than the latter, while the likes of Mark Twain and David Sedaris are more apt to be termed humorists.

Two hundred years ago, William Hazlitt drew a distinction between the two, arguing that humour involves describing the “ludicrous in accident, situation, or character” as it appears in “nature,” while wit heightens that absurdity through “art.” If we marry Hazlitt’s wit/humour division to the Humor researchers’ General Theory – that we laugh on finding different scripts in a common text – we can gain a deeper understanding of funny.

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Think of an oft-told story that appears in more than one Humor piece. The 1930s actor Jean Harlow, upon being introduced to Lady Margot Asquith, mispronounced Margot by sounding out a hard final “t,” as in “forgot.” Lady Asquith replied, “The 't' is silent, my dear, as in ‘Harlow.’” This is the soul of wit and the wittiness lies in how Lady Asquith places two otherwise different and unrelated situations, her own and Ms. Harlow’s, under a common trait – the trait of the silent “t,” which is not funny in itself – and then leverages her situation to make fun of Ms. Harlow’s.

Wit can do the reverse, too, finding two different traits in a common situation and leveraging one of those traits to make fun of the other. Dick Gregory told a story about a 1960s restaurant proprietor who sneered at him: “We don’t serve coloured people here.” “That’s okay,” Mr. Gregory responded – “I don’t eat coloured people.” The wit here lies in how Mr. Gregory finds two otherwise different and unrelated traits, one innocent and one racist, in a common situation – the proprietor’s remark – and deploys the one to mock the other.

That’s wit. But now think of humour. Why is Archie Bunker funny? One Humor article contains a long list of situations in which Archie misspeaks, saying things such as “my sediments exactly” or the “Count of Monte Crisco.” In reading through it, what becomes humorous is not how any one of these situations makes fun of any other, as Margo(t) does of Harlo(t). What’s humorous is how they all, together, make fun of the common trait that embraces them: Archie’s ignorance, void of self-awareness.

Likewise with Wanda Sykes’s observation about the male desire for the ménage à trois. “That’s what they want: two women. Fellas, I think that’s a bit lofty. Because, come on, think about it – if you can’t satisfy that one woman, why do you want to piss off another one? Why have two angry women in the bed with you at the same time?” Ms. Sykes’s humour lies in taking a heterosexual male character trait that we all recognize from one typical situation and showing how it plays out in a new one: mocking the common trait, not the new situation.

Just as humour uses two or more different situations to make fun of the common trait that embraces them, it also uses two or more different traits to make fun of the common situation that embodies them. When Hannah Gadsby jokes about how her appearance can be interpreted as both masculine and feminine – service agents say, “Can I help you, sir? Madam!” – what’s humorous is not how one of those traits, male or female, makes fun of the other, as Dick Gregory’s innocence does of the proprietor’s racism. What’s funny is the common situation which they both create and inhabit. All farcical plays and stories are like that, relying on how the characters each fix on different traits encompassed by a common situation, misunderstanding each other and so making the situation itself a humorous one.

So when the General Theory elaborated in Humor – that “funny” has something to do with finding differences within commonality – gets filtered through Hazlitt’s distinction between wit and humour, it begins to sharpen. Wit uses one of the differences embraced by a commonality to make fun of the other, while humour uses those differences to find fun in the commonality that embraces them. All of which might help shed light on a persistent theme in Humor: the quest to theoretically distinguish the truly funny from the not-quite. When a joke stumbles, it is often because it fails to convincingly offer a common trait that binds the differing situations, or a common situation that manifests the different traits.

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Aziz Ansari, for example, jests that “if you’ve had an arranged marriage, but it’s to your cousin, you might be an Indian redneck.” This is a cheap joke. Mr. Ansari is simply taking one trait, being Indian, and applying it to one situation, having an arranged marriage. And he’s taking a second trait, being a redneck, and applying it to a second situation, marrying your cousin. There’s no common trait spanning the different situations, nor a common situation embracing both traits. The joke rises neither to the level of Dick Gregory’s wit, nor to the plane of Wanda Sykes’s humour.

Sarah Silverman has defended some Holocaust and rape jokes on the grounds that, though they offend, they are funny. But many – especially those that boil down to “What do a Jew and a pizza have in common?” or “How is a woman different from a hammer?”, the answers to which I won’t inflict on you – either allege a commonality without showing how it embraces any difference, or a difference without showing how it’s embraced by any commonality. They’re crude jokes. Lacking both wit and humour, they are not only offensive, but unfunny. And when a comedian is both offensive and unfunny, as Michael Richards was during his 2006 racist rant at the Los Angeles Laugh Factory, he not only shoots himself in the foot but – given that his foot is already in his mouth – the shot is invariably fatal.

So then what makes for a brilliant joke? Oddly, while the Humor writers spend much time on the dregs, there’s not of a lot of work done marvelling at the cream. But here’s a suggestion and it comes from an unlikely source: When Margaret Thatcher ran for the British Tory leadership in 1975, she defeated a happy-warrior opponent named William Whitelaw, who then became her loyal lieutenant. Reflecting on this turn of events, Mrs. Thatcher observed, “every prime minister needs a Willie.”

Here was a common trait – in this case the word, “Willie,” so the joke was a pun – that extended to two different situations, a person and a part of the male anatomy that signified the historic masculine dominance of British political life. What made it a brilliant joke? Simple: It was two-way mockery, each situation making fun of the other. The anatomical part was suborned to make fun of the person: Mr. Whitelaw was, perhaps, a bit of a willie. But also, much more importantly, the person was enlisted to mock the patriarchy signified by the anatomical part. If you’re really telling me I need a willie to be prime minister, Mrs. Thatcher was saying, then – in Mr. Whitelaw – I have one that’s more functioning and relevant than the rest of you do.

That kind of double score doesn’t happen very often. For the rest of us, if we can advance a commonality that persuasively embraces differences, then we should get credit for being witty if one of the differences nicely zings the other, and for being humorous if they both tellingly mock the commonality. And if we don’t manage that? Well, as 30 years of Humor’s research shows us, at least we wouldn’t be alone.

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