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What's so funny?

“If they laugh, it's funny.”

~ George Burns

Have you ever been at a restaurant when a table of people nearby are laughing hysterically at their own conversation? If you've ever listened in to find out what was so hilarious, then most likely you found that what they were saying wasn't all that funny. Sure, it might be that you don't know the story behind some inside jokes, and maybe they're a little drunk, but those excuses only go so far. Really, it just seems like what they're laughing at is stupid.

If you've ever had an experience like that, then you've partially replicated a scientific study carried out by Professor Robert Provine at the the University of Maryland Baltimore County. One day, with the help of some assistants, he decided to go around to various public places to listen in on people conversing. When the research team heard someone laugh, they would write down the statement that came immediately before, the words that presumably triggered the laughter. He discovered, much like when you've been eavesdropping on others at restaurants, the statements which triggered laughter are, far more often than not, completely mundane. The kinds of phrases that on their own don't seem to indicate any great comedy at work. Things like, “I'll see you guys later,” and, “Do you want one of mine?” and stuff like that. According to Provine, it's not the case that there was an obvious wider context not being described that made these statements work as comedic punchlines. Although there were some cases that the researchers could identify as attempts at comedy, Provine tells us that the assistants helping him in his study estimated that only about ten to twenty percent of prelaugh comments were even remotely humorous.

Provine concludes that, “most laughter is not in response to jokes or humor,” which is in agreement with the most recent science. Laughter has a social function in helping us form and deepen bonds in our social groups. The question remains, though, as to what exactly it is we are laughing at in order to facilitate the social benefits of laughter. There still needs to be a reason why some, and not all, things said between friends cause laughter. On top of that, we seem to be able to discern some quality that differentiates something intended to be funny and something that accidentally ends up being laughable. Just about anyone can intuitively see that there there is a qualitative difference between what Provine describes as “humourless prelaugh comments” and the sharply crafted words of a standup comedian on stage. Does it make sense, though, to describe something as “humourless” if it gets a laugh?

A few years ago, after a comedy show I performed at, a guy who had been in the audience wrote a blog post in which he described how much he hated the show. We were all a bunch of amateurs, we weren't funny, we just sucked. What really stood out to me in this blog post, though, is that the author writes, and I'm quoting his words exactly, that he “couldn't understand why the other 80 people in the room were laughing.” By his own account, he is far in the minority, but he's firm in his conviction that it's everyone else who doesn't understand funniness.

Humour can not be evaluated separately from laughter. As someone who has been performing standup for about fifteen years, and improvisational comedy, usually just called “improv”, for about three decades, I can assert with confidence that it happens all the time that a comedian can try out a joke and half the audience laughs and the other half doesn't. Which side of the room gets to have the final say on whether or not it was “funny”? Does the person who is in a conversation and laughing have any more or less right to decree funniness than the person outside the conversation, eavesdropping with cold objectivity? Is it fair, or even meaningful, to say, “they were laughing, but it wasn't funny”?

If we go down the rabbit hole of separating laughter from funniness, it not only complicates the parameters of what we're trying to explain, it opens the door to some unappealing judgementalism. To be truly objective about this, we need to accept that other people's laughter counts, even when there's nothing there for ourselves. If I hear someone else laugh when I don't, it's still funny, just not to me. I wouldn't even say the guy who hated my performance is wrong just because the other 80 people in the room laughed. It just wasn't for him.

The only objective measure for funniness was said best by George Burns, referenced at the top of this section. The “if they laugh, it's funny” paradigm unifies what is funny and lets us know how to identify it when we see it. When a friend laughs at something mundane another friend says, it's the same thing as when an audience laughs at a standup comedian. They both caused laughter, so they're both funny. Finding the objective factors that create a subjective result is a tricky thing, though, and will take a whole book to explain.

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