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Resistance is futile

“Humour can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

~ E. B. White

The words “humour” and “human” sound similar enough to suspect a connection, but actually they don't share the same etymological roots. Whereas “human” originates with the Latin homo, as in homo sapien, the word “humour” originates with the Latin umor, meaning “body fluid”. You can still see that meaning used in modern contexts, like in vitreous humour, which is the name for the liquid gunk inside your eyeball. Through the middle ages they had this idea that health was determined by a balance of essential fluids in the body. By around the 1600s, the meaning of the word became associated with being in good spirits, presumably because your essential fluids were in balance. From there it came around to our modern usage.

Even though the words “human” and “humour” aren't related, everyone agrees that the quality of humour is integral to being human. Animals, even those that demonstrate a sense of playfulness, don't seem to tell jokes to each other. Humour separates us out, and if we're being honest about it, makes us feel superior. If you're a fan of science fiction, you'll note that it comes up a lot that sentient creatures from other planets are depicted as having little or no sense of humour, which, and I mean this on every level, alienates them. The same is true for fictional robots and real world computers, where their procedural logic seems to preclude their ability to join us in the playground of humour.

People like the idea that you can only participate in humour by possessing some undefinable and innate quality of being human. Laughter reassures us that we are more than mere biological organisms who just cycle through stimulus and response as we live out our lives. I think that some people fear humour being demystified because it takes away something precious. If we program a computer to play chess better than a human, then we can simply acknowledge that computers are faster at processing data than we are. If we can program a computer to make us laugh, then it might feel like it's us who are being reduced to mere robots with input and output mechanisms.

That's not going to happen though. Humour, while being explainable, is not going to turn into a colour by numbers exercise by understanding it. No more than learning grammar could automatically make a person into a great author, or that learning to play the guitar ensures rock star success.

Understanding the process of how humour works in the mind will help comedians and audiences alike get a sense of why a joke failed, why a joke succeeded, why the same joke might have worked for one person and not another, why some jokes are not funny now but could be funny later, and all sorts of things which can be helpful in creating comedy in a general sense. However, nothing in this book will, and nothing in any book can, tell you what content to put into a joke. The reality is that anything can be funny and anything can be not funny, so even after you understand why that is, comedy will still be a challenge.

The ability to get others to laugh is in no danger of being reduced from an art to an algorithm. Which might be an assurance to some, but really it's just an acknowledgement of the facts. Any attempt to explain how humour works would necessarily have to take into account the limitless manifestations of humour that we see all the time. When we look around at all the things that make people laugh, we can easily see that it has a near infinite variety.

Put another way, we already know that humour is inherently a human activity with unquantifiable potential variety. The task at hand is not to force the concept of humour into something more reductive, and therefore inconsistent with evidence, but to construct a paradigm that accounts for the irreducible variety we experience.

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