“Everything is funny, if you can laugh at it.”
~ Lewis Carroll
In 2007, Noam Chomsky, the renown linguist, was asked if language was a prerequisite for humour. “For humans, that does not appear to be the case,” he said. “It's not clear, for example, why children who are amused by clowns or organ-grinder monkeys should be relying on language.” He's right that language isn't necessary for funniness, but... organ-grinder monkeys? How old is that dude?
Our capacity for humour goes well beyond verbal jokes and sight gags. Without worrying for the moment about why, let's consider all the possibilities, leaving no room for exception. No matter how infrequent or how specific the circumstances may be, if a human could laugh at something, it has to be accounted for in any attempt to explain the mechanics of humour. To create a truly consistent model, there simply should be no such thing as an exception.
One thing verbal jokes and sight gags have in common is that they are deliberate actions on the part of someone trying to provide comedy, but of course there are also unintentional funny situations. The ways in which we laugh at someone tripping, misspeaking, getting caught off guard, or whatever else are too numerous in their variety to account for. Of all of them, though, the one type of incidental humour that seems to be the most popular is that of a man getting accidentally hit in the balls. For some reason it's even funnier if it's a baby or toddler that does it. At least according to the consensus of countless videos on YouTube, from countries and cultures all over the world. The internet has also taught us that anthropomorphizing cats is widely agreed to be funny. Not only does humour not have to be anything deliberate, it can even be sourced from an animal or inanimate object that has no capacity for participation in human relationships.
Ever laughed because you smelled the unmistakeable smell that indicates someone farted during what was otherwise supposed to be a formal event, like a business meeting or funeral? Maybe you haven't laughed at something like that since you were twelve years old, or forty something if you're me, but it still counts as laughing at an olfactory cue. I've seen musical tones make people laugh, and, when I was in art school, abstract paintings. I don't see any reason why one's own body position couldn't make someone laugh. Could a chef make a joke based on a taste? Maybe it would only be funny to other chefs, but that would still count. As far as I can see, if a human can perceive it, a human can laugh at it. The vast majority of what we laugh at comes in through usual channels, like words and images, but that seems to have more to do with the proportions of what things we pay attention to than it does with the potential for them to be funny. Kind of like how you're more likely to die by slipping in the shower than by lightning, not because showers are more dangerous than lightning, but because you encounter showers way more often than lightning.
There are also levels of perception that are not sensory but intellectual. For example, it happens all the time that someone will attempt a joke, but it will fail to make anyone laugh. In that situation, we know it was supposed to be a joke, but without the evidence of laughter, what is it that we are identifying?
There's also no reason you need input of any kind to laugh. You can just be sitting alone in the dark without doing anything particular, and maybe a thought strikes you as amusing. A memory, a vague notion, a fantasy, or whatever you can think about.
All of these things vary wildly in how likely and how frequently they could make humans laugh. None of them, however, compare in terms of reliability to the one thing that almost always gets a laugh, which is laughter itself. Study after study has confirmed that people are most likely to laugh when others start laughing. It's been shown that people trying to be funny in social situations laugh the most, more than the people they are trying to make laugh, and it seems that this is a sort of instinctive encouragement to get others to join in. Only professional comedians, and people following our cultural expectation of what someone with “good” delivery sounds like, make the effort to suppress laughter when trying to be funny. It would be accurate to say that the funniest thing in the world is laughter itself.
Anything can be funny, and anything can be not funny. And we can go even further than that. Anything could have been funny.
Every thought we have, whether brought to our attention via any of our senses, or even if it's just a thought that we evoke by ourselves, has the potential for humour. Sometimes we know it was definitely there because we laughed. Sometimes we understand it was supposed to have been there, like when a standup comedian bombs on stage. What we don't often think about, though, is when it could have been there. Out of all the mundane thoughts that pass through our head all the time as we live our lives, if any of them could have been funny, but just missed for some reason, would we know? Maybe just within today you've had dozens, or hundreds of thoughts that almost made you laugh, but didn't, and you didn't think about the absence of laughter because we don't usually think about things that don't happen. However, just because a category of thought hasn't made you laugh yet doesn't mean it doesn't have the potential.
If I try to stab you in the arm with a pin, and miss, you can still objectively identify the potential effect it might have had on you. If someone behind you tried to jab you with a pin, and missed, and you never knew, an outside observer could still objectively talk about what might have been. Truly understanding a stimulus and a response mechanism means being able to accurately identify when and why it missed. A fully consistent model for explaining humour also needs to be able to explain all the things that weren't funny not only in terms of the absence of the evidence of laughter but in what potential they had in spite of no response.
We want to be able to locate not only where there were identifiable humorous occurrences, indicated by the presence of laughter, or organ-grinder monkeys, but also the instances of potential humour, the same way we can identify a pin even if we've never seen it actually cause pain.
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