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The science of laughter

Can you dissect a sense of humor? I went to an academic humor conference to find out — and all I got for it was this broken funny bone.

(Photo illustration by C.J. Burton)
By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / October 2, 2011

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THE FIRST SPEAKER in the first lecture on my first and only day in the academic humor world is a small woman from Indiana University.

When she steps up to the microphone for her talk, “The Ambiguity of Jokes,” she does this.

“My name is Moira Smith,” she says. And then she does this. It’s just sitting there for the taking. “And I’m not an alcoholic.”

In the audience are 30 or so of the world’s leading thinkers on the subject of humor. And in that moment, those analysts of amusement, those great comic intellectuals, did something I did not: They roared with genuine laughter.

This was the International Society for Humor Studies’ annual conference, the main event in a global subculture of actual university professors who collect actual paychecks for studying what makes people laugh.

They’ve been holding these conferences since 1976. When this year’s big event came to Boston University over the summer, I was sent there by an editor who thought it would be funny. It was not.

At least, it wasn’t funny in the traditional way, not that I even remember what that would be, because this conference screwed with my sense of humor.

What happened way back in July is that I cashed in an innocence, a virginity I didn’t know I had. It started right away with Smith’s joke. I laughed, for sure, but I wasn’t laughing at the joke. I was laughing at everyone in the room for laughing at the joke. I mean, really? She’d taken the most obvious premise that presents itself when standing at a microphone and introducing oneself — it’s one of the two reasons you don’t let teenagers near microphones — and then did very little with it.

To do so in such distinguished company seemed blasphemous. In the interest of fairness, I should point out that it was clearly not a premeditated joke; she saw the opportunity and seized it. I’m sure she’s otherwise hilarious. Still, my initial, uncharitable reaction was to chide her for taking the easy way out. Why not, oh, I don’t know: “My name is Moira Smith and I’m a jokeaholic.”

Still, there was no disputing her success. Everyone in the room, including me, was laughing. But my own laugh, I now feel qualified to say, can be explained quite well by “superiority theory,” a way of looking at humor that goes back to those two classical cutups, Plato and Aristotle. Because I was in this company of humor experts, I had adopted a snobbish detachment and was more judicious in my laugh allocations. When everyone laughed with Smith, I laughed at them for taking the easy bait.

I wish I weren’t thinking like this.

Let me back up a minute and say that prior to stepping into this world, the only thing I knew about humor analysis came from E.B. White, the great surgeon of the English language: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can,” he wrote in 1941, “but the thing dies i n the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

I should have trusted White, for, as I was quickly finding out, studying humor as an academic discipline has nothing to do with being a student of comedy, which I have long been. No, analyzing humor is a box that can’t be unchecked. The frog does not come back to life.

A sense of humor, I thought, was as internal and involuntary as any of our other senses. But as I sat there overanalyzing Smith’s joke, I realized I was making a natural experience unnatural. I didn’t like it. It was like that feeling you get when you’re a kid and you start paying too much attention to your own heartbeat, then feel as if it’s going to up and stop on you.

I took some hope, though, from the one man in the crowd who laughed the loudest. Comedians like to say there are many different types of laughter, but only one type of silence. Moira Smith’s joke had elicited what I would describe as a honking, gummy-toothed, full-face seizure from a psychology PhD named Peter McGraw.

Other than my editor’s vague promise that it would be funny, McGraw was the chief reason I was attending the conference. He had recently claimed to have discovered the Holy Grail of humor. Building on the work of a professor named Tom Veatch, he had developed the grand unifying theory that explained it all — why we laugh and why we do not. McGraw calls it “benign violation theory.”

At the end of the session — the topic was “Incongruity in Humor” — it was McGraw’s turn to speak.

“Is it too soon to start making tsunami jokes?” he asked. At that moment, it had been about four months since the devastation in Japan. Then he showed a photo on the screen from an “Offensive T-Shirt Party” he’d hosted back home in Colorado.

The photo showed the top of a T-shirt:

“Pray for Japan,” it read.

Then McGraw advanced the slide to show the whole T-shirt:

“But remember Pearl Harbor.”

The audience collectively gasped. Then most, but not all, laughed.

■ ■ ■

IN MANY WAYS, Peter McGraw comes across as pretty benign himself, which I guess is fitting. In person, he’s funny and not afraid to work blue, but in that harmless, nice-frat-guy sort of way. This is unlike most of the people at the conference, including many who asked me not to point out how unfunny they were, because reporters who butt in on their conferences always point this out. Anyway, McGraw is 6-5, comes from a background in the psychology of consumer decision making, and now runs a lab at the business school of the University of Colorado at Boulder. He calls it the Humor Research Lab, or HuRL for short. Get it? McGraw is the kind of guy who finds stuff like that funny.

A short time after he finishes his talk, he’s waiting in line at a Chipotle for a chicken burrito. “Laughter,” he says, “is an imperfect predictor that people find something funny. Sometimes we hide it if we find something funny, and the reverse is often used to smooth a social interaction.”

When I thought about this later, I wondered if that was what happened when the room exploded over Moira Smith’s quip. Or maybe that was just the standard protocol in the academic humor world; everyone laughs at everyone else’s jokes, the same way everyone politely claps whether they actually liked the talk or not. Or maybe my brain was now just doing an impression of Woody Allen’s neuroses.

Regardless, in my time in the academic humor world I was constantly learning what I didn’t know, then constantly realizing that I was happy to have not known it to begin with. Here’s a brief history of those things:

Aristotle and Plato were big proponents of the “superiority theory,” which says that we find humor in the misfortune of others; Thomas Hobbes would later describe that amusement as a feeling of “sudden glory.” They probably would have liked looking at those “fail” photos on The other main doctrine, “incongruity theory,” which has been attributed to everyone from Blaise Pascal to Immanuel Kant, argues that humor occurs at the moment you realize there is an incongruity between your expectations and the payoff, as when a street performer says: “Don’t try this at home, kids. Try it at school.” And then there was Sigmund Freud, whose “relief theory” claims that humor was a way to safely release suppressed thoughts and emotions, because he liked to take all the fun out of everything.

Those are the biggies. They all sound plausible to me, which is lousy. But within the canon, there have long been things that resist explanation, which I like. Take being tickled, for instance. Most people do not like it, and yet they laugh — except for when they don’t. My 2-year-old son laughs when I tickle him, but recently, when a waiter at an Italian restaurant kept trying to, he was met again and again by a dirty look. Tickling has long been an enigma to scholars looking for the grand theory about what makes people laugh. Why can’t you tickle yourself? Why wouldn’t you laugh if the guy next to you on the subway started to tickle you?

But within McGraw’s benign violation theory, there is an explanation for the tickling conundrum. For unlike most of the predominant theories, McGraw’s addresses not just why something is funny, but also why something is not.

His theory is that amusement — or, to use a term most academics prefer, “mirth” — derives from bad things (“violations”) that somehow turn out to be not that bad (“benign”). So according to McGraw’s theory, the tickler violates the personal space of the ticklee, but as long as the tickler is benign — a father, not a creepy waiter — the act can provide amusement. You can’t tickle yourself because you can’t violate your own sense of personal space.

McGraw’s theory has three basic conditions. One, there must be a violation, some sort of threat to how we think the world should be. Two, we must determine that this threat is harmless. For humor to occur, the third criterion is simply that we must see the first two interpretations simultaneously. Our laughter, McGraw believes, serves the evolutionary purpose of signaling to others that the coast is clear.

What I like least about McGraw’s theory is how much sense it makes. I wanted to poke holes in it, to be able to tell McGraw that it wasn’t that simple, as Newton comedian Louis C.K. once told him. But I didn’t have the academic background — there are some who despise McGraw’s theory, and chide him for being an outsider who dares to come in and tell the pros what’s up — and I’m no expert on comedy.

Each time I stepped out of a lecture and into the glad-handing hallways, I ran into one person who was both and, more important, was very good at articulating this conflict I was feeling between the freedom of knowing and the terrible burden of knowing. His name is Bob Mankoff, and he’s the longtime cartoon editor of The New Yorker magazine, the man whose instinct decides what is funny and what is not for some of the greatest comic minds alive. And he’s a cartoonist himself.

Mankoff is a regular at these conferences, but perhaps because he has his feet in both worlds — the analyst and the creator — he is prone to say things like “There’s more to it than that.” He thinks analyzing humor can be worthwhile, but overall he is firmly in the camp that it is irrelevant to the creative process.

After McGraw’s talk, Mankoff meets him in the hallway. “The good comedians are intuitive,” Mankoff says. “They intuitively understand it.” He is generally an advocate of McGraw’s theory. But, he cautions the professor, “the craft of a joke is lost because [ theorists] are looking at it too broadly.” He cites things like elegant wordplay — a hallmark of New Yorker cartoon humor — that aren’t addressed in the dominant humor theories. At one point, McGraw is debating him when Mankoff turns to me and says, with raised eyebrows: “The thing that often makes people laugh the hardest is people falling down to jaunty music.”

As an undergrad, I minored in “film studies,” which meant simply that I was a terrible person to sit next to in a movie theater for several years. I got over that, and now I was worried that I would have to do the same to get my sense of humor back to its natural state.

“There’s a sweet spot where you know enough to be interesting,” Mankoff says of humor studies. “And after that you’re a terrible bore.”

Mankoff was obviously in that sweet spot. I just needed to find it.

■ ■ ■

A SENSE OF HUMOR is a kind of personal expertise, and though we can anticipate what we might like, each laugh we grant is the result of a judgment call that happens so fast we usually don’t know we’re making it. The things we laugh at can sometimes surprise us — that’s part of their pleasure.

The personal nature of humor is what makes “edgy” so precarious. What is non-threatening to one person may be very threatening to another. Funniness is directly connected to our relationship to the norm being violated and our distance from it. Comics know this from experience; some jokes kill in some cities yet bomb in others. For instance, no one outside New England really finds quips about the New York Yankees very funny, says Patrice Oppliger, the BU professor of mass communication who hosted the conference. “When you belong to an in-group,” she says, “what bonds you together is a common enemy.”

But being able to determine what everyone finds funny, with a single theory, could have huge economic advantages. Every company that makes its money selling stuff to the lucrative 18-35 age bracket wants “edgy” advertising, but that’s a tricky thing to accomplish. Edgy is about going up to a line but not over it, because over it is counterproductive. A misstep can cost a company millions of dollars in lost business. Caleb Warren, McGraw’s chief collaborator, gave a presentation at the conference that addressed advertisements that had crossed over to offensive. There’s a reason McGraw’s lab has received two grants from the Marketing Science Institute, a nonprofit funded by some of the largest corporations in America; they want to know how not to cross from benign to threatening.

Take the case of David Portnoy, the blogger who runs the raunchy local website Barstool Sports. Recently, Portnoy posted nude pictures of the toddler son of Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen playing at the beach, and accompanied them with praise about the size of the boy’s penis. Some people found this funny; most did not.

The controversy landed Portnoy a visit from the State Police — which prompted him to remove the photos — and a spot on the satellite radio show of Howard Stern, who was on the side of the people who did not find it funny. At one point, Stern asked the unapologetic Portnoy if he was a father. When Portnoy replied that he was not, Stern told him that was why he couldn’t understand why what he did was wrong. “I have three daughters, and I gotta tell you, Dave, I would never post a picture of a child and comment on their genitals,” Stern said, “and I’m known for outrageous commentary.” Both men have built careers on occasionally crossing the line of good taste, but Stern made it clear that his line was elsewhere, that as a father he had a different relationship to the norm being violated.

Other people who make a living in comedy are able to walk the line without crossing over. Consider the popular young comedian Bo Burnham, a native of Hamilton. In his song “Love Is,” Burnham manages to get away with making a joke about rape, which is close to impossible. He explores the bind of being the guy who owns a company that makes rape whistles. “Even though you started the company with good intentions trying to reduce the rate of rape,” Burnham sings, “now you don’t want to reduce it at all, because if the rape rate declines you’ll see an equal decline in whistle sales.” The joke is edgy but survives because the focus, ultimately, is on whistles, and that provides some distance from the rape.

It’s a brilliant little twist, one that Burnham created because he has the instinct, and because he studies the greats. If he had run it through McGraw’s theory beforehand, he probably wouldn’t have created it at all. Nuance is not quantifiable.

■ ■ ■

AS THE CONFERENCE WORE ON, I slipped into a humorless stupor. I skipped a bunch of lectures, and the others I attended turned out to be serious, intellectual, and dry. In one, I saw Joan Rivers’s wardrobe dissected in ways that would horrify a drag queen. In another, I listened to a talk on “Gender Stereotypes in Polish Family Jokes” that didn’t even contain any good Polish jokes. It did, however, contain the insight that every country has another country that they make jokes about.

And I had, over and over, that disgusted feeling of remembering how much of psychology is geared not toward understanding our weaknesses, but marketing to them.

I was disappointed. I thought I was going to get one of those behind-the-scenes glimpses of comedy, which I love. I’m a rabid fan of the WTF podcast, where the comedian Marc Maron interviews fellow comedians about their work. But this was different, this was tired, this was sex ed instead of porn. Over and over, humor was boiled down to Venn diagrams in talks delivered by veteran bores in white socks and comfortable shoes. The more I heard, and the more it made sense, the more I wanted to run home and excise all related memories with a deep thrusting of a Q-tip.

Throughout it all, I kept thinking about hot dogs. I don’t love hot dogs. I like them just fine, but I think it’s that I’m more pleased with what they represent — happy memories of summer and ballgames and that sound of squeezing a nearly empty ketchup bottle. What I don’t like about hot dogs is any knowledge of their back story. I do not want to know what’s in them, how they are constructed. But of course I have some idea. And that’s probably why I know I will never love hot dogs.

But I always want to love comedy. I want my laughter — that intensely personal judgment call I never knew I was making — to come from the gut, not the brain.

Thankfully, though, time has passed. I have moved from terrible weariness to conscious efforts not to dissect to passivity to what is perhaps the greatest gift of the human mind: the ability to forget. It took awhile, but I’m back to my good old terrible sense of humor. I don’t need a humor theory, or even jaunty music, to laugh at people who slip on banana peels.

Billy Baker is a member of the Globe staff. He is at work on a book about jugglers. E-mail him at Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.