What Makes Things Funny?

Scientifically speaking, I mean, and specifically psychologically.

I know one time a nurse told me, laughter helps distance you from your problems. But I don’t know how much psychological training a registered nurse would have (although she did seem to know what she was talking about FWIW).

Also, about 30 years ago I read an interesting article. They gave a number of examples of jokes. Then they critiqued which one you thought was funny. I remember jokes dealing with death and deformity indicated you had a carefree attitude towards life, because apparently you didn’t feel such things could ever happen to you.

In any event, it is a complex question, it would seem. And I know just because you like what seem to be inappropriate jokes doesn’t mean you endorse those things. (For example, I have heard people tell cannibal jokes. But I am almost certain they are not cannibals themselves.)

Well, what is the answer (assuming there even is one)? What makes things funny?


Years ago there was a book on catastrophe theory that was tiled The Mathematics of Humour. It tried hard to make a case that jokes (as opposed to generally funny things) all shared the characteristic of a mathematical catastrophe. The joke taking you on a path to a point where you unexpectedly reached a cusp and fell off onto a different part of the path. The cusp representing the cognitive discontinuity embodied in the punchline. The thesis being that this jump triggered an inate sense that was the feeling that this was funny.
I have the book somewhere buried in a bookcase. Might be amusing (ha!) to dig it out.

I would agree with this. The root of all humour is subverting expectations, whether we’re talking slapstick (“the clown keeps walking into the rake even though you’d expect him to learn to not do that !”), gross out humour (subverting expectations of good taste or jokes to remain within the bounds of acceptability), satire (reaching an absurd conclusion from a “known” and predictable premise) etc…
Except farts. Farts are intrinsically funny for reasons science cannot adequately explain.

I’ve always found this fascinating. The way I see it is that we are biologically rewarded when our brains make an unusual or off-beat connection. I think it’s at the root of our uniqueness as a species.

Because they come from butts. Butts are funny.

Timing. The delivery is very important.

I think varies between absurdity, shock/surprise, and “gallows” humor. Absurdity is self explanatory, and the latter two more like trying to lighten up a bad situation.

like a number of years ago, when someone determined what the “World’s funniest joke” was.
“Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What do I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence; then a gun shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “OK, now what?””

Ah, but is that not merely restating the conundrum ? Are farts funny because they come from butts, or are butts funny because they fart ? And which was funny first ?

This is the kind of hard-hitting questions at the intersection of philosophy, anthropology & science that I’m on the Dope for.

Once I was reading through a book of old issues of The Onion. There were plenty of things that I could appreciate the humor of, but I noticed that the bits that literally made me laugh out loud tended to be things where the “joke” wasn’t spelled out as explicitly as it might have been, and it was left to me to make the final connection or imagine what was really “going on”—like when there’s a gap between two electrical wires just large enough for the electric current to jump across, making a spark or arc when it does so.

(Alas, I don’t remember any specific examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about.)

Most jokes are based on someone’s pain or humiliation.

The main exceptions are puns and jokes involving doing the impossible with ease (e.g., Harpo pulling a lit candle burning at both ends from his pocket).

This is why, at times, it can be hard to explain these jokes to kleptomaniacs; they always take things, you know, literally.

*"…An amateur thinks it’s really funny if you dress a man up as an old lady, put him in a wheelchair, and give the wheelchair a push that sends it spinning down a slope towards a stone wall. For a pro, it’s got to be a real old lady." *— Groucho Marx


Thank you for making my morning! This is so true! :smiley:

Schadenfreude! Laughing at others/ourselves is important too. Mel Brooks who said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” :smiley:

Like the hunting joke above. The man who misunderstands emergency services is funny and so is the friend who gets shot.

Another example is when I saw Pulp Fiction in the theater and Vincent Vega announces that he just shot Marvin in the face. Loudest laughter I ever remember from an audience. Even more laughter when SLJ is yelling at Vince with pieces of brain in his afro. :smiley:

I thought it was this one:

ETA that was merely a preliminary result

That research was done by Richard Wiseman who says that that joke was probably originally written by Spike Milligan, who wrote a skit performed on the BBC in 1951 with these lines:

Well, butts existed first. So they had longer to become funny.

Butts are formed on the fetus much earlier in pregnancy than the digestive system starts to work, so well before any farts are formed in the colon.

waves hand dismissively fetuses aren’t funny. Retort.

Sounds like a Goon Show gag. It’s the kind of word play that Spike Milligan was good at.

I remember one person in a documentary speculating that laughing had evolved from barking, and that it was triggered by a certain kind of surprise. Not very convincing, really, and I think the mathematical explanation above is more to the point. But the most laughter-inducing jokes for me seem to be ones that lead you along a path and then suddenly violate all your expectations. The new direction may have schadenfreude or word play or satire or just silliness, but as long as the surprise isn’t threatening, it’s the surprise that triggers laughter.

Also noting that “things that trigger laughter” is only a subset of “things that are funny.”

I agree with this. It’s also why explaining a joke kills it.

Except any variant of this band’s name.