Trying to Find the Funny

laughterI love to laugh.

Yeah, everybody says that. But for me, laughter—whether my own, or other people’s—is essential to my existence as a human. One of the reasons I get out of bed every morning is to find the funny in the day. As the youngest-born of three kids, then the class clown, later a professional actor whose strengths were improvisation and comedy, and now the funniest writer you know, if I can laugh until I’m about to crack a rib (and/or make at least one other person do the same), I know the day hasn’t been wasted.

But why is laughter so appealing? Not just to me, but to everybody? Why in fact is laughter the best medicine? There’s a reason that thousands of clubs host open-mic nights, during which terrified, eager would-be comics spend five minutes or so trying to find their own brand of funny. Why, for yucks’ sake?

Let’s see if we can find out.

As usual, lemme first talk science: research shows that when a person laughs, a part of the brain called the limbic system goes to work. Long story short, the limbic system is a network of brain structures that control a person’s emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. (And I think it’s neat that we use that very primitive system to laugh, the same as we do to crave food or to procreate. So in an indulgent sort of way, laughing at farts keep us alive!)

And here’s this: there’s a branch of science, called “gelotology,” dedicated to the study of laughter and its effects on the body. Gelotologists study how (and why) laughter boosts the immune system, reduces stress, and triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s “feel-good” hormone. (And in a gelotogical vein, I once heard a female friend—a blonde, of course—refer to them as “endolphins.” Something like, “Having sex with Paul gives me such an endolphin rush!” Nice.)

I actually found a formula for laughter, developed by Ukrainian physicist Igor Krishtafovich. According to him, the formula “is primarily for comedians, writers who write satirical pieces, and politicians.” I think a lot of what’s funny depends on its context, and I know I run the risk of totally bombing with this, but…here we go:

PI x C/T + BM = HE

PI – personal involvement
C – complexity of a joke. The higher degree of complexity the better, provided that your audience can solve the problem within 1 or 2 seconds.
T – time spent by a person solving a joke. The longer the time, the weaker the effect.
BM – background mood. A joker can have an advantage if an audience enjoys the show. However, a really good joke can “blow up” the most dismal audience.
HE – humor effectiveness

(Make sense? Yeah, it doesn’t to me either. But I think it’s cool that whether valid or not, there’s actually a scientific formula for laughter. And in the immortal words of Ogre: “NERDS!!”)

I know that throughout my life, using a little humor in practically every social situation—whether it’s called for or not—has been advantageous, at least for the most part. Some comedian once said, “Always leave ‘em laughing.” For me, that’s been sort of a life guideline: to try and exit said social situation while everybody’s still cracking up from something I said. Why? Not sure, exactly—but it has just felt right to do so. And in the many hundreds of newspaper stories I’ve written, I’ve always tried to include at least one instance of humor in each one, whether it’s a funny quote from the interview, or something comical in the background information. Again, not sure why, but I think doing so adds sort of a human touch to what might be an otherwise dry subject.

I think these personal characteristics, and perhaps anything a person finds humorous, demonstrate a specific idea: that of the unexpected. I’ve always tried to insert the comedy in my journalism stories in the midst of something totally serious. (One example that comes to mind is from a story about kids with autism—totally un-funny—in which an autistic fourth-grader was asked what his favorite school subject was, and “Recess” was his answer.)

There are about a dozen “official” sociological theories of humor, the most logical one being the one I just demonstrated above: the Incongruity Theory. In boring terms, the theory states that “humor is perceived at the moment of realization of incongruity between a concept involved in a certain situation and the real objects thought to be in some relation to the concept.”

Wow. Put another way, things are funny because they involve ideas that run against our expectations. A bear walks into a bar, animals talk, and so on. Example:

Two fish are in a tank. One fish turns to the other and says, “I hope you know how to drive this.”

(Two instances of incongruity: the fish talks, and they’re in a military-type tank, not an aquarium.)

And finally, let’s conclude with an actual breakdown (again, one that’ll be totally non-funny) of one of my all-time favorite jokes. Just for poops and snickers, I’ll put that formula I described up there to the test:

A skeleton walks into a bar, orders a beer and a mop.

The theory is PI x C/T + BM = HE
Personal involvement: not much (unless you’re an alcoholic and/or a necrophiliac).

Complexity: for such a short one, this joke is super-complex, because the listener has to realize that the beer will fall right through the skeleton’s bones when he drinks it.

Time: this is the crux of the joke. The faster the listener realizes the incongruity (pay attention, class!) of the above-described situation, the funnier it’ll be.

Background Mood: depends, of course, when/where you hear it. In this particular instance, I can only hope you’re reading this on your phone or tablet during a church service. (Incongruity, baby!)

Humor Effectiveness: I’ll let you decide for yourself…but I personally love this joke, depending on the context in which it’s told.

So: what have we learned, class? I myself now know that trying to find out why things are funny is, in itself, not very funny at all. And c’mon, I know that the info I’ve included here is only the small tip of a hu-fucking-mongous comedy iceberg. But in case you’re considering going down to the local open-mic and trying to find a little funny for yourself, maybe now you have a better shot.

Good night! I’ll be here all week!