Why Teach Humor?
“The most wasted of all days is one without laughter,” said the poet E.E. Cummings. Those who trigger our laughter with their humor are the people we want to spend time with, work with, or date. Humor opens our eyes to unexpected possibilities in the world, relieves our stress, improves our health, ameliorates an awkward situation, and increases our influence on others. It is widely assumed that people who are funny were born that way and so development of a sense of humor and an ability to be humorous is left largely to the luck of the draw — your family circumstances or the television shows you watch.
Those of us who grew up in a mainstream educational system were taught reading, writing and arithmetic in school. Anyone cracking jokes in the back of the room was fined with twenty-thirty minutes in a minimum-security afterschool detention center. Now, we know that the humor that institutions failed to appreciate when we were children can help us tremendously in professional, romantic, and social settings. So, what can we learn from the kid in the back of the room? What if we approach humor as a skill that carries as much weight in our daily lives as reading, writing and arithmetic? Certainly more than algebra!
We’re not interested in creating a world full of stand-up comics or stage performers. We’re also not focused on humor scripted in a room of television writers, although we can learn from those instances of humor as well. Rather, we’re interested in humor that holds practical applications for our daily lives, such as being more successful at work and nurturing a romance to socializing and having more fun with our friends.
Studies show that relationships can be forged or strengthened by humor. For example, in 2006, psychologists Eric R. Bressler and Sigal Balshine found that women are more likely to find a man in a photograph desirable when a funny quote purportedly by the man accompanies the picture. Likewise, students enjoy learning more and perceive that they learn more when teachers brandish humor in their classes. We enjoy our workplace more if we have a funny leader or funny co-workers. Research shows that employees who work in workplaces or teams where funniness is valued feel more allegiance to the group. (Holmes, 2000).
The side effects of laughter in the past, present and future cannot be emphasized enough. Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center has said, “We don’t know yet why laughing protects the heart, but we know that mental stress is associated with impairment of the en- dothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack.”
Just knowing that you’re about to laugh can increase the hormones that increase feelings of wellness and decrease the type of stress hormones that can be detrimental when chronically released. (Berk and Tan, 2006). Similarly, reviving a memory about a time when you both laughed in the past can bring you closer to your partner. (Bazzini, 2000). And, laughter is just plain fun.
Everyone can identify laughter. The average adult laughs seventeen times a day. Laughter is so important to us as a society that we employ numerous words to describe the type of laughter elicited: someone can chuckle, chortle, crack-up, titter, snicker or guffaw.
While humor does have a subjective component, you can learn and practice techniques that will make you — on a scale of one dull, dry history lecturer to a ten-car caravan of giggling babies, uncoordinat- ed kittens and swearing grandmas — much more funny.
Can Improvisation Techniques Teach Us About Humor?
One of the earliest instances of improvisational theater was the Commedia dell’Arte, which was popular in the 16th century. The performers played stock characters and received a scenario in outline form, out of which they created comedic dialogue. After the Commedia dell’Arte craze subsided, theater emphasized scripted forms. Impro- visation became popular again in the last century after Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone each reshaped the form to incorporate sports and games.
Nowadays, improv schools are one of the only forums for teaching and learning humor, and probably the only organizations that have taught humor on a broad scale. From stand-up to situation comedies, humor can be found in many places. However, the humor developed through improv games is the type we think is most able to be cultivated by everyone. Status transactions, reincorporation and stating the obvious are examples of three distinct tactics that you can use to create humor in everyday situations.
Improv teacher Keith Johnstone teaches his students to observe and perform based on the “status transaction” or the power dynamic underlying daily social interactions. Just as animals fight for dominance, humans also jockey for power. While a power struggle can be frightening or produce anxiety in real-life, enacting an imaginary power struggle can be fun. Similarly, actual violence, like a punch in the face, terrifies us, but football exhilarates us. Amusement parks induce laughter, whereas uncontrolled movements, which are that fast and surprising, induce fear.
Humor and laughter are often a consequence of playing. Watch young primates engaged in a mock battle and you’ll notice that they usually wear a play face—their mouths are open and their lips are retracted a bit. While wearing this face, their breathing comes out in a staccato chuckle. This play face signals to a primate’s companion that he is just fooling around and not actually engaging in aggressive behavior. Play-fighting provides a dress rehearsal for adulthood, but it is also a way of learning and developing social bonds through power games. Primates are not the only ones who engage in this manner: dogs and bears wear play faces, too.
Brains produce tension when something unexpected occurs. In fact, any stimulation that triggers and releases our primitive fight or flight responses through surprise, incongruity or the unexpected may make us laugh. Philosopher of humor John Morreall has set forth the theory that human laughter is a shared expression of relief at danger passing. Shared expressions increase camaraderie. Accordingly, status transactions in the context of humor do not involve manipulation or mind games; instead, they depend on our willingness to play.
Two people can create humor in an interaction when one plays “low status” and another plays “high status”. Their interactions either main- tain status or seek more or less power. Tension (and its subsequent release) comes from the tiny ways that people compete for power by trying to raise their own status or lower the status of others. Someone slips on a banana peel and we laugh. Or someone is smacked with a pie in the face and we laugh. The status of the victim someone determines whether we think a gag is funny. For example, we’d probably find that a king getting hit with a pie in the face was funny because he drops in status, whereas we’d be less inclined to think that a grandmother smacked with a pie in the face is funny. The other way to look at it is when a king with all his dignity and authority gets hit with a pie, it seems incongruous.
Sitcoms provide a rich source of examples of status games. For ex- ample, Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell in the roles of “boss” on The Office are funny because of their frequent drops in status as a result of some misplaced comment toward someone who is ostensibly lower-status in terms of office politics. Kramer in Seinfeld is depicted as a guy with crazy hair and even more outlandish ideas that never work out; some of the humor he generates is the result of the incongruity between his image or appearance and his words. The following example illustrates the incongruity between Kramer’s physical appearance and his words:
Kramer: I’m getting a new telephone number.
Jerry: How come?
Kramer: Chicks, man. Too many chicks know my number.
Few of us would see Kramer as a guy that gets a lot of women.
Incongruity in status or pecking order is also part of the humor of The Golden Girls and Sex and the City. Reversal of gender stereo- types and stereotypes about age fuel much of the humor in both shows. Sophia Petrillo in The Golden Girls is the oldest and shortest of four older women, therefore, we might expect her to be the most easily offended by contemporary social norms or the sweetest, but she is actually the feistiest and frankest of the bunch. Sex and the City similarly derives humor from gender stereotypes — it relies on the preconception that women don’t talk about sex the way men do and that men are more sex-driven than women. Most of the dialogue in Sex and the City is women talking about sex.
Quick verbal status transactions include witty banter, repartee, quick wits, jabs, rejoinders, and farce. Take note of the ribbing or banter at poker games or in observation of close friendships. Humor fosters intimacy. (Aron, 2004). Psychologist Arthur Aron conducted a study in which he asked 96 undergraduates to toss and catch a ball with a stranger four times, and then bounce the ball on both sides of their partner. One group was told to approach the task seriously and the other was told to hold a straw between his or her teeth while blindfolded. Aron found that participants holding straws more often laughed about the task. Consequently, they were more likely to report feeling close to their partner afterward. Aron noted that “People naturally want to connect with others, but are often anxious…Humor breaks the ice and distracts from that discomfort.”
The status game in the Old Spice commercial The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, which is played among three people (the man in the video, the woman in the audience and the man in the audience), is particularly pronounced. The commercial overplays the relationship between wealth and deodorant. The man’s head is still and the scene moves and changes around him, which renders him the focal point and raises his status. Similarly, although the man’s voice is fast and he is shirtless, which suggests low status, he assumes high status postures and a deep, commanding voice. When the man says to the woman in the audience, “Look at your man,” and “sadly, he’s not me,” his voice condescends to the female viewer. Then, with the image of feminine, scented bodywash, he seems less dominant. But then his status is raised to that of a wealthy man with a yacht. The transformation of oysters (something squishy and raw suggesting vulnerability) to diamonds (one of the heights of hardness) is incongruous. When he says “two tickets to the thing you love,” he insinuates he knows what the woman loves (and that “her man” does not). He lowers the status of the woman’s significant other even further when he basically says “He can smell like he’s me”.
A willingness to play status games is often a hallmark of being friends. Animals share this willingness. When playing, animals take turns winning and losing, going up in status and going down, and letting the other win at times. If an animal on a winning streak does not occasionally let the other animal win, the other animal is reluctant to continue playing. As in the animal kingdom, perpetually raising your status is not funny to other people and people who do that seem like bullies. While a consistent and constant effort to raise status is funny in sitcoms like The Office, that play on discomfort rather than camaraderie, this behavior is not as funny in real life.
The four potential status games you can play with another person are (1) lower the status of the other person (2) raise the status of the other side, (3) lower your own status or (4) raise your own status. In sequence, you can’t keep putting the other person down or keep raising your own status or you will be bullying the other person.
When you don’t know the other person well, it’s probably safer to start by lowering your own status.
Another variant on status games involves playing the game with objects rather than with the other person, playing the game with words, or a prior version of yourself. For example, slapstick is essentially a status game between you and the object. Similarly, when Kramer walks into a room in Seinfeld, the audience laughs because he acts in an exaggerated manner. Humor can be created when you speak in a monotone or deadpan, but exaggeratedly raise your eyebrows, creating an incongruity with your usual self that lowers your status.
In this technique, the conversation has moved on and the context is different, so when you draw upon what’s already been stated, it has a different meaning. The same word used earlier is suddenly relevant again in the new context. So, if you set up the meaning of something or it is already set up by convention, and then you play with that meaning (as in word play or double entendres), it’s funny.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger repeatedly says in The Terminator, “I’ll be back,” movie-goers start laughing, partly because each time he says that he’s reincorporating each prior instance and partly because the fact of the repetition itself is amusing.
Or if, after watching the commercial Where’s the Beef you go out to lunch and you ask “Where’s the beef?” you are likely to elicit a laugh because you’ve re-contextualized the phrase from the commercial to the situation at hand and called up an association. Also, other people who have seen the commercial feel they’re part of a tribe. Inside jokes reinforce a sense of community and shared experiences; inside jokes are basically regular reincorporation of prior instances when we laughed. They depend upon a shared positive reminiscence — of course, if you repeatedly reminisce about a shared negative experience you’ll be a killjoy.
Using this technique calls upon your listening skills. One exercise to increase your ability to reincorporate prior material is to tell a story based on three unrelated words that your partner says and gradually build on the prior meaning by recalling it.
State the Obvious
Although some things are funny because of their incongruity, other things strike us as funny because they state something obvious and real about the situation. Most of the architecture of our minds is a house of preconceptions. You light that house on fire when you call their attention to something they didn’t notice themselves, but which they can recognize as true.
Or think of George Carlin, whose stand-up routines also rely on the bluntness of his observations. Another example of how stating the obvious has a humorous effect is the Literal Video Version of the song Total Eclipse of the Heart. Although the music is the same as the Bonnie Tyler song, the new singer states a literal interpretation of what is happening in the video, which makes all of the imagery in the video funny.
Commenting on the elephant in the room is also funny. If you say something aloud that everyone else may be thinking but is afraid to say, the truth of what you say increases your relatability and diffuses the tension. If you look down and say “Oh, I’ve got ketchup on my tie,” you’re likely to get a laugh because other people were unsure of whether or not to tell you. Or, imagine you’ve just been robbed. Upon hearing this, nobody knows what to say and this creates tension between you and the other person. But, if you say “Well, that sucked,” there’s an emotional release; everyone is able to relax and a sense of closeness develops.
Conversely , the sarcastic variant or opposite statement is also funny .You could say, “Well, that was relaxing.” Based on paralinguistic cues, such as your tone of voice, everyone knows what you really think. While sarcasm is seen by some as the lowest form of humor, others see it as the highest form of wit — for years artificial intelligence researchers were unable to program robots to recognize sarcasm. Implicit in the difficulty of creating that recognition in machines was the fact that sarcasm is particularly human, particularly dependent on perceptual interpretation and intelligence rather than merely literal translation.
The real skill in this technique is awareness. Adults have been conditioned to follow programmed or automatic behaviors. We act on scripts rather than practicing genuine observation. When you describe what you experience through your senses rather than simply what you think, you are forced to think differently. One game you can play with another person that illustrates the humor in true observation is to each describe what you notice about the other person. Point to an object and say what it’s not—you’ll think differently because you’re not trying to follow a generalization or stereotype.
Where Can You See These Techniques in Action?
One example that incorporates all of the techniques we’ve mentioned is the commercial shown on YouTube, Where’s the Beef. It depicts three elderly women examining a hamburger. The status games played generate our amusement — the loudest woman with the most gravelly voice is the smallest, the patty is totally tiny in comparison to the bun and even the pickle, which creates an incongruity; similarly, the use of the glasses elevates the status of the down-to-earth hamburger to the level of an heirloom and the lifting of the bun suggests it is really weighty. Additionally, the fact that three grandmothers is not the target audience for the commercial also increases the humorous effect. The commercial reincorporates or reiterates the line “Where’s the beef” as the actions and words of the other women change.
Another example of humor that uses three techniques can be found in the YouTube video Charlie Bit My Finger. The status game in the commercial is key: the older brother is the victim. When he inserts his finger, he gives up control (and lowers his status.) The younger brother laughs at the older brother’s pain and that turns the trope of “the older brother as bully” on its head. Charlie smiles at the point of maximum pain. And then, the older brother smiles at the end, which resituates him as the traditionally dominant older brother. The technique of stating the obvious is also used in the line “Charlie bit me” as the older brother continues reinserting. Reincorporation is also used: “Charlie bit me” and “That really hurt” are repeated. The delayed reaction (the “ow”) is also incongruous. The use of a British accent in this video is similar to the British accent of baby Stewie, the arguably funniest character in Family Guy. Americans often stereotype the British as proper and restrained, so when a dominant, aggressive baby speaks in a British accent, it is hilariously incongruous.
Know Yourself, Know Your Audience
The kid in the back of the class got a laugh when he was both true to himself and knew what other kids in the class would find funny. Even as an adult, in order to truly bond with other people through humor, you have to be yourself and read your audience correctly. Your expectations about people and your environment are different from those of the people around you and your awareness of both the common ground and the differences between you and your audience can help you tailor your humor to the other person.
Often we laugh when our expectations of rationality or conventional thought are overturned. Whenever someone starts speaking or acting, we are already anticipating what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end, based on our own past experiences. When we’re surprised by the speaker’s unexpected thought or action, we are jolted into another state. We experience both the prior prediction and the unexpected experience at the same time and the fact that they don’t match up causes us to laugh or smile. Similarly, we laugh when we’re tickled because it’s unexpected. You can’t tickle yourself because your
brain knows what to expect from your movements. However, when someone else tickles you, your mind can’t predict what comes next.
The tips we’ve described are not prescriptive; they are suggestions for increasing and expanding your repertoire with one or more people.
Your humor should feel authentic to you and emerge spontaneously from the actual circumstances and people that surround you. As with learning an instrument or playing a sport, when you practice being funny and draw material directly from your environment, you’ll grow more successful at it. Part of the practice of humor is to regularly step out of your comfort zone; you’ll only figure out what works for you if you give yourself permission to fail. And, if you keep in mind that people usually want to laugh, you boost your confidence and become funnier.
Ultimately, there are people that will find your natural way of being, talking, or acting — sometimes without intention — funny. We all know some people who say and act in ways that always make us laugh. We fall into the habit of laughing since we find ourselves easily amused by them. You can be that person for other people. Practice different kinds of humor, then find your own comedic voice!
Originally published at The Journal of the Palo Alto Institute on September 24, 2010.