No laughing matter

This weekend the Emmy awards were handed out, and while there wasn’t much controversy over the recipients, (Jon Cryer not withstanding), comments made in a live blog of the ceremony by Nikki Finke caused quite a stir. In response to Julie Bowen winning for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, Finke snarked

Listen-up, Hollywood: Beautiful actresses are not funny. They don’t know how to do comedy…Only women who grew up ugly and stayed ugly, or through plastic surgery became beautiful, can pull off sitcoms or standups…Because it’s all about emotional pain and humiliation and rising above both by making people laugh with you instead of at you. So stop casting beautiful actresses when you should be giving ugly women a chance.

The hilarious and beautiful Elizabeth Banks, in my favourite comedy of all time, Wet Hot American Summer

The comment angered quite a few people, and the beautiful and hilarious Elizabeth Banks posted a great response to the comment. The comment by Finke resulted in several sites publishing lists of women whom are both funny and attractive. If you dare venture into the comments section of either of those pages, you will see not only a discussion of what/who is considered attractive, but also what/who is considered funny.

Attractiveness and humour, two very subjective things, or are they?

While there has been research into objectively measuring attractiveness, such as using pattern analysis and facial recognition software, or morphometric measures such as body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio, the objective analysis of what constitutes funny is much less developed. And maybe that is a good thing, E.B. White noted that “Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind,” basically, to explain a joke is to kill it.

For a perfect example, see this paper in Review of General Psychology titled It’s Funny Because It’s True (because it evokes our evolved psychology), which analyses the intersection of evolutionary psychology and popular culture by dissecting the Chris Rock HBO Specials. The author notes that “the hilarity of Rock’s stand-up stems, in part, from his invocations of sex differences in the evolved psychological mechanisms underlying romantic relationships.” Hilarious. He then goes on to demonstrate the theory and evidence of evolutionary psychology that underpin some of Chris Rock’s routines on romantic relationships, by translating and dissecting Rock’s material into its psychology equivalent. It its about as funny as it sounds, well it actually is kind of funny.

The above paper demonstrates that dissecting a joke, can often take away its humour. But Sharon McCoy at Humor in America, notes that through dissection we are able to learn much about ourselves and about context. She also notes that sometimes explaining the joke, can become the joke, and that the explanation-as-joke trope can be quite effective when someone uses it deliberately.

It is a rather clever jab at inter-office politics, or maybe a slice of life, or a pun

The explanation-as-joke trope was taken to an extreme in the Seinfeld episode The Cartoon. In the episode, Elaine (the beautiful and funny, Emmy award winning, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) struggles to find the humor in a New Yorker Cartoon. A frustrated Elaine confronts the cartoon editor, trying to find out why this cartoon is funny, the editor replies with “cartoons are like gossamer, and one doesn’t dissect gossamer.” Before eventually conceding that he printed it because he “liked the kitty”. Elaine later writes her own cartoon which gets published in the New Yorker, only to have to explain the joke to her friends and colleagues who do not find it that funny. One of the actual editors of the new Yorker cartoons, Robert Mankoff, has a great series of posts (part 1, 2, and 3), which outlines why Elaine’s caption wasn’t funny, and then introduces a contest to have readers come up with a caption for Elaine’s cartoon.

The winning captions were 1) The hairs on my chinny chin chin got caught in your damn escalator, 2) Whenever I eat an apple, everyone assumes that I’m dead, and 3) Stop sending me spam!  I still prefer Kramer’s caption.

In his posts, Mankoff cites Arthur Koestler’s description of creative processes behind humour, art, and science, which relies on the term “bisociation“. According to Koestler, bisociation occurs when something is “simultaneously perceived from the perspective of two self-consistent but normally unrelated and even incompatible frames of reference.” The pun has been called the simplest form of biosociation, and understanding what goes on in our brains when we hear a pun could mean the difference between life and death.

**Update** Jan. 26 2013 –  It looks as though the study described below has been questioned for using flawed statistical analyses and not properly discerning from background noise. The back and forth between the study’s critics, led by Andrew Goldfine, and the study authors is quite a fascinating read. Here is a link to the original article, the original critique, the authors’ response to the original critique, a re-analysis of the data and critique, and the authors’ response to the re-analysis. That is how peer review in science works, back and forth, revising and revisiting ideas, and eventually self-correcting. It is a beautiful thing.

At least that is the hope of a study from the University of Western Ontario titled Why Clowns Taste Funny: The Relationship between Humor and Sematic Ambiguity. In the study, researchers used fMRI to scan the brains of healthy adults as they were told jokes and puns. The jokes activated certain parts of the brain associated with experiencing pleasure, and the funnier the joke, the greater the brain activity. Puns also increased activity in the part of the brain used to decode language, specifically in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). The authors found that the left IFG lights up more during funny puns than regular jokes, and shows more activity during funny puns than unfunny puns. While this differentiation may seem trivial, and doesn’t help us to understand why something is funny, it does present what the authors hope to be a useful tool in determining the emotional status of individual, specifically a comatose and vegetative individual. Previous research by the authors  demonstrated that some comatose patients are capable of communicating yes/no answers through fMRI. This result could have serious implications in the decision to remove a patient from life support, specifically, if a patient that is able to answer yes/no questions, should they be asked if they want to live or die? At the time of their original study, the authors cautioned against this, noting that “Just because a patient is able to respond with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ doesn’t tell you if they have the necessary level of competence to answer difficult, ethically challenging questions about their destiny.”  The results of the joke and pun study bring the authors one step closer to being able to access and assess the emotional state of a comatose patient, hoping that by tapping into various humor circuits with jokes, they could gauge the emotional capacity of an unconscious patient. It is a neat application of both puns and fMRI, but there is still a long way to go before it can be fully realized.

While the fMRI is not able to discern why something is funny, it is clear from her remarks that neither is Nikki Finke. Despite how much I disagree with her opinion (which is a lot), it is hers to have, and it really highlights how subjective comedy can be, despite the efforts to dissect it through evolutionary psychology. The next couple of posts will feature my subjective views on comedy, and some of the more humorous science stories out there.

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