Why Are We Laughing?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Scott Weems, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from UCLA and is now the author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, kicks off our "family meeting" on laughter by explaining why we laugh and discussing what a sense of humor means from a scientific and personal perspective.


Scott Weems

Comments [23]

Linda Griggs from LES

In rural America I've seen two kinds of humor side by side. One is corny and spoken, "What happened when lightning struck the milk cow? The farmer got left holding the bag." The other is cruel and in real life, "Reach over and grab that top wire. That fence isn't on." (It's an electric fence in case you're too provincial to know that)

Aug. 29 2014 10:25 AM

People should have a sense of humor,not be cranky .After saying that, there is overemphasis on smiling and laughing. I can't stand the phony cheerfulness of bank tellers and store personnel. I have answered questionnaires that asked "Were you greeted you with a smile?" It's absurd to be told "Smile and everything will be OK." It's really horrible that women are expected to smile so as to be appealing. Too much is said about the so-called benefits of smiling and "being happy." One does not automatically indicate the other. I have been without feeling like smiling,jumping for joy , or being upbeat. When I was told that I passed a math course in college I just told the professor that I was glad, but without any emotion. He told me "Well get up on a chair and shout, show some happiness." I don't usually laugh at jokes that I think are funny. . I have heard of people who don't feel like dancing to music that they really like, unlike a majority of people. Society has made it a big advertising type of thing about smiling and laughing and being happy. It is about being "happy" for merchandise that you buy that will make you look better, obtain better health, and be more successful .
Smiling is somehow or other said to be "good for you" and "what nature intended" and "what more people would do " if not for our modern world.I wonder about the scientific finding that smiling requires less use of facial muscles than frowning. The advice to smile has gotten a lot of mileage from this. but, smiling is not physically natural. Gravity makes it more natural for your mouth to droop downward at the corners. It is why people physically develop jowls. Frown lines have been marginalized. So the advice to smile means forcing yourself to make your mouth go upward at the corners which is more work than letting them droop without effort. Also isn't it better for you to use your muscles than avoid using them? Thus there is something contradictory there. Just because it is socially-unacceptable to frown does not mean that it is physically bad for you.
Also when you are told to smile, or "be happy" it is like telling someone to be white when they are black or black when they are white (physically only). You cannot just change your mood by smiling . And I don't initially agree with laughing at yourself and your misfortunes. It is like saying that your problems are not important and that you should allow others to define how important your dignity is, or whether you are worthy of respect.

May. 20 2014 12:50 PM
Harold from brooklyn

Humor can be subversive. In Umberto Eco's historical thriller, The Name of the Rose, they are looking for Aristotle's lost book on Comedy and it is the persecuting spirit of the blind grand inquisitor who will stop at nothing to prevent them from finding it. Of course he represents religion in its worst aspect -- that of fanatical narrowness and intolerance. But it has sometimes occurred to me that Eco's characters might have been disappointed if they found Aristotle's book, because I get the sense that in antiquity they did see laughter as a form of aggression. In formal classical rhetoric, for example, humor (say, in a speech) was only considered acceptable if it had a moral, corrective purpose. Thus you get those French classical French comedies, about "the miser", "the misanthrope", etc. Things not to do. Not that these plays couldn't be full of high spirits. But the joke is at someone's expense (someone deserving) and ultimately on all of us, as Falstaff says:
"Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me:the brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not
able to invent anything that tends to laughter, more than I invent or is invented on me: I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men."

Almost a third of Castiglione's "The Courtier" (c. 1520), a sort of elevated courtesy or self help book that was a huge European best seller for several centuries, and which deeply influenced Shakespeare, is devoted to a surprisingly tedious section on jokes. The characters in The Courtier spend a lot of time insisting that you shouldn't make fun of people's deformities or other their physical characteristics, such as being short or fat, and any thing they can't help.
We moderns have internalized this idea of this to such an extent that it is really old news to us, but it was a new concept at the time, apparently. You were supposed to poke fun at things that people had it in their power to correct. The "perfect" courtier, was supposed to use humor to bring people, particularly the ruler, around to common sense. (like a sort of Renaissance Stephen Colbert) in a non-offensive way.

I am planning to read "Ha!" with interest.

May. 20 2014 11:43 AM
Shimon Silman from Crown Heights

Yechi HaMelech HaMoshiach!

I enjoyed this fascinating segment.

Here's something very interesting about laughter from the Jewish Talmud: It says that when the Rabbi comes to deliver a lecture, he should start off with a joke. This will open the minds of the students.

I am a mathematics professor at Touro College and when I teach Calculus, which many students find difficult, if I have a good joke I tell it and it works! They learn better afterwards.

May. 20 2014 11:29 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

SNL is not funny and hasn't been for decades. I guess the IQ of New Yorkers and other Americans has been so diminished by the idiot tube that almost anything can pass for "humor" these days.

May. 20 2014 11:07 AM
Keith from Monroe, NY

I am from Minnesota and have been living in New York for 40 years. Minnesotans are exceptionally polite, so they enjoy jokes that violate politeness. Quadriplegic jokes and dead baby jokes were big there. What wo you call a quad in the pool? Bob. What do you call a quad on the mantle? Art. What do you call a Latina quad? Consuelo (I know--oooh!). What's the difference between a truck load of bowling balls and a truck load of dead babies? You can't unload the bowling balls with a pitchfork.

They are also given to verbal irony, which appears in their subtle advertising as well as in everyday conversation. The verbal irony I grew up with, however, had an unhappy effect on me. When I moved to Chicago, I could never accept a compliment. In Minnesota, if some said, "Nice hair," they meant my hair looked really awful. In Chicago, "nice hair" meant "nice hair." I would reply to the complement with, "Yeah, right." I suspected that everyone was insincere.

"Fargo" provides a good sense of understated Minnesota humor.

May. 20 2014 11:07 AM
Annette Sara Cunningham

I think laughter has a life as an aphrodisiac. I'm writing a book on Making Sense of Experience and one of the chapters explores laughter as an aphrodisiac. Hammerstein might have been on to this when he wrote "Don't laugh at my jokes too much, people will say we're in love." Think about it. When two people laugh at the same things it shows that they share a view of life. You don't have a common sense of the incongruous unless you also share a sense of what's "congruous." So laughter can also be a signal that out of the amorphous "them" the two of you are in some way an "us." So here's a salute to an aphrodisiac that's healthy, inexpensive and a really good signal of compatibility.
I was surprised when a member of today's family meeting noted that religious people laugh less. The late, great John Chancellor observed that if you want to make God laugh you tell Him your plans. I think the whole enterprise of relating to God is one of the best, kindest jokes going and that the freedom to laugh is one of the great fringe benefits of being a believer.
Thanks for the daily enrichment!
Annette Sara Cunningham

May. 20 2014 11:06 AM
sara from nyc

Estelle: I agree!

May. 20 2014 10:58 AM
Estelle from Brooklyn

to Sara:

Exporting Raymond is even funnier than the original Raymond shows.

May. 20 2014 10:51 AM
Janet from Brooklyn

My personal experience suggests sense of humor is about nurture more than nature. I was cracking wise at public official's funeral and an Irish woman looked quizzically at my olive skinned Jewish face and said, "You're Irish aren't you?" I explained that my orphaned grandfather was taken in by the local firehouse in Chicago and raised by Irish firemen right off the boat. He took care of me until I was eight so evidently the sense of humor that rubbed off on him was passed down to me.

May. 20 2014 10:50 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I find very, very, very few women to be funny, with some prominent exceptions. Tracy Ullman was/is the funniest woman ever, period. Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, and a handful of others, but they are very distinct exceptions.

May. 20 2014 10:43 AM
John A

Religious people as more self-deprecating? See Garrison Keillor for a grand example of this BTW.

May. 20 2014 10:42 AM
Anne from Rutherford, NJ

I remember being a student in England in 1983. I went to a screening on campus of a Woody Allen film and I was laughing my head off - and I was the only one. Everyone else was silent. Go figure.

May. 20 2014 10:41 AM
sara from nyc

See "Exporting Raymond" - a documentary on Phil Rosenthal's experiences during the making of "Voroniny," the Russian-language version of "Everybody Loves Raymond". Somethings don't translate that easily!

May. 20 2014 10:40 AM
Tony from Canarsie

It was Python Graham Chapman's funeral. It's easy to remember since he's the only dead one, not counting the parrot.

May. 20 2014 10:35 AM
Tony from Canarsie

Speaking of comedy and Whole Foods, I fail to see the humor in Whole Foods CEO John Mackey being a climate change denier, or in his claiming that Obamacare is "fascism."

May. 20 2014 10:28 AM
The Truth from Becky

FUNNY - Jerry Seinfeld
NOT FUNNY - Seth McFarland

May. 20 2014 10:24 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

The only TV shows that have made me actually laugh over the last decade have been (1) The Simpsons, (2) Colbert Report, and (3) Monk. Most of what passes for "humor" today is pretty low brow. I do believe that true wit requires some intelligence, but that is not necessarily the demographic that is easily susceptible to mindless consumption. The advertizers need to appeal to the mindless masses which is why though some of us are turning off cable TV, TV itself will never die. Because the stupid will always be with us.

May. 20 2014 10:18 AM

Comedy not tragedy plus time -- it is comedy minus suffering. You can be in terrible pain (like Tig Notaro), but if you are able to joke about it, you can reassure yourself and others that it will be OK (even if it won't be OK). Laughter is resilience; life is resilience.

May. 20 2014 10:15 AM

Laughing is always the best medicine. I have no idea why when I got married I laughed all through the ceremony. My husband to be did not think it was funny.


May. 20 2014 10:12 AM
Nat from Manhattan

Speaking of using comedy to combat insults: the classic scene in Steve Martin's "Roxanne" when a bully tries to insult his nose; Martin comes back with 20 better insults - of his own nose.

May. 20 2014 10:12 AM
Edward from NJ

The clip from Saturday Night Live was three weeks after 9/11 -- not four days.

May. 20 2014 10:11 AM

Isn't all humor innately Aggressive? It must have a target or it's not funny. That's why self-depricating humor is the most appealing to others. It's better for them if we're aggressive toward ourselves, instead of at others. We laugh to signal commradery in the aggression. But it doesn't always work.

May. 20 2014 10:08 AM

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