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Professor Glenn Wilson, Gresham College, London HAVING A LAUGH? COMEDY AND COMEDIANS.

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Presentation on theme: "Professor Glenn Wilson, Gresham College, London HAVING A LAUGH? COMEDY AND COMEDIANS."— Presentation transcript:

1 Professor Glenn Wilson, Gresham College, London HAVING A LAUGH? COMEDY AND COMEDIANS

2 THAT’S AN OLD ONE The earliest recorded joke is a riddle found among the hieroglyphics in the tomb of Pharaoh Snefru ( BC). Attributed to an impertinent architect who may have risked execution (Lowis, 2013). Q. How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? A. You sail a boatload of young women down the Nile, dressed only in fishing nets, and invite the pharaoh to go catch a fish. Apparently little has changed in 4500 years.

3 TOUCHING THE TABOO Humour is a safety valve. Emotional power often derives from an instinctive, libidinal element (e.g., sex, aggression, fear of death). Tension is relieved by some trick or twist that makes clear it is all “just in fun”, what Freud (1905) called the joke technique. If people are sexually aroused (e.g., by viewing erotic movies) they find most jokes funnier. In The Meaning of Life John Cleese is a schoolmaster attempting to give a sex education lesson to a typically bored and disruptive classroom of boys.

4 THE PUT-DOWN One form of hostility is disparagement (assertion of superiority against a background of shortcomings in others). May be directed against an individual or type of person (e.g., ethnic and sexist jokes). My mother-in-law has more chins than the Beijing telephone directory (Les Dawson). Put-downs are enjoyed by the in-group (those who “get the joke” share the stereotype) but are usually unfunny or offensive to the victims (Ferguson & Ford, 2008). We also smile at the misfortune of others (schadenfreude), esp. when victim is disliked, high-status and envied, e.g., bankers (Cikara &Fiske, 2013).

5 INCONGRUITY RESOLUTION Some jokes are neither libidinous nor targeted at out-groups but focus on intellectual conceits, word-play, juxtaposition and surprise. Hurley et al (2011) consider this cognitive puzzle-solving aspect is central to humour. The mind is constantly engaged in anticipation of events and correction of presumptions. Mirth arises from a sudden debunking of expectation or restructuring of perception (a reward for exercising an important survival skill). How do you stop an elephant charging? – Take away its credit card.

6 BENIGN VIOLATIONS A theory covering many types of joke is that humour depends on an overlap between what is a violation of normal and what is benign (McGraw & Warren, 2010). It applies to intellectual violations (e.g., absurdities and non-sequiturs) as well as immoral and embarrassing behaviour. An example is play fighting, which is simultaneously threatening and harmless. A joke is not funny when it is either too tame or too risqué (a boundary that is constantly changing).

7 OBSERVATIONAL HUMOUR Jokes may be funny because we recognise truth in them (Lynch, 2010). Stand-ups like Jo Brand or Michael McIntyre work with stereotypes but also detail the little hassles of everyday life (e.g., public transport, shopping trolleys, ill-fitting clothes, dating mishaps). Pleasure derives from familiarity with the plight of the characters. They reassure us that others experience similar frustrations to our own. We are “all in the same boat”.

8 CRINGE COMEDY Some comedy focuses on social awkwardness and violations of political correctness. Often takes the form of mockumentaries, e.g., The Office (Ricky Gervais), or Summer Heights High (Chris Lilley), with characters unaware of how excruciating they are. In others the embarrassment is shared (Extras, Curb Your Enthusiasm). Fear of social stigma or exclusion is a major source of anxiety in humans (Clegg, 2012), hence shyness and stage fright. At a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than the guy delivering the eulogy (Jerry Seinfeld). David Brent (Ricky Gervais) is a self-important, yet insecure, office manager lacking self-insight.

9 RIDICULE Satire mocks people and institutions that are too rigid and pompous. It points up stupidity, hypocrisy and social injustice (hoping to promote change). Moliere’s Tartuffe is a pious fraud who infiltrates a man’s home, exploits his hospitality and tries to seduce his wife. The play lasted one night in 1667 before being banned by Church authorities. Gilbert & Sullivan’s characters include a senile judge, an admiral who has never been to sea, a queen with the hots for a sentry and a man who is “half a fairy” commissioned to make the House of Lords sit through the grouse and salmon season and be opened to competitive examination. Like modern court jesters, comedians represent our eccentric and subversive nature and seek to knock down sacred cows. When first released in 1979, The Life of Brian was declared blasphemous in many parts of the world. Some Christians saw it as making fun of Jesus. In fact, it was aimed at blind faith and the quest for gurus. In 2006 it was rated “the greatest comedy film of all time” (Ch. 4 poll).

10 HUMOUR IN THE BRAIN Moran et al (2004) recorded fMRI responses to full episodes of Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Humour detection was associated with activity in the left inferior frontal brain (A and B) = verbal processing. Humour appreciation went with bilateral activity in the insular cortex (C) and amygdala (D) = emotional areas. The cognitive aspects of humour (“getting” the joke) and emotional (“enjoying” the joke) have discrete neural correlates.

11 BRAIN DAMAGE Children with focal epilepsy find jokes less funny than controls (Suits et al, 2012). Damage to the corpus callosum impairs narrative jokes but cartoons are still enjoyed (Brown et al, 2005). Lesions in the right hemisphere affect humour appreciation more than left damage (Stammi & Stuss, 1999). Autistic individuals and schizophrenics have difficulty with jokes that involve inference of mental states in others (Samson & Hegenloh, 2010; Marjoram et al, 2005). This joke used by Bartolo et al (2006) requires an inference of altruistic intent in Picture A, reversed in B.

12 TODDLERS’ JOKES Children generate humour from an early age (Hoicka & Akhtar, 2012). During their first year they copy jokes (e.g., peekaboo, chasing). By age 2/3 novel jokes are produced, including deliberate conceptual errors (e.g., pig says “moo”), comic acts (e.g., underpants on head) and breaching taboos (e.g., spitting food). Parents signal joke-mode with special speech styles. Children share humour with them by smiling, laughing and looking for a reaction.

13 HOW TICKLED I AM Tickling is prototypic of humour (Provine 2004): 1. Occurs in many non- humans (producing sounds similar to laughter). 2. Is playful, teasing and usually pleasurable (with sexual overtones). 3. Involves stimulation of vulnerable parts of the body (requiring trust). 5. Cannot effectively be done to oneself (hence socially bonding). 6. Humour may be considered “a mind tickle”.

14 THE SUBMISSIVE SMILE Humour inhabits the overlap between laughing and smiling. These have separate, almost opposite, origins. Laughter signals triumph and dominance, smiling conveys appeasement and submission (closed teeth are harmless). Women smile more than men (even when on trial for murder). When boxers square up before a fight the one who smiles tends to lose (Klaus & Chen, 2013).

15 LAUGHING WITH, LAUGHING AT Laughter is a primitive, pre-verbal from of emotional expression, seen in many animals from rodents to primates. Signals intent to play, not attack. A contagious social activity, occurring mostly in face-to-face interaction among friends. We are 30x more likely to laugh with others than on our own (Scott, 2013). Confirms membership of a group (joyful bonding) but can also be used to exclude an individual from a group (taunting laughter).

16 CORPSING A volcanic, yet endearing form of laughter occurs when a person knows it is inappropriate to laugh but can’t contain it. Attempts to suppress giggles turn to uncontrollable, highly contagious, fits of laughter. Said to derive from actors on stage attempting to make the “corpse” laugh, but could refer to the helpless, corpse- like state of the victim. Peter Cook was expert at getting Dudley Moore to laugh in the middle of their live sketches by ad libbing. A famous case of corpsing occurred in a BBC cricket commentary when Jonathan Agnew (Aggers) observed that Ian Botham was out, having “failed to get his leg over”. His co- commentator Brian Johnston (Jonners) struggled some minutes to regain self-control.

17 HUMOUR PREFERENCES Humour preferences relate to personality and social attitudes. Liberals like sexual, aggressive & disparaging cartoons; conservatives prefer “safe”, word-based, intellectual jokes, especially those that provide “incongruity resolution” (feelings of closure). (Wilson, 1990)

18 SEXISM IN HUMOUR Overall, men and women find the world equally funny (Azim et al, 2005) but they differ in what they laugh at. Men are more drawn to libidinous and competitive themes; women to clever word-play. Despite a recent spate of advertisements in which men are depicted as incompetent fools, both men and women often prefer female- disparaging humour. This interacts with attitudes: those with less traditional views of women’s role show reduced preference for sexist humour (Moore et al, 1987).

19 HUMOUR AS FANTASY Although sexually explicit humour is often regarded as sexist, there are interesting variations within women as to which jokes they prefer. Women who were physically less attractive, as rated by external (male) judges, were more religious & anti- hedonistic than attractive women on an attitude questionnaire. However, their ratings of seaside postcards revealed a preference for those depicting “shapely” women as the focus of lecherous male attention. Wilson & Brazendale (1973) interpreted this vicarious gratification deriving from deprivation. Attractive women favoured more anatomical, female- assertive cartoons.

20 MAKE ‘EM LAUGH Humour has mating value – signalling intelligence and creativity (good genes). Attractive people are seen as funnier and humour boosts attractiveness (Cowan & Little, 2013), particularly for short-term flings. Women are 3x more likely to give their phone number to a suitor they have just heard tell a joke to a friend (Gueguen, 2010). Women want a partner who is both receptive to humour and funny; men just want a partner who will laugh at their jokes (Bressler, et al, 2006).

21 BAD HUMOUR, BAD MARRIAGE Humour style relates to marital satisfaction and divorce (Saraglou et al, 2010). Constructive, affiliative and self- enhancing humour went with happy and stable marriages. Antisocial, sarcastic and vulgar humour went with poor relationships and divorce. Insecure, self-depreciating humour in women went with relationship satisfaction in their husband but an also an increased likelihood of divorce.

22 HUMOUR SELLS Humour is used in advertising to gain attention and to build warm, playful associations with a product. It is effective in increasing sales but only when the ad is likeable, not irritating. It operates to combat people’s natural resistance to aggressive marketing through a process of distraction. Viewers of funny ads do not necessarily remember the brand afterwards but make the positive association with the right product once in the store (Strick et al, 2013).

23 HUMOUR AS COPING A sense of humour can operate as a defence against adverse, inescapable circumstances, e.g., disability or mortality (Moran, 2003). It helps screen out negative aspects of reality and promotes optimism. Two recurrent themes in the comedy of Woody Allen, encapsulated in the title of film Love and Death, seem to reflect personal issues. He seems to have an unhappy, “jaundiced” view of the world, with particular anxiety concerning his perceived unattractiveness to women. In many of his films Allen seems engaged in self-therapy, playing “the geek that gets the girl” by dint of his wit (which he also achieves in real life).

24 GALLOWS HUMOUR A defensive form in which people make witticisms in the face of hopeless adversity. Sir Thomas More, ascending the scaffold: I pray you Mr Lieutenant, see me up safe. Sick humour may seem insensitive in the wake of major tragedies like 9/11, yet clearly functions as a coping strategy. Widely used by undertakers, medical and emergency workers for catharsis and distancing from intolerable situations but danger of fostering disrespectful attitudes to clients (Sullivan, 2013). Always Look on the Bright Side is currently among the most popular funeral songs in the UK.

25 THE WAY OF THE COMEDIAN According to Force (2011) many comedians suffered unhappy, abusive childhoods and developed humour as a way of overcoming personal trauma. If you can find humour in anything you can survive it (Bill Cosby). Clowns are experts at reframing tragic circumstances into funny ones, hence serve as “social therapists”. They directly address fears and concerns that most people prefer to deny or conceal. Glaswegian comedian Billy Connolly says he was physically and sexually abused by his alcoholic father from ages

26 MYTH OF THE SAD CLOWN Despite some famous instances (e.g. Tony Hancock) the idea that comedians are especially prone to depression and suicide is not empirically supported. Stand-up comedians are not distinguished by high neuroticism, and their parents were no less caring than comparison groups (Greengross et al, 2012). An elevated suicide rate in comics might have been expected because some suffer bipolar mood disorder (Spike Milligan, Ruby Wax) but these high profile cases may have led to an exaggerated estimate of psychopathology in comics. Comedian David Walliams has suffered depression all his life, with several attempts at suicide. However, he is not typical.

27 LAUGHTER AS MEDICINE Numerous health benefits have been cited for humour and laughter, including mood improvement, stress relief, muscle relaxation, lowered blood pressure and strengthening of the heart. Most are intuitively plausible and findings are generally positive, though seldom meeting scientific criteria (Martin, 2002; Mora- Ripoll, 2010)). Widely held that humour and laughter bolster immune capability, but there are various measures and evidence is mixed and inconclusive (Bennett & Lengacher, 2009). More persuasive, are reports that laughing releases endorphins, which have painkilling and social bonding effects (Dunbar et al, 2012).

28 HUMOUR AND LONGEVITY The ultimate health benefit might be an increased life expectation. Svebak et al (2010): sense of humour correlates with subjective health and independently improves survival, at least up until age 65. Longevity studies of professional comedians come from the premise that if laughter is “good medicine” clowns ought to live longer. Despite one or two famous examples (Bob Hope and George Burns) comedians, and other performers, actually die younger than comparable professions (Friedman, 2013). Suggests that health benefits of humour may apply more to audience than the clowns. George Burns: “The secret of longevity is to live to 100. You don’t hear of too many people dying after that”

29 IN CONCUSSION There are many different types of humour and no single theory seems adequate to account for them all. Psychological investigations of jokes and how they help us to release tensions and cope with life’s problems are interesting and informative but of little help to comedians in honing their skills and generating funny material. Comedians make better psychologists than psychologists make comedians. Ken Dodd: The trouble with Freud is that he never played second house at the Glasgow Empire on a wet Tuesday.


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