The science of humour


What is about jokes that either makes us laugh or roll our eyes? Comedy comes in a variety of forms, from physical comedy to knock-knock jokes to coy references to derogatory remarks, and many in between. The impact of humour depends on one’s mood, stress level, and willingness to laugh. Because of this, not every joke is funny to everyone.

For instance, think of your childhood. There was a whirlwind of knock-knock jokes (always a classic), toilet talk (some guys never grow out of it), and then real dirty jokes, ones that go way beyond “the horse fell in the mud” (but those came along with puberty). Depending on your mature personality, you may find those old jokes ridiculous. Or maybe you still like to crack one of them now and then because the humour isn’t lost on you.

So what makes things funny?

There is no specific or formula answer here. There are contradictory theories because there are so many types of humour. In physical comedy, when we see someone trip over their own feet and go crashing to the ground, we laugh. This could be from the relief that we’re not the ones falling, which of course makes the situation funny. Some jokes are made up of simple truths; concepts that we see in everyday life that can be twisted (by wording or changing the plot a little bit) into something unexpected, yet not out of the realm of reality. For example: “I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather… not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”

Sometimes you laugh even when you know what’s coming at the end of the joke or the end of a scene in a movie. So here’s the contradiction in humour: we laugh if we expect it or if it’s unexpected. But these are two different types of laughs. If we expect it, we’re laughing, thinking, “Yeah, I knew that would happen.” When it’s unexpected, however, like something magical happening at the end of a joke, we laugh out of surprise. There are techniques with humour to pull out these responses from the audience.

Comedians know how to make people laugh, by using familiarity (jokes about our own culture and situations) and the unfamiliar (referencing people or places we don’t know about, giving the element of surprise and intrigue). Scriptwriters are able to use people to create humour in dialogue. This creates more complex comedy by using stereotypical personalities of the different characters: e.g., the “stupid” character is usually the butt of the jokes. Other techniques are exaggeration, self-deprecation (certain comedians specialize in this), and timing.

In most forms of comedy, timing is extremely important. For instance, if you wait to deliver a punch line, whether you forgot what it is and have to remember or get distracted halfway through telling a joke, it’s unlikely you’ll get any laughs. You’ve got to be quick and confident in telling jokes, otherwise it gets boring and uninteresting. This is why comedians are so good at what they do. They carefully plan what they’re going to say so there aren’t any awkward pauses that make the joke fall flat. It’s also why witty people are so funny in everyday conversations; they can think of that sarcastic comment quick enough to snap it out just in time. One major piece of advice for everyone: don’t wait too long to make a joke. If you’re having a conversation with your friends and you want to crack a line about a prof, do it fast before the conversation changes to something else. It’s not funny when the joke doesn’t relate to the conversation at all. (If your friends do laugh when this happens, they’re not laughing at the joke… trust me.)

The use of techniques and knowing who’s listening will make something funny. Humour isn’t the same for everyone, so a certain amount of caution is involved in comedy. Making jokes about religion and politics is only appropriate when you know the views of whoever you’re telling it to (or if you’re a comedian who gets paid to be vulgar). This includes racist jokes, derogatory remarks, and sexual references—only do it if you know your audience! Some people do find that stuff funny, and others don’t, so be careful and avoid being offensive.

One quick joke to wrap this up: How do you know you’re a university student? You skip one class to write a paper for another. Ba-da-bing.