Why We Laugh At Things

Humour is something that’s talked about plenty online but one thing I see rarely discussed when we’re mad about something is why things are funny. It’s understandable, because unless you’re me, you probably find this topic quite dull. Still, humour is a thing that, despite what you may want to think, does have some actual rules and conventions, and even a cause and effect. I, as someone who has done a single year of University am therefore in a perfect position to explain this enormous subject and I won’t mess it up at all, honest.

All humour derives from a subversion of expectation.

Your brain is a fairly sophisticated device that tries to keep track of the future, which it’s kind of bad at, but also pretty decent at, considering. When you see a ball thrown at you, your brain does all sorts of math to track where it’s going and can more or less work out where it’s going to end up and if it’s going to hit you in the face. You wake up each day with a general expectation of what’s going to happen in it, and your brain actually patterns behaviour based on that. Talking to people, you have the same thing; as they explain things to you, you will expect things. Want to see this in effect? Look at comedy shows from other countries, even subtitled. There will be social cues that you don’t understand, and therefore, when they are averted, you won’t understand why it’s funny – or even why it’s so funny. Even British comedy does this. Even surreal British comedy like Monty Python’s Flying Circus does this!

Of late I’m seeing people enraged by components of jokes, and the defense being it’s just a joke. I think that’s the wrong way to approach it. What you have to look for is to find what, in the joke, you’re meant to laugh at. What’s the expectation? Why is it meant to be funny?

I don’t want to use any examples for this. The ones I can think of are – or have now become touchstones of outrage and anger and legitimate hurt. Too often though, I’ll see a joke where the point of the joke is to highlight someone being an asshole – you’re meant to laugh at the bad person, with the bad view. But then people become caught up in arguing that the view they forward is the point of the joke. That there is one interpretation and the one they wield is the correct and harmful one.

(There’s also a whole extra nest of ‘this media is enjoyed by people it affects, but not all of them’ which I don’t want to get into).

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