What Makes Something Funny?

Ever wonder what makes something funny? E.B. White once wrote that "humor 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." A look at an explanation behind the punch line.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now, a search for the genetic code of humor. E.B. White once wrote that humor 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.

Well, that didn't discourage NPR's Jinae West from asking minds both scientific and comedic about one of life's great mysteries. What makes something funny?

JINAE WEST: We'll get to the science of funny in a minute. Let's start, though, with someone who studies comedy without a lab coat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEIL CASEY: My name is Neil Casey(ph). I am a member of the improv comedy troupe Death by Roo Roo at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York.

WEST: Death by Roo Roo performs every Saturday night. In the first half of the show, they ask the audience to volunteer a story about their family - the more dysfunctional, the better - and then improvise scenes around it.

In the second half, they take a single suggestion and create their own storyline.

(Soundbite of performance)

WEST: Everything is made up on the spot - no scripts, no stage direction. So what's funny? Death by Roo Roo member Neil Casey says it's...

Mr. CASEY: In developing what we call games in scenes, which are patterns that are based on something interesting or unusual in the scene, and then we figure out a way to build a pattern off of it.

WEST: Let's say you're in a movie theater with Neil. You try to enjoy the film, but he keeps finding ways to interrupt. He wears a large hat and asked to remove it, says...

Mr. CASEY: Sure, no problem. I'll take this hat right off.

WEST: But then he wants to eat your popcorn, and talks loudly on the phone.

Mr. CASEY: And every time you'd say, excuse me, sir, could you please stop that, I would go: Oh, yes, of course, I apologize. I never meant to bother you at all. And then, of course, I would figure out new ways to do exactly what I just promised not to do.

WEST: OK, patterns and repetition make us laugh. So do things that happen in threes. But what do people who aren't onstage think? At least in psychology, the prevailing theory of humor has been the incongruity resolution - or the realization that two things don't go together, and the brain's attempt to fix it.

In 2003, a team of researchers at Dartmouth College conducted a study to pinpoint the neural responses to humor.

(Soundbite of "The Simpsons" theme music)

WEST: Test subjects watched episodes of "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld" while an FMRI scanner monitored their brain activity. The results showed a difference between humor detection and humor appreciation.

The study found that when we detect a joke - the incongruity - it activates the front left part of the brain that makes sense of competing ideas. When we appreciate a joke, that's the resolution. Activity moves to the so-called pleasure center and generates an emotional response, which sounds something like...

(Soundbite of TV show "Seinfeld")

Michael Richards (Actor): (As Kramer) I'm out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WEST: Joe Moran helped to lead the study in 2003, and is now a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University. Although theories of humor exist, Joe says that doesn't mean a formula exists, too. We're not all naturally funny. Two people can deliver the same joke, but one will probably tell it better, and anyway...

Mr. JOE MORAN: Humor relies upon the unexpected. I think that's one of the kind of major ingredients of humor - is the idea that when something is found to be funny, then what was just happening, or what precipitated it, is something that was unexpected. That, in some way, kind of tickles this response in the brain.

WEST: The average person laughs about 17 times per day, often without realizing it. And most of what we find humorous aren't jokes but everyday witticisms and daily interactions with friends, with co-workers, with family.

Ms. MEREDITH SCARDINO (Writer, "The Colbert Report"): My dad pitched me a TV series, but before he would tell me what it was, he made me agree to be 50-50 partners with him.

WEST: That's Meredith Scardino, a writer for "The Colbert Report."

Ms. SCARDINO: And I said, no, that's a terrible deal. I'm not going to agree. And he goes: No, no, no, it's such a great idea, you're going to love it. And he said: Okay, it's an amazing idea. It's "Seinfeld" in an orphanage.

WEST: Let's circle back to E.B. White. Humor, he writes, has a certain fragility, an evasiveness which one had best respect. Essentially, it is a complete mystery.

(Soundbite of "Seinfeld" theme music)

WEST: Well, almost. Jinae West, NPR News.

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