No Joke

Why Even Tragedy Gets A Laugh — When comedian Tig Notaro found out she had breast cancer, she incorporated the grim news into her stand-up routine—and got quite a few laughs from the audience. Notaro and neuroscientist Robert Provine discuss the origins of laughter, what separates the amusing from the truly funny, and why even tragedy sometimes gets a laugh.

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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Flora Lichtman.

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

And I'm Ira Flatow.

LICHTMAN: Ira, have you ever tried to laugh on cue? Actually, I'd like you to try. Will you try to do this right now? OK, but no laughing first.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: That's your Halloween laugh.

FLATOW: Yeah, for my kids. It's hard to do it.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, and there's a reason why it's really hard to do it. It's because laughing is not a mindful, voluntary act according to our next guest. It's not like speaking. It's out of our control. It's contagious, and we're programmed to do it. But why do we laugh in the first place? What's the point, and how did laughter evolve?

I mean, do you think our ancestors were telling each other one-liners?

FLATOW: I think they were the first knock-knock jokes.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Well, our guest has a theory about this, so let's bring him on. Robert Provine is the author of "Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond." He's also a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in Baltimore. He joins us from WYPR today. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Provine.

ROBERT PROVINE: Pleased to be with you.

LICHTMAN: What is laughter, first of all?

PROVINE: Laughter is the sound of labored breathing of rough-and-tumble play, where the panning sound of our exertions became ha ha. So the ancestral chimp laughter is a panting sound. Being a chimp in good standing, I'll give you a sample.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIMP LAUGHING)

LICHTMAN: That's a chimp laugh, you say?

PROVINE: Yeah, that's where it all started, this in-and-out sound. And in humans it evolved into ha ha, where I'm chopping an exhalation, just as I'm chopping the sounds of speech in talking to you now.

LICHTMAN: And what does that mean, rough-and-tumble play? It means that people made this, or our ancestors made this noise to signal it's OK, keep tumbling?

PROVINE: Yeah, laughter is literally the sound of the labored breathing of rough-and-tumble play, where in modern humans, instead of making the panting sound, we do the symbolic ha-ha-ha sound, but it's a sound that I'm playing with you, I'm not attacking you.

LICHTMAN: And laughter is contagious, too, right?

PROVINE: Yeah, laughter and other behaviors. When we laugh when we hear another person laugh, we don't think I wonder what that person over there is doing, just as we don't yawn when we see another person yawn or cough when we hear another person cough or even scratch when we hear another or see another person scratching.

We have these neurological processes in our brain that when activated replicates the action that we just saw. So we humans in many ways are beasts of the herd. We are not the consciously controlled, voluntary, rational beings that we fancy ourselves.

FLATOW: So how did tickling then get connected to laughter?

PROVINE: Well, tickle would be probably the ancestral form of laugh production because after all that gets the rough-and-tumble play going. In fact tickle is a neurologically programmed social act that involves give and take. You tickle another person, and you reciprocate. So it binds us together in rough-and-tumble play.

It's also the source of my candidate for the most ancient joke, it's the I'm-going-to-get-you joke. You know, we often - yeah, we often do it with babies, and it's the only joke that you can tell both to babies as well as the chimpanzee. It's the I'm going to get you, I'm going to get you.

LICHTMAN: So it's not the knock-knock joke, Ira, it turns out.

PROVINE: No, it's not the knock-knock.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I'm glad we cleared that up.

LICHTMAN: If you have observations about laughter, maybe from your own life, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Or you can tweet us by writing the @ sign, @scifri. That's our Twitter handle. And I want to bring in another guest now because we have a sort of interesting laughter case study from the field, so to speak.

Back in August, writer and comedian Tig Notaro performed a set at the club Largo in L.A., and about this set, comedian Louis C.K. described it as truly great and masterful. And what Tig's set showed is that you don't need to be liked to get laughs. In fact, you can say terrifying things and make people laugh because earlier that year, Tig was diagnosed with breast cancer in both breasts.

And after finding out, instead of canceling that set, she took to the stage. And some of the material she used you wouldn't necessarily expect to hear in a comedy club. So this is how she opened the show. We're going to give you a taste.

(APPLAUSE)

TIG NOTARO: Hello. Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everyone having a good time? I have cancer. How are you? It's a good time, diagnosed with cancer. Feels good. Just diagnosed with cancer. Oh God.

LICHTMAN: That's Tig Notaro.

FLATOW: It's clear the audience does not know how to react to her when she says that.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, let's ask Tig about it. Tig Notaro is a writer and comedian, and she joins us by phone today. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Thanks for being here.

NOTARO: Thanks for having me. I love your show so much.

LICHTMAN: Oh thanks, it's great to hear.

FLATOW: Thank you.

LICHTMAN: So I guess before we laugh it up, how are you doing? How's your health?

NOTARO: I'm doing really, really well. I had a double mastectomy, and the doctors feel like they got all the cancer, and so I - you know, I feel good. I'm excited about life.

LICHTMAN: That's really - that's great, and I was thinking - as I was thinking about this segment, I was thinking, well, I had read that, but it would be good for the audience to know that you were OK, too, but of course that was the thing that was so masterful about your set.

I mean, you know, Mel Brooks said, right, if I cut my finger that's tragedy. If you fall into a manhole and die, that's comedy. But in your set, you were like I'm falling into a manhole.

NOTARO: Right, actually a few. I tripped into quite a few - would it be manholes or menhole? I don't even know. But yeah, I was tripping all over the place.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, actually, for people who haven't heard it, maybe give us a little synopsis of what was going on in your life and what you covered in that set.

NOTARO: Well, in a four-month period of time, I had gotten pneumonia, and then I took antibiotics for the pneumonia, and the antibiotics cleared out all the bacteria in my body except for C. diff, which alone is a deadly bacteria that took over my digestive tract and was basically eating my intestines for several months.

And I lost 20 pounds and was hospitalized, and then right when I got out of the hospital, my mother tripped and hit her head and died. And then I went through a breakup, and then after that I was diagnosed with cancer. And so when I went onstage at Largo, I was talking about all of that stuff. So it was quite a jarring time.

LICHTMAN: Not your traditional comedic material.

NOTARO: Not in the slightest. I mean, for me personally, I just did more - the most personal stuff I discussed would be things that I observed just around me or interactions that I had with people. It was never much deeper than that. Or one time on Conan O'Brien I pushed a stool around the stage making a weird noise for a few minutes.

And so it was just, you know, basically silliness, and so walking on stage and saying I have cancer was - it was beyond anything I'd ever done before.

FLATOW: Does the audience take time to actually understand what's going on when...

NOTARO: Yeah, I mean, you know, I had - just the day before I had been at a doctor's appointment, being told that it was stage two with an invasive tumor. And I was crying on the sidewalk to a friend of mine, and then the next day I'm onstage. You know, nobody knew. It was so fresh, and saying I have cancer, people were laughing, thinking oh, I wonder where this is going.

And so I was - you know, it just - that's where it was going was I have cancer, like that's the joke, and it's not a joke, it's really happening, and so the jokes came around that.

LICHTMAN: I want to give people a flavor of it. I guess - hearing you describe it, it's almost impossible to imagine how any of this could be funny, but I thought it was really funny. So let's play a clip from that set.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE)

NOTARO: After I got the biopsy, they did another mammogram, and I had to have my shirt off, and I was standing there at the machine, and the technician said: Oh my gosh, you have such a flat stomach. What is your secret? And I was like: Oh, I'm dying.

(LAUGHTER)

NOTARO: It's just pure and simple. The condition I had in the hospital is called C. diff, and so I just refer to it as the C. diff diet. You just sit there and watch the pounds melt away. Don't like exercising? Who does, girlfriend? This diet does all the work for you. Just clear all the bacteria from your intestines and let the C. diff whittle away at your waistline.

LICHTMAN: Robert Provine, what's your take? What do you think makes us laugh in this? Or how can we laugh in spite of what we know to be true, which is that it's...

PROVINE: Well, the best approach is simply to observe what people do, don't ask them why they do it. In fact, standup comedy is not a good model for everyday laughter. Our lives are filled with laughter, but we don't decide to laugh. It just happens. And also people aren't telling us jokes at a furious rate.

The essential ingredient for laughter is another person. For example, in Tig's audience you had a group of people, and they're laughing when they hear other people laugh. So laugh is contagious. Also it was a comedy club. So they came with the expectation that they were going to get comedy, and so I've got cancer ends up being part of comedy.

Also, you know, what if it was a newscast? What if a NPR newscaster came out and said there was an earthquake in Japan, and oh, by the way, I have cancer. It's probably not going to work. And also, humor is not going to work if you just, let's say, had three people in the audience nursing warm beers as opposed to a packed house that Tig had.

And also it's not by chance that there's the ancient Greek masks of comedy and tragedy, and they often go together.

LICHTMAN: And we're going to get back to that really soon after this break. We have to take a quick break, but stay with us. The laughter talk will continue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LICHTMAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A COMEDY TONIGHT")

ZERO MOSTEL: (Singing) Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight.

FLATOW: Of course that's Zero Mostel singing from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, "A Comedy Tonight." We're having comedy this afternoon on SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow with Flora Lichtman. We're talking about comedy this afternoon.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, our war on seasonal affective disorder continues this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY. We're talking about laughter with our interdisciplinary panel. Robert Provine is the author, "Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond" and a neuroscientist and professor of psychology the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And Tig Notaro works in the field, so to speak. She's a writer and comedian who' splits her time between L.A. and New York.

So Tig, when I heard your show, I laughed out loud, but people near and dear to me said that it was too sad, really, to laugh aloud. And I wondered if people near and dear to you could bring themselves to laugh about it. And I also wondered - this is for you, Dr. Provine, if - what this suggests about us laughers. Are we less empathetic? What's wrong with us? Why are we laughing at this?

PROVINE: Well, first of all, you're a beast of the herd. You do what other people do. So laughing is not a matter of deciding to speak ha-ha, it's simply a neurologically triggered response to your social circumstance.

LICHTMAN: So we're not even thinking about it?

PROVINE: Yeah, and also, most laughter's not a response to comedy, which is a modern linguistic and cognitive contrivance. So laughter is ancient, but comedy is modern. Consider, you know, throughout the ages there's a lot of concern with the dark side of laughter. In a less PC time, you know, the likes of Aristotle and Plato were very much concerned with laughter because it reflected a dark side of human nature. It could undermine authority and lead to the overthrow of the state.

If you ever doubt the power of laughter, look at the response to the Islamic cartoons in the Danish newspaper. How many died, and how much destruction and outrage was triggered by laughter? So that gives you an idea of its power.

Also, the boys going through Columbine High School, shooting their classmates, were laughing. So we shouldn't always associate laughter with positive things in life. It also is associated with some of the worst things.

LICHTMAN: Let's go to the phones. Freddie in McCall, Idaho, do you have a question?

FREDDIE: Yeah, I do. I actually, mostly had a comment. I wanted to comment on Tig's bravery and tell her that I work in the ambulance service, I'm a paramedic and a firefighter, and we use laughter as a means to diffuse the stress that we run into in our everyday job situation. And a lot of times, we deal with people like Tig in those moments of - you know, where they are at the bottom of that well.

And Tig's standup routine really rings true and was really effective at bringing laughter to my crew just because of, kind of, the mortality of it, and that's something you don't get from a lot of comics. So for her to address the seriousness of the issues that she had in a comic setting, we use it at the station all the time. We use Tig as a means to unwind in the evening, and I just wanted to tell her thanks for the bravery and thanks for the great standup routine, and yeah, keep on, keep on, we're proud of you.

NOTARO: Well thank you. I don't know if you can hear me.

LICHTMAN: Yes.

NOTARO: OK, yeah, yeah. No, that's just - that's wonderful to hear. When I put the CD out, I kind of had to let go of my ideas of what my comedy was before, in hopes that the CD did reach beyond somebody that had a cancer diagnosis, just anybody dealing with any sort of stress that it would be a release or support in some way. And that's the feedback I've gotten a lot. So it is always so, so great to hear that. So thank you.

FREDDIE: Yeah, well thanks for the service. I appreciate it.

LICHTMAN: Thanks for calling, Freddie, and for sharing that. Tig, what did that set mean to you? I mean, was the - did you feel like you just had to do it, or was it to get laughs or both? How do you think about it?

NOTARO: I was - you know, like I said, the day before, I was - I'm not a big, you know, crybaby, and to be - like I said, I was on the sidewalk after my appointment with my doctor, crying to my friend, just about the unknown. And when the owner of Largo texted me the following day, are you going to do the show, and I just wrote back yeah. There was a part of me that because I didn't know, because one of my tumors, you know, was invasive and that it had possibly spread, there was so much unknown, and I was fearful, like, gosh, will this be the last time that I perform standup especially because the way my life had fallen apart so quickly.

I thought: Who am I to just assume everything's going to be OK? I assumed that four months ago, and it's not. Nothing is OK. And so when I went onstage, I just - I had reached this breaking point of I had so much coming at me that it had become that uncomfortable laughter, almost like you just lose your mind. You're just like oh my gosh, this is so outrageous. I have cancer. It all of a sudden became - I was crying, but I was laughing, and so was the audience.

And yeah, the audience was laughing, but there were also people visibly crying in my set, and I really was shocked by such the different reactions.

FLATOW: You know, that's interesting you say that, because a little clip we played from "Comedy Tonight," the last words of that song are tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight, where they seem complementary and necessary to one another.

LICHTMAN: Robert Provine, what's the connection between laughing and crying?

PROVINE: Well, they're both unconsciously controlled. We don't cry on command. And laughter's not a matter of going ha-ha-ha. They're also both instinctive behaviors. We don't need to learn how to do them. And they're also reminders that we're beasts of the herd because they're both contagious. We laugh when we hear other people laugh, and we cry, especially babies cry, when they hear others crying.

But when we look at the laughter, such as in Tig's performance, it works because there's a kind of authenticity. Tig had the skill of getting the audience to care about her because most everyday laughter, not just comedy but most everyday laughter, is done during conversation and play with friends, family and lovers.

And one of the big challenges of a comedian like Tig is getting the audience to care, developing a relationship with the audience. It's not just a matter of going out and subjecting the audience to jokes. Her personality makes all this work, not her material.

LICHTMAN: That's interesting. Do you find that to be true, Tig?

NOTARO: It depends on the city and the night, but yeah, probably. I mean, I've heard that comedians, usually people want - when a comedian's on stage, you, the audience has to want to go to lunch with that person. And I can agree with that, you know.

FLATOW: So you don't ever get the feeling that they're laughing out being polite, and because of your situation, they want to make you feel better?

NOTARO: I mean, I - there's, you know, a few people where you can tell they're trying to push a laugh out, and it doesn't sound authentic at all, and it doesn't get the room going or anything, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

NOTARO: It's not like a room full of people trying to push out a laugh, you know. I mean, that would be kind of funny, to have an entire hour of - well actually I have a Podcast, and on the Podcast we do a segment called forced laughter. And so we'll do that for about, I don't know, 30 seconds, and it's just, you know, cringe-worthy.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Dr. Provine, that might be good for your research. I wanted to talk about this concept, though, of warming up the crowd, of getting the room going. And we actually have a clip from "Seinfeld." This is the episode, by the way, where Kramer starts using butter to shave, is that right?

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: And he (unintelligible). It's Jerry and George, and they're talking about Jerry's frenemy, kind of, Kenny Bania.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "SEINFELD")

STEVE HYTNER: (as Kenny Bania) Hey Jerry, you see me up there? I was killing, Jerry, killing.

(as Kenny Bania) I killed.

JERRY SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Killed.

HYTNER: (as Kenny Bania) Killed. I'm going to go pick up some chicks, good-looking ones, too.

HYTNER: (as Kenny Bania) Hey, what's your name?

SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Killed. Because I killed first and warmed up the crowd. He's like that fish that attaches himself to the shark.

JASON ALEXANDER: (as George Louis Costanza) And you're the shark?

SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Yeah, I'm the shark, and he's the fish eating my laughs.

ALEXANDER: (as George Louis Costanza) I don't know how a fish could eat laughs.

SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Well, I'm glad I brought it up.

LICHTMAN: Tig, is that true? Does the warm-up matter, the warm-up act?

NOTARO: It can be helpful. I feel like, you know, sometimes when somebody goes on before me and they don't do well, they're excited to - when the headliner comes on. And they're just like, ahh, thank God, you know, it's just like this relief, and then just everything is funny, like, oh, that person is gone. And then it kind of gives you an easy in. And then it can kind of give you an easy in think, too, when the opener is really good. I don't - it can go anyway in comedy. I mean, it's really - there are certain things that are so - you think are so for sure, and then it's just out of the window, you know?

FLATOW: Yeah. Here's a tweet from Ann Slovik(ph) - Sovik(ph), who asks - maybe, Dr. Provine, this is aimed at you. If laugher is social, why do I laugh when reading "Calvin and Hobbes" comics when I'm home alone?

LICHTMAN: It's a classic.

PROVINE: Yeah, good question. By social, I mean this would also include media, like listening to the radio or seeing something on television or reading something and responding to the people in your head. But if there's no people in your head, there's no either immediate or vicarious social stimulation, laughter virtually disappears. So the essential ingredient for laugher is really another person. It would be hard to do comedy in a club that had two people.

NOTARO: Oh, I've done it.

PROVINE: So laugh...

(LAUGHTER)

PROVINE: But it's a tough gig. But also consider the contagiousness. If there's just two people, you're not going to get interesting contagious laugh effects.

FLATOW: Did...

PROVINE: Also when laughter starts, it's very hard to turn it off. In fact, a lot of the Christmas parties at radio stations and TV stations have to do with cases where, like, the weather person or the news anchor starts to laugh uncontrollably and just can't stop. Now, the same thing is true of crying. When a baby starts to cry, it's inconsolable. It's hard to turn it off. So both of these behaviors perseverate. Once you get them running, it's hard to turn it off.

FLATOW: Is that true with yawning? Did you say that yawning is not contagious?

PROVINE: Oh, yawning's definitely contagious.

FLATOW: OK. I wanted to make sure that's correct.

LICHTMAN: Why don't we...

PROVINE: So yawning...

LICHTMAN: ...have, like, a yawn clubs then, or sneezity(ph)? Why laughs?

FLATOW: Yeah.

PROVINE: Well, fortunately, sneezes aren't contagious. Belches aren't contagious. Farts aren't contagious. Laughing, yawning, scratching - hiccupping's, fortunately, not contagious.

NOTARO: I'm certainly seeing yawning being contagious in comedy clubs, as well.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, on NPR. I'm Flora Lichtman.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, hoping that you're not yawning at this moment...

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: ...as we talk about comedy this hour.

LICHTMAN: Let's go to the phones. Sharon in Edward City, California, welcome to the SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SHARON: Thank you. It's Redwood City, like the tree. But...

(LAUGHTER)

SHARON: ...I have a question, but I have a comment first. Ms. Notaro was on. We saw you when you did the "This American Life" theater show.

NOTARO: Oh, OK.

SHARON: We saw in our movie theater. And right before the lights went down, Joan Baez walked into our theater, and I thought, oh, my God, how in the world can I approach Joan Baez? Because she's a goddess. And then you did your Taylor Dayne skit, and I said thank you so much, and I went up to Ms. Baez at the end and said: I have to tell you - I hate to bother you. I have to tell you I love your voice. And she said: my singing voice, or my speaking voice?

(LAUGHTER)

NOTARO: That's amazing.

LICHTMAN: That's right...

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: ...from your set, right?

NOTARO: Yeah. Well, that's exciting to know. I never thought Joan Baez would know who I was. So that's pretty exciting.

(LAUGHTER)

SHARON: She does, and I saw her after that one more time, and she knew exactly where it was from, and she said the same line.

(LAUGHTER)

NOTARO: Wait. You keep running into Joan Baez?

SHARON: She lives in the town next to ours.

NOTARO: Oh, so she's your Taylor Dayne.

SHARON: She's my Taylor Dayne.

(LAUGHTER)

SHARON: There you go.

NOTARO: That's awesome. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

NOTARO: Well, there you go.

SHARON: Thank you. And my question was for the doctor: Why can't we tickle ourselves?

LICHTMAN: Good question.

PROVINE: Well, that's a good one. Because, first of all, a tickle is a neurologically programmed social behavior, whereby it takes another person to tickle us. We cancel out self-produced tickles. You know, think what your life would be like if you went through life in a giant chain reaction of startles. You'd be constantly goosing yourself. So we cancel out self-produced tickle. It takes another person. So what - in tickle, we have a nerve - one of the neurological roots of social behavior, and also some hints about how we can program robots where they can be more sophisticated, for example, telling the difference between when they touch something and something else touches them. So you can learn a lot, both in a basic way, as well as an applied way, by looking at some of these neglected, instinctive acts.

LICHTMAN: Tig, what about making yourself laugh? Do you have a litmus test for what you think is stage-ready?

NOTARO: Really, just - if it's - if it tickles me, I'll just try it out. I just don't think it's ever smart to rely on - I mean, you know, you can run it by someone, but you never know. I have - I might - I do this 15-minute story about running into Taylor Dayne, and that took so long to get it off the ground, and I really believed in it. I mean, there are certainly things that I still believe in that nobody else believes in, and there's never been a good response, and so I kind of have to let that go. But I think doing it on stage is what is helpful.

FLATOW: Last question for you, Dr. Provine. Is there any scientific reason why some people have no sense of humor?

LICHTMAN: Boy, that's a good one.

(LAUGHTER)

PROVINE: Well, it may be that they're not sociable beings. That's a tough one. It's always harder to talk about why we do something, as opposed to why we don't do it. But I'd like to mention something about your laughter during the show. You've always or almost always laughed during gaps in conversation, what I call the punctuation effect. You laugh where you would put punctuations in a transcript of speech. For example, you'll say, well, I've got to go now.

(LAUGHTER)

PROVINE: You don't say, well, I've got to...

(LAUGHTER)

PROVINE: ...go now. You don't do that.

FLATOW: Well, we've got to say that now.

LICHTMAN: We have to go now...

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: ...literally, so.

PROVINE: But did you decide to do that?

FLATOW: Yeah.

PROVINE: Because by looking at that...

(LAUGHTER)

PROVINE: ...the fact is that laughter does not interfere with speech.

LICHTMAN: No, I'm not joking.

PROVINE: It means...

LICHTMAN: We really do.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: We have to go now.

LICHTMAN: We are really...

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: In the break, we must be going.

PROVINE: In means that speech is dominant over laughter.

LICHTMAN: We're really out of time. Thank you, Dr. Provine, for joining us. Robert Provine is the author of "Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond" and is a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And Tig Notaro is a writer and comedian. Her whole set from Largo is available on iTunes. It's called "Tig Notaro Lives."

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