An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar And Asks, 'Why Is This Joke Funny?' : Shots - Health News Graduate student Robert Lynch is on a quest to deconstruct our built-in instinct for humor, and find out why making people laugh could be important to the way we've adapted to survive.
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An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar And Asks, 'Why Is This Joke Funny?'

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An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar And Asks, 'Why Is This Joke Funny?'

An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar And Asks, 'Why Is This Joke Funny?'

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On a Monday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. People say that laughter is the best cure for what ails us; sometimes, the only cure we have. And the jokes we choose to laugh at, may tell us something about our values.

Today in "Your Health," NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reports on an academic study of humor, which may make you laugh or in some cases - be warned - offend you.


SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: It's Saturday night at the Metropolitan Room, a comedy club in New York City. The emcee, Jimmy Failla, is warming up the crowd.

JIMMY FAILLA: Where you guys from?


FAILLA: Boston. Home of the Red Sox. Personally, we'd prefer you rooted for the Taliban, but we'll take it.


VEDANTAM: There are 50 or 60 people in the audience, sipping cocktails. Failla has a system. He asks people where they're from - most are locals. He then hits them with something they can relate to.

FAILLA: When you drive in New York, this is the only city in the world where you signal after you've already made it into the next lane. Anywhere else in the world, you want to go left, you put on your blinker - like, hey, I'm going left. But if you do that here, they block you. So instead, you got to go left, then you put on your blinker - like, ha, ha, (BLEEP) you. I made it.


VEDANTAM: There's a man at one of the tables in the darkened room. His name is Robert Lynch. He's a local, loves comedy. But he's also here because he's a researcher.

ROBERT LYNCH: It was interesting to me, to try to deconstruct a joke and find out what it is that was making people laugh.

VEDANTAM: Now, you may ask why anyone would want to study laughter. Don't scientists have better things to do, like cure cancer? Turns out, laughter's very interesting from a scientific perspective. People in all cultures laugh; the instinct for humor seems built in, like the potential for language or the ability to see. Humor is really important.

LYNCH: So the fact that it's so important implies that there is an evolutionary function.

VEDANTAM: Lynch believes a sense of humor must've given our ancestors a functional advantage. He wants to understand what that advantage is. He wants to know why humor evolved. As he listens to the comics at the Metropolitan Room - the one coming up is named Jena Friedman - he does two things. He listens to the jokes, but he also observes how the audience reacts.

JENA FRIEDMAN: In college, I had a job interview with a guy who date-raped a friend of mine. Very awkward job interview. I thought I nailed it, but I never heard from him. So I waited the two weeks, gave him a call. I was like, hey, did I get the job? And he said no. So the next day I showed up, 8 a.m. sharp, ready to go. He's like, what are you doing here? So I said, I'm sorry, I thought no meant yes.


FRIEDMAN: Thank you. All right...

VEDANTAM: Now, maybe you found that funny; maybe you didn't. For Robert Lynch, your reaction not only says something about whether the joke worked; your reaction says something about you. Lynch recently conducted an experiment that proves this. He had volunteers listen to an edgy, stand-up comic named Bill Burr.

LYNCH: He has a joke about why men make more money than women for doing the exact-same job. The punch line is: Well, I'll tell you why. In the unlikely case that we're both on the Titanic and it starts to sink, you get to leave with the kids, and I get to stay. So call it a dollar-an-hour surcharge.

VEDANTAM: Lynch also gave the volunteers a psychological test that measured their unconscious gender attitudes. What he found was that volunteers with traditional gender views - people who believed women ought to stay home, rather than go to work - laughed harder at that joke than volunteers with more progressive views.

LYNCH: People's, you know, implicit beliefs, kind of unconscious beliefs and preferences, matched what they found funny.

VEDANTAM: It was hard evidence. Humor reveals our internal preferences. A joke is like a little brain scan. When we laugh, we reveal what's inside us. Lynch, who's finishing his Ph.D. in evolutionary anthropology at Rutgers University, thinks evolution may have hard-wired a sense of humor into our species because laughter serves as a signal.

When you and I laugh at the same joke, we signal to each other that we share the same values, the same beliefs. This may be why people all over the world want friends, and romantic partners, who share their sense of humor. Lynch told me the research helped him understand something important about himself.

LYNCH: I've always been curious - why it is - it seemed to make such a big difference to me - whether it was girls that I dated, or friends that I had - that they shared my sense of humor or that they laughed at my jokes.

VEDANTAM: His research helped him understand. Since laughter signals shared values, it made sense he'd be drawn to people who laughed at the same jokes; to people who laughed at his jokes.

In another experiment, Lynch sought to understand the connection between laughter and the psychological trait of self-deception. Self-deceivers are people who don't see their own values, motives and beliefs clearly.

LYNCH: I simply gave people a self-deception test, and a - measured their facial expressions in response to a stand-up comedian. And there was a very strong association between the two.

VEDANTAM: Self-deceivers were less likely to laugh. It made sense to Lynch. You laugh when a joke resonates with your inner values and beliefs. If you're out of touch with your own values and beliefs - as self-deceivers are - you're less likely to find jokes funny.

Now, if you're a normal academic, and you make an interesting finding, you publish your paper in a scientific journal and move on. But for Lynch, that wasn't enough. You see, Lynch has a second life that I haven't told you about. He's - well, I'll just let Jimmy Failla, the emcee at the Metropolitan Room, tell you.


FAILLA: Very funny man coming to the stage, to start it off. He's a great one - you're going to love him; plays all over town. Give it up for Robert Lynch, everybody. Robert Lynch.


VEDANTAM: Lynch walks up on stage. Yes, he's an anthropologist, and a comedian.

LYNCH: How's it going?


LYNCH: So like all of you, I spend most of my waking hours strategizing about how I would survive those first few, critical days in prison.


VEDANTAM: Lynch keeps building up, and dashing, the audience's expectations of an academic scholar.

LYNCH: I work with this guy named Marvin Feldstein. And you all know him from his famous work on alternative mating strategies in the red-tufted lemur.


LYNCH: But the other day, I'm chatting with Marv in the hallway, and he's saying, you know, homo orgaster is the direct descendant of homo erectus. You know how it goes, right? And I say, listen, Marv, everybody knows that homo heidelburgensis is the direct ancestor of orgaster.


LYNCH: All right. That's the kind of (BLEEP) I have to deal with...

VEDANTAM: Lynch tells me that doing stand-up helps his anthropology research. And understanding the science of humor helps him as a comic. Take the study on why people laugh. If a joke works when it strikes a chord inside people, that's like having a scientific roadmap to writing comedy.

LYNCH: My experience is that it helps me. So if I'm writing a joke, often what I do is, I look at things that I think are true that people tend not to admit to, or maybe reluctant to admit to - including myself.

VEDANTAM: In fact, most of Lynch's jokes are off-color. Taboo topics lead to better jokes. Doing stand-up also gives Lynch the kind of real-time feedback on his academic theories that peer-reviewed journal studies don't.

LYNCH: There's nothing like stand-up comedy, where you are being judged every five seconds. If you are not getting laughs, it becomes very awkward. The first time I went up, I had to give a minute of material and no one was laughing, and I noticed that my leg was shaking.

VEDANTAM: At Rutgers, he can lecture for an hour without breaking a sweat. But a comedy club is a different animal.

LYNCH: There's been stuff that I thought would be great, that's absolutely bombed. I've had some total disasters in the East Village with a very hip audience - with just utter silence for three minutes, while I was doing my routine. And originally, I was upset with the audience. I thought, they're a bunch of idiots.

VEDANTAM: But then, after a couple of days feeling sorry for himself, Lynch dragged himself back to the drawing board, to work on his jokes. As an anthropologist, he might say an audience that doesn't laugh, is full of self-deceivers. As a card-carrying comic, however, he knows the first rule in comedy is that when a joke doesn't work, it's the comedian who's accountable.

Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.



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