As a humor researcher, one of the things I’m passionately interested in is the logistics of humor. I want to know what makes something funny. What is it about a joke, silly song, cute cartoon or comedian’s routine that prompts us to laugh?
This isn’t idle curiosity. If we can identify the essential elements of humor, then we can take pro-active steps to introduce those elements into our lives and enjoy more laughter. More laughter means better blood sugar control, lower blood pressure, and more effective stress management – good news for all of us!
One thing that makes the research challenging is the fact that there’s no one universally accepted definition of funny. We don’t all find the same things humorous. Take a show like America’s Funniest Home Videos – a program composed almost entirely of embarrassing moments, pranks, pitfalls, and painfully bad ideas. Some people watch a would-be daredevil ride his bike off of the roof into the shrubbery and find the sight hysterically funny – while others wince in pain and discomfort, and find a reason to quickly change the channel.
Why does this happen? The answer is that we’re all different people, and we all have our own unique personal history. Our perception of humor is shaped by that history. Our experiences – and our emotions about those experiences – dictate how we’ll react to material presented as funny.
That means that if you’ve ever ridden your bike off of a roof – or just wiped out in some spectacularly painful fashion – it’s likely that you’ll have a hard time laughing at someone else doing the same thing. It’s too easy to remember the pain, fear, and embarrassment of your own experience. You’re just too close to it.
Human beings are amazing creatures. We don’t even have to experience the situation ourselves to imagine – often in vivid detail – what it would feel like to be in that spot ourselves. This is called empathy, and it’s a complex empathetic response at play when we find ourselves unable to laugh at someone else’s pain.
When you’re researching human behavior, it’s important not to let value judgments sneak in to the picture. We don’t want to label someone a good person or a bad person based solely upon what they find funny. Context matters!
That being said, pain, discomfort, and embarrassment are often rich sources of humor. In What’s So Funny About Diabetes, you’ll read about the need we all have for time and emotional distance before we can find our own embarrassing moments funny.
Sometimes you can slip on a banana peel and start laughing about it almost immediately. Other time, that type of pratfall can bruise your dignity. You may need a little time before you can find the humor in the situation. That’s okay! Life isn’t a game show, run on a tight schedule. Your own laugh track can start when you’re good and ready for it.