What is Funny?

Can folks name some social science research that has investigated; “What do we learn about people based on what people think is funny? ”    I ask this broad question because I read this piece  about Harvard History professor Lizabeth Cohen promotion to serve as the next dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and I thought that the first sentence of Jonathan Pulliam’s comment at the bottom of the article was very funny.  For example #2, I would count this piece that reports the results of crowd sourcing for estimating the Governor of New Jersey’s weight.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

9 thoughts on “What is Funny?”

  1. The famous “Unskilled and Unaware of It” study, which shows that people in the bottom quintile of ability in a given area lack the metacognitive ability to recognize that they are significantly below average, includes a section on humor. Professional comedians were asked to rate jokes on a scale from 1 to 11. People whose ratings of jokes diverged significantly from the professional view were the least aware of how out-of-sync with social norms they were.

  2. @ Matthew Kahn,

    I didn’t think it was a particularly funny line but that doesn’t answer the question of whether it’s me that is “out-of-sync with social norms” or you.


    But were they successful professional comedians? I think it would make a difference.

  3. The paper is here: http://people.psych.cornell.edu/~dunning/publications/pdf/unskilledandunaware.pdf

    @Mitch The humor section seems much less robust than the logical reasoning section, but the results are consistent: the worst performers at a given task are the worst at identifying their own deficits. I don’t recognize the names of the comedians, but it seems to me that it probably doesn’t matter too much. What people find funny will remain subjective; it will continue to have something to do with signaling social bonds (viz. the endless Obama-TelePrompTer jokes), etc. That said, I personally agree that the joke that the paper cites as deemed the funniest by professional comedians is a pretty well-crafted joke: “If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is ‘God is crying’. And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is ‘probably because of something you did.'” The comedians gave that a mean rating of 9.6. Personally, for joke-craft, I’d give this bit from Rich Hall an 11: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Vmg9e785lo

    Of course the Ignobel-winning “Unskilled and Unaware of It” trap is that if you think you’re good at something, it’s hard to know whether you think that because you are indeed good at it or because you lack the ability to identify your lack of skill. Humility seems like a reasonable response.

  4. I don’t see Pulliam’s comment.

    But didn’t Neil Simon answer your question in The Sunshine Boys?

    “Words with a ‘K’ are funny.”

    1. I saw it yesterday but it seems to have been deleted since. It was something about Obama’s plans to drive up oil prices being so successful that now people need to wear their coats indoors. Then the guy made a crack about the lady pictured wearing a purple jacket and having orange hair and that he thought the combination was some kind of fashion faux pas. As they say, ‘It wasn’t what he said but the way he said it.’ On either score the humor eluded me. The first line made no sense and the second was just a mean dig about a lady enjoying her moment in the sun.

      As to the thing about Christie’s heft, yeah the guy is fat. It will probably get him votes in some quarters. But funny? Ehh. Now a referendum on gay marriage bringing liberal voters out of the woodwork to trounce the bejayzes out or Republicans in NJ next november? NOW THAT WOULD BE FUNNY!

    2. But Neil Simon isn’t that funny. Now, Mel Brooks, he knows: “Tragedy is when I stub my toe, comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die.”

      1. Unfair comparison. Brooks is sui generis.

        You might as well argue that Simon’s a lousy playwright by comparing him to Shakespeare.

  5. As a different and IMHO apt DKE-type analogy, this reminds me of the old joke where the guy walks into a bar and some geezer on stage says “146” and the crowd erupts in laughter. Geezer then says “442” and louder laughter and some are ROFL. The guy asks why is everyone laughing, bartender says all the jokes are known so they are numbered, these are all professionals so they know all the jokes. The guy says “That’s easy! I can do that!”, and at intermission gets up on stage and says “820!”. Nothing. The guy looks surprised and says “43!!”. Pin drop. Humiliated, he gets off the stage and goes back to his drink. He asks the bartender what happened and the bartender replied “I guess you don’t know how to tell them…

    1. The alternative ending for that story is that the newcomer shouts out “43!” and a dead silence ensues, broken only by someone saying frostily “That was in extremely poor taste.”

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