What makes us laugh?

Mark Stevenson, Robin Ince and Andrew O'Neill

Mark Stevenson, Robin Ince and Andrew O'Neill

Following a sell-out comedy show last night at the British Science Festival, comedian Mark Stevenson (left) is today’s guest blogger.

American Humourist Elwyn Brooks White famously said, “analysing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” But when the British Science Association asked me to put together a comedy night for this years British Science Festival (being held this week in Guildford) I thought I’d see if I could keep the frog alive. It was also my excuse to ask two of my favourite comedians to join me – the magnificent Robin Ince and deliciously bonkers Andrew O’Neill.

If you haven’t seen either, do so immediately. I particularly endorse Robin’s battle against creationists, and Andrew’s subversive and hilarious battle against racism (see links below).

Anyway, back to frogs who, as far as I know, don’t laugh. However it is now largely accepted that rats do. For a long time scientists couldn’t work out what a particular set of noises rats made when they were handled were all about. One theory was that they were a sign of sexual arousal, which only proves that some scientists need to get out more. It turned out that rats, like humans, are ticklish. The immediate question that springs to mind is, if you can make a rat laugh by tickling it, can you make it laugh by telling it a joke? So far it seems the answer is ‘no’, the reason being that rats don’t have enough development in their cerebral cortex or ‘higher brain’ – the part that helps you and me make sense of esoteric and difficult concepts like empathy, love and Richard and Judy. There is some evidence that some of the higher primates may have senses of humour, although not if they’re in government.

Many entirely humour-free studies have been written by people who clearly lack the ability to tell a joke, and have decided they should try to ruin the appreciation of humour for the rest of us by attempting to explain it. In fact there’s been over 100 ‘theories of humour’ put forward, but, by my analysis (and a few other comics I’ve spoken to about this) they break down into three basic categories.

‘Idiot! theory’ (psychologists calls this ‘superiority theory’) suggests we take amusement when others reveal themselves, or we expose them to be somehow ‘less’ than we are (and therefore no threat). Back when the human race was getting off the ground in Africa we probably found ourselves laughing more readily at meerkats than lions. The theory could be used to explain the amusement we find when someone is caught naked, or accepts a job as a cabinet minister. (I suspect we’ll have to wait for the Tory’s to get in for both to happen simultaneously).

Here’s a superiority joke. Two women are talking and one says to the other ‘how do you keep your skin looking so young?’ The second woman replies, ‘It’s easy. Once a week I simply bathe in cows milk.’ The first woman goes to see the local farmer. ‘I’d like some milk please’. The farmer says: ‘How much?’. ‘Enough to bathe in!’ ‘Pasturised?’ he asks. ‘No, just up to my boobs will be fine’.

Now I like that joke because it’s a great pun, but you could argue that the essential humour comes from the fact that we are supposed to see the lady in question as pretty stupid (she fails to understand the word ‘pasteurised’).

Superiority humour is often considered the ‘low cousin’ of gaggery and can be written/ thought of quite quickly, which is why it’s often the first weapon a comic will reach for when dealing with hecklers.

‘Banana cigar’ theory (psychologists call this ‘Incongruity’ theory) suggests humour comes from the juxtaposition of two things that don’t seem ‘right’ or ‘normal’ given our day-to-day experience. Again, it’s important to note that if the combination looks dangerous (e.g. Ed Milliband and an idea) we’re not amused. If by contrast, there’s no perceived threat, we may chuckle. This is why pictures of Lembit Opik never cease to be funny. I have a lot of time for Lembit but he’s a walking incongruity machine. From Groucho Marx using a banana instead of cigar, to Bill Clinton using a cigar where a banana might have been more appropriate incongruity is a key component of what we find funny.

‘Thank god for that’ theory, (Psychologists call this ‘relief’ or ‘release’ theory) is a large part of much observational comedy and addresses ‘emotional ambiguities’. After all, on stage you’ll often find us talking about situations that, on the face of it, are pretty dire: death, failed relationships, unemployment, meeting Prince Phillip unexpectedly – things most people might naturally shy away from talking about. The theory suggests that by making a joke of such things we ‘release’ ourselves (and the audience) from the emotional tensions that threaten us. This is why when a comedian is bombing on stage (which is generally as uncomfortable for the audience as it is for the comic) but they ‘pull it out the bag’ subsequently they often comes across as even funnier than if the joke had gone OK in the first place. Last night, for instance, during my set where I was talking to an imaginary genetically engineered mouse one of my gags fell flat. But when the mouse and I had an impromptu chat about why that was, the laughs returned, so much so that I’ll probably work this ‘failure’ into my act so I can ‘release’ the audience afterwards. If you’ve found this article emotionally difficult, it’s OK. You can go now.


It’s worth saying in closing that every comedian I know, including brilliant talents like Robin Ince and Andrew O’Neill, have written jokes that challenge all three schools of thought. We haven’t got to the bottom (oo-er missus) of humour yet. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing.


Mark Stevenson is an author, comedian and director of learning consultancy http://www.flowassociates.com and science communication agency http://www.reagency.co.uk. His first book ‘An Optimist’s Tour of the Future’ will be published by Profile Books. You can follow his travels at: http://www.optimistontour.com



Andrew O’Neill battles racism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdocQHsPCNM

Robin Ince battles science denial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrgygfwnCJ0

Mark Stevenson battles the future: www.optimistontour.com


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