Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Why do we laugh?

Thanks to loyal reader, Wendy Grossman for alerting me to this article in the Guardian about a study on laughter.
Scientific studies on why we laugh are always dicey, but some nuggets in the article did seem to ring true (even if I don’t know how they arrived at them). The author, Sophie Scott (who describes herself as a brain scientist) claims we are thirty times more likely to laugh if someone else is with us instead of being alone. I truly believe that. Laughter is contagious and that’s why seeing a play or movie with a big crowd is a much more fun experience.

It’s also why there are laugh tracks on network sitcoms. The idea is to simulate the experience of being in a laughing crowd. 

Two other points worth noting:

We laugh more than we think, especially if we’re engaged in conversation. Some of that is social laughter certainly, but still – seven laughs in ten minutes. (Although I can’t imagine laughing once in an hour with Mike Pence.)

The second point is that humans are supposedly not the only species that laugh. Apes, parrots, and even rats laugh. (Maybe that’s why our “Rat Girl” episode of CHEERS got such a great response the night it was filmed on an old soundstage at Paramount.)

But here’s where the article hits a speed bump.

To study laughter and the interaction of conversation, Ms. Scott plans to study the reaction to three stand up comics at a performance on May 2nd. The problem is simply this: If she did the same study every night for two weeks, with the same comics delivering the exact same material – she would get back fourteen very different results. There are so many factors involved in why and how energetic people laugh. The room temperature, the day of the week, the news that day, the demographics, different backgrounds of the audience, varying sensibilities, the weather, various biases – and that’s just for starters.

Without wiring people, I’ve seen this first hand with a number of my plays. Same actors, same performances, same jokes – wildly different results. Jokes that kill one night get nothing the next and straight lines get huge laughs the next evening.

To me the big question is how could 200 strangers independently laugh at something and the next night 200 other strangers independently not laugh at the same thing? Looking at averages you’d think between say 50-75% of any given audience would laugh at that joke; not 0-90%.

I wish her luck on her study. I’ll be interested to learn what she concludes. If nothing else, it might be good for a laugh.


Peter said...

The subject of laughter always brings to mind this classic line by Homer Simpson:

"Stealing?! How could you?! Why do you think I took you to all those Police Academy movies?! For fun?! Well, I didn't hear anybody laughing, did you?!"

Stephen Marks said...

Thanks Wendy, who's also a loyal commenter. Ironically the funniest thing in Ken's post wasn't even a written joke or humorous take, it was when he used italics for "brain scientist", lol. That said it all, it said Ken is dubious about this whole study, thinks "brain scientist" is a ridiculous title and probably laughed out loud at it despite being alone in his study editing part two of his interview with Al Micheals. Also, there is no mention of what happens when a show is filmed without a live audience, like MASH, then what? I guess you have to rely on the experts like Ken and Mr. Issacs, Gene Reynolds, the director, etc. MASH, Cheers, Frasier, they ran for years with no "brain scientist" around so I"m pretty sure those experts knew why people were laughing. And about this canned laughter stuff, if it works why wouldn't they put it on movies where the stakes are higher?

Do you live in the states Wendy?

zapatty said...

Premature Friday question - what did "creative consultant" Ronnie Graham do when he worked on M*A*S*H ? I recall him appearing on Carson back in the day, and found him wildly amusing, and silly.

Joseph Aubele said...

Here is a scientific view that removes all the fun from laughter: "Laughter is often considered to be the product of humour. However, laughter is a social emotion, occurring most often in interactions, where it is associated with bonding, agreement, affection, and emotional regulation. Laughter is underpinned by complex neural systems, allowing it to be used flexibly. In humans and chimpanzees, social (voluntary) laughter is distinctly different from evoked (involuntary) laughter, a distinction which is also seen in brain imaging studies of laughter."

estiv said...

I'd say tell the researcher. What you've said here may be something she doesn't know but would find useful.

What you're saying is that the samples she is using to draw inferences are too small and too homogeneous. In that case her research would benefit from using a larger group of samples. As a scientist, this is something she might want to know.

Frank Beans said...

It's true that there are a million factors into how receptive an audience is going to be to humor--and how much they laugh. A line or a joke can be funny in one context, and very much not in another.

The best approach is to just have confidence in your material, and hope that it works, and if not live to fight another day.

Who am I kidding--I hate it when the lousy bastards don't appreciate what I'm doing.

Michael said...

The god of comedy, Stan Laurel, once talked about this with his biographer John McCabe and essentially said, what makes us laugh is funny and what's funny is what makes us laugh, and it just depends on the individual. For example, Jerry Lewis adored Laurel, and Laurel thought highly of him, but that he was undisciplined in his comedy. That may be the understatement of the millennium.

But as a friend of mine once said, it's simple: women do not laugh at the Three Stooges and men do. I don't think that's true, but I am reminded--it's on You Tube ( one of the more brilliant moments on The Dick Van Dyke Show. And the old comedy writer and Rob's mentor, Jay C. Flippen, has a little something in common with Ken: not only did he act and do comedy, but he also broadcast baseball.

Tom said...

Speaking of laughter, MeTV will begin airing THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW on Sunday nights beginning May 5th. The first five Sundays will be "Pick Dick," with Carl Reiner selecting and introducing his favorite episodes. The May 5th episodes will be "Coast to Coast Big Mouth" and "That's My Boy?"

These might be interesting to see for Reiner's introductions, but I hate the way these shows are cut down to allow for more commercial time. When DICK VAN DYKE was running on a local station awhile back, the station told me the syndication tapes they got from the distributor were pre-edited to 22 minutes from the 25 minute originals, with no option for running them uncut, which he said the station wouldn't do anyway.

Elsewhere on its schedule, MeTV has begun running early episodes of THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, dating back to 1967, edited into half-hours ala CAROL BURNETT AND FRIENDS. Major difference is that these retain the CAROL BURNETT SHOW name and Carol's "I'm so glad we had this time together" closing, which AND FRIENDS dropped.

One thing I noticed is that Harvey Korman always seemed to have trouble keeping himself composed, even before Tim Conway was around. He was breaking up during a sketch with Jonathan Winters the other night. A lot of people seemed to like when Korman would collapse into helpless laughter in the middle of a sketch. My dad, who was an actor himself, never approved of it. He found it highly unprofessional.

Unknown said...

Speaking of collapsing in laughter in a middle of a sketch, Kenan Thompson on SNL, can't do a skit without laughing during it.
But sometimes during skits, having an actor smirk or laugh a little adds to it. See the concept of laughing with groups concept. But when it is constant, it is unprofessional. IMOHO, and I'm not a robot

E. Yarber said...

Red Skelton was probably the king of cracking up during sketches, which seemed a regular part of his act. Jack Benny was the most extreme, however, liable to become virtually incapacitated while helpless with laughter.

Benny's tendency to collapse with mirth was just as pronounced off-stage. I once had a conversation with a HERE'S LUCY writer who told me that everyone on the staff loved drawing Benny stories from Milt Josefsberg, who had been one of Jack's quartet of writers for years.

The radio show was performed twice each Sunday, once for the East Coast, then a few hours later for the West. According to Josefsberg, one evening Jack asked to meet his writers between broadcasts. He told them that Mel Blanc had done such a great job during the show that he wanted them to compose a quick line for the ending of the second performance giving special credit to Blanc for the episode.

"Gee, Jack," Josefsberg said, "do you really need all FOUR of us for that?"

That was enough to send Benny into hysterics. He fell to his knees and was soon rolling on the floor. At that moment his wife Mary came upon the scene.

"Jack!" she barked in outrage, "That's a NEW SUIT!"

Which set him off all over again.

Gary said...

There is an interview with Harvey Korman and Tim Conway wherein they recall the week Pat Carroll was a guest on the Carol Burnett Show. She had the haughty attitude that it was totally unprofessional to ever break up during a performance, and assured them she would never do it. Of course Conway took this as a personal challenge, and cooked up some ad lib business to get her. It worked, and he had her laughing so hard that she LEFT THE STAGE, which is considered the most unprofessional thing an actor can do.

Coram_Loci said...

For those interested in learning more about the topic....

dan o'shannon said...

in case anyone wants to hear a guy blather about visceral and social laughter...

Mike Doran said...

Brain Science:

See, for years I've heard the standard line for overcomplicating things: "Come on, this isn't brain surgery!"
And its variant: "Come on, this isn't rocket science!"

In Mystery, Alaska, Mike Myers does an unbilled cameo as an idiot hockey player turned broadcaster; at one point he says to his on-air partner: "Come on, this isn't rocket surgery!"
I stole that last line for my personal use; to date, nobody has noticed …

About Stan Laurel (and his biographer John McCabe):
If you're familiar with Mr. McCabe's books, you'll recall that that gentleman had a vocabulary that would have given Bill Buckley a run for his money.
In one of his Laurel books, McCabe tells of reading to Stan an analytical piece about comedy (he characterizes this piece as "recondite palaver" - honest), and then tells of Laurel's reaction thereto:
"That kind of junk annoys the hell out of me."
That kind of sums it up, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

I can’t imagine laughing once in an hour with Mike Pence

Could it be that Pres. Bush (the younger) is looking better these days?

Here's an excerpt from a David Brooks piece. When Dubya was GM for the Texas Rangers, he and a bunch of owners were stuck on a bus going to lunch hosted by the brand new owner of the brand new Colorado Rockies:

(the bus) got lost; the driver circled round and round. The mood on the bus got ugly. Gene Autry, the aging owner of the California Angels, needed to relieve himself. His wife went up front and said something to the driver. The bus pulled over to the side of the highway, where an embarrassed Autry got out and urinated. It was an awkward moment for everybody. Then, when Autry stiffly hoisted himself back onto the bus, George W. Bush's voice rang out:

"Hey Gene, you still got a great spray for a guy your age."

A smile opened up on Autry's face and the bus exploded with laughter.

For baseball fans the rest of the article is interesting as it covers the changes undergone by the Rangers in the early 90s as well as some the of Bush's interactions with fellow owners.

Jahn Ghalt said...

I don't suppose you kept a "show diary"? I believe we are "wired" to notice the exceptional - which may be why you remember the 0-90% phenomenon.

A diary might support the notion of the "50%-75% average".

Anonymous said...

The worst offenders of laughing during their comedy are Colin Jost and Michael Che, who chuckle over every word of their own writing. It's painfully self-serving and junior high level.

Sorry but the Jay C Flippen "Return of Happy Spangler" spisode is a rare bad Dick Van Dyke Show. It may have inadvertently caused many a seasoned writer to be passed over because it gives young comedy decision makers the horribly mistaken impression that old talented people sit around wasting time talking about old things and don't have new ideas.

Peter said...

Very saddened by the death of Ken Kercheval. I grew up watching Dallas and he had wonderful comedic timing as Cliff Barnes. But it's a shame that that's the main thing he'll be remembered for. He did a lot of film work and I read that he started out as an accomplished stage actor.


blogward said...

There's a Vulcan joke matrix:

Premise Outcome
Logical | Bizarre (Outcome no relation to premise)
Bizarre | Logical (Surprise outcome dictated by premise)
Bizarre | Bizarre (Hellzapoppin sort of stuff)
Logical | Logical (Not funny at all)

The bizarre-logical one is most common, and funniest; it includes farce, as the whole thing is about the bizarre setup being disguised as logical.

Thing is, if people don't buy into the bizarre premise to start with, they won't laugh.

Matthew said...

I've seen rats play practical jokes, both on each other and on people.

TechieElvin said...

Also, there is no mention of what happens when a show is filmed without a live audience, like MASH, then what?