What makes us laugh? Why does your dad think puns are the best thing ever? Why doesn’t anyone understand Gen-Z humour?
On the surface, understanding humour seems like a simple proposition—we see something funny and it makes us laugh. But have you ever thought about why that is?
Attempting to dissect humour has been a subject for scientists and philosophers since Plato’s time, but laughter and humour developed long before then. It’s likely that humour evolved alongside our desire for play. As our capacity for language expanded, our sense of humour grew from play-fighting and tickling to more verbal forms. As our societies developed, it’s believed that humour began to play the same role it does today, as a form of social lubrication that promotes bonding, reduces conflict, and creates a sense of safety.
But none of that explains what makes something funny or why humour changes over time. One of the leading scientific theories about humour suggests that we find things funny when we encounter an incongruity between our expected outcome and reality. A man walking down the street is an everyday occurrence. However, the same man using exaggeratedly large steps to walk down the street is funny.
Breaking the rules is another aspect that makes things funny. This takes the idea of incongruities and pushes the boundaries of social, moral, or physical norms. There is a risk to using these types of violations to create humour. In order to be effective, these violations must be perceived as benign. Go too far, and people will find you offensive instead of funny.
It’s important to note that these boundaries shift and change over time. The classic example is the stand-up comic who gets cancelled for telling racist or misogynistic jokes that may have been a standard part of their routine. The boundaries have changed, but the comic’s understanding of what’s funny has failed to change along with them.
Humour comes from a shared context. If you tell a joke about your friend Ted, but I don’t know Ted, I won’t find the joke funny. On a larger scale, this means that humour is tied to social and cultural and even generational communities. A timely example of this phenomenon can be seen in the attempts by older generations to understand Gen-Z humour, which is viewed as confusing and opaque by those outside that demographic.
The differences in humour between different groups of people points to the fact that humour is a cooperative endeavour. The recipient of the joke, whether it’s an audience at a comedy club, or the friend you’re texting, must be willing to accept and respond to the story or action. If the audience isn’t in the mood for humour or the presenter of the joke misjudges their audience, the joke falls flat and awkwardness (or worse) ensues.
If I tell you a joke and you laugh, that’s a cooperative event. But what about jokes that are fully collaborative in nature? Two of my favourite long-standing jokes have been co-created on the internet, one deliberately and one accidentally.
My favourite accidental joke is the continual and ongoing adaptation of William Carlos Williams’ poem This Is Just To Say, which has been repeated and remixed across the internet, and particularly on Twitter, into hundreds of different forms. In order to find this funny, you have to understand the full context of the joke. Showing one of the adapted forms of this poem to someone who is oblivious to the act of co-creation will result in confusion instead of laughter.
A more deliberate example along the same lines was the co-creation of the movie Goncharov by the social media community on tumblr. Goncharov is a fake Martin Scorcese movie starring Robert deNiro that everyone on tumblr collectively treated as a real movie. Tumblr users created fan art and wrote fanfic, made movie posters, wrote analytical pieces about the meaning of the film, and edited video clips and gifs in support of the collective joke. The joke reached its zenith when members of the fake cast, including Lynda Carter, and even Martin Scorcese himself responded to and played along with the premise that Goncharov was a real movie. In order to find this funny, you had to not only understand the premise of the fake movie, but also have an appreciation for how fandom communities operate. Without that context, Goncharov cannot be funny. It’s an in-joke for a specific group of people.
Humor creates social bonds, not just through laughing together, which is its own form of social communication, but through the cooperative or collaborative act of telling, responding, and creating things we find funny. It might just be the glue that holds us all together.