It’s not a laughing matter…

A recent RadioLab episode carried the story of researchers who followed people around all day. They followed people to see why they laughed.

What they found was surprising. People, in everyday life, do not laugh at jokes. Instead, they laugh to essentially say “It’s okay. I’m okay. You’re okay.”

This illuminates both my rant the other day and the observation (which I last heard made by Pat Rothfuss, to namedrop) that all humor is pain. He’s wrong – but only slightly. Humor is pain *that is not serious*. It’s pain where everyone is okay at the end.

Or at least – everyone that matters.

There are lots of “types of humor” dichotomies. I want to propose a new one as a better fit for real-world conditions. There’s in-group and out-group humor. It’s the “they’re not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you” dichotomy.

In-group humor is “they’re laughing with you.” It’s usually absurdist or satire – where the object of humor includes the audience themselves, or is so obviously unreal that it’s immaterial. That tension – and release – is what provokes the laugh response.

Out-group humor can be paraphrased as “We’re cool, *you suck*, and I’m okay”. This is the “they’re laughing at you” part of the equation. It’s a social reinforcing mechanism, and is also used to define social roles and rank.

Appeals to “lighten up” when out-group humor is objected to is, therefore, both a defense of the group’s values *and* an appeal to rejoin the group. This also explains the moral outrage often seen when out-group humor is steadfastly challenged; it is *in effect* an attack on the group.

Think on this: Women often say (in polls) that they want a mate that “has a sense of humor”. We also find that people tend to choose mates from the same social and economic class as themselves. Perhaps humor – with it’s group-defining ability, is part of that mechanism.

And let’s think on this as well: What of the person who is seen as having a “bad” sense of humor? What’s their status in the group?

It’s not always easy to define, and for one big reason: part of it is internal, and some humor has both roles in it. Sitcoms inherently reinforce social norms, but also have a degree of empathy involved with them. *Napoleon Dynamite* and *The 40-year Old Virgin* provoked in-group humor responses in some people, and out-group responses in others.

It’s possible to still have humor, to be funny – but by looking at these root causes of humor we can try to avoid being isolating jerks at the same time.

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One Comment

  1. Héctor
    September 2, 2008

    It strikes me that you may simply be over thinking this. That you may be placing motivations on things that rarely have any real motivations at all. People have laughed at the absurd, the obvious, the self effacing, and the insulting for as long as we have been human.

    So long as we are willing to separate the joke from the reality, what is the harm in humor that is outside the politically correct boundaries that are, by any stretch of the imagination, artificial at best.

    I understand how some forms of humour can be hurtful, but we must also ask ourselves, am I hurt by a joke because it was told, or because part of me feels the joke is true about me? If it is the latter, then one must seek to fix what is wrong within oneself that makes one feel that way, if it is the former, we must be willing to step back and remember that we all have a right to express whatever ideas we may have, and that expressing them rather than constantly hiding them is the healthier choice.

    I tend to see Comedy as the cathartic system of social interaction. It allows us to give voice to feelings and ideas that may or may not be real, but which may be real to someone, and through their expression and through the expression of them as ludicrous we push them out rather than letting them fester.

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