Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Analysis of Humor

One aspect of myself that is not apparent to new acquaintances is my sense of humor. A lot of times, I have to go through an awkward time with someone to get them to understand how much I really love to laugh and joke. People perceive me as serious and reverent, and it takes a while for me to get them to see how much I enjoy being silly, because I try not to let my face give it away.

I really love dry or deadpan humor, such as Monty Python's or Leslie Nielsen's. My favorite story about Nielsen is that he used to carry one of those electronic fart noise machines around with him. When he was at a place like a crowded elevator, he would start pushing the button, making everyone else uncomfortable or tempted to giggle. He himself would maintain a straight face, as if he were unaware of it. He was being funny, but not letting on that he was trying to. He was content to be the only one in on his joke, letting everyone else believe he had severe gastrointestinal problems.

In preaching, I have struggled with how to use humor. There are lots and lots of preacher jokes, but in truth, I think most of them aren't funny. They get laughs, but I don't enjoy them, and don't particularly do well at telling them, with a few exceptions. I don't think it's good if you use so much humor that people forget you're talking about serious stuff. But I also don't like it if people can go through your lesson without smiling at any point. Sometimes that's appropriate, but generally, I think the use of humor is prudent rhetoric. It's good for endearing you to your listener and disarming them from thinking you're out to boss them around.

In a recent issue of Wired magazine, they focused on humor, and how the internet has changed it. They had some tips from a humor researcher (yes these exist--and get government grants) that I thought were fairly useful. How do we decide which humorous comments are appropriate?

Generally speaking, many of the same things that would make us cry in one circumstance can make us laugh in another. Watching Wile E. Coyote getting squashed with an anvil is completely different than watching the same thing happen to a 3-year-old child. What's the difference?

Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren are doctoral students researching humor. They say, "Laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign." Most humor stems from some sort of violation. Here are some categorical ways of thinking about it:
- Violations of Personal Dignity (slapstick humor, physical deformities) This would include the Three Stooges. Mike Myers really enjoys using this in his movies with characters like the partial ocular albino in Wayne's World 2 and the Mole character (with a huge mole) in the third Austin Powers movie.
- Violations of Linguistics (unusual accents, malapropisms) In Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail, who could forget the outrageous "French" characters?
- Violations of Social Norms (strange behaviors) Michael Scott and Dwight Shrute from the Office rely heavily on this for humor.
- Violations of Moral Norms (disrespectful behaviors) This is the root of what people are drawn to in the Jackass movies.

McGraw and Warren have found that the funniness of a violation depends on it not also being simultaneously threatening to the audience or to their world view.  I may post some more on the subject, but those are my initial reflections.