Monday, January 24, 2005

Make 'Em Laugh

Comics love to talk together about what is funny. Johnny Carson said, "If it makes you laugh, it's funny." This is a base truth but there are still rules to comedy.

Everyone thinks they have a great sense of humor but in fact most of us don't. I am in comedy and people tell me that they love to laugh, they do it all the time, they have an "off-beat" sense of humor, blah, blah, blah.

Here are a few things you may or may not know about humor and laughter:

1. Most people don't realize that most laughter is mostly involuntary. That's right. It is an emotional response that scientists are still trying to figure out. So far they know other people's laughter is a trigger for personal laughter. Ever wonder why you don't always laugh alone but you double over in a crowded movie theater or comedy club? This is why they add laugh tracks to sitcoms.

2. Laughter is not a uniquely human experience. Other primates laugh too. We are not smarter creatures because we laugh.

3. We are not born with good senses of humor. A sense of humor has to be developed much like a sophisticated palette or an ear for music.

4. Comedy is local. Which is to say that if the joke or situation has no meaning to you, than it won't be funny. That is why some jokes don't cross cultural boundaries. I am in the comedy field and it drives me crazy when my white colleagues tell me a joke (about black culture) is not funny when I know that it would kill with a black audience. Ironically, white (over-generalization alert) comics get more mileage from their jokes because we live in a predominately white society/culture in America. In other words, other races know white culture better than the reverse.

There are some jokes that are universal. They are usually the basest form: fart jokes, falling down, getting beat up, sex, etc. These things translate in every culture.

So, how do you know if you really have a good sense of humor? Here are the traits that I think define a person with a good sense of humor.

1. An ability to laugh at one's self. Notice I did not say at one's own joke but at one's self. If you can't find humor when you are the "butt of the joke," then you probably don't have a good sense of humor. You are too sensitive and self-involved, and possibly delusional. When you are the "butt of the joke," whether accidental or through teasing, most people don't take it that seriously. It means nothing to the jokester, don't give it power as the jokee (for lack of a better or real word).

2. An ability to see humor that is not part of your own traditional culture. If you are a black man and you only find black comics funny then you probably have a terrible sense of humor. If you are gay and only "gay comedy" tickles your funny bone, then you probably have an awful sense of humor. This applies to whatever cultural "niche" to which you belong. So, if you are a white supremacist, try listening to Dave Chappelle sometime and lighten up.

3. An ability to laugh when alone. This one is tough because laughter is very social. Some people may think that if you laugh when you are alone, you may be psychotic. This may be true and if so, I need to see a doctor because I do it all the time.


  1. Very good points. What kills me is how commonplace sarcasm has become among folks. Or rather, implied sarcasm. Telling someone "no" instead of "yes" then laughing five seconds after doesn't make you look urbane; it makes you look like a jackass.

  2. You are so right Karsh. So many people have confused their own self-gratification and sadism for humor.