‘Comedy is about pushing boundaries’

The mechanisms behind what makes things funny

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I adjusted my blazer and, with as much confidence as I could muster, stepped into the admissions officer’s office for my first formal college interview. 

The interviewer ran through a few standard questions: How would my close friends describe me? What leadership roles have I taken on? What do I hope to study in college? My responses to these questions were fairly standard. However, when he asked me what my favorite word is, my brain froze. Not wanting to stall for too long, I unceremoniously blurted out the first word I could think of: “SQUEEGEE!”

The interviewer burst out laughing. I joined in, though after he’d been laughing for about 20 seconds, I started to worry he’s going to have an asthma attack. 

Humor can alleviate stress, break the ice in awkward situations, and draw people together. In my case, this moment helped relieve some of my interview nerves and relax during the rest of the conversation. Humor is found in virtually every culture, and a significant motivating factor behind the decisions we make. 

Many studies have demonstrated humor’s health benefits. Studies show that making people laugh can elevate their pain threshold. Laughing produces endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, meaning your brain is hardwired to seek humor and derive happiness from it. Laboratory studies demonstrate that laughing often can significantly decrease blood pressure over time, reduce anxiety, and boost the immune system. Doctors are also proposing laughter therapy as complementary medicine for dementia patients, who, from laughing 10 or 20 minutes per day, may see improved quality of life and mood. 

Humor is clearly a critical part of the human experience and our daily lives. So how do we determine what is funny, and, most importantly, how can this help us garner more laughs at dinner parties and during standup routines? 

Philosophers as far back as Aristotle and Plato theorized that humor is derived from others’ misfortunes — a conjecture that is still relevant when one watches the self-deprecating comedy of John Mulaney, or even cringe compilations. But not all humor is dependent on watching others fall for pranks or make embarrassing errors. And while watching somebody else spill a drink over themselves has the potential to make someone laugh, the situation could also elicit compassion or pity from different people. 

Later, Freud suggested that humor is a relief of tension and repressed thoughts, which he claimed is why taboo subjects are frequently the subject of jokes. While this hypothesis does explain many scandalous jokes and restroom graffiti, it doesn’t explain why we tend to laugh at slapstick comedy or other more innocent jokes. 

The more modern incongruity theory states that things are funny when they are unexpected or otherwise violate a social norm. My interview moment is a prime example of this incongruity: the contrast between the formal, high-stakes setting and my wild-card answer. And the vast majority of jokes that are likely to generate laughs do have unexpected punchlines — think of how an audience would react if they could always predict what a comedian was going to say.

The “benign violation” theory is verified by research and elaborates on the incongruity theory. This idea details that people find humor when they determine that a social norm or expectation has been violated, but there must be no lasting damage, whether physical or emotional, from this situation. 

Maddy Bennett, co-president and co-founder of the UW Comedy Club, said that a major component of standup humor is the balance between encouraging students’ creativity and original takes, and making sure that the audience feels comfortable. The UW Comedy Club is an RSO that gives students a platform to share their jokes and lineups in a low-pressure environment. Students meet weekly to practice and give each other feedback on how to maximize the laughs they earn from their audience.

“Comedy is about pushing boundaries,” club officer Apoorva Ratan said, adding that comedians must do so with care and respect for their audience. 

Bennett and Ratan stressed how comedians must take into account the broader social context to make sure their humor is inoffensive and truly funny. 

“It’s part of a larger conversation about how society’s operating,” Ratan said. 

Ratan said that he doesn’t believe humor has to be derived from tragic or unfortunate situations, but can also come from happiness, love, or care. 

UW Comedy Club member Prachatorn Joemjumroon said that he believes that humor can be an engaging way to highlight social issues and call an audience to action. Joemjumroon described how he thinks people are more likely to find something funny when they fully understand the references behind it, which is why he tailors the jokes he tells to each audience. 

Bennett said that she wants the Comedy Club to allow students from all demographics and levels of experience to try out standup. 

“It seems like there's a high barrier to entry [to comedy], but it’s actually very low,” Bennett said. “Standup doesn’t have to be just one person on stage, it can be multiple people, it can be costumes, movement, audience participation.” 

Reach writer Isobel Williamson at pacificwave@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @IsobelW18

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