This post is more a stream of consciousness than a thoughtful take. So don’t be a judgmental prick.
Laughter is a weird expression. We laugh when we’re happy, and we don’t want to be sad. We cry when something is funny beyond your expectations. We chuckle when we’re understood, and we laugh out loud when we’re misunderstood. We laugh to cope with the absurdity of life and the crushing weight of the unbearable. Laughter is a release valve for our deep-seated thoughts and an escape hatch from reality. You can inspire people, give them courage, and give them hope, all with a smile. Are there any other human expressions or emotions that can help us convey so many things?
We seem to have had the ability to laugh as far back as 14 million years. That means we learned to laugh before we could speak. Even human development follows the same pattern; babies first learn to laugh when they are about 3 months old, even if they are deaf and blind. There also seem to be brain structures and genetic components to laughter. In other words, laughter is the result of natural selection. Laughter is universal, and it has been observed across different cultures and even species.
When tickled, the higher primates (humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans) all display a laughter-like behaviour (Caron, 2002; Fry, 1994). Fry dates the “rudimentary elements of contemporary humor” to 6.5 million years ago — a figure representing the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens and chimpanzees. However, it appears that Fry inadvertently misses the last common ancestor of humans and orangutans, which is approximately 14 millions old (Dawkins, 2004). This means that the rudimentary origins of laughter could be at least 14 million years old. — The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor
Humor is awesome, it’s like a social Swiss knife.
Humor provides a variety of physiological, psychological, social, and economic benefits. Experiencing humor boosts positive emotions while mitigating the perceived intensity of negative life events, helps people cope with stress and anxiety, makes utilitarian pursuits more enjoyable, improves creativity and aspects of mental health, and helps people manage relationships. Similarly, people who are good at making others laugh have an easier time attracting romantic partners, making favorable impressions on others, and navigating potentially contentious social interactions, such as negotiations and Thanksgiving dinners.
A bunch of academics actually looked for the world’s oldest jokes. Here are some that they found:
The world’s oldest joke is revealed to be an ancient Sumerian proverb dating back to 1900 BC – Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap. The Sumerian version of this joke occurs in tablets dating to the Old Babylonian period and possibly even dates back to 2,300 BC. The study notes that this joke is almost the ancient equivalent of a well known quip by the actor John Barrymore – “Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock.”
Other jokes that also make it onto the world’s oldest list include a more conventional gag from 1600 BC – how do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish. This is featured on the Westcar Papyrus and is said to be about King Snorfru.
This begs the question: Why do we laugh?
It turns out that the answer is complicated. Philosophers, psychologists, and biologists have been writing about laughter for thousands of years, but there’s no universal theory of laughter. The OG Greek philosopher and stud Plato hated laughter. He considered laughter evil, a vice, and said that important people should never laugh—I’m sure he was a riot at parties with his stone face and foaming mouth. Epicetus, another stoic Greek nerd, allegedly never laughed once in his life. But, others say, he’s misunderstood, and he periodically dropped some bangers such as this:
I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later. — Epicetus
Aristotle, one of the most popular philosophers with six-pack abs and a student of the hilarious Plato, had a more measured view of laughter. He considered wit an essential part of life but then argued that some forms of “jesting” should be outlawed—what a grump!
Aristotle was ripped—look at them abs. Maybe it was because he had to constantly hold his laughter, and his core got a brutal workout. Given that you have to clench your hind parts to stop laughing, I’m sure his butt was toned as well.
But not all philosophers were miserable pricks. With time, philosophers became less unfunny. Immanuel Kant was one of the first to explain why we laughed:
“In everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing”
The French philosopher Henri Bergson said:
Laughter is a social sanction against inflexible behavior, which requires a momentary anaestheia of the heart.
Bertrand Russell would’ve sold out stadiums if he were alive today. The man dropped some real bangers:
“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
“There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.”
“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.”
“And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence”
“Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.”
Fast forward to modern times, and we can laugh without risking the wrath of philosopher curmudgeons. So people have had the luxury of thinking more about why we laugh. There are many theories, but here are some popular ones:
1) humor reflects a set of incongruous conceptualizations, 2) humor involves repressed sexual or aggressive feelings, and 3) humor elevates social status by demonstrating superiority or saving face. These ideas reflect separate cognitive domains and therefore are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
1) We laugh when we think we are superior to others or at the misfortune of others.
2) Laughter is an outlet to release pent-up nervous energy. Sigmund Freud thought that humor allowed an outlet for suppressed or taboo views like sex and violence.
3) We find incongruent things funny. In other words, laughter is the result of a violation of our view of reality, and we laugh when this incongruity is resolved. This is how a joke works: there’s a setup and a punchline.
“The way a joke typically works is as a setup which leads your mind in one particular direction, and there’s a punch line which goes off in a totally different direction, and then there’s a resolution that happens in the brain, and this brings the two things which are incongruous together, and if the incongruity and the surprise is sufficient then that triggers laughter, a sense of amusement, or both.” — Jonathan Silvertown
I was watching an interview with George Carlin, and he shared a joke from his brother that perfectly illustrates the idea of incongruity resolution:
What we should do is take all the mentally defective people in this country, give them government jobs and just sit back and watch things improve.
This one is from Anthony Jeselnik:
Man, my parents were strict. Mom and dad were strict. My mom and dad once made me smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. An entire pack of cigarettes in one sitting. Just to teach me an important lesson about brand loyalty.
Another good one from Hannibal Buress:
I’m not an environmental person. Sometimes I let the water run for 45 minutes before I hop in the shower just to do it. It keeps running; it won’t stop running. It feels, you feel all… It makes me feel like the Poseidon of my apartment building—let the water flow. It just keeps running. So wasteful but it feels awesome. You never know, I might be saving somebody. Say some dude is drowning in a lake or the river or whatever; he’s drowning, but the water only comes up to right there because I decided to play a game of Madden before I hopped in the shower. I’m a hero; my methods are just different than yours.
As I finished writing the previous sentence, I discovered this interview where he talked specifically about the topic of incongruity in comedy:
You talked about how comedy’s all about incongruities, contrasts, exaggeration. Do you think about those techniques or those principles of humor consciously?
It happens automatically. Sometimes there’s a conscious heightening, you’ll recognize you’ve just chosen an image to make a point. Then your mind will just suddenly throw something at you that’s stronger—a heightening, to raise the stakes, a stronger word, a more visceral image, something that lights up the imagination, much better than the original thought. So you’re aware that you’re heightening and exaggerating further but you don’t use the word exaggeration or anything like that. All that stuff is just happening. And sometimes, afterward, I’ll look at something and say, “If I were giving a comedy lecture, that would be a good example.” I often think in those terms.
Don’t take the word of cranky philosophers and academics; listen to a comedian itself on why we laugh:
Paul Provenza: Jimmy has a book coming out. You have a theory about why we even have comedy.
Jimmy Carr: It’s a little bit pretentious. Are you sure you wanna hear it cuz it’s pretentious? Okay, so I was trying to think about why actually why do we laugh. Why is there an advantage in an evolutionary sense and a Darwinian sense to laughing? I think when you hear a joke, basically when you notice something that is out of place.
Tim Mimchin: Incongruent.
Jimmy Carr: Right, something is incongruent. I’m saying that the “haha moment” of a joke is very similar to the “aha moment” of ah I’ve had an idea, so you’re rewarding noticing difference and linguistic ability, and those are the two things that have led to our increased development over the last 4,000 years. Humanity, when we started, we were wandering around in the Savannah and you would look at a field and you would see a lion in it you’d notice that difference.
Chris Harddwick: Not bullshit! God put us here; he made us out of clay in a fucking garden and he ripped out one them goddamn ribs and made a pussy.
Jimmy Carr: He makes a very strong point. I would counter, but I just I think there is a I think there is an advantage. I think our culture has done very well out of laughter out of humor out of seeing something a little bit differently and I think you know the last couple hundred years.
Tim Michin: What do we still have to buy the book?
Jimmy Carr: We release endorphins when we laugh and then people come to comedy shows it is to it there’s a release of endorphins in your you’re happy.
Chris Hardwick: Endorphins is another word for brain cum basically.
Jimmy Carr: Brain cum, you release brain cum, that is what I meant to say.
Why write this post?
Last year, Brian Gallagher wrote a wonderful post in Nautilus magazine on why we laugh. I had read the piece but had forgotten about it. I rediscovered the piece again a few weeks ago, thanks to some algorithms—see, they aren’t all bad—and the timing couldn’t have been better.
In the last month or so, I’ve been bingeing on interviews with comedians. I don’t recall when I discovered stand-up comedy, but I’ve been a comedy nerd ever since. The only bright side of having to cross Silk Board every day is that you get a good chunk of time to do something useful in life as a Bengalurian. I loved listening to comedians so much that half the specials I’ve heard (not seen) were on my daily commutes, braving Bangalore traffic. I’ve gotten many perplexed stares at traffic signals as I laughed like an idiot.
To me, there are no better observers of the human condition than comedians. They are the sharpest observers of the absurdities of the world. You can learn more about the world and life from a brilliant comedian than from most news shows. The best comedians are good at shifting perspectives and framing things. They make you go, Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way. They push the envelope on the thorny issues of the day. The most subversive power that comedians wield is their ability to give people the luxury of talking about touchy topics because they push the limits of what is acceptable and what is not. Of course, not all comics are good at it, but the best ones are.
Roy Wood Jr: The best jokes land in one of two places. It’s either the audience absorbs it as “wow, I didn’t know that” or “I didn’t look at it like that,” or it’s “that’s what I’ve been trying to say.” — Ted
The best comedians not only make us laugh but also think, and we are better off as a species because of that. Jimmy Carr nailed it when he said this on the Modern Wisdom podcast:
Jimmy Carr: For me, comedy has a function in society that no one is calling, which is we’re pushing the Overton window. We we’re always at the edge of what is and what isn’t acceptable. Like, I’m not just talking about like I happen to tell edgy jokes, that’s not what this is. It’s I’m seeing things as they are but kind of with new eyes. That’s sort of what Comics do – even the most kind of mainstream observational comedy have done well. You’re sort of questioning the reality, you’re saying ‘well this is, this is uh this is not normal, this is not how things should be, this is weird am I the only one thinking this is it just me that’ kind of Trope of comedy and it pushes what we what we think about the world, it pushes what’s acceptable.”
Chris Williamson: You said that comedians are often ahead of the curve on social issues.
Jimmy Carr: I think they are. I think like comedians really do kind of it’s the canary in the mine. It’s the sort of test in the air of what you can say and you know politics lags behind.
Chris Williamson: So does culture, you know. If you want to know what are going to be the biggest talking points amongst normal people in about 18 months time, look at the jokes that comedians are making today.
Jimmy Carr: Well I think there’s a there’s a there’s a argument to be said that comedy lives in sort of a space between public and private discourse, and it strikes me that there’s never been a wider gap between public and private discourse – what people are saying in bars and homes and on social media to their friends and and what the party line, you know, you sort of the party line’s pretty strong at the moment on what you can and what you can’t say. You know if you want to see where power really lives, what can’t you say? It’s interesting right. What can’t you say in a society? What isn’t acceptable in the world? You get into very interesting topics.
I think the best comedians are modern-day philosophers. I’ve been telling my friends and colleagues that George Carlin is a modern-day Aristotle for years now. It’s not just me; here’s Morgan Housel speaking to Tim Ferriss:
Tim Ferriss: Could you just define that term so we understand what we’re talking about? The the term is “happiness”.
Morgan Housel: I would say happiness is you wake up grinning ear to ear. Happiness is you’re out at a bar with your friends. Happiness is you hear the funniest joke you’ve ever heard, and that’s what I think people strive for and they think that money’s going to give to them and it won’t. But I think contentment is you just wake up with a low or virtually no level of anxiety. You’re like, I’m good. I’m pretty happy — I’m pretty satisfied with my career. I’m satisfied with my relationships. I’m satisfied with the house that I live in. That’s not happiness though. I think money can reduce the number of sad days that you have, but it’s probably not going to increase the number of happy days that you have. Now, that’s awesome. If you can do that, that’s a huge life improvement, but it’s not happiness.
Tim Ferriss: Unless you have standup comedy budget and you go to more standup comedy shows.
Morgan Housel: See, that’s actually a great point.
Tim Ferriss: I’m not really kidding. That’s something that I do quite a lot of.
Morgan Housel: I’ve been on such a comedy binge lately, just Netflix specials. And I’ve said this many times, but I think comedians are the only good thought leaders because when you listen to good comedy —
Tim Ferriss: They’re the only practical philosophers left.
Morgan Housel: Exactly. And not only do you laugh, but you get smarter. I think George Carlin was a bonafide genius. I think Bill Burr is a genius. Those guys understand human behavior better than any psychology PhD does.
This Will Durant quote on the link between comedy and philosophy is on the money:
“A sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship to philosophy; each is the soul of the other.” ― Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy
Here’s Lawrence Yeo:
The comedian Tim Dillon was once asked about Jocko Willink’s book, Discipline Equals Freedom. The interviewer wanted to know if Tim thought that discipline was important to cultivate, and if it was a key ingredient to his success.
To that, Tim quipped, “Hey, how about freedom equals freedom? Has he ever thought of that?”
Comedians are the great philosophers of our day, primarily because humor is all about framing wisdom in an absurd way. And Tim’s response is a great example of this dynamic in action.
Of course, it goes without saying that I am projecting my views on the comedians that they probably don’t agree with. This act of imposing your hopes and beliefs on people, especially comedians, reminds me of a few things. One is this post on Reddit from a guy who hates it when people call comedians philosophers.
Look, I love George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Stewart Lee, but I’m really hesitant to call them philosophers. Carlin was the closest in that category, and he certainly had philosophical insights, but he was by no means a philosopher. Most comedians raise insights, but they don’t give any answers, which is half the job of a philosopher. That and most of them aren’t as inclined to inform, as they are to entertain.
This person has a point about entertainment vs. insight. This reminds me of an episode on The Green Room with Paul Provenza, a talk show with a panel of comedians involving Jimmy Carr:
Tim Minchin: I don’t do comedy about politics in the domestic politics sense. The reason I do comedy about logic, religion and belief systems is because I feel like I can go ‘well, that’s fucking wrong’ and ‘this is why that’s fucking wrong.’ And that’s why I avoid politics cuz I cannot ‘well but again, I get what’s right and wrong about it.'”
Jimmy Carr: It’s a different thing for me as a comedian. I’m purely an entertainer. I’ve got no message at all. All I’m doing is trying to make people laugh. I’ve got no… I don’t think anyone should be listening to me, particularly.
Here’s Bill Burr on why he became a comedian:
“I thought I became a comedian because I loved comedy and I liked making people laugh,” Burr says. “But I became a comedian because by the time I was 23, I was so walled-off and fucked-up that doing stand-up was the easiest way to go into a room full of strangers and make them like me so that no one would hurt me. I was onstage with the mindset of a 6-year-old from 23 to about 37.”
Here’s George Carlin:
John Stewart: When you were a kid growing up, yeah, you wanted to be Danny Kaye, he and Bob Hope. So, look, how do you think this thing is working out so far?
George Carlin: Well, I knew I wanted to stand up, and you know, I’d be silly and have people say, ‘ain’t he cute and clever,’ and that’s all it was, a reward, a psychic reward, you know? When you’re a kid, and you find out that you can get the attention of adults, approval, and a little bit of respect, and you just hunger for it, you keep going back for it.
And finally, the legendary and amazing Norm Macdonald:
When you’re a comedian, they expect you to know things nowadays. You know what I mean? It didn’t used to be like that. Like during the Vietnam War, they wouldn’t go, “I wonder what Red Skeleton thinks on this?” But nowadays, like I’ve heard they go, “A comedian is the modern-day philosopher, you know?” Which first of all, it always makes me feel sad for the actual modern-day philosophers who exist, you know?
Every comedian is different.
Legends like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin despised the limits on free speech and reveled in rebelling against the hypocrisy of society at great personal risk. Both were arrested numerous times for violating obscenity laws that were prevalent across America. They took aim at the notion that profane words would somehow corrupt society and destroy social values. They inspired a generation of comedians to express themselves freely.
“I want to help you if you have a dirty-word problem. There are none, and I’ll spell it out logically to you. Here is a toilet. Specifically-that’s all we’re concerned with, specifics-if I can tell you a dirty toilet joke, we must have a dirty toilet. That’s what we’re all talking about, a toilet. If we take this toilet and boil it and it’s clean, I can never tell you specifically a dirty toilet joke about this toilet. I can tell you a dirty toilet joke in the Milner Hotel, or something like that, but this toilet is a clean toilet now. Obscenity is a human manifestation. This toilet has no central nervous system, no level of consciousness. It is not aware; it is a dumb toilet; it cannot be obscene; it’s impossible. If it could be obscene, it could be cranky, it could be a Communist toilet, a traitorous toilet. It can do none of these things. This is a dirty toilet here. Nobody can offend you by telling a dirty toilet story. They can offend you because it’s trite; you’ve heard it many, many times.” ― Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
Richard Pryor, one of the greatest comedians ever, was the son of a prostitute and a pimp and had a hellish childhood. He lived his nightmares and dealt with his demons on stage, and in doing so, he shone the light on what it meant to be a black man in America. Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and others followed in his footsteps and became geniuses in their own right for their searing dissections of American social and cultural mores.
Jerry Seinfeld, as Ricky Gervais put it, is “the purest observational comic.” Don Rickles is one of the greatest insult comics ever, and he never wrote down anything. Everything was off-the-cuff.
Today’s comedians are different, and of course, comedy itself is never one thing. It mutates and changes like a virus as it interacts with society, lived experiences, culture, and money. Today’s comedy is arguably more political than ever. It’s funny when you consider the fact that more people watched Jon Stewart for their news than real news shows; he was the most popular fake newsman in America. John Oliver, who got his start under Jon Stewart, continued the tradition. You can see this need to be political among Indian comics as well. It’s a weird thing to see them talk about the absurdities of politics while they go to great lengths to tell us they are not experts.
Maybe people like me are living vicariously by projecting our ideals onto comedians. Maybe there are very few comedians who consider themselves social justice warriors or psychologists without credentials. Maybe by building them up into something they are not, we can express our deep-seated beliefs and frustrations. It’s just like imbuing useless objects with meaning through stories, religion, and just plain time—a musician’s underwear + 50 years = a collectible.
But hey, what do I know?
But whatever the case, comedians are incredibly insightful. Every time you listen to them, you can pick up a thing or two. For example, the last time I heard Bill Burr, I wrote a post on a few things about money I learned from him.
I’ve been listening to long-form interviews with comedians for the past month or so, and I can’t get enough. They’re wired differently, and their views on work, life, and love are fascinating. I loved this quote from Jimmy Carr that perfectly captures what makes comedians special:
As British comedian Jimmy Carr and writer Lucy Greeves put it in their book, Only Joking: What’s So Funny About Making People Laugh?, “Stand-up comedy is a peculiar performance art form. In a room filled with people, the comedian is the only one facing the wrong way. He’s also the only one who isn’t laughing. For normal people that’s a nightmare, not a career aspiration.”
Here’s what I’ve been watching and listening to:
I’m halfway through this one, and it’s just amazing. I highly recommend listening to it.
I had goosebumps right at the intro:
We are honoring this, this time around, an icon, a fellow who has really changed comedy as we know it. Literally, he’s celebrating 50 years of entertainment this year. He’s gone through more changes than most people do in a lifetime, and he’s invited us along on those changes. And sort of like the Beatles, we’ve gone through those changes with him. And he spent 50 years, think about that, 50 years making us laugh and, more importantly in some people’s opinion, he spent 50 years making us think. As you welcome, please, Mr. George Carlin.
I just started watching these
Things on the playlist:
A few good reads
I’ll leave you with a few things.
A brilliant quote:
A thing is funny when—in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening—it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution. If you had to define humour in a single phrase, you might define it as dignity sitting on a tin-tack. Whatever destroys dignity, and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny. And the bigger the fall, the bigger the joke. — George Orwell
A few of my favorite bits
Norm Macdonald on the Germans
George Carlin on Stuff
One of my all-time favorite jokes from the amusing Norm McDonald
Happy Diwali, folks, and go crack some inappropriate jokes about Diwali food-induced farts killing the cracker industry and leading to the unemployment of millions of minors.