Doctor, doctorHigh Barnet author and psychologist, Professor G Neil Martin, tells us about his new book The Psychology of Comedy and explains why we laugh at the things we do
Twenty years ago, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire had a brilliant idea; to discover the country’s funniest joke.
So, he set up the website The Laugh Lab and waited for the horrors, howlers and zingers to come in. 500 jokes were collected in the first 24 hours and then rated online.
There were some old ones (“Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side”). And there were some common ones (“What’s brown and sticky? A stick”). Neither were judged to be particularly funny and the first was judged the worst. There were some surreal ones (“What do you do with a wombat? Play wom.”).
This is just one attempt to study a topic that people may not regard as lending itself particularly well to scientific study: comedy and laughter.
During the pandemic, I decided to bring all of the scientific research on comedy and humour together and distil it in a short, easy-to-read book, The Psychology of Comedy. In it, you’ll find the country’s funniest joke retold in full.
One of the toughest questions science must ask about comedy is: why do we laugh and what’s the purpose of laughter? There are many different explanations and theories but they generally fall into four camps.
The superiority theory of humour argues that we laugh and use comedy in order to demonstrate superiority over others. It is well illustrated by the use of disparagement humour to belittle or ridicule those marginalised and discriminated against. Like this, comedy facilitates othering.
The second is incongruity theory- we laugh when we observe or perceive two incongruent things placed together (a tree up a cat, rather than a cat up a tree). Relief theory proposes that we use humour and generate laughter to release repressed energy that would otherwise be ill-advisedly built up. Reversal theory assumes that we have two states- playful (paratelic) and serious (telic) and we alternate between these two states throughout the day. The former allows us to be creative and protects this creative space.
Some questions I hope to answer in my book: are funny people more intelligent? (yes); does laughter make you laugh more? (yes); are men perceived as funnier by men and women? (yes); does having a sense of humour make you more attractive? (yes, if you’re a man); is laughing healthy? (simulated laughter is associated with better health and well-being); is smiling a good thing? (yes and no); do comedians’ personalities differ from those of other performers? (yes).
If you pick up a copy of the book, tell me your favourite joke and why you think it’s funny. You can contact me on Twitter (@thatneilmartin) or via email [email protected] outlook.com. I promise I won’t heckle.
Professor G Neil Martin’s book ‘The Psychology of Comedy’ is published by Routledge, priced £11.99. Order at www.routledge.com using the code FLY21 and receive 20% off. Neil will be talking about his book at the Chortle Comedy Book Festival on 28th November.
Simon Ellinas draws cartoons for newspapers, magazines, websites and books. As seen on Twitter @cartoonelli