I've written about the science behind lots of things, including influence, note taking, procrastination, and even awkward silence.

Now to the science of something a little less serious. Like being funny.

A Little Story About Having To Be As Funny As The Last Guy

I remember a big project I was on years ago. I was replacing the previous project lead - some guy named Kevin. One of the team members, who had apparently been quite enamored with my predecessor, pulled me aside to offer me some advice:

I needed to be just like Kevin - who I learned was apparently funny at an epic level. I was intimidated. This was a complex project. Now I had to manage it while trying to be as funny as Kevin?

I got myself motivated, though. I could be funny. Most people had told me that I was pretty funny. The only notable exception was that stone-cold VP of Operations from a previous client who had told me that I was definitely not funny. I wanted to inform her that I had conducted my own survey and had found that seven out of ten people rated me as a "4" out of "5" on a five-point Likert Scale of funniness.

How could I get funnier? I needed to be a "5" out of "5" to live up to the Kevin bar.

It turns out that there is actually some scientific formula for being funny. Maybe Kevin had inside knowledge of this. I wish I had known about that back then. At least, I can share the science with you now. Watch your back, Kevin, wherever you are these days. 

The Science Of Funniness

The first thing I learned is that there are a lot of people studying what makes things funny who have come up with some interesting theories. Here are the pithy versions of each theory:

1. The Superiority Theory

This theory suggest that our humor is derived from the misfortune of others, which makes us feel superior. That certainly explains why a lot of us find it funny when people fall down. Ha! Those inferior people can't even walk properly. That's funny.

2. The Relief Theory

This theory apparently has its genesis all the way back to Sigmund Freud, which was surprising. Freud didn't strike me as a guy who was selling out The Improv back in his day.

It essentially says that the perception of humor is directly related to the release of built up tension. In other words, we are set up through tension to get to a release point of humor. Interestingly enough, that release has been shown to actually be good for our health.

3. The Incongruity Theory

This is all about the unexpected. We find humor when something happens that doesn't fit with what we expected to happen.

I recently decided to put my three year old son's swimming goggles on his stuffed panda bear while picking him up from pre-school. Within seconds, the entire pre-school class was pointing and laughing. I had successfully (and totally unintentionally) disrupted school. I might have also proven that even three year olds understand incongruity.

This theory is based on some significant research and analysis where over a million people were asked to rank over a thousand jokes. It concludes that humor works by leading us one way and then suddenly shifting our perceptions.

5. The Benign Violations Theory

Lastly, this theory is apparently an attempt by recent researchers to try to find a "unifying theory" of humor. It seems as though the world needs to be unified by something.

The funniness researchers must have gotten wind of the work that the astrophysicists were doing in the office next door where they've also been trying to come up with some sort of unifying theory to reconcile differences in the laws of physics that govern the sub-atomic quantum world compared with the rest of the universe. Or something like that. I'm not an astrophysicist.

If I understand my funniness theories correctly, what I do know is that it might be funny to have a contest to see who comes up with their unifying theory first. I'm betting on the astrophysicists. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I really believe in the incongruity theory.

Getting back to the Benign Violations Theory, it says that humor comes from a few necessary conditions:

First, there needs to be a norm violation. It could be a moral norm, a social norm, or a physical norm. It needs to make us do a double take and say, "hey that's not right."

Then there needs to be a safe context where the violation takes place. That gives us permission to laugh at an otherwise not so funny physical violation, for example. No one was hurt in the filming of this joke. Go ahead and laugh your head off.

There you go. Now all you need to do is put it all together:

Find a way to show the misfortune of others while concurrently building up the tension of that misfortune. Do it in an unexpected way while violating some sort of norm but in safe place while also leading your audience one way before pulling a 180.

If I understand my funniness science, I'm pretty sure that whatever you say after all of that will be scientifically guaranteed to be funny. Not even that humorless VP of Operations could refute it.

Published on: Jun 6, 2018