Professor Robert R. Provine tried applying his training in neuroscience to laughter 20 years ago at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He carefully observed thousands of “laugh episodes” in real social situations – city sidewalks, suburban malls and the like. His conclusion about almost all of the utterances which triggered laughter in these situations? They weren’t funny.

Oddly, it seems that the laughter reaction engendered in a studio audience, or a family at home watching Only Fools and Horses, has little or nothing to do with what makes people laugh socially, and therefore why laughter exists at all (after all, laughter almost certainly predates comedians by some way, and since babies laugh it obviously predates language). In all probability, modern comedians and comedy shows have hijacked a response which evolved for another reason altogether.

“Laughter is an honest social signal because it’s hard to fake,” Professor Provine says. “We’re dealing with something powerful, ancient and crude. It’s a kind of behavioural fossil showing the roots that all human beings, maybe all mammals, have in common.” Laughing together is a way of saying: we are the same. We’re part of the same gang. When I laugh with you, I’m saying “I get you.” That’s why we laugh more in a big audience than we do on the sofa on our own. And that’s why so many comedy shows have a laugh track.

The drawback of the laugh track is the same as discussed under Just-A-Flesh-Wound – it reminds the audience at home that they’re watching a TV show, and this may wreck the tone (and pace) of your show. But the advantage is clear to see: it can make a show seem funnier.

Summary

Asking why we laugh doesn’t really tell us what will be funny, and analysing humour doesn’t necessarily make us better “laughter technicians”, since comedy is so fragile. But here at least are eight tools to use in the creation of comedy, which have fairly predictable effects.

Comedy based on STATUS seems human and universal. Comedy based on JUXTAPOSITION can seem obscure, but can also be a great vehicle for SATIRE. Comedy based on WITHDRAWN EMOTION can help make extreme situations acceptable, broadening the range of possible topics. Comedy based on HEIGHTENED EMOTION may end up seeming silly, but can have very broad appeal. Comedy based on INSIGHT seems clever and may provoke admiration rather than gales of laughter, whereas comedy based on ANTICIPATION or SURPRISE (which includes almost all slapstick) seems more simplistic but is likely to appeal to more people. Combining these elements creates the strongest effects. Here’s an example from Scrubs which is by no means exceptional for that show.

The Janitor tells JD he is no longer pursuing his vendetta against him, and quietly returns to painting an X on the surface of the hospital car park. Later, JD drives his scooter away, not noticing the heavy iron chain around the rear bumper. Suddenly, the chain tautens, and JD is flung over the handlebars, landing exactly on the Janitor’s X, besides which sits the Janitor in a deckchair, sipping a cocktail. “Bullseye!” he cries. “We’re not done yet, are we?” asks JD, spread-eagled on the floor. “No, my friend, we’re just getting started,” remarks the Janitor, sauntering happily away.

JD’s loss of status, combines with the mix of surprise and anticipation that the Janitor has not in fact turned over a new leaf, and the twin insights of the meaning of the X and the fact of the chain. JD’s reaction to this horrifying injury is one of withdrawn emotion; we don’t believe he has been seriously hurt and so we are free to laugh.

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