As part of BBC sitcom season, last weekend the BBC’s flagship science show Horizon covered the topic of laughter and comedy with familiar telly star and hard-working stand-up comic Jimmy Carr in the host’s chair.
It began as an awkward panel show with documentary sections and a little stand-up twirl on a tiny mini-stage that Jimmy seems to favour on tv. It was a consciously crappy set littered with generic science props, like they’d rifled through the dumpster from 1990’s-era Room 101. Jimmy should have been good at working in a strange hybrid situation (8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown is usually spot on) but this wasn’t good, despite his best attempts… so more like 10 o’Clock Live then.The studio audience were nervous, and nervously laughed at how nervous they were.
Once the science started it was pretty interesting, if no less awkward. Sticking three Professors on a little sofa is not going to make the evening any less ungainly. Fortunately Jimmy asked incisive questions of the academics and showed his own comedy intelligence. No surprise here as he has co-written quite a scholarly work on the subject of comedy with Lucy Greeves called The Naked Jape – I got a second-hand copy off the internet last year and was thoroughly entertained and learned a lot. If you can get hold of a copy I heartily recommend it, whether you’re a stand-up comedian or just a lover of comedy.
Speaking of learning a lot, Prof Scott from UCL opened proceedings by showing us how laughter is universal, a basic expression of emotion. A great example was an African tribesman making the noise for ‘victory’. He seemed pretty joyous but it was all very much open to interpretation. Then he laughed and we all knew exactly what that meant. Also, too much laughing is dangerous because it stops you breathing properly and worst-case scenario can lead to death! And I thought it was only the comics who died on stage. Basically laughter is a very primitive way to make a noise and very much a pre-language expression that all humans can understand.
Prof Dubar from Oxford expanded on that and said that laughter and humour act as remote grooming or tickling. This it to release endorphins and reinforce larger social groups, much larger than apes colonies with their one-on-one salon grooming experience. Laugher is a play vocalisation of monkeys and apes – to indicate that rough play (fighting and biting) is only for fun and not serious business.
You are 30 times more likely to laugh if you’re in a group than if you’re alone (Mr H is the exception in this instance – laughing like an asthmatic hyena at Impractical Jokers and frightening the cat). Say if you’re in a group with 50 Icelanders and Icelandic comedian tells a joke, you won’t understand it but you’ll feel compelled to laugh with everyone else regardless.
Lovely research from North Carolina shows us that couples who laugh together (i.e. simultaneously, not necessarily at each other) feel happier and more supported by their other half. And posed laughter is not really ‘fake’ so much as a tool in communication – a social lubrication. Some unwitting audience member showed it’s not a noise that you can make on all fours as your lungs are too smushed up. This then is another aspect of evolution from four legs to two legs.
Prof Peter McGraw, from Boulder, Colorado then presented his unifying theory of comedy. He calls it benign violation – the part in the Venn diagram where crappy dull stuff and horrible stuff meets is where the vein of comedy lives. He’s up against the three established theories of comedy – superiority (someone in the joke is the victim, being laughed at), relief and reassurance (I have all these terrible thoughts and it turns out you do too!), and incongruity/ surprise (Knock, knock. Who’s there? Cheesy Wotsits). Academic involvement didn’t seem to help the local Boulder comic and his gross condiment joke. Just putting more words in a joke doesn’t make it funny. It’s so important to workshop a joke and keep trying it with a different structure and different audiences. But if it’s still no good, then cut it. I liked Prof McGraw’s theory – it’s got a lot of scope. But not so much his jokes.
One of the absolute highlights was neurobiologist Jaak Pankepp turning rats upside down and ticking them. That’s his job! I could have easily watched an hour of it. Such sweet chirping noises – utter babes! And they’re having a much nicer time of it than the vast majority of lab rats. Jaak is having fun too, despite them occasionally nipping him in their play sessions. Miserable scientists who don’t like tickling rats (who even are they?!) says he is anthropomorphising the rats, but laughter is part of evolutionary ancient brain which existed long before we evolved into humans, so these rats are actually capable of ‘laughing’. They’re studied to help treat depression by promoting happiness. A “happiness neurotransmitter” has been identified, and bought by a drugs company for $560m. Who’s laughing now miserable scientists?! Tiny laughing rats helping with an antidepressant aid to promote happiness. Science is pretty wacky.
If you want to learn more about science and comedy, I’d suggest reading The Naked Jape Even with laughing rats, the Horizon show wasn’t nearly as informative as the book (plus the book has a joke on every page). But if you fancy it, The Science of Laughter is available on iPlayer now.