The Steampunk Satyricon

Monday, July 3, 2017

What's So Funny?

"Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind." — E. B. White

"They" always say if you have to explain a joke, it stops being funny. But "they" are probably assuming that no one ever tells jokes involving the graphs of trigonometric functions. Knowing the deeper meaning of a joke can be a fine thing, especially when it means learning a little bit of math or science along the way. Thus my new semi-, sort-of-, perhaps-regular feature: "The Big Bang Theory Exposed & Explained."

You do watch "The Big Bang Theory," don't you? You're not one of those dirtbag snobby little bitches who proudly declares they don't watch TV, are you? The show's been on since 2008 and if you do own a television, the syndicated reruns are fairly ubiquitous. "The Big Bang Theory" (TBBT) delivers tiny morsels of science to the masses with a cupful of sugar to help the medicine go down. I'm pretty sure there are people who have only ever heard the phrase "algebraic topology" because one of the characters used the term on an episode of the show.

Like most sitcoms, TBBT is really just another show about relationships, not science. But in this case, since most of the main characters' primary relationship is with science (factual science and science fictional science), quite a few of the show's jokes have touched on important scientific principles — anything from higher mathematics to particle physics to Newtonian mechanics and beyond.

Anyone can watch and enjoy the show, but there is so much more to appreciate if you can understand some of the science that gets talked about. Rather than leaving explanations to some lengthy, opaque, possibly wrong, definitely dry and shirtless-actor-free Wikipedia entry, I feel it's worthwhile to present a slightly more relevant and accessible explanation of that thing some character mentioned that you're afraid to admit went clean over your head. Your secret is safe.

So, all that having been said, let us begin the dissection...

Appropriately enough, we're going to start with the subject of humor itself. Specifically, what it is about your brain that lets you laugh at stuff.

TBBT Episode: "The Hesitation Ramification"

First Aired: January 2nd, 2014

Steven Molaro, Steve Holland, Maria Ferrari (teleplay)
David Goetsch, Jim Reynolds, Tara Hernandez (story)
Anthony Del Broccolo (executive story editor)
Tara Hernandez (story editor)

Chuck Lorre Vanity Card*: #436

Scene: The kitchen area of Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstader's apartment where Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) is making tea while Dr. Cooper (Jim Parsons) is reading the book How to be Funny in an attempt to discover a Unified Theory of Comedy.
Sheldon: This is interesting: Apparently, a key component in some forms of humor is the element of surprise. 
Amy: Well that makes sense. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning and anticipation, and patients with brain lesions... 
Sheldon (shouts): BRAIN LESIONS!!! 
Amy: Sheldon, you scared me! That wasn't funny! 
Sheldon: Maybe you have a stick up your prefrontal cortex!
We begin with the sight of a stereotypically humor-impaired scientist trying to understand the complexities of humor by purely scientific means — as if there can be a formula for funny. At least Dr. Amy (played by Mayim Bialik, a real life PhD neuroscientist) is on the right track by starting with the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex.

In a lot of ways, the prefrontal cortex is where our humanity resides. It's the part of the brain where we interpret things, imagine things and plan ahead. Other parts of the brain deal with the boring stuff — regulating your breathing, reminding your heart to keep beating, controlling muscle contractions so you can move, etc. — but it's in the prefrontal cortex that you begin to get the joke. It's the part of the brain where you reconcile incongruities in the information your senses take in and sort out how you'll respond when something unexpected happens. Every type of joke — from witty wordplay to Three Stooges-style pratfalls — has multiple components to be interpreted if one is to know that one is being told a joke. Your prefrontal cortex is where you coordinate disparate items of input and make them make sense.

How do we know any of this? Amy's mention of the prefrontal cortex was not merely an educated guess or a stab in the dark on the part of some TV writers. It was most likely a reference to published research done by Vinod Goel and Raymond J. Dolan at the Institute of Neurology in London. Goel and Dolan studied human subjects using a functional magnetic resonance imaging device (fMRI). Unlike a regular MRI, an fMRI doesn't just show pictures of a person's brain, it shows increases in blood flow that indicate an increase in activity in specific parts of the brain. When the researchers presented jokes to their subjects while they were being scanned by the fMRI, in each case it was the prefrontal cortex that lit up like a Christmas tree. The specific area activated is the medial ventral prefrontal cortex (right side of the frontal lobe), but other parts of the brain are activated as well including the amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex and the insular cortex. The last two are especially important because there are indications that those areas are where uncertainty and incongruity (often vital components to a joke) are processed.

An fMRI can show where the mechanisms that process humor are operating, but what exactly is governing that operation? The mental tools that turn sensory input into a real world response are referred to as your "executive functions." A current fashion amongst neuroscientists is to pooh-pooh likening the human brain to a computer, but that doesn't mean it's not an apt comparison; that's why it's fair to say that if your prefrontal cortex is the hardware, your executive functions are like the system software making it work.

Another way to think of executive functions is as a set of instructions that is constantly being edited in your head by an assembly of strict, stodgy professors who know what you should do, what you shouldn't do, and, on occasion, whack you on the wrist with a wooden ruler when you lose focus and get distracted from what you're supposed to be doing. That tiny team of academics in your head also does what real academics do: they form concepts, think abstractly, try to anticipate future issues and reason out ways to deal with the unexpected. And when they're done, they pass along what they've figured out so someone else (you) can act on their conclusions out in the real world.

Consider this exchange (from the same episode) between Dr. Leonard Hofstader and his neighbor/occasional girlfriend Penny. She had been troubled about her near total lack of progress in furthering her acting career and Leonard tried to help her out by getting her an audition for the new Star Wars movie, an audition that turned out to be bogus. Leonard is in his apartment on the phone...
Leonard: How much for a hundred long-stemmed red roses? Really?? How much for three? 
(Penny comes in through the almost-always-unlocked front door with a half-full glass of white wine.) 
Penny: Look, I know you were just trying to help with your Star Wars thing. I didn't mean to call it idiotic. 
Leonard: I don't think you called it "idiotic." 
Penny: Oh. Sorry. I meant to. Anyway... I was just upset with myself, I wasn't mad at you. I just feel like everything is falling apart. 
Leonard: Come on, it's okay.
Penny: No, it's not okay! Look at me... I took a temp job as a waitress forever ago, and I'm still doing it! I can't quit because, guess what, I can't do anything else! And I finally get my big break and it goes away. I'm such a mess. 
Leonard: No you're not. 
Penny: Oh, really? 'Cause this morning at Starbucks, a pair of old underwear fell out of my pant leg... and it wasn't the only one in there!
Even if no one else in the world finds anything funny in that, a bunch of people working on a TV show did. Why? Because consolation on a budget and socially awkward situations — where we know how things are supposed to go and then they go another way — are non-threatening incongruities. An expectation was created in the set-up and then confounded in the punch line (frugality defeats romantic gesture, panties make an appearance in a place where one doesn't usually see panties). A joke is just another form of sensory input and it's the job of your executive functions to sort out inputs so we know the difference between something to be taken seriously — demanding a serious response — and something that we're supposed to find amusingly incongruous or novel. Incongruities can be unsettling, but resolving them always makes us feel good, so it shouldn't surprise you to learn that being able to figure out a joke triggers your brain's reward center and releases a nice little shot of happy neurochemicals. We like being amused.

If there's nothing wrong with your prefrontal cortex and your executive functions are performing normally, you will respond to being amused by laughing. Laughing actually has very little to do with being told or shown something funny. Way before they can talk, babies are able to laugh. Even animals can (kind of) laugh. Laughing is a primitive form of communication that doesn't require a developed language or cultural context and clearly predates knock-knock jokes. It's simply a physical response to a particular sort of stimulus and it can take place absent any understanding of jokes or what most people think is funny.

Psychologist Steve Wilson states it plainly: "Humans are hardwired for laughter." "Infants laugh almost from birth," he notes. "In fact, people who are born blind and deaf still laugh. So we know it's not a learned behavior." Robert Provine, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, literally wrote the book on laughter (well, a book on laughter). In Laughter: a Scientific Investigation, Provine suggests that laughter started as panting, a result of the rigorous, non-combative horseplay our primate ancestors engaged in for fun. A few thousand years later, it evolved into the expression of amusement we're familiar with today. Basically, laughter is just you breathing funny.

But you only respond to humor with laughter if (a) you get the joke, and (b) your brain is working correctly. Amy's mention of brain lesions is, once again, grounded in real-world research findings. Neurologists know full well that people with certain kinds of brain damage have difficulty making decisions and displaying, what most folks would consider, the appropriate emotional response to a given situation. Such people suffer from impaired executive functions and it's hard for them to interpret the kinds of incongruities that someone with normal functions might find amusing, like humor involving sarcasm. If you've watched a few episodes of TBBT, you're probably thinking, "That sounds an awful lot like Sheldon."

By the end of the episode, Sheldon has a breakthrough and finally understands the nature of humor in all of its comedic complexity. He proves his mastery of the concept by doing a stand-up routine for his friends that is so mind-bendingly funny, each and every one of them wets their pants and, upon the conclusion of Sheldon's routine, offers reserved applause while keeping their legs crossed and doing their best to hide big, wet crotch spots.

Oh, wait... that's wrong. That's not how the show actually ended. But wouldn't that be funny?

Share the science!   

  • The Brain: Big Bangs, Behaviors, and Beliefs by Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall. © 2012. Published by Yale University Press.
  • The Brain: A Beginner's Guide by Ammar Al-Chalabi, Martin R. Turner and R. Shane Delamont. © 2006.
  • The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World by Elkhonon Goldberg. © 2009. Published by Oxford University Press.
  • How Brains Make Up Their Minds by Walter J. Freeman. © 2000. Published by Columbia University Press.
  • The Compass of Pleasure by David J. Linden. © 2011. Published by Viking Penguin.
  • How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Though Revealed by Ray Kurzweil. © 2012. Published by Viking Penguin.
  • Welcome to Your Brain by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. © 2008. Published by Bloomsbury USA, New York.
  • "Reciprocal neural response within lateral and ventral medial prefrontal cortex during hot and cold reasoning" by Vinod Goel and Raymond J. Dolan. NeuroImage 20, 2003.
  • "The Neurology of Humour" by Camilla Neergaard Clark and Jason Donald Warren. ACNR (Advances in Clinical Neuroscience & Rehabilitation), Vol. 13, No. 7. © 2014.
  • "The Biology of... Humor" by Eric Johnson. © 2002.

*A word about the vanity cards: Chuck Lorre, TBBT's producer and one of its co-creators (along with Bill Prady) has been working in television for a while. (He also wrote the Deborah Harry song "French Kissin' in the USA" which I've always loved.) When he was working on the series "Dharma & Greg," he started ending his shows with vanity cards that displayed brief and not-so-brief essays he'd written, but they would only appear for a second making them impossible to read in their entirety. This was ridiculous because those essays were always insightful, outspoken and very funny (when they weren't censored by network lawyers). Lorre continued adding vanity card essays to the ends of episodes of subsequent series he produced, but they could only be read by getting the shows on DVD and then freeze-framing the last second of whatever episode you were watching. I suspect Lorre was bowing to fan pressure when, finally, his vanity cards were given a web site of their very own where they could be read and enjoyed anytime by anyone with a browser. You can see Chuck Lorre's vanity cards online at

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