What can we learn from comedy?

Alan Driscoll ponders the science of stand-up

EB White once said words to the effect of: ‘Analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. No-one laughs and the frog dies.’ Well, I don’t know what school Mr White went to, but my teenage biology classes always echoed to the sound of much merriment when presented with fresh specimens to slaughter. What’s funnier than a dead amphibian lying there glassy-eyed with its dumb belly slit open? Not to mention what it taught me about comedy.

Between years spent creating unsuccessful music and making excuses for not performing stand-up more often, I have been attempting to draft an investigation into the science of what makes something funny, while conducting email interviews with the comedians who have inspired the most laughter in me. Most were enthusiastically responsive, yet modestly doubting their own usefulness. Doug Stanhope proposed the idea that: ‘The science of what makes something funny is akin to what makes someone attractive. Better off asking a scientist than a hot chick.’

While some people are naturally, even effortlessly funny, I don’t subscribe to the idea that comedic skill is any more elusive than physical fitness is to someone not born a natural athlete. Doug Stanhope writes great material, and that material is made up of thought processes, and thought processes can be learned.

And comedy is important – not just in terms of making an audience emit a Pavlovian chuckle for saying the word 'paedophile’, but in terms of resolving global conflicts, increasing health and happiness levels, and rehabilitating those suffering from mental illness or trauma. It’s plausible that we’re still at a relatively early stage of our comedic evolution in doing this, but those experiencing a cynical reaction to the notion that comedy can save the world, please fuck off. The world is made up of people, and comedy saves people. It saved me, when even music wasn’t enough.

Laughter saves relationships, diffuses tension and keeps mental health in check. Is there anything more crucial to world peace than sanity and unity? As well, of course, as a passionate determination to overcome cynicism and cultivate positivity. Relax, it can still involve rape jokes. If they’re good ones (ie. one that invites the victim to laugh with you).

On a smaller scale, there are a million comedic circumstances which a scientific approach could perfect. What’s the funniest amount to exaggerate the amount of women Tiger Woods has slept with? Is there a sequential pattern that dictates which of Stewart Lee’s verbatim repeated phrases triggers a laugh? At what level of severity does a slapstick-induced injury cease to be funny? When is a witty, intellectual response preferable to tasteless shock comedy? What’s the funniest answer to the Christmas cracker riddle ‘What has a neck but no head?’ – ‘a bottle’ or ‘Jayne Mansfield’?

I’ve already learnt a lot from the comedians that have inspired me the most. Jerry Sadowitz (and a recent Patton Oswalt routine) taught me that there really is nothing funnier than an angry magician. ‘I’m going to inspire a childlike sense of sense of wonder in you but I’m going to do it resentfully.’ Stewart Lee, like Kraftwerk, taught me the beauty of looping the same segment for 11 minutes until your internal rhythms can’t help but adapt. Bill Hicks taught me the glee of fusing moral logic with explicit rawness to convert an audience to controversial material.

I could go on, and I will. Brendon Burns taught me that it can still be clever to repeatedly shout the word ‘cunt’ if it’s part of a schizophrenic double-act. Louis CK reminded me that those most prepared to admit to our darkest impulses are least likely to act on them. The Opie and Anthony show taught me that brutal honesty, if you’re open to it, creates the most joy. Mindy Kaling taught me that it’s worth unconvincingly referencing a woman when compiling a list of comedic influences.

Yet a million lessons remain to be learned. Why do elderly people laugh upon meeting old friends? Is it the shared joy of remaining alive against the odds? Why does a baby laugh when a parent makes a silly face? Is it because it’s absurdly unfamiliar, yet instinctively not a threat? Why do we laugh when we’re at our lowest ebb, and a friend makes an inane and insensitive joke that we really don’t want to laugh at? Is it because we remember that, excluding the mentally ill sadists of the world, we all ultimately want to make each other happy?

Why do girls laugh when I sexually proposition them? Is it because we’re united in a joyous understanding that transcends social boundaries and acknowledges our animal nature far more profoundly than any fleeting physical encounter could hope to?

That is why they laugh, right?

Questions like these deserve answers, and not just a giggling reference to a previously unmentioned boyfriend. Just think what we could achieve if we gained the power of being able to arouse a state of joy in someone using only words. Regardless of material inequality, we could ensure that everyone on Earth was happy. And satisfied.

We can start by discussing it more. For some reason incomprehensible to me, every public forum supposedly devoted to talking about comedy seems to contain infinitely more words about issues of race, gender or class than the actual craft of comedy. Which frequently descend into conflicting tirades of anonymous abuse. How about we make a universal effort to rise above that and pool our insights for the good of mankind?

Comedy is at least partially about dissolving conflict while a greater joy is shared, and that’s an idea we shouldn’t be scared to evolve, whether or not you get accused of trying to imitate Bill Hicks when you do.

Published: 26 Jul 2010

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