The psychology of comedy

Jay Richardson reports from the Edinburgh International Science Festival

The oft-repeated saying is that analysing humour is like dissecting a frog, few people are interested and the frog dies.

Virtually sold out, Psychology of Comedy at the 300-seater Jam House in Edinburgh seemed to disprove the first part of that statement. But no amphibians, real or metaphorical, were threatened with dissection in this disappointingly unfocused symposium, convened as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Featuring comedians Robin Ince and Arnold Brown, plus Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and sometime magician who in 2001 led the LaughLab experiment to discover the world’s funniest joke, ultimately attributed to Spike Milligan, it promised an investigation into the existence of ‘funny bones’ and whether anyone could, theoretically, become a stand-up.

Yet the lack of that clearly stated intent and loose structuring of this 90-minute debate ensured it turned into a series of anecdotes interspersed with classic clips from the likes of Woody Allen, Chic Murray and Stewart Lee.

The principal question was left unanswered and the abiding memories were of Ince’s superb Lee and Eddie Izzard impressions and the incongruous vision of Brown telling his Princess Diana blowjob gag.

Professor Wiseman had seemed the ideal host, assured, witty and grounded in his subject, while straight away conceding that ‘what scientists know about comedy is not very much’.

He struck the right note of academic enquiry and ridiculousness by illustrating the various hypotheses for laughter put forward by heavyweight thinkers – Thomas Hobbes’ theory of the teller’s superiority over a joke’s victim; Immanuel Kant’s theory of diffused danger evolved into surprise; Sigmund Freud’s theory of relief in expressing the taboo – with appropriate examples of humour and groanworthiness.

Although his presentation’s findings may have been almost a decade old, an X-ray of his colleague’s brain, highlighting the centres of linguistic and ambiguous thought upon hearing a joke was fascinating. Like many, I suspect, I eagerly anticipated hearing more in this vein.

Instead, after a barely substantiated reference to research that suggests that 6.03pm on the 15th day of any month is the optimum time to tell a joke, Wiseman introduced his guests and took a subordinate role, interjecting with only the most general questions.

Gonged off at the opening night of the Comedy Store in 1979, yet returning the following night, ‘despite popular demand’, the still-gigging Brown can claim significant authority on British comedy, while Ince’s passion for discussing ideas and attention to detail makes him a thoughtful commentator on the art.

Sadly, Wiseman’s emphasis up to this point had been on jokes, and neither his guests, nor the vast majority of contemporary stand-ups in the UK tell jokes per se, Ince’s occasional illustrative references to exceptions like Tim Vine and Milton Jones only reinforcing this.

For Brown, accomplished joke ‘technicians’ like Steve Wright or Jimmy Carr, whom he likened to a ‘composite comedic robot, if any scientist wants to build it’, appealed less than a fellow one-liner merchant like Jones, who as Ince ventured, offers more of his personality with his gags.

Brown afforded some insight into the measured eloquence he employs when crafting his lines and touched upon why some sounds in spoken English are intrinsically funny. But I couldn’t help reflecting that Carr’s Naked Jape book, written with Lucy Greeve, covered this ground more effectively. Moreover, stand-up Owen Niblock has built a joke-telling robot, the Gig-A-Tron 5000. And it’s nowhere near smart enough to put Carr out of business yet.

The wretched, perennial questions of offence in comedy and relative lack of female comedians were raised late and only partially dealt with, Ince referring to Frankie Boyle’s recent controversial encounter with the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome with the eminently reasonable advocacy of the right to offend and the right to be offended, maintaining the importance of context for any comedian and routine.

Brown stated that a comedian’s motivation and capacity to be offensive came from their personal background, citing but not elaborating upon his own need ‘to get revenge for what happened to me a long time ago’. So important is a comedian’s persona he felt, that you should never tell a joke out of character, hence the weird frisson when this avuncular comic delivered his Princess Diana line.

Wiseman undoubtedly touched on something when he suggested that ‘seeking GSOH’ in dating ads refers to women seeking men who can make them laugh, whereas for men it’s women who will laugh at their jokes. This followed an audience member noting that the examples the two comics put forward this evening were almost exclusively male.

Ince, justifiably pointed to his many collaborations with Josie Long. A former Mock The Week contestant, he criticised the show’s ‘macho’ culture and offered, I thought, one of the more original perspectives on women in comedy – why would anyone want to be part of a profession that exposes your flaws to so much scrutiny?

Perhaps because for the comedy fan, more so than the psychology student (though Ince’s School For Gifted Children reinforces that you can be both), this was still entertaining, a rare event that portrayed stand-up affectionately and worthy of serious discussion, despite its participants’ reservations.

Among the many fond recollections were warm words for Malcolm Hardee’s testicles, Paul Foot’s capacity to ‘die beautifully’, Kevin Bridges’ pronunciation of ‘glockenspiel’ and the majestic vision of Tim Vine’s peerless pen behind the ear routine.

Brown’s solitary nugget of advice for prospective comedians was to be prepared to sacrifice your personal relationships in order to succeed, while Ince’s was that you need tenacity and a predilection towards self-loathing, glimpses of grim, if tongue-in-cheek (and no less interesting for that) psychological grit that this lightweight debate otherwise largely failed to deliver.

Published: 13 Apr 2010

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