We all love a laugh. But what is it that makes us laugh? It’s a complex process and here’s one of the reasons why our brains respond the way they do.
The Broca, discovered a century ago by Pierre Paul Broca, is near the front cerebral cortex of the brain and is associated with speech and recognition of speech related to images.
Let’s test this out: when I say, ‘giraffe’ a picture of a giraffe is generated by Broca in conjunction with another area and the cerebral cortex. This is why they say Rosetta Stone is the easiest way to learn a language – it puts a picture with a word and makes it easy to understand and remember. Another thing the Broca region loves is verbs. Good advertising – especially radio advertising – puts a picture in the mind of the consumer. When we hear the word it makes it familiar. Brand loyalty dictates that we usually buy what we are comfortable with.
Check out these slogans: Winston tastes good like a cigarette should, Coca Cola – it’s the real thing. We remember these years later. Mind you, it can also backfire. Remember the Yo Ticero Taco Bell ad with the Chihuahuas? Well that didn’t make tacos sell but it Chihuahua sales went through the roof!
This same concept is also why the best comics like Bill Cosby for example through words and gestures create amazing and funny pictures in your mind of what they are saying. He takes you on a journey into his childhood on some of his funniest routines and you feel you are there laughing with him as you enjoy the movie that plays in your head – the Broca along with the cerebral cortex is basically the movie projector.
Why do we laugh?
The study of laughter is called gelotology. We know that laughter is good for your blood vessels; it dilates them, lowers blood pressure, in the brain it activates the ventro medial prefrontal cortex and limbic system that produces endorphins and reduces stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, plus increases production of t- cells. That’s a lot going on for one punchline.
We laughed before we were humans – chimps and other apes laugh and play and when tickled chimps laugh like humans.
Babies laugh about 300 times a day: babies can laugh before they can speak, probably because all the have to do all day is eat and poop and sleep in between. Adult humans, by contrast, only laugh about 20 times a day – probably because we work all day, eat when we can, don’t get to poop as often as we would like and never get enough sleep. (Republicans maybe laugh once a day. The rich ones never laugh. To be fair, rich people have problems too. These are called ‘poor people.’)
Another reason we laugh is that life is scary and when perceived danger or trouble misses us we laugh with relief to treat ourselves to some endorphins.
It is also a coping mechanism with the absurdity of human existence – if we didn’t laugh we would cry.
If you have ever seen a comic fail (if you haven’t come see me sometime), it is because they haven’t connected with the audience. In other words they have not engaged or created likability or interest. The Broca region makes no pictures to go with the comic’s words, or the comic confuses the audience and the only real rule of comedy is that a confused or distracted audience doesn’t laugh.
Who could ever look away from Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock’s second hand high above a city street, or the Three Stooges hitting each other with hammers? The latter example brings up one other element, too: if you take other people’s pain and add time and a little twist to it you get a ready made cocktail for laughter.
If you fall down the stairs it isn’t funny but if someone else does it’s hilarious. I saw a (kindred spirit) fat man fall down the stairs at Morritt’s and everyone that saw it was laughing till they had tears in their eyes. A huge avalanche of a fat man bouncing and rolling down the stairs yelling, ‘help’ made everyone laugh. That’s a purely physical response.
Verbal jokes, by contrast, are possibly a cognitive riddle when people get the joke – it is a surprise, there was no real danger and people laugh with relief and at the absurdity of the whole thing.
The answer to the question of what makes comedy funny? Well, we can point to some of the factors involved I guess, but ultimately we can only know what makes it unfunny and that is over-analysis. And on that note, I am hoping to avoid the banana skin on top of a rollerskate at the top of the Camana Bay tower’s stairs. Nobody wants to see that.