3 responses to “Why We Laugh at Late-Night TV”

  1. Joe Toplyn

    You make an excellent point, Pete. If comedy material has to be surprising to get a laugh, as I believe, why did you and Joel laugh at the “Who’s On First” routine even after you’d seen it many times?

    I would argue that the routine still surprised you. It’s long–at eight minutes–very fast-paced, and dense with verbal gymnastics. I think it’s entirely possible that you laughed at harmless incongruities that hadn’t registered with you on previous viewings, or that you had forgotten.

    The role of surprise in creating laughs is probably testable but one test that you mention in The Humor Code seems flawed to me. On page seven you describe how “two University of Tennessee professors had 44 undergraduates listen to a variety of Bill Cosby and Phyllis Diller routines. Before each punch line, the researchers stopped the tape and asked the students to predict what came next.” You go on to relate that “the predictable punch lines were rated considerably funnier [by a second group of students] than those that were unexpected.”

    But I believe that stopping the taped performance of a joke and giving the students ample time to predict the punch line didn’t measure how surprising the punch line would be when it really counts, when the joke was delivered at full speed. What stopping the tape did was allow the students enough time to consult their vast internal database of past jokes and figure out which time-tested formula would probably be used this time to create the punch line.

    Put another way, the very fact that the students could predict the punch line when they thought about the joke for a while strongly implies that the joke was written according to familiar formulas. That’s why the second group of students rated those jokes as funnier when they heard them at full speed the way they were designed to be heard—those familiar, proven joke-writing formulas worked. The formulas created surprising, harmless incongruities and resulted in laughs. I describe those formulas in Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV.

    Another possible flaw in that University of Tennessee study, which I didn’t read, is how those two professors had their test subjects rate the funniness of the jokes. As someone whose employment has depended on making an audience laugh, I believe that the only accurate, objective way to measure the funniness of a joke is to measure the loudness and duration of the laughter it provokes.

    So I ask, isn’t there a better way to test how important surprise is in creating laughter? For example, couldn’t a researcher take two groups of students, have a comic tell each group a slightly different version of the same joke—one version with the punch line telegraphed—and see which group laughs harder?

    Or more simply, maybe a researcher could have a comic deliver a monologue to a group of students. Then, a week later, the comic would deliver the identical monologue to the same group of students. The researcher would measure whether the students laughed just as hard the second time.

  2. Wayne

    Toplyn’s book is excellent.

    Re benign violation, my first day writing for the Dean Martin Roast of Betty White, Dean’s head writer, the legendary Harry Crane, reviewed the material I turned in.

    I still remember his comment to this day.

    “Kid, your puns may garner a chuckle in Harvard yard, but when you write a gag for Dean, the punchline’s gotta be: ‘And then her ass fell off.’ Go back, lad, and give me ‘And then her ass fell off’.”

    Puns alone: too benign. You gotta have a shocker.

    1. Joe Toplyn

      That’s a great anecdote, Wayne. I laughed so hard my ass fell off.

      Your story also makes the point that jokes should be consistent with the persona of whoever is delivering them. If someone tells a joke that doesn’t fit his or her established persona, the audience will be confused and distracted. Faced with too many violations at once, they won’t laugh as hard.