So you are hanging out with the guys. A nice banter is going on, you have fun. Everybody is cracking jokes and now it’s your turn to make everybody laugh. You start your joke, your punchline drops and….. “Chirp chirp”,…… Crickets.
Then - out of nothing - douchebag #2 drops a lame joke,… and everybody laughs. WTF?! That’s embarrassing.
Why don’t people laugh at your jokes? Your joke was good. That’s shouldn’t be the problem. So what was?
I used to experience this all the time. Especially in high school. Among friends and family, I was funny. But at school, I bombed every time. The cool kids would have nothing of my funny remarks. As a reward for my witticisms, they’d make worthless comebacks. Followed by pointing and laughing. Why were they funny?
Apparently, there was more to it than being clever.
What other elements are involved for being funny? A lot of times laughing doesn’t even seem related to jokes. How come?
Well, according to popular theory, there are two overlapping instincts for laughter. Social standing and surprise (and maybe salads). Both can be combined in humor. Yet humor does not have to be part of it. Together these stimulate us psychologically to make us laugh.
When you laugh out of surprise it is due to release of tension, like hiding our embarrassment. When you accidentally stumble or drop something causes you to laugh it off.
In a joke, you are tricked and laugh at an unexpected finale in the narrative. When you repeat a gag based on surprise, the twist will be expected, so not as funny anymore. So use your shockingly good unicorn jokes sparingly.
There is a major drive for people to feel superior. Or when feeling inferior, trying to bring others to your level. That’s why many jokes are at someone’s expense.
You make sadistic remarks to feel better. Think about jokes were people make fun of minorities, the office loser or stupid people. You do it because it makes you feel better, more superior. You want to further elevate yourself.
People with a higher perceived status use this tactic to maintain their position.
In addition, you make fun of celebrities, politicians or your boss. To drag them down to your level. Or at least in your imagination. You try to compensate your feeling of inferiority. They might be famous, influention or authorative - but at least [enter dissing joke].
7 Keys to Laughter
You have instinctive moments when you laugh as a reaction. Other primates display specific laughing behavior as well. Think of apes showing their teeth to display dominance.
You do this as well. When celebrating a triumph, you use jokes to display extra dominance. Like when you won a game and want to smear in your victory. Or when you lost, trying to crack a joke to remain your dignity.
Humor is an acceptable way of attack. Though the attack/joke is only accepted if others loathe the object of disfavor as well.
Incongruity and Ambivalence
When stories, jokes or situations are incongruent we laugh. Or if something is ambivalent, the confusion makes us laugh.
That’s because when certain aspects can’t be rationally paired. Or when they are unclear. It creates a disconnect in your mind. An error.
There is no clear conclusion to your logical thread. Your thoughts block up. To release this mental tension, you laugh. It is as a sort of reward. According to theory, you as cognitive being, are limited in your reasoning. Thanks to evolution, you are rewarded when you can’t cope with rational conflicts.
This “error” and consequent dopamine reward is used by many comedians. All the random jokes you find on internet meme-hives are the basis of this bug/feature in our mind.
Release of Tension
When you do something embarrassing or awkward, you laugh it off. You try to release the tension, to lighten things up. To hide embarrassment and smear the social dynamic. Or when you have a strained conversation, you can try to loosen it with laughing.
Or more extreme, if in the chaos of a traffic accident you get out unscathed. You laugh out of relief. You experienced something intense and stressful. But now it’s over. And you laugh to release this tension.
Comic relief is added in movies to release tension. Otherwise the scenes would be too serious. It makes a movie more digestible and enjoyable if not all the suspense is cramped up. That is why thrillers don’t have comic reliefs because the goal is to feel intense throughout the movie.
On a different scale, we love to laugh in groups. To release our collective anxiety together. That is why we gather in comedy cafe’s and watch comedies together. With the anticipation of relaxing through laughter. Releasing our societal angst and stress.
Solving a puzzle
When you finish a complex project, have an epiphany or solve a complex puzzle – you laugh as well! You celebrate solving something complex.
Again tension release and a dopamine reward for finishing the mental task. But also the surprise and feelings of superiority play part in the laughter. That’s why the fat Buddha laughs in Buddhist culture. He has solved the puzzle of life. And now the smug bastard feels superior!
Humor is therapeutic as well, helping you cope with inconvenient truths. Humor can be used to introduce and accept uncomfortable facts. Used to ease you into accepting your insecurities. But is not always a productive way of coping. Think about people who joke about their own insecurities, but don’t solve their issues.
Wit is also used to relay harsh lessons of wisdom. Often criticism doesn’t get accepted when bluntly stated. With the power of humor, it can be digested more easily. Take The Daily Show, it has confronted people for years with uncomfortable facts. By making people laugh! This way people don’t shy away from reality but are more able to confront it.
George Carlin and Bill Hicks are prime examples of comedians who use this. Truth through comedy.
So what of your sick sense of humor?
Lots of us have this sinister tendency to make inappropriate jokes. Partially it is innate for us to relativize serious and negative experiences. Making us feel better through laughter. This way you can look at adversity more directly. Displaying true feelings, you don’t really want to (or can’t) express.
It is also used to gain status, finding respect or attention by shocking people. One gains ‘respect’ by the audacity of the joke, and surprise of the brutality.
Social Standing and Laughter
So we skimmed the surface of laughter mechanics. Let’s elaborate a bit more on social standing, bonding and the connection with laughter. Laughing is a social behavior. People are 30 times more likely to laugh when in the company of others. Check yourself, how often you laugh alone?
It is a social interaction. A communication of status and moods.
“People laugh when they’re interacting with other people regardless of the “jokiness” – Lea Winerman
As said, often we like to feel superior or make others feel inferior. In a hierarchic group, people often wait with laughing until the “silverback” laughs. Like in a boardroom, only when the CEO laughs the rest feels allowed to laugh. When the junior associate cracks a joke, nobody will laugh. Because of the social hierarchy.
People unconsciously look for social hierarchy cues and act accordingly. This works also the other way around. Laughing on your own terms raises your perceived social standing. Also it brings you on the radar of the dominant player.
When people of similar or unknown (perceived) status meet, they try to figure out how to get along. When positively engaged, a good mood is created using laughter. Stimulating pleasant emotions in others and bonding over the shared experience. Humor and laughter are used as social lubricants. When done properly, people enjoy each other's company more.
This bonding strategy is also used to get accepted. Lower status people laugh nervously to try to fit in, trying to elicit positive feelings in superiors. Like making bad jokes or laughing at themselves.
So now you know a lot more about why you LOL, ROFL, LMAO and PMSL. But what can you do with this information? Here are a few action steps you can take, to up your witticism game!
- Laugh on your own terms.
- When making jokes use a frame of superiority
- Use surprising twists in your stories.
- Relay wisdom or criticism supported by humor
- And wear a purple wizard hat
Real life will have a more nuanced experience to the different aspects of laughing, social status, and surprise. But understanding the basics of why people laugh will make it easier to understand why a joke bombs or wins.
This framework helps you to recognize how people interact. You can better understand your position and those of others. And improve on that by joking around. It may get some getting used to, but not laughing at the guy you actually hate may tip the social scales.
So tell me, how do you recognize the interplay of laughing, humor, and status in your life?