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The Science Thing About Funny*

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Author: Dr. Jonathan Berman | Category: Beyond The Bench | Community Outreach | February 16, 2016

In science, we seek to peel away everything from our sensorium all that is not universal. We aim to arrive at an ever improving approximation of the truth that has stood up to the ablation of repeated attempts at falsification by multiple observers until only the best model remains. 

The beauty of these battered, but mostly true fragments of our worldview is that they connect us. We all must share the same reality. We experience the same physical laws and we are built from the same biology. 

I love science, but not just the knowledge it has brought our species, the power to cure diseases or feed billions, and the power to understand our own origins. I love the process of science, the day to day minutia of experimentation, observation, and re-experimentation.

My first love was art. For a long time-- my medium was comedy. As in all art, in comedy we celebrate the uniqueness of an individual's perspective, and we seek to elicit emotion in the audience. The universal, that which is true for anyone, is most important to provide contrast.

To hold a microphone in hand, and to do nothing but speak and to create laughter is a truly joyful experience. Comedy connects us through the universality of our strangeness, and validates the peculiar.

Many people have created theories of comedy. Hobbes thought that comedy is about the elevation of the audience above a victim. Laughter is caused by a feeling of superiority. Freud thought that laughter was caused by the relief of tension created by trying to comprehend the absurd. Freud was a bit nuts. Kant believed that comedy was the result of incongruity. This theory was later updated and presented as a semantic theory. A joke consists of two scripts, and a semantic shift brings the audience from the first, more likely script to the second, less likely.

All of these models in some way approximate the truth, but they all miss the point. Discovering what makes a joke funny is like developing a theory of what makes a painting beautiful, or a poem sad. Good comedy is empirical. It is the result of experimentation and note-taking that explore avenues of joketelling until something works (with that audience and on that day). 

The psychologist Richard Wiseman tried to arrive at the world’s best joke by polling thousands of people with hundreds of jokes. The resulting “world’s best joke” was bland and inoffensive. The best comedy is sad and beautiful and strange. It could only be created by one person, but it speaks to many. The lucky comic makes a few great discoveries in a career, jokes that reliably hit with every audience, until their cultural context expires.

One night I was driving in a mid-February snowstorm from a small town on the New York/Pennsylvania border where the road signs read “warning, bear crossing,” back to Buffalo. Two comics were asleep in the back. We had been welcomed as “big city comics,” paid $20 to tell some jokes, and got to hang out and flirt with the locals. At the proddings of the host of the show, a talented local drag performer, we all performed in our underwear in front of a crowd of about forty men and women.

By our standards at the time, it was a high point in comedy. All of our jokes got laughs. Someone tipped me $7. My companions seemed happy, even thrilled to have eked out an evening as the center of attention. I was thinking about a blot I had incubating overnight and getting back in time to get some sleep before I had to change antibodies. That was my last night in comedy.

Dr. Jonathan Berman will be performing on March 2, when he MC's the World Record Attempt for the Largest Periodic Table of Elements in the lead up to Science Fiesta.

The "Beyond The Bench" series features articles written by students and postdoctoral fellows at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. 

*Note: The title is a transpositional pun, click here for more details. 

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