9:07 am: Peter and I have decided to attend a session called “The Science of Humor.” Moderator announces that he is stunned that anyone has made it to the talk; he attended the media party last night, and is surprised that he himself is here. “I’m stimulating myself right now,” he claims, “So if I’m at all myself, it will be an accomplishment.”
9:11 am: Four minutes into the talk and moderator has already used words “snot” and “crap.” He is now talking about people who laugh so hard they pee (in a context that makes it seem like he is referring to one of his guest speakers). I have finally found a science talk at my level.
9:13 am: The first humor conference was apparently in 1976 and evolved into an organization called the World Humor and Irony Membership, nicknamed “WHIM.” The yearbook was called Whimsy. Oh, what fun they must have had.
9:18 am: American journalists are, it turns out, very different moderators than molecular biologists (though I think this guy may have a Ph.D. in that as well). He keeps interrupting his guest speakers to ask them questions like, “No, wait, but when did you think to yourself, humor: YES.”
9:21 am: Third guest speaker explains an unpublicized aspect of narcolepsy — occasional attacks of what sounds like “cataplexy,” which are moments where you lose control of all muscles in your body (I’m guessing this might have to do with the urination). Apparently these attacks come on when a person experiences a very strong emotion — most importantly, humor. That must suck for narcoleptic stand-ups.
9:24 am: This is a science that uses Gary Larson’s “Far Side” comics as study controls.
9:27 am: Question from moderator: “Are there jokes in Egyptian hieroglyphics?”
“Yes,” responds one researcher. “Surprisingly they’re very much like Dilbert cartoons. A bunch of people arrive at a storage area and they can’t get in because the guard is asleep because he drank too much beer and has passed out. So they complain and bitch because they want to go home, but can’t because the guard is asleep.”
“So, in other words, it’s about as funny as a Dilbert cartoon,” says the moderator.
9:29 am: Question: Are there older jokes than the Egyptian ones?
“Yes, it’s Syrian. It’s a fart joke.”
Really? We haven’t advanced beyond Syrian humor?
“Whenever we have historical records, we have humor, and it’s exactly the same as contemporary humor.”
Maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about having the same level of humor as my seventh graders.
9:32 am: We have (perhaps regrettably) moved on to humor in other species.
9:33 am: Wait, not regrettably. Apparently some bonobos have been known to point at their lab assistants, point at a pile of shit, and then laugh.
9:35 am: We are now speaking of “spindle neurons,” apparently related to humor and found in whales and dolphins and . . . pachyderms. (Like elephants, which apparently can recognize themselves in the mirror — and enjoy finding pools of fermented fruit that they can get drunk off of.)
9:39 am: How do you measure humor? There are measurement forms, questionnaires, humor quizzes. At least fifteen quantitative assessments, none of which sound particularly funny.
9:41 am: Humor is not the same as comedy, asserts one panelist. Humor is an element of daily life; comedy is more professional. Humor is to comedy as sex is to pornography, he says. But what is it? A deliberate incongruity? A violation of expectations?
9:44 am: An actual question from the moderator: Do funnier people get laid more?
9:45 am: No specific studies on that one, but apparently humor is a key characteristic in most personal ads (in addition to being athletic and slender).
9:48 am: What are the panelists working on now?
Speaker #1. Is there necessarily a pause between a set-up and a punchline? No, he says. He thinks it may have come from a single joke: “Take my wife . . . please.” But apparently most people do not pause before their punchlines.
Speaker #2: The “encryption theory” of humor. In order to understand humor you have to have the same background understanding (shared knowledge) as the other person. He is listening to hundreds of hours of conversation and transcribing humorous exchanges. How can such a fun science be so boring to execute?
Speaker #3: Women’s brains respond more, in terms of reward centers, than men’s when presented with something they found funny. Men, on the other hand, were neutral during funny things, and responded with disappointment when presented with something unfunny, even when warned it might not be. Speaker #1: “So does that mean that men don’t follow instructions?”
10:10: Okay, wrapping things up. Questions from the audience: “Tell us the Syrian fart joke.”
Answer: “It’s just that. Somebody farts. Somebody farts in a story.”