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Science Talk

No Laughing Matter: Mo Rocca On Humor Theory; Report From the AAAS Conference

In this episode, TV essayist and radio host Mo Rocca talks about the science of comedy and vice versa; and journalist Corinna Wu reports on the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include;;

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific american for the seven days starting February 21st. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, is there a science to comedy? We will talk about that with Mo Rocca, and journalist Corinna Wu talks about some of the stories she found at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which just wrapped up in San Francisco. Plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.

First up, Mo Rocca. You know him as a field correspondent from The Daily Show and many other radio, TV and print outlets. He is also the host of his own show on the Discovery Channel, on SIRIUS satellite radio. I spoke to him last week at his SIRIUS studio just before he went on the air.

Steve: Mo Rocca, pleasure to be, well, at your place today.

Mo Rocca: Well, this is very exciting to have SciAm's podcast coming to my SIRIUS cubby.

Steve: What are you doing on the Scientific American podcast?

Mo Rocca: Trying to learn something. I'm hoping that by being a guest, to this is my stealth way of actually learning something about science.

Steve: Well let's talk seriously because you are a social commentator. You are [a] sort of anthropologist. I see you on CBS Sunday Morning, you're on The Tonight Show, you have the SIRIUS show. We'll talk about that SIRIUS satellite radio [show]. I know you went to Harvard. What did you study at Harvard?

Mo Rocca: I majored actually in media whoring and I minored in English literature, so no. Although in fact I took one course in anthropology on human suffering and it was too much of a downer – it's true, and the only suffering that happened was my humiliation because the seminar instructor called me on not having done my reading, this is absolutely true. That's the closest I'll ever come to being labeled an anthropologist, and no, I'm a fun date. I am a fun pun date. It's, you know, cable television is my playground. You know, remember cable in the classroom? Cable is my classroom. That's where I've learnt lots of different things. It's a shrewd way of getting paid to learn the stuff that you should have learnt in college and didn't.

Steve: Well clearly you have a big interest in science and technology or you wouldn't be doing this show that you do on SIRIUS.

Mo Rocca: I guess you are right. Now I hope that people don't tune in expecting to hear heavy-duty science. I took AP Bio, it's true, though, and so I remember the whole, the kingdom, phylum, class, family, species, subspecies – I left a couple out of there.

Steve: Yeah. There are various mnemonics to remember that stuff.

Mo Rocca: Yeah.

Steve: Some of which are unsuitable for children, so we won't get into them now.

Mo Rocca: That's SciAm after dark.

Steve: Exactly. The show that we have on the drawing board. So what … tell us about your SIRIUS program. It's on the Discovery Channel?

Mo Rocca: It is on the Discovery … it's Discovery Channel's SIRIUS 119 and we talk about anything that might fall under the very wide rubric of discovery, which can include Discovery Channel shows, TLC, Animal Planet, Fit TV, Discovery Health. I gravitate towards Discovery Health because I'm still fascinated and haunted by the Romanian woman with a 200-pound tumor on her butt.

Steve: We covered that story because she only got the operation because the Discovery Channel filmed it, so they picked up the tab on it. So we figured that was a terrific way for [the] disenfranchised in our country to get the medical procedures they need by turning them into television shows.

Mo Rocca: Interesting. Well in this age of reality television, she flew from … did she end up? No, she didn't fly from Romania because I am sure that there would have been all sorts of complaints about her only paying for one seat, I mean, with all the that sort brewer hot [brouhaha] Southwest Airlines or if you're just as slight as bit as chubby they make you pay for two seats, right?

Steve: Right.

Mo Rocca: But they can't do it. Now that's a very shrewd game, [I] bet, to encourage people to turn their problems into reality shows.

Steve: It's the only way they're going to get insurance or the equivalent of insurance and …

Mo Rocca: … and residuals.

Steve: And before we get nasty letters thinking that we're being insensitive, the column that we ran in the magazine was pointing out the inequities in the insurance system and the health care system in this country and was tongue in cheek, a sort of a wake-up call to people that we really do need to fix that problem, so that poor people don't have to wind up selling their disease to the Discovery Channel in order to get treatment.

Mo Rocca: Absolutely! I couldn't agree with that more and the Romanian woman is doing quite well.

Steve: That's good to hear.

Mo Rocca: I mean she is not a gymnast, if at any time I think of Romania I can …

Steve: Of course!

Mo Rocca: … I think of gymnastics and vampires.

Steve: Oh yeah! That's a good combination and I think the coach was both actually.

Mo Rocca: Bela Lugosi! That's … isn’t it Bela Karolyi? Bela Karolyi!. That's excellent.

Steve: Right.

Mo Rocca: You are right. Oh my gosh! That's how he entranced all these 12-year-old girls. He was a vampire, because why else would they submit themselves to years of essentially being chatteled to this man in some gym in Houston or some, you know, on those uneven parallel bars – [does it] hurt so much when they do that thing with uneven parallel bars?

Steve: I want to talk to you about comedy.

Mo Rocca: Okay.

Steve: Because most of the people who appear on the Scientific American podcast, well you couldn't really talk to them about comedy. For example, Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate, was on the program a little while ago.

Mo Rocca: It's a funny name.

Steve: It is a funny name. (laughs) Harold Varmus would've been a terrific standup name.

Mo Rocca: Ah, it's so caustic!

Steve: Back on the Borscht Belt.

Mo Rocca: That's right. On the 5-a-day with, opening for Sophie Tucker and the Nicholas Brothers, Harold Varmus memamema …

Steve: It actually sounds like something they would serve us and is Romanian. It sounds good as …

Mo Rocca: Yeah.

Steve: The other side of the Harold Varmus

Mo Rocca: Well! It sounds mushy, like oolash. He is, it is also close to Harold Ramis.

Steve: I didn't even think of that, you're right. So I think that comedy, obviously comedy has been studied. Humor has been studied a lot by psychologists. Now speaking of Harvard, I actually sat in on a class at Harvard on comedy, and it was the most deadly thing you could ever … (laughs)

Mo Rocca: One is really shocked!

Steve: There was a, they dissected the movie The Producers to the point where it snuffed every ounce of humor out of it.

Mo Rocca: Only a Harvard professor can turn The Producers into Schindler's List.

Steve: Exactly, (laughs) exactly. So there is, obviously if you're in a comedy club you are engaging in sort of an experimental scientific exercise. You're testing to see what is funny and what isn't.

Mo Rocca: Absolutely. And hopefully you can keep them there long enough that they fall prey to the Stockholm Syndrome and they just, then, and they don't care how much they've had to pay in drinks to listen to you blabber on and they just think you're funny and don't want to leave you.

Steve: But let's talk about the theory of comedy. Is there—other than words that have those, the K sound in them—is there any kind of a legitimate theory of comedy or is it just, I know it when I see it. I know when I hear it.

Mo Rocca: Well bodily things make people laugh a lot.

Steve: Well …

Mo Rocca: It's so funny that you can be as ironic and clever as you want to be and people will go, "That's funny!" But they won't be laughing, they'll just be saying, "I acknowledge that you said something quite funny." But if it involves slipping or booping, sorry, then, then the real laughs come. The theories about comedy, I think that, well there are few things that spring to mind and they really are just springing to mind now. Familiarity is one thing. Actually I heard Bill Maher say this—and I think he said he had learned it from Johnny Carson or may be it was Bob Hope—but that there is, you know, if our comics that are familiar, that their personas are familiar to people, they're already starting with a leg up, and that has something to do with the comfort level of an audience. You know, an audience does not want to be alienated, you know. They want us to start with a certain degree of, a certain degree of predictability and comfort. But that's not enough. That just makes you pleasant and nice and maybe bring a smile to people's face. There has to be that twist at the end. There has to be a discrepancy between what is expected and what happens and the laugh is almost the equivalent of a sigh of relief at this twist that you're hoping comes – coming and then figuring it out, understanding it. If the joke is over one's head, if it is too hard to get, then you just leave people confused. But a pun, for instance, a play on words, it brings a level of satisfaction to an audience. If it's barely over their heads, not quite over their heads, but almost there and they can get it, they can figure out what the joke is, then the “AHA!” is the laugh. Does it make sense?

Steve: Yes absolutely! I think if you leave it to the audience to do the work, to make that last connection and do that last step, then they get the satisfaction out of it and the surprise is … there must be parts of the brain that light up and go, "Oh, yeah! That's it, that's funny, I got it myself." I think if you spoon-feed it to them too much, then you might get some of the humor in it but you won't get that same kind of visceral reaction.

Mo Rocca: Well an example of this, and it does not have to the play on words, it has [to] do with maybe cultural references and I think that's simply like going to smell or …it can be really, really funny and I was especially a big fan of his HBO show. But one of his stock-in-trades is, stocks-in-trades, excuse me, is, you know, it's sometimes obscure pop cultural or political references, and when people get them, when they're just at the ceiling of familiarity, people enjoy him at their most. But when they're just too far out there, I think it maybe puts some people on the defensive, maybe and makes some people feel like they're being laughed at and, you know.

Steve: And so [that's] why it's still easy to do a Dennis Miller's impression – you just put any kind of references in that (laughs) nobody is going to possibly understand, right? Cha cha.

Mo Rocca: (laughs). So I think that it is a balancing act between the familiar and the unpredictable.

Steve: Yeah. It's like, I think Robert Provine wrote a book about theories of humor that we reviewed in the magazine and he talks about jokes [that] are not funny. Relationships are what makes things funny, so that when you have Jack Benny being, being accosted by the mugger and the mugger says, "Your money, your life," and Benny doesn't answer right away, without saying a word the audience goes crazy. Of course this was 50 years ago, but the audience goes crazy because they have that pre-existing relationship with the character that's so cheap [deep]and then finally when he says, "I am thinking it over," then they lose it even more. but you see it on Seinfeld too—it's the relationships.

Mo Rocca: It definitely is the relationships and, you know, before we started doing this podcast we were taking about sitcoms and sitcom pilots and they[I] have the dubious privilege of reading them because I audition, from and you hit them and knock on all pieces of wood around you; and if one thing I see for u just common to the worst and the best that holds true as a good thing is that of an emphasis is placed on the relationships because [if they] people are not, no matter how clever the word play is in a situation comedy, people are not going to watch week-to-week if they don't care about the relationships.

Steve: Mo Rocca, I'm going to let you go because you have a show to do and I thank you very much.

Mo Rocca: Ah, well thank you. I'm a big fan of SciAm and not just Siam of The King and I.

Steve: You can hear Mo Rocca's two-hour weekly radio show, which includes a lot of science and tech stuff every Monday at 5 p.m. on the Discovery Channel, that's channel 119, one-nineteen, on SIRIUS satellite radio.

Now it's time to play TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories. Only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: People remember commercials better that air in the middle of TV shows with a lot of sexual content.

Story number 2: A competition in Ireland will judge scientists on their ability to de-jargonize their presentations and explain research in plain English.

Story number 3: Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who has called global warming a hoax, also believes that the world is only 10,000 years old.

And story number 4: Researchers in Germany are developing a time-release, long-term drug delivery system that would be incorporated into a patient's false tooth.

We'll be back with the answer, but first, Corinna Wu is a freelance journalist and one of the regular contributors to the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science. She spent the last week in San Francisco at the biggest general science conference in the country, the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. For some quick takes on some of the best stories that came out of the meeting, I called Corinna in Walnut Creek, California.

Steve: Hi Corinna, How are you?

Corinna: I am fine, thanks. How are you Steve?

Steve: Good. Good to talk to you. So you've been at the AAAS conference. There are always a million things going on. What are some of the stories that jumped out at you?

Corinna: Well, this year's meeting, it kind of had a theme. It was called, Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being, so[a] lot of sessions focused on [the] environmental angle of various topics and one of the kind of big things that I found interesting – AAAS kind of released a statement about global climate change that kind of echoed a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, which talked about how global warming is pretty much very likely being caused by human activity.

Steve: Right. We did a big thing on that on last week's podcast. If anybody wants to hear that, just find it in the archives.

Corinna: Exactly. So this AAAS statement basically echoed [a] lot of the conclusions and they had kind of a big town hall meeting with about a thousand science teachers and students and just the general public. They kind of talked about these issues. Another thing that I found kind of interesting was that they had a big panel on environmental justice, and this year happens to be the 20th anniversary of a really groundbreaking report that was released looking at racial disparities and where hazardous waste sites are located. This was 20 years ago in 1987 and back then it was a study commissioned by a civil rights organization called the United Church of Christ, and it kind of looked at how hazardous waste sites were tended to be located in neighborhoods with high minority population[s], and so at this panel a group of researchers have gotten an update of this using lot better statistical methods and data from the 2000 census. And they basically have found that, basically in 20 years, not much has changed and, if anything, these disparities are even greater than they thought.

Steve: The situation has actually gotten worse since the initial report.

Corinna: Well it's a little unclear.its, It may have gotten worse, but it just might be a factor of using these better methods. They are just much better able to pinpoint where these sites are located, and it [they] kind of determined who exactly is living around these sites.

Steve: I see. So this is similar to when we see earlier disease diagnostics because we have better techniques to find them. So it might look like there is a rise in a disease rate, but it's really that we're just finding ones that we missed before.

Corinna: Exactly. And, but, you know, it's still, you know, at least, this kind study has shown that things haven't improved greatly, even through the policy changes that have taken place within the last 20 years.

Steve: So policy makers, that information is now in your hands.

Corinna: Exactly.

Steve: So, well, what about any individual, you know, science tidbits that kind of jumped out at you? Any surprising findings? Any just interest[ing] stuff that's just purely interesting on, for its own merits?

Corinna: Yeah. AAAS always has a really wide range of saying something that’ll appeal to everyone. One thing that seemed to get a lot of interest at the meeting was a researcher who talked about his work using virtual reality to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, also abbreviated PTSD, and what he does is he uses a computer to simulate the sites and sounds of a wreck and kind of using this virtual environment, kind of exposes the soldiers who has [have] come back from war to these stimuli, and the idea is to kind of gradually expose them to this and hopefully desensitize them to things that trigger their post-traumatic stress.

Steve: And he has actually done some of that work and gotten some results?

Corinna: Yes. There's been some trials done and I guess the advantage of these kinds of methods is that they can really control, you know, what these patients are seeing.

Steve: Right.

Corinna: So, it can really kind of tailor this therapy to the individual.

Steve: What researcher is that and what institution?

Corinna: The psychologist's name is Skip Rizzo and he is at the University of Southern California.

Steve: At U.S.C. Cool. What else?

Corinna: There are also some technology-focused, other technology-focused topics. One that I went to was about malicious software—they also call it malware—and it's basically about all sorts of new and scary ways that criminals are developing to scam you out of your money and steal your identity. One scheme that one of the researchers outlined—he said it's not really being used yet, but that it's a possibility—is that it's possible for these scammers to actually write a little bit of code, a little of script, in a language called Java, which is used a lot, and actually, well, this script could actually download itself on your computer simply by you visiting the Web site. You wouldn't have to do anything else, except visit the Web site and this code could perhaps kind of hijack your computer. They are obviously trying to work out on ways to kind of, ways to prevent that.

Steve: Well that really is nefarious.

Corinna: Yes.

Steve: And I understand you have another story. The AAAS conference always has a fun session, usually on the early Sunday morning for some reason, and what was it this year?

Corinna: Well this is the perennial 'chocolate is good for you' session. There seems to be one of these at every meeting. (laughs)

Steve: Right. Is it usually the antioxidants or something else?

Corinna: Ah yes. its The antioxidants are the culprit again. They looked at … this time they looked at these set [the effect] of chocolate on learning and memory. It's been, you know, chocolate has been linked to, say, improving your risk for heart disease and things like that. But again, what they did was they gave this cocoa that's been enriched in flavonols to mice and they find [found] that it stimulates blood flow to the brain, so uh …

Steve: So it stimulates … it stimulates blood flow, is that what you said?

Corinna: I am sorry, yes. Therefore has some … seem to improve the memory of mice who are asked to learn a particular task.

Steve: This is cocoa that has been enriched with the flavonols, but it might not even be sweet.

Corinna: Right. Exactly. Yes. I mean, one of the researchers actually declared, you know, chocolate is still not a health food. (laughs) Yeah.

Steve: Okay, good. Right. Because, these studies are always done with the raw cocoa, I mean, which, you know, I mean, if you've ever taken a bite of baking chocolate, it is not so great.

Corinna: That's right, yes. It's not the best tasting chocolate …

Steve: Right.

Corinna: … you can find.

Steve: We're going to throw in a lot of dairy and a lot of sugar to make it really tasty.

Corinna: Exactly. Right. And that's exactly what makes the chocolates not so good for you in the end.

Steve: Right, but at least you know there are some mitigating factors. See, you can enjoy that tiny little square of dark chocolate after dinner without too much guilt.

Corinna: Exactly. Yes. It's a good excuse to have that extra dessert.

Steve: Well thanks a lot Corrina. Good to talk to you.

Corinna: Thanks Steve.

Steve: To get a jump on next year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, check out

Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.

Let’s review the four stories.

Story number 1: Commercials are more memorable if they air during sexy TV shows.

Story number 2: Contest for scientists to deliver understandable science talks.

Story number 3: Global warming denying U.S. senator also holds that the earth is only 10,000 years old.

And story number 4: False tooth, long-term, drug-delivery system.

Time's up.

Story number 4 is true. German researchers are about to start testing a system for delivering drugs to chronically ill patients with a false tooth that would release small doses of the drug at the correct times. For more, check out the Thursday, February 22nd edition of [the] daily Scientific American podcast 60-Second Science.

Story number 2 is true. A competition will be held next week in Dublin that pits six postgraduate research fellows against each other in front of a live audience. Their mission: to present their science so that it can actually be understood. The competition, called the AccesScience '07, takes place Tuesday, February 27th at University College, Dublin. We wish them luck with their necessarily non aphasic-urius circumlocutions regarding naturalistic materialism.

We'll get to story number 3 in a moment, but story number 1 about people remembering commercials better if they air during TV shows with a heavy sexual content is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Because a study just published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology found that people have poorer recollections of commercials that were run during sex-laden TV shows. However, the second finding was that men—only men, not women—had excellent recall of a product in a commercial if the commercial had a sexual theme. Now we need to study to see what kind of commercials Tim Hardaway really remembers.

Story number 3 is, well, we have a slight departure from our format here and hope you'll forgive me because I don't know if story number 3 is true or not. That's the one about U.S. Senator and global warming denier James Inhofe believing that the world is only 10,000 years old. But here's what I do know – as you heard while I was talking to Corinna Wu just now, two weeks ago this podcast covered the IPCC Global Climate Change report. That discussion was with associate editor David Biello. In the midst of our conversation, we had this exchange, which I edited out of what we played on the air.

Steve: So Senator Inhofe thinks that this whole thing is a big hoax.

David: Yeah.

Steve: And he is being quoted at numerous times. He is in his pitch battle with the Weather Channel of all places, right now.

David: Yeah.

Steve: And he thinks the Weather Channel is being alarmist on this issue to try to spike up their ratings.

David: (laughs)

Steve: My question is, I know I am setting up a straw man here, but I am just curious. Does anybody know, and I could certainly just, you know, call up his office too. Does Senator Inhofe believe that the earth is 5 billion years old or 10,000 years old? Do you know?

David: (laughs) I do not know actually.

Steve: Because, you know, if your world view is that the earth is 10,000 years old, it changes your entire perspective on (laughs) on a lot of issues.

David: That is true. That is very true.

Steve: I edited that out because I interviewed David the morning that the podcast went to press and I thought it was only fair to give Senator Inhofe a chance to respond to my charge, and I am calling it a charge, if you believe that the world is 10,000 years old. I wanted the senator to have a chance to respond before I just publicly assumed that he was indeed a young Earth creationist who held that the world was only 10,000 years old. So on February 6th at 11 a.m. I called the senator's D.C. office and left a voice mail. I also e-mailed the senator's office. That e-mail read:


Just left voice mail at the D.C. office, following up with e-mail.

We're trying to determine if the senator holds to the view that the earth is approximately 10,000 years old or the view that the earth is closer to 4.5 billion years old. This query is in regard to an interview with another reporter in which the senator's views on this question were discussed, the assumption being that the senator holds to the young Earth view. So we want to verify his position before mentioning it publicly.

Many thanks,

Steve Mirsky, Scientific American.

It's now been two weeks and I have yet to receive a reply to my simple question as to the senator's views on the age of the earth, so we're going to keep track of how long it takes, if ever, for the senator's office to get back to us here at Scientific American. Senator Inhofe has famously called man-made global warming a hoax. So I would urge other journalists covering global warming to ask senator Inhofe, what else do you think is a hoax? Clearly the scientific community concludes that the earth is far older than 10,000 years. What is your stance on that issue? Then perhaps we can move on to the senator's views on evolution, a heliocentric solar system, and whether it was earthlings who built the pyramids.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at Check out news articles at our Web site,, the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science, is at the Web site and at iTunes. And thanks to my friend Tom Beswaugh, who sent along the Web site that makes available the original radio coverage of John Glenn's historic first space flight, which took place 45 years ago. This week you can check out that audio at For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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