Science Talk

What's So Funny?: The Science of Humor

Cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems talks about his book HA!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why

Podcast Transcription


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Steve Mirsky: Welcome to The Scientific American Podcast “Science Talk” posted on July 7th, 2014.  I’m Steve Mirsky.  In this episode:

Scott Weems: Rowan Atkinson is hilarious and he’s “Mr. Bean” and there actually have been studies that have looked at Mr. Bean comedy and they’ve examined peoples’ brain responses and is watching him do his very physical humor and you can actually see the humor being processed in the brain.     

Steve Mirsky: That’s Scott Weems.  He’s cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the book Ha!: – with an exclamation point – The Science of When We Laugh and Why.  He’s based in Little Rock, Arkansas but was passing through New York a few months back and visited Scientific American where we sat down we sat down for a serious conversation about the science of what’s funny. 


Steve Mirsky:    Scott, I went to a screening of this new movie “Pompeii,” which shows the entire city of Pompeii being destroyed by this volcano as really happened, obviously.  The audience was laughing [laughs] hysterically.  These giant flaming boulders are coming down and just wiping out people and everybody is laughing their butts off, you know?  Why is something like that – ah, well, you have to see this movie because it’s almost a parody of the Ancient Rome movie format because it’s so bad, it’s enjoyable in some ways but – so but – that was – it the meta-experience made it even funnier because people were then laughing at how other people were laughing at the horror that was being portrayed onscreen so why would something like that happen?  Why would we find that funny?

Scott Weems:    [laughs] Yeah, so I would say a little bit I guess depends on the movie, too, but that’s very common for people to laugh at tragic movies and dramatic movies and it comes down to the issue of when we see movies like that we don’t just have a single emotional experience.  It’s – before I talked about catharsis, which is the cleansing of emotions.  It’s actually the opposite of that, it’s called cathexis, which is the experiencing of both – I guess depending on the movie, you would have – tragedy, drama and then there might just be the surreal experience of thinking, “This is a very crazy, sentimental movie, what’s going on?”  You realize you’re in a movie and there’s been research of people who have or who are horror-movie fans and who love going to horror movies and Eduardo Andrade, a psychologist, wanted to know why do people like going to these movies and why do they laugh frequently the scary times and he found that these people who love these movies, what they do is they show both the horror and the suspense and the excitement, engagement that we all feel but they also feel a joy during the scary scenes and during the exciting scenes and I think that goes to show that it’s a complex emotional experience.  Sometimes the emotional experience maybe doesn’t fit so well so, for example, when I want to see “Titanic” with my wife, she burst out laughing at the end when Leonardo DiCaprio is dying and she thought it was [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah, to the dismay of the people around you guys [cross talk] --

Scott Weems:    Yeah.

Steve Mirsky:    in the theatre, including your parents. 

Scott Weems:    Yes, my parents were there, too, and they were not happy and it’s the typical mother-in-law/daughter relationship that was an awkward moment but I have to say I understood because Cameron – James Cameron – was treating that climax the same way he treated “Terminator 2” and, you know, these other things.  It was just non-stop emotion and there are times when you just are confronted with that complex deluge of emotions.  There’s nothing to do but laugh. 

Steve Mirsky:    But your wife was particularly tickled by the way they were talking because they were so cold that it reminded her of [cross talk] --

Scott Weems:    “Yo, Adrian!” 

Scott Weems:    [laughs] Right and she actually called out to me and quiet enough so she didn’t disturb other people.  She was just, “Yo, Adrian!” because I think it was “Rocky 3” or something like that where he’s in Siberia and she comes to him and it’s like, “Yo, Adrian!”  Yeah and she said she just wanted to imagine Sylvester Stallone, you know, freezing the North Atlantic and I hope that doesn’t say that we’re very dark in our humor but I mean it’s just the emotional experience that came to her in that moment. 

Steve Mirsky:    I had a similar experience with the movie “Nell.” 

Scott Weems:    Mm-hmm.

Steve Mirsky:    Jodi Foster is testifying at the end of the movie and she – in real life she – should be so damaged from the experience she had that she’s incapable of any form of communication but, in the movie, they’re almost treating her as an alien intelligence and they’re translating what she’s saying and I just found the whole thing so ridiculous that I started to crack up and in a theater where people are crying because they’re so touched by it and so I know what that feels like.  It reminded me of the “Seinfeld” episode also where he gets in trouble for making out during “Schindler’s List.”

Scott Weems:    [laughs]

Steve Mirsky:    Right?  There’s a lot in “Seinfeld” that came up during my reading of the book in that jokes are not what’s really funny, it’s relationships.  You talk about Provine in the book and his research, Robert Provine, and I think in his book he talks about that the key to a lot of humor is the relationships we have with people rather than a witty punchline to a disconnected joke. 

Scott Weems:    Mm-hmm and I think that point is valid that, yeah, humor is social.  Laughter is social.  If someone near us laughs we are far more likely to laugh, too, which is why they have things like laugh tracks.  The thing is I think it’s hard to define what is humor and what causes laughter and that’s because it’s really a psychological process.  It’s the dealing of conflict.  Sometimes that’s a conflict of emotions and sometimes it’s a conflict of thoughts and that conflict can occur solely within the person when it can occur between people, too, which is why when we meet somebody for the first time a lotta times we laugh during an introduction even though there’s been no joke and it’s because both people are kinda working through this greeting process and it leads to some mixed feelings just and it probably goes all the way back to our ape ancestors who do the same thing. 
They bare teeth when they greet each other.  They do behaviors that are very similar to laughter during these awkward social moments. 

Steve Mirsky:    There’s anxiety and it needs to be alleviated. 

Scott Weems:    Yes, yes absolutely and so that’s why you see laughter in so many social situations. 

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah, the thing I was thinking of specifically with “Seinfeld” is, like, you know, Kramer walks into the apartment and you laugh.  No one has said anything.  There’s no joke.  There’s no setup, there’s no punchline, it’s – and if it was – the first time you saw him you might not laugh but once you’ve established a relationship with the character then the humor is there whenever you see him because he’s so bizarre. 

Scott Weems:    Absolutely and I think slapstick really requires that connection with the person because you’ve gotta understand what they’re going through as their I don’t know, you know, going – running abruptly -- through a door or being hit by a car if you’re Johnny Knoxville kind of humor.  Yeah, you’ve gotta understand what the person is going through. 

Steve Mirsky:    I was on a flight, an international flight, coming back from the Middle East and I was way in the back of the plane and there were – there had to be – people speaking six different languages and there were various movies being shown but one of them was “Mr. Bean” and everybody was laughing at “Mr. Bean.”  It didn’t matter what language they spoke because there is no language.  It’s all slapstick, physical comedy, and that got everybody and it was great.  I was looking around and said, “All these people who can’t communicate with each other are communicating this way.” 

Scott Weems:    Yeah, Rowan Atkinson is hilarious and he’s Mr. Bean and there have actually been studies that have looked at Mr. Bean comedy and they’ve examined peoples’ brain responses as watching him do his very physical humor and then other bits where he’s also doing the same kind of mannerisms but not in a humorous way and you can actually see the humor being processed in the brain.  There’s a region in the brain called the anterior cingulate kinda inside, inside the outer surface and it’s where we deal with conflict and you can see this area light up and you can also see the pleasure centers light up, too.  As Mr. Bean is struggling to paint his walls using explosives and a can of paint or whatever the bit is and, yeah, it’s hilarious, I love his humor. 
Steve Mirsky:    You very helpfully in the introduction of the book – helpfully to somebody like me who’s gonna talk to you about it – discuss exactly what the layout of the book is so why don’t we go through that?  You’ve covered a little bit of that already so why don’t we go through the three major sections of the book and those are “What Is Humor,” “What’s It For?,” and then “So What?” and I should – let’s before we even do that, I wanna – quote you from I think it’s the last chapter of the book, you have a quote in there, at the very beginning of the last chapter that “Reading a funny book” – something like this – “Reading a funny book is a lot funnier than reading a book about what’s funny” so nobody who’s listening should necessarily expect this to be hilarious, it’s real science here and there might be some laughs coming up, we can’t predict that but this is serious business so “What Is Humor,” “What’s It For?” and “So What?” 

Scott Weems:    Oh sure.  I do have to share one of my favorite lines.  It’s from Victor Raskin who is the Editor Humor, the academic journal that studies this and he said, “Schizophrenia researchers don’t try and be delusional when describing that condition so why should humor researchers try to be funny” and I think it’s really good and it’s an entertaining quote so, yes, I did.  It’s not a joke book.  I don’t want to tell jokes.  I’m not a comedian.  I’m a scientist. 

Steve Mirsky:    Well there are a lotta jokes in the book.

Scott Weems:    [Laughs] Yeah, there are but they all serve a purpose. 

Steve Mirsky:    You have the penguin joke and the polar bear joke.

Scott Weems:    Yes, yes.

Steve Mirsky:    You know that’s great. 

Scott Weems:    Penguins are funny.  That’s what the study showed.  Penguins are funny.  I knew that before.  Yes but I think just fortunately understanding and exploring humor is just entertaining. 

It’s fun so I don’t think you need to tell jokes.  Now there are plenty of jokes I like to analyze and understand but not for the sake of telling jokes but for understanding them and just the engagement and fun of exploring humor and there’s a lot of benefits to it, too.  To get to your question of what is humor and why, you know, humor is, as I said, it’s really a form of conflict and I like to think of it as mental exercise that just as the body needs to be worked to grow stronger so does the mind need to be worked to be more efficient, to be stronger itself and so I think that’s why we see the benefits of humor that we do.  It improves cardiovascular health.  It’s kind of equivalent to jogging, studies have shown, that you get the same kind of calorie burn and heart health.  It improves immune-system response and it even makes you smarter. 

Studies have shown that simply watching Robin Williams’s standup improves your ability to solve insight problems and other general problem-solving ability tasks so I think that’s because humor is a form of exercise and we need to work our minds and humor is a very good way to do it. 

Steve Mirsky:    Because you make connections in your brain with a lot of humor.  That’s the ah-ha moment or the moment that makes you laugh is when you see something usually unexpected, you make the connection, there’s dopamine released and you get all this physiological response. 

Scott Weems:    Yes absolutely.  That’s basically how humor starts is you set up an expectation and then that expectation is violated somehow and that’s two very important ingredients and you can’t have one without the other so can’t merely hide behind a door and just scream to scare someone.  That might be kind of funny in a way but it’s not really humor.  What’s funny is if you set up an expectation and then you take someone somewhere new so I mean I’m thinking of the Stephen Colbert quote, during the 2008 elections, where he’s saying, “If I’m reading this polling data correctly I’d be very surprised,” [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    [laughs] Right.

Scott Weems:    and you know you set up an expectation with the first half of that line that he’s gonna make some prescient, cutting remark and of course you have to have Stephen Colbert deliver the line.  I could never deliver it like him but you set up an expectation in the first half of that sentence and then it just goes a completely different direction. 

Steve Mirsky:    And delivery is really interesting because it’s both timing and the relationship that you have with this individual.  I mean if you’ve seen – if you never – Colbert before it might not be the same but you’ve been watching him every night for years so you do have this preexisting relationship with him so when he says something like that there’s both this kind of release and the recognition, “Oh, he did it to me again.” 
Scott Weems:    And if there is one person that’s the master of that it has to be Stephen Colbert because he’s made a whole living off of setting up an expectation of a persona that you get.  You think he’s gonna make this remark and then he just turns it completely around and then goes a different direction and it’s kind of hard to get a grasp on who that persona really is.  

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah, there’s a – there’re a – couple of stand-up comedians who their whole act is basically they give you a setup to – it’s not – jokes but they give you a setup to some kind of an experience that we’re counting and then at the last second it turns so that it’s not what you expected like I think Wendy Liebman or Lieberman -- I forget which is her real last name – and Anthony Jeselnik goes in this really dark direction a lotta the time so that unexpected finish is really crucial for them.  

Scott Weems:    [laughs] Yeah, and I love the fact that Jeselnik terms his show “The Jeselnik Offensive” [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    [laughs] Right.

Scott Weems:    [laughs] Yeah, because you get so much information in that title and I also think of Sarah Silverman as the master of that because she comes across as this gentle ingénue, yeah, who’s just you don’t – you can’t – expect to say anything [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    Right, she’s so sweet-looking.

Scott Weems:    Cruel and she’s so sweet and then the vile that comes from that woman’s mouth it just – it makes me cringe and I’ve spent a significant time at sea.  My wife calls me, you know, and says I have “sailor mouth” and I watch Sarah Silverman and I sometimes feel dirty but that’s how she’s done so well is she’s set up an expectation and then just completely turns it around. 

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah so have we answered the question “What is humor?”  [laughs] I mean we can’t really.  I mean there’s ineffable quality to it as well. 

Scott Weems:    There is and that’s why I like to look at it as it’s a process.  It’s not something that you can look at and define by jokes or a formula.  I mean if there were a formula for humor it would’ve been invented 2,000 years ago.  It really requires an exploration of psychology and I think humor is as human as intelligence and language and these other things that really kinda define who we are as complex beings and that’s why it can’t be put down into a simple sentence of “This is humor.” 

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah.

Scott Weems:    When you understand humor, you’ll understand people. 

Steve Mirsky:    You know you mention Henny Youngman early in the book as somebody who just told jokes rather than had this what we would think today as real humor.  He was a joke-teller but I saw him live once back in the ‘70s.  He didn’t get laughs like the first 2 or 3 jokes and then he got a laugh and then it was all over and I realized it wasn’t the jokes even with Henny Youngman.  It was him, his delivery and your preexisting relationship with the guy.  Once he got you then the jokes came so fast. 

You’ve heard all these jokes before but he told them so fast you didn’t have time to remember them so the punchlines surprised you again and just him up there he looked funny.  He had the violin that he would play a few notes between jokes and the whole thing was funny.  It was.  The jokes were just sort of a way to get you into the whole experience of being with him. 

Scott Weems:    Absolutely and I think in some ways that humor is not as common now as it used to be partly as a sign of the times but that’s a similar formula used by Steven Wright who’s got the very slow delivery and if you hear one of his jokes, in isolation, it doesn’t connect as well.  I mean he has a great joke about people trapped on the escalator at the mall when it shuts down and, by itself, it doesn’t connect as well but when you follow the full stand-up process of him you get what he’s doing and it takes a level of commitment that’s impressive and it also shows how humor is so different that no two comedians are the same and it’s because they’re all exploring this day of dealing with social interaction in a different way of dealing with social interaction in a different way. 

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah, in fact if a comedian is the same he’s a bad comedian. 

Scott Weems:    Yeah, he doesn’t.  Yeah we would never heard of him or her. 

Steve Mirsky:    Right, right so what’s it for, from an evolutionary perspective?  I mean you did mention the great apes baring their teeth.  Evolutionarily, we even see laughter in other mammals that are nowhere near primates, like rats. 

Scott Weems:    Yes, I mean we – some have argued that we’re the only species that enjoys humor but we are not the only species who laughs.  I interviewed a researcher, Jeffrey Burgdorf, who that’s what he does is he tickles rats for a living and at first this [laughs] might seem – it might seem -- like a trivial exercise, you know?  Why would one tickle rats but it’s very important research because if you understand what makes a rat laugh and what gives joy to a rat that’s another step to understanding the same processes in humans and he studies this to see and explore treatments for depression, which is very important but when it comes to humor and purposes I think it really comes down to humor being closely linked with language intelligence.  It really is what makes us special as a species and you can see this in some ways.  It’s always tricky exploring evolution but you can see this in gender differences in humor so, for example, when you ask women [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    This is a mine field you’re about to get into. 

Scott Weems:    It is.  I always am very careful with it because there’s been a lot of people who say women can’t tell jokes and why are women less successful in comedy than men? 

Steve Mirsky:    Right, Christopher Hitchens famously said, “Women aren’t funny.” 

Scott Weems:    Yeah.

Steve Mirsky:    Jerry Lewis has been pilloried for this, and if I’m a “30 Rock” addict, and if you watch “30 Rock,” it’s clear that Liz Lemon’s one of the – you know, Tina Fey – one of the funniest people in the world. 

Scott Weems:    If not the funniest.

Steve Mirsky:    Right.

Scott Weems:    She:  I just look at her, I just laugh because you know everything that she’s going to do is funny so clearly you can’t generalize.  I mean that’s a ridiculous statement but it comes to what are the genders looking for when it comes to humor and the evolutionary story is that men evolved to be funny and because what that did is it showed a genetic fitness.  If you’re funny there’s a strong link between humor and intelligence.  The correlation when you look at this experimentally, the correlation between sense of humor and intelligence is almost as close as intelligence tests have relationships among themselves and so if you’re a woman who’s looking for a male who’s a suitable mate who pass on good genes, sense of humor is a good thing to look for because it shows [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    It’s a marker for intelligence just as [cross talk] --

Scott Weems:    It’s a marker. 

Steve Mirsky:    other animals might look at how healthy the fur is on prospective mate to see they’re carrying parasites. 

Scott Weems:    Yes, yes so I mean you look for these clues, like “is this a good person that I really want to commit to in so many different ways,” and that leads to an opposite – I don’t know if it’s opposite – prediction but a different prediction that men should be looking for women who think they’re funny so it might be that men are just raised because we’re looking for women who just think they’re funny whether they are or not and so studies have shown that women laugh more than men so you can’t say women are less humorous than men.  They laugh far more than men.  They enjoy humor more, up to 25 percent more and there have been studies where people actually went out and spent a year just eavesdropping in coffee, in subways and measured -- just with notepad and pencil measured -- the number of times people were laughing and what sex they were and what sex of the person they were speaking to was and women talking to women, they laughed twice as much as a man talking to a man so women do enjoy humor.  They’re very humorous.  They’re funny. 

It just might be that from a -- [laughs] who knows if you believe the evolutionary story but in an evolutionary story where we want our men to be funny. 

Steve Mirsky:    And that might be changing. 

Scott Weems:    Yeah, it’s very likely and we see that in tests, in personality tests where you ask people what are you looking for.  20 or 30 years ago if you asked people what are you looking for in a mate, humor was high but it wasn’t at the top, you know, Number 8, Number 7.  Now it’s Number 1 and Number 2 for everybody and Number 1 or Number 2 for women.  If you ask them what the Number 1 thing they’re looking for a partner is, it’s humor.  For men often intelligence and looks come slightly higher and it’s a cultural thing, too.  If you look at the same preferences in a place like Siberia and people have actually done this, sense of humor’s, like, I think 19ty or 20th on the list. 
Steve Mirsky:    Because we gotta [laughs] survive. 

Scott Weems:    [laughs] We gotta survive.  I’ve been to Siberia and I don’t wanna sound like I’ve gone to these strange places but I’ve spent some time in Siberia in my previous careers and it’s true.  It’s snowy there all the time and it’s just a fact, they drink a little bit more than we do here and so finding a reliable mate there is pretty darn important. 

Steve Mirsky:    So the last question and the last part of the book deals with the question, “So What?”  What do you even mean by “So What?” 

Scott Weems:    “So What”:  Well, I would hope that if you – if we – study humor and we want and I think we should study humor.  Humor is a very important topic.  Why is it important?  You gotta ask that.  Why do we want to understand humor and that’s because it really has so many practical implications for our lives. 

Humor’s not taken seriously necessarily.  I mean it’s hard to get research funding for humor. 

Steve Mirsky:    Just look at who wins Academy Awards.  A comedy:  When was the last time a comedy won Best Picture? 

Scott Weems:    1973 if you – no, 1993.  What year was “Annie Hall,” if you wanna call “Annie Hall” a comedy?  I think that was [crosstalk] --

Steve Mirsky:    Oh, that’s way before the ‘90s.  It was the ‘70s. 

Scott Weems:    That’s the closest, yeah, unless you want to call “Forrest Gump” a comedy, I don’t know if you can, it just doesn’t happen.  I mean but you look at – I guess what was that, ’90, 2005 maybe, I need to look up the date but when “The Hangover” came out that was the year that 9 – they increased the number of nominations for the Academy Awards and “Hangover” was the Number 1 Adult Comedy of All-Time, it just [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    Right, in terms of box office. 

Scott Weems:    In terms of box office it killed and I personally think a very funny movie, not even nominated.  Nobody even thought it would be nominated and the next year “Bridesmaids” came out, Melissa McCarthy.  Melissa McCarthy was [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    Right, she’s amazing in that. 

Scott Weems:    Melissa McCarthy was up for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and I read a few news articles saying, “Should she be nominated” and I remember thinking, “How could they ask that question?”  It was a – I challenge any other actress and I mean any other actress to give a soliloquy about falling off a cruise ship and having a conversation with a dolphin in the ocean and making it believable and she did that.  It was great so turning back to why is it important?  We should take it seriously because it has immense implications for our health.  It improves our heart health, improves immune-system function, it’s good cardiovascular exercise, it makes us smarter and the list is almost too long to just list the benefits we get from humor and that’s not even including the psychological benefits of just enjoying a happier or more positive life, and there’s been [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    Not to mention the ability to be among other people and enjoy each other’s company. 

Scott Weems:    Yes, it’s a social exercise and someone who has a good sense of humor and not just being able to tell a good joke but just enjoy humor and make it part of their lives.  You don’t need to be able to tell a good joke and be a humorous person and enjoy it and there’s just so many benefits to just seeking out humor and sharing it with others that it just makes our lives richer. 

Steve Mirsky:    Now [laughs] toward the end of the book you talk about you decided to really be a conscientious researcher and go do stand-up. 

Scott Weems:    [laughs] Yes, I did.  I did that for the book.  I don’t wanna give any pretensions like I’m an aspiring comedian.  I’m very happy with the lot I chose in life and that’s really good because I just bombed.  It was terrible.  I feel bad for every person in that audience. 

Steve Mirsky:    You should’ve bombed.  Why would you [cross talk] --

Scott Weems:    I should have [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    expect not to bomb?

Scott Weems:    and I had friends say, “You need to take an improve class, you need to take classes.”  I said, “No, that’s not the point.  I’m taking a hit for the team” because if a humor researcher wants to be funny then that’s a problem.  The point is to understand it so that said, yes, I did not do great in the stand-up performance.  I got an immense amount from it because I immersed myself in humor. 
I watched a lot of comedy shows and I just – I think I – enjoy humor more than before I wrote the book. 

Steve Mirsky:    And you talk about – you did have a couple of moments while you did stand-up, just moments.  It reminded me of when I play golf, I’m gonna have one or two moments during my round that are rewarding and you had this same kind of experience doing the stand-up. 

Scott Weems:    Yes, I also play golf and it was the exact same sensation when you hit a good drive.  Yeah and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – it’s a challenging name but he’s a psychologist and he termed it “flow” and it’s called flow because these are times when you’re in-the-moment, you’re living only for that specific moment and you’re getting all the emotional and cognitive richness you can from it and, yes, those moments were brief but I did enjoy them during the performance and they were moments when I was connecting with the audience and connecting with myself and they were the moments when I was really just being myself, I suppose.    

Steve Mirsky:    And you got laughs where you never expected to get laughs. 

Scott Weems:    I did.  I did and I learned that it was just those were the moments when, well, I shared what was termed scientists show to be the Funniest Joke in the World.  That got a lot of laughs and I got laughs in other parts that I thought were less-edgy parts of my routine but they [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    We should say that’s research by this fellow Wiseman [cross talk] --

Scott Weems:    Richard Wiseman. 

Steve Mirsky:    in England and he did this many-year-long study where they tried to understand humor by seeking out what the funniest jokes were, which in some ways is a doomed enterprise because, as Provine talks about, jokes themselves are, you know, they’re at low end of the humor spectrum.  It’s deeper connections and relationships that are really crucial. 

Scott Weems:    Right and so if you’re an online test of the Funniest Joke in the World and this Wiseman’s claim not just mine but I mean you’re kind of setting yourself up for mediocrity in some way because no matter what you’re not gonna get those jokes that really cut.  You don’t have a person delivering them, you don’t know who’s sharing it and, frankly, everybody’s got a different threshold for what they find is funny so if you average this over hundreds of thousands of people as they did then you’re not gonna get those ones that are just on the cusp so going back to my stand-up, yeah, there were moments that I really felt connected and they were those moments I kinda felt I was making a connection and I wasn’t trying to tell jokes but as much as just talk and share and this is – I mean – if you look at the funniest comedians out there – I am not comparing myself to Louis C.K. – but I mean that’s what he does is he connects with his audience and you feel like you have a relationship with him at the end of his show and I think these are the moments.  These are the moments you remember in life.

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah I mean there’s the Mel Brooks movie “History of the World, Part I” where he talks about himself being a stand-up philosopher and that’s what stand-up’s really are now.  They don’t tell jokes.  They look at life and that’s what they’re sharing with you and that’s what Louis C. K. does so great, you know?  It’s that no one else could do his material. 

Scott Weems:    [laughs] No one else.  No and that’s also why and in my book I start with talking about Lenny Bruce because Lenny Bruce was one of the first people to do that in the ‘50s and in the ’50s things like drug use and gender roles, these were cutting-edge topics and he almost didn’t tell jokes.  He – one – you know in his famous Carnegie Hall performance, he told one joke and warned people, “Hey, I’m gonna try and tell a joke” but the rest of it [crosstalk] --

Steve Mirsky:    Is that the one where he went on for almost 20 minutes?

Scott Weems:    It was a 25-minute joke that could’ve been told in 5 seconds [laughs] [cross talk] --

Steve Mirsky:    [laughs] Right.

Scott Weems:    and there’s no way I could repeat it because it was a very Lenny Bruce kind of joke but he – instead what he did is he – connected with his audience, he talked about things that were on his mind and you got the sense that it was unrehearsed.  I’m sure it was rehearsed in the sense that he had given these various quips man times before but you felt like you were in a conversation. 

Steve Mirsky:    So why did you wanna write this book?

Scott Weems:    Well, I’ve always loved humor.  I mean humor has been part of my life since I was a child and I think we all love humor.  I really got the interest in humor as I was studying other topics.  When I was in graduate school, which was sadly quite a few years ago it wasn’t something that an academic could make a living studying.  I mean it’s hard enough to get grant money in topics that people take seriously. 

Steve Mirsky:    And this was neuroscience? 

Scott Weems:    This was neuroscience, yes.  Yes, I’m a cognitive neuroscientist and so I study the psychology of cognition, of thinking from a bran-based perspective and there have been people that have looked at this for 10, 20 years or more but not frequently and not as a sole occupation.  It’s really only become a topic of research interest in maybe the past 5 or 10 years and, you know, it’s hard to draw the exact line but now people are studying humor because we recognize, for example, Jeffrey Burgdorf, the rat tickler, he tickles rats and he looks at their responses and also their emotional responses by looking at their brains and you can learn a lot about things like depression, anxiety, these issues that have immense implications for us, as humans, and I think we’re now recognizing that humor, if we understand humor, we’ll understand ourselves better, not just things like depression and anxiety but just how we think.  Computers can’t tell jokes yet and there’s a reason they can’t tell good jokes yet and it’s because to tell a good joke, you’ve got to have some pretty advanced cognitive thinking and when we understand how people tell jokes, we’ll understand how people think.


Steve Mirsky:    That’s it for this episode.  Get your science news at our website, where you can check out the collection of Scientific American eBooks, including The Secrets of Consciousness.  They’re all at and follow us on Twitter where you’ll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website.  Our Twitter name is @sciam.  For Scientific American Science Talk I’m Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us. 


[End of Audio]

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