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All of us, except possibly Mr Spock, regularly use and appreciate humour. So why do we need it? Ian Kirke has done some research, with a little help from the younger generation.

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence; then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “OK, now what?”

This was ranked as the world’s funniest joke by Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, England in 2002 following extensive research. Submitted by Gurpal Gosal, it is derived from a 1951 Goon Show sketch by the legendary British comedian Spike Milligan. The basis of the academic study sought to determine the gag that had the best ability to activate the chuckle muscles across different cultures and territories. 

I love a good laugh, although I fully accept that my delivery of a traditional gag lacks the requisite elegant technique that leads to the essential punchline. I have nonetheless become fascinated with the mechanics of laughter following the recent arrival of Arthur. 

 My partner’s grandson, now 18 months old, has captivated my heart and my sense of childhood in a delicious cocktail of innocence and unconditional laughter. Granted, he does cry, can be obstinate, regularly chucks his dinner on the floor and slaps my bald head with karate-chop precision, but for most of the rest of his waking hours he is a permanent giggle monster. 

At this golden moment in Arthur’s development, I can only tickle his funny bones by exaggerated stupidity and rude noises, much to the annoyance of his Mum. Holding him in my arms and repeatedly pressing the smoke alarm button sends him into chortle meltdown, as does singing awful songs mimicking family members when we are alone in the car. Pushing him over whilst he stands proudly on the bed makes us both wet ourselves (we are both of a certain age). 

My desire is to explore this transition from simply laughing at behaviour to the grasp of the classic joke. The play on words that can, if delivered successfully, promote a positive emotional response.

The beauty of humour is that it has stumped even the most eminent of psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers. Several notions exist, with some hypotheses having been mooted over time that engage with the tribulations of others and the ability to link with latent emotional concepts. Posting the line, “At least I don’t have to wear a mask for Halloween” got some traction on the laughter emojis, and personally I have found self-deprecation to be an important ally, not to be confused with defecation, which we Brits seem to reserve the heartiest laughs for.

The evolutionary theory of humour proposed by Gil Greengross, an anthropologist at the University of Mexico, engages with the notion that it is present in all societies, although allegedly some nations are funnier than others. In 2011, a global poll by Badoo.com crowned the United States as the funniest nation on the planet, with Germany at the bottom. 

 This study tends to support the thoughts of the famous author Mark Twain who, in 1880, advocated that a German joke is no laughing matter. He was of course American, so an element of bias may have been present, albeit humour should rarely be constrained by the truth. For the record, Russia and Turkey were down there too.

In more contemporary research, Matthew M. Hurley of Indiana University Bloomington and a few of his clever mates suggested, in the 2011 book, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, that wit was the edification of mistakes that would seemingly always have an individual as the butt of the gag. For example: “My new motor has gesture control. When I made a rude sign to a motorist who cut me up, my car actually phoned me.”

The mantra ‘laughter is the best medicine’ (believed to stem from a proverb in the Bible) is pretty accurate, since it has some tangible health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, and forms the basis of a technique known as laughter yoga, which I confess I haven’t tried since I’ve been known to follow a good belly laugh with a tad of flatulence, not ideal when cross-legged on the floor with others nearby.

According to other notable studies, laughter can also reduce anxiety, counter depression, bolster the immune system and help you breathe more easily afterwards. In the 14th century, a French surgeon by the glorious name of Henri de Mondeville used humour to distract patients from the pain of surgery. 

A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Obesity showed that laughter can actually burn calories. Consequently, when I visit the gym, I remain inside the changing room and just look at myself in the mirror. I’ve lost over seven pounds this year. If that disclosure didn’t impress you, then maybe the knowledge that laughter increases your intake of oxygen, which stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles, and increases the release of endorphins – that work in a similar fashion to opioids – may steer you away from other potential stimulants.

Our upbringing, place of birth and those we associate with has a tremendous bearing on our sense of humour. This has been the subject of extensive academic review which suggests that in the West humour is generally a positive experience, yet in the East the opposite can be true. In China, for example, Confucianism sought to position humour as a stick of disapproval. However, according to my Dad, “Confucius says that woman who cooks cabbage and peas in same pot is unsanitary.” It took me a few years to get that one!

Back to the other, and funnier, part of my favourite double act – Arthur. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky suggested that humour improves a child’s cognitive development. Arthur’s infectious smile – and almost consistent giggling – lead me to the conclusion that little Arthur will grow up to be both an eminent brain surgeon and the star turn in Las Vegas with his unique stand-up routine. Of course, according to his Dad, these vocational choices will follow the conclusion of his footballing career as centre-forward for West Ham United. Now there is a joke if ever I heard one! 

© Ian Kirke 2022

Ian Kirke

As a kid, and latterly a dad and police officer, I realised that I have an almost endless list of things I want to make sense of. I suspect I am not alone. Hopefully, as a law graduate and post-graduate criminologist, my life observations reflect a degree of authenticity and balance – but I’ll allow you to judge that for yourself. Synthesising humour, grief, horror and hedonism, I think I’m an all-rounder! I am also a frustrated speedway promoter, passionate Notts County fan and part-time philosopher.
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