After spending years in black comedy clubs, Mary O'Hara knows what makes her laugh. But what else can a good joke do? Meet the artists and researchers who say comedy can change the way we think and even the way we act.
Maeve Higgins once set herself a task. The Irish comedian wanted to see what life would be like if she stopped laughing at things that aren't funny. Turns out it wasn't as easy as she thought. "It was so fucking hard," she says. "Laughter is a lubricant and it's expected, and it's really hard not to."
It's almost 11 pm on a bone-chillingly cold Tuesday night in New York.Higginsand her friend--Jon RonsonThey're huddled backstage behind a thick black curtain, reflecting on how the last show of their monthly stand-up series,MilitaryNew here: can you show me the location??, it was. They are satisfied. Tonight's diverse comics went down well with the punters, a hip young crowd who braved the inclement weather to sit in a crowded, dimly lit spot below a pub, all looking for a few laughs.
The show is loosely based on the theme of being bewildered as newcomers to a new city, as Higgins and Ronson were only recently in Brooklyn. Higgins (a virtuoso comedian, author and television personality in her native Ireland) and Ronson (best known as the bestselling author ofthe psychiatric testythe men who watchemgoats) suggest that there is something particularly special about being part of the shared experience that is stand-up comedy, that curious alchemy that occurs when people come together specifically to laugh (or not, depending on the quality of the acts).
“It's connection,” says Ronson. “That's what this show is about. It's about us and the audience connecting with each other… There's something special about being in the same room with someone, reading each other's body language as well.”
Higgins nods. "Definitely. It's a communal thing; it's liberating." Perhaps, he says, because audiences tend to be crammed into comedy clubs, actors become accidental anthropologists, closely observing how people interact when exposed to jokes or funny stories. "You can see a couple," Higgins says, "and you notice they're checking each other's answers. Like, can I laugh about this?"
Making people laugh also has the potential to make the joke-teller feel a little better. “This is perfect for me,” says Ronson of the setup, a casual and intimate space where the two hosts banter and tell stories among a succession of comedians who take to the stage. "This is totally therapy for me, doing this show."
Comedy is more than just an enjoyable way to spend an evening, humor is more than just something to amuse yourself with. They are woven into the fabric of our everyday existence. Whether you're sharing a funny story at the pub, cracking a self-deprecating joke after someone pays you a compliment, or cracking a dark joke at a funeral, humor is everywhere. But what is it for? And can humor, like comedy, change how we feel, what we think, or even what we do?
Humor is not just frivolous entertainment: it can help us deal with situations that are impossible to understand (Credit: Alamy)
As an integral part of human interaction, humor has been on the minds of thinkers for centuries. AsPedro McGrawyjoel warningexplain in his recent book,The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, “Plato and Aristotle contemplated the meaning of comedy while laying the foundations of Western philosophy…Charles Darwin searched for the seeds of laughter in the joyful cries of tickling chimpanzees. Sigmund Freud searched the nooks and crannies of our unconscious minds for the underlying motivations behind jokes.
Humor is a great way for us to evolve so we don't have to hit each other with sticks.
One of the most enduring theories of humor came courtesy of philosopher Thomas Hobbes. He claims that humor is ostensibly about making fun of the weak and exercising superiority. While this is clearly the function of some comedy (anyone who has been startled by a comic's pathetic attempt to poke fun at, say, disability will attest to this), it is a relentlessly dark and far from complete explanation of the purpose of humor.
"The first thing I think of when I think of humor is that it's a great way for us to evolve so we don't have to hit each other with sticks," says Scott Weems, cognitive neuroscientist and author.
In his recent book,There is! The science of when we laugh and why, Weems reviews a number of academic studies, including those that have used scanning to show which parts of the brain respond when we come across something funny. In the book, he posits a theory: Essentially, that humor is a form of psychological processing, a coping mechanism that helps people deal with complex and conflicting messages, a "response to conflict and confusion in our brains."
Partly, he says, this is why we laugh in response to dark, confusing, or tragic events that apparently shouldn't be funny. Why, for example, would jokes circulate after 9/11 if we weren't collectively looking for ways to analyze how upsetting and disturbing it was? Cheesy or cruelly directed humor can create conflict, but for Weems, humor is our way of working through difficult issues or feelings.
Troubling news can inspire dark satire, which can help unite people in their shared values (Credit: Getty Images)
Over the years, researchers have amassed a substantial amount of evidence that some types of comedy, including sophisticated satire, which is growing in popularity, serve powerful social functions, from breaking taboos to holding those in trouble accountable.live chaff, who has written several books on humor, explores this topic extensively. how to write inPersonality and sense of humor, “comedy and satire have the common denominator that both try to change or reform society through humor. The two forms together constitute the best illustration that exists of the social function of humour.
You don't have to look far to find examples of comics that put social justice at the heart of their work. Based in New YorkNegin FarsadNew book,How to make white people laugh, has been described as "memory meets social justice comedy manifesto", with the former social policy analyst speaking of comedy as a platform to promote social justice.
For some comedians, it's not just about making people laugh, it's about changing what we think and maybe even what we do. If there's one comic that really embodies this, it's Josie Long. A social justice activist and comedian, Long has a reputation for charming, upbeat, quirky humor and fast-paced storytelling. He has been doing stand up comedy since he was a teenager and his latest BBC radio show,Romantic and Adventure, has been widely praised.
However, as her career evolved, she consciously placed social and political issues at the center of her work. She believes comedians have a role to play in articulating and challenging some of the most pressing issues of the day.
Satire is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted - Josie Long
"Politics can leave you beleaguered, tormented, miserable," she says. “It’s that maxim where they say: ‘Satire is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. That's why humor was important [to me]. It was a way of being useful to other people.” In her work, Long filters the political realities of contemporary Britain, especially what she sees as the government's flagrant injustices, through humor.
It's vital to understand the work comedy can do to provide an active counterbalance to bigotry and bigotry, as well as understanding the types of humor that reinforce negative stereotypes, he says. "I want to make sure I'm swinging up and not down."
Context is crucial to humor (Credit: Getty Images)
There is a "powerful place" both on the comedy spectrum and in society, says Long, for the kind of bold, disturbing and defiant remarks by comedians like John Oliver and Stewart Lee, whom she admires. That they have a role in contemporary society beyond making people laugh is undeniable; his work is evidence of the impact comedy can have more broadly. “John Oliver is in a position where he has more people watching than talking,” she says.
"No matter what happens in British society, stand-up immediately starts a process of discussion and reinterpretation," he says.sophie quirk, academic at the University of Kent and author of the 2014 bookWhy is it important to get up?. This process necessarily involves more than just an expression of the individual actor's point of view. If we find a joke offensive, we protest by not laughing at it."
In many ways, says Quirk, the kind of observation made by comedians like Long is reinforced by his recent scholarly work, which has included lengthy interviews with practicing comedians. “I think sometimes literature ignores [the] fact that comedy does a lot of things,” he says. “Social play is a way to bond with people.” Political comedy, he argues, can promote a sense of shared ideals. "If you're bringing people together and talking about views that in the broader social context are quite marginal, and we all laugh together about it, then you're affirming them."
“I think comedy can be a way of conveying unpleasant ideas,” he says, echoing Long, adding that it's important to study how humor reinforces or weakens stereotypes.
According toJuan Fugelsang– a New York-based comedian, writer, and political actor who hosts the radio showTell me everything– The recent rise of political comedy is one of the most fascinating aspects of the role of humor in American entertainment and the broader American culture. While sometimes you just need something silly to watch, comedy has a far greater resonance than is often given credit for.
The comedy had to get so good because the news got so bad
"I think it's innate that if someone can make you laugh at how messed up everything is, that person has not only earned your admiration, but on some level, they've also earned your trust." In the case of America, he says, the comedy had to get so good because the news got so bad. “This may be the best time to be a political comedian, and you may need each other more than ever.”
The best comedians, he argues, are our most effective anthropologists and cultural critics. "Political comedy, when done well, is a transmission system for truth."
A good joke has a stronger impact than many other forms of dialogue and can reach people who otherwise might not be willing to listen (Credit: Getty Images)
british comedianStephen K. Amoshe sells seats that seat thousands, year after year, and has hit shows on BBC Radio 4 to his credit. Amos is convinced that when comics consciously address pressing or controversial societal issues like racism and homophobia, they can reach people on a much more significant level than just briefly lifting someone's mood. And while it can be difficult to quantify, he says, comedy's social and psychological impact deserves much greater recognition.
Obviously, some sitcoms don't have an overt social purpose (not that most comedians are trying to change the world), but Amos argues that one of the unique properties of certain sitcoms "when done well" is the freedom to explore ideas in a non-descript way. conventional or counterintuitive. way, to subvert the norms of society.
Research supports this. While the role of comedy is primarily to entertain, to interview comedians,Sharon Lockyer, professor of sociology and director of the Comedy Studies Research Center at Brunel University, identified a number of other possible roles. This includes challenging “dominant stereotypes and discourses that marginalize and stigmatize specific individuals”, for example, in relation to disability and sexuality.
Amos' work frequently addresses issues of race and homosexuality by changing stereotypes. “I don't do things for surprise value,” he says. “I do things that are important to me. It used to be just a joke. We've made progress: people are talking about things that matter."
As an example of what comedy can do, Amos tells the story of a teenager who approached him after a show where Amos was telling his own story about coming out as gay to his family. "The guy came up to me and said, 'I'm here alone... I think I'm gay and I'm going to tell my parents tonight.'" In another case, a woman who brought her "a very grumpy father in one show told Amos that his set made his father reconsider his views on gay people.
What I'm doing is helping you release those chemicals in your body to make you laugh uncontrollably - Stephen K Amos
“Oh my God, when do you touch people on that level? What I'm doing is helping him release these chemicals in his body to make him laugh uncontrollably. And if that means challenging your preconceptions about who I am, great. We can run with it.
“A lot of times what comedians can do is use logic to make sense of painful things,” says John Fugelsang. “They can articulate emotions and complicated plotlines using jokes as a framing device, when just existing in the unexamined heart can be hazy and amorphous.”
When it comes to issues like social justice, "humor can be a social corrective," he says. “We see it in black comedy, LGBT comedy, Latin comedy, religious humor, feminist humor. It validates shared experiences, makes us think more flexibly and rethink situations in this shared experience we call life”.
As police officer turned comedian Alfie Moore points out, "if they're laughing, they're listening," which means you can get your message out to more people (Credit: Getty Images)
Equally convinced of comedy's potential to change us, he isalfie moore. A police officer by trade and a BBC regular, Moore's day job is serious, but he uses his experience to push the boundaries with his comedy. His stock mocks surveillance and walks "a fine line" between serious and silly, cracking jokes to expose nonsensical policies.
People come to his shows with their own ideas about police work, says Moore, but they may leave with altered perceptions of what the job is and how it fits into society. “A phrase I heard recently was, 'If they're laughing, they're listening,' and I think that's a powerful quote.
“No one ever listened to me when I was in the police. I had no influence. I never met senior officers and I never met my chief of police. Now that I'm out of the police, a lot of people listen to me. The Radio 4 show got 1.4 million listeners per episode. I received emails from police chiefs."
Liz CarrThe wickedly dark comedy revolves around challenging perceptions. Like Amos, Carr, who is also an actor and writer, says that to regard comedy simply as frivolous would amount to a lack of understanding of his place in the world. With a career spanning radio, television (currently starring in the hit dramasilent witness), stand-up and sketch comedy, Carr was one of the pioneers in the burgeoning field of disabled comics.
She is known for repeatedly defying convention: in her comedy, she uses language such as "crip" (short for crippled), normally associated with humiliating people with disabilities, as a way to win her back. He's about to get a little edgier when he makes a musical comedy about assisted dying, which will be shown at London's Royal Festival Hall in autumn 2016. It is, he says, another example of how humor can be trained in even the grimmest of situations. gloomy. issues and get people to rethink preconceived notions.
“A lot of times we don't know how to react to things,” she says. “And there's an expectation that you shouldn't laugh at this or that. I'm thinking disability [here]. People say, 'Oh... we don't want to offend anyone.' So there's one thing, if you can break away from the laughter, it's a kind of relief and an outlet.
"Just your presence at any given moment changes people, changes interactions... I just think [comedy] opens people up in a way that I haven't found in any other medium that works."
Social scientist Sharon Lockyer has been studying the connection between comedy and disability. He has published articles examining disabled comedians' views on the British television comedy industry and on the cultural shift from people with disabilities from prime targets of comedy to being 'comedy makers'.
Lockyer believes that this change and other changes, such as humiliating jokes being less tolerated, are indicative of broader changes in society. “The comedy's political potential clearly suggests that it's worth taking seriously,” he says.
Psychologists are now increasingly interested in exploring the relationship between the comedian and the audience (Credit: Getty Images)
Our appetite for comedy is growing. The greatest comedians, from Sarah Millican and Michael McIntyre in the UK to Chris Rock and Amy Schumer in the US, draw thousands upon thousands to their shows.
Hit artists like Louis CK and shows likewide citythey've distributed their comedy all over the internet and there are loads of funny clips from the Vines and YouTube. Some of the best podcasts are funny, includingby marc maronWTF, which gets 5 million downloads per month and an average of 450,000 downloads per episode. There's even a comedian's podcast for comedians, aptly titledComedian's Comedian Podcast.
Academic researchers are also increasingly interested in humor, often grouped under the epithet "humorologists". In 2009, a research laboratory dedicated to the "scientific study of humour, its antecedents and consequences" was launched at the University of Colorado Boulder (the Humor Research Laboratory is affectionately known as 'HuRL'). And in the UK, the Center for Comedy Studies Research (CCSR) was set up at Brunel University in 2013 to study the social impact of comedy. Then there is the International Society for the Study of Humor (ISHS) and its quarterly journal,HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research, and the biannual magazinecomedy studios.
Pedro McGraw, coauthored byor mood codeand an expert in emotional and behavioral decision theory at the HuRL, an Ivy League acquaintance once said that studying humor was a "professional killer." But he suggests that since we probably experience humor far more often than emotions like fear or regret, studying it has as much academic merit as it does supposedly more valuable topics.
“People look for [humor] in all these parts of their lives: their consumption of entertainment, with their friends and family. And there is evidence of its use to deal with this. Another thing that I think is an important puzzle is that when you try to be funny and you fail... you can create conflict. You can piss people off. You can make people angry."
It's only when Sophie Quirk links comedy to an established "serious" topic, like politics or negativity, that people think she has any value. "Just because it's fun doesn't mean it's meaningless," she says. “People think that [studying] fear must be very important. But the laughter, the fun state, because it's fun and exciting, that's why it's been neglected and that's really, really weird."
Research is exploring all kinds of things, from what happens in the brain when we "get" a joke, to the cardiovascular benefits of a good laugh. It could also shed light on the nature of people who choose comedy as a career. For example, research presented in 2014 suggested that despite their work, comedians had less activity in brain regions associated with pleasure and enjoyment of humor compared to others.
“This generation is when we're going to start seeing people studying humor as studying intelligence,” Scott Weems tells me. "Humor could be the way to finally get to what's special about the human condition... I don't know if it will be in my lifetime, but we're getting close."
Some cognitive scientists feel that humor is now the best way to study the human condition (Credit: Getty Images)
On the opposite side of America from Maeve Higgins and Jon Ronson, Jamie Masada is full of energy. He's in the heavily upholstered upstairs bar overlooking the stage at the Laugh Factory comedy club on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles. He's about to host a weekly open mic night where aspiring comedians will perform three minutes of the best material they can muster. It doesn't matter that most of them are rubbish (he's seen it all in the 30 years he's been in charge of the night), at least they're going to try to make people laugh.
Masada, who immigrated to the United States from Iran as a teenager, candidly says that if watching audiences night after night has taught him anything, it's that comedy can have a profound impact on how we feel and even how we act. He remembers seeing people show up to comedy clubs looking miserable, but then leave with smiles on their faces, visibly transformed: couples who barely seem to talk to each other and leave hand in hand.
"It's so fundamental to us," he says. "We need comedy like air to breathe." Masada's effervescence reads as selfish (he runs comedy clubs, after all), but that doesn't mean he's wrong. For many comedians, there are deep mechanisms at work in their work, especially when the humor turns to broader political and social issues.
"You should try!" he asks me, a wide smile on his face. "Making people laugh is the greatest power a human being can have!" He's not kidding.
This is an edited version ofan article originally published by Mosaic, and is reproduced under a Creative Commons license.
Join over 600,000 future fans by liking us onFacebook, or follow usGore,Google+,LinkedInyInstagram.