Mark Twain once famously said "Studying humor is like dissecting a frog--you may know a lot, but end up with a dead frog." With all due respects to Mr. Twain, wherever and whomever he may be, comedy is a difficult and tricky concept and we cannot expect just some guy like Mr. Twain to understand its delicate complexity. Comedy should be taught by a man who is accustomed to explaining complicated, difficult-to-grasp concepts. There's only one man I trust for that job: Science.
So, when I decided to try stand-up comedy for the first time, I knew I needed to attend a few classes at Science University. Luckily, I found three great scientific articles that dealt with dissecting, explaining and teaching comedy and humor. Once I applied the lessons taught in the following articles, there'd be no stopping me.
Science Explains the Gross-Out Comedy
My first lecture on How to Science Comedy came from a study conducted at The University of Colorado-Boulder on the subject of gross-out comedy, confirming my suspicion that everything has been discovered and no one knows what to do with grant money anymore.
The article starts off by reminding us that there are no absolutes, and comedy is indeed a tricky subject. At first it is explained that things that are "incongruous and release tension are funny," which seems straightforward. "But," Science points out, "unintentionally killing a loved one, while incongruous and an example of a release of aggressive tension, is unlikely to be funny." Good point, Science. I decided right then and there that I was no longer going to open my set by accidentally throwing a knife into my sister's heart.
pause for laughter
This scientific article about comedy isn't just about inadvertently murdering your spouse; there's also some bestiality.
In the scenario where the cat whined and was uncomfortable, almost everyone was not amused. (If you take nothing else from the study, you should at least be able to appreciate how even in this jaded, cynical day and age, most people are still not comfortable with over-the-pants cat rape. That's a victory, right?) However, the participants were much more likely to laugh if the cat enjoyed the crotch-rubbing, if there was no implied harm done to the cat. The conclusion the highly-paid and well-respected scientists reached was this:
The cat isn't harmed, so comedy happens. It's so simple: Comedy is about not harming cats.
The scientists have further condensed this experiment and, indeed, all gross-out comedy, to just three handy criteria: If something…
A) Violates a moral or social norm
B) Is benign
C) Is reconcilable
…then it's funny! You want your joke to be edgy and disrupt some kind of social more, but it also needs to be clear that everything is totally and completely fine. Just do that and you're funny!
Let's look at one more experiment the published scientists conducted:
Sort of feels unrelated to the study, but OK, Science is Science.
SCIENTIFIC COMEDY CONCLUSION: Your audience must be repulsed by a moral violation and also consider it benign. Also chicken-fucking.
19 Ways to Enhance Your Sense of Humor
Switching gears, I decided to turn to Reader's Digest, which had an article about the benefits comedy can have on your health. The article helpfully lists 19 ways a person can enhance their sense of humor. Just 19 steps? Who knew that was all it took to have a great sense of humor! It's honestly shocking that there aren't more comedians in the world.
The lessons were fairly easy and positively wicked.
Just think of the possibilities: Captions. Etc.
Running an airline! Perfect! A few more gems like that and I'd be the next Gallagher 2.
I can't think of a single unfunny thing about that idea.
It was almost unfair how scientifically hilarious I was going to be at this audience.
SCIENTIFIC COMEDY CONCLUSIONReader's Digest is the comedy Bible.
Cognitive Science of Humor
My final article came from the appropriately named ScienceBlogs, so you just know they've got their stuff together when it comes to comedy. The bulk of the article is about how the brain responds to good comedy (positively), and was largely irrelevant for my stand-up debut, but it did lead me to the hilarious Dr. Freud's unquestionable grip on what makes a joke funny.
So there you have it.
SCIENTIFIC COMEDY CONCLUSION: You don't really need me to spell it out for you, it's pretty clear.
My Stand-Up Debut!
Place: The Comedy Store.
I looked out over the crowd. A sea of smiling faces, buzzing from either the alcohol or the comedy, or some warm combination of the two. The buzz created an energy that I was ready to feed off of with my guaranteed, Science-vetted comedy. I had five minutes.
"Hey folks," I said, adjusting the microphone stand to a comfortable level. They clapped politely. I decided to start with Rule 15 of the Reader's Digest article about exaggerating problems.
"So I was walking down the street today and I realized that the situation in Darfur is so bad…"
"How bad is it," someone in the audience eagerly offered.
"It's so bad," I continued, "that all of our attempts to remedy it are useless! I mean is it just me, or are several hundred thousand dead already? Even if the civil war ended, that won't culturally or economically stabilize Sudan. And how about the health situation over there, I mean, what are these, super diseases? Are these super diseases that are wiping everyone out? I think so. There is literally nothing that anyone can do to fix this problem, like, even if the whole world joined together it would do nothing. The tragedy is insurmountable. Or should I say 'insurgentmountable'? Ah, but it's great to be here folks, you all look nice."
They weren't exactly laughing, but I wasn't going to let that slow me down. It's not my fault that they're not Science enough to appreciate my comedy. I decided to dumb it up a little bit, and strip my routine down to the basics as determined by the gross-out comedy scientists.
"So the other day I was walking down the street and a guy got hit by a bus but he was totally fine after, no real damage done." The crowd stared at me, expressionless. "I said he was fine. And he either marinated or had sex with a dead chicken, depending on where you are with respect to the Cartesian plane. So you guys who are closer to me, you'd laugh a lot, and the rest of you I… I forget, you just want chicken I guess." That got a few nervous chuckles from the crowd, so I decided to turn it up a notch by delivering my next bit with a Swedish accent.
"I vas valking down the street the other day. There sure are a lot of differences between white people and black people, am I right? I bet you could make some sharp observations about those differences and highlight a couple of stereotypes if you really put your mind to it. Anyway, my parents just got the Internet for the first time. Can you believe it? They're like, 'email?' It's pretty nutty."
I could tell that the audience wasn't totally feeling my Science, which I attributed to the fact that I lost my Swedish accent almost immediately. I really should have practiced, or maybe spent just a few seconds confirming whether or not I'd ever actually heard a Swedish person before. ("No," turns out.) I needed to sneakily consult my notes, so I stalled for time by utilizing Reader's Digest's sixth step.
"Pass- just pass those around and... yeah. Those should be good for a pick-me-up. Meanwhile I'll continue making comedy here on this stage. Boy, folks, this economy, right? Can't make this stuff up."
Someone in the audience, evidently bored with my routine, started shouting a few things at me and calling me names, which I won't reprint here, because they were in no way scientific. But, hecklers are just a part of this business, and luckily Reader's Digest taught me how to deal with people who offend me or make me angry.
"You are a shithead," the heckler heckled.
"I sure am glad you're not running an airline," I deftly retorted, stunning him into silence. Clearly, I was the Zingmaster, and he was but a clown in my Three Zing Circus.
My heckler defanged and my confidence restored, I decided to take a page out of comedian Dr. Freud's book.
"So I was walking down the street early this morning on my way to a place, and guess what I saw? There was a turtle and, like... like a hat, I guess, or a clock. A turtle and a clock. And they're together. Those two things sure are incongruous and unsuitable for each other, right? Well about an hour ago they got united in one complex object or assemblage. You might say they acquired a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which your mind takes notice of them." Laughter never arose and I was absolutely shocked.
The house manager from the back of the Comedy Store started flashing the "get off the stage" light (I responded by remarking how lucky we all were that he wasn't running an airline). I was getting nervous. No one was laughing, regardless of how funny my Science was. This was going to be my last chance, so I decided to break out a few of the big guns. One of those guns is cat-shaped, and the other is my-genitals-shaped.
"Wow, you guys have really been a terrific audience," I said, surreptitiously sliding a kitten out of my Science/Comedy briefcase/fanny pack. "I mean it, I've seen a lot of terrific audiences, and you are absolutely one of them. Now, for my next and final trick, I'm going to need a volunteer from my hand. This cat I'm currently holding will do." I could see faces in the audience starting to perk up. Noses began twitching with excitement, or possibly cat allergies. I softly patted Perkins, the black-and-white kitten I'd purchased earlier that morning, and gave it a you-know-what-to-do wink. Cats can't wink, but Perkins responded with the appropriate cat-wink analogue, which oddly enough is indistinguishable from a standard cat expression.
I loosened up my shoulders a bit. We can do this. I broadly rubbed Perkins up and down the frontal region of my crotch. The audience was stone silent, so I raised and lowered my eyebrows a few times. Still nothing, but like an angry nothing, now. Believing that the stilted, possibly contrived, vertical genital-rubbing motion I was using with Perkins was the source of their disapproval, I decided to change things up and utilize a more advanced, circular, counter-clockwise genital wipe technique that you've probably read about.
Still nothing. I was about to completely abandon this joke, leaving it in the dumpster behind the Comedy Store, like an unwanted, nonrefundable cat, when I remembered what was perhaps the most important bit of advice the scientists had on the subject of cat-to-dick comedy robotics.
"So I was walking down the street today. What is the deal with how into this my cat is? Am I right?"
The audience let out wave after wave of hearty guffaws in the form of muted gasps of horror. Some even walked out in approval. It all meant one thing: I was killing it. I'd finally found the perfect framing device for my jokes.
"And how about this Barack Obama, huh? What a character. [Wipe Wipe Wipe.] I suppose a solid impression of him would go over well, right about now. [Rub Rub.] The funny thing about Barack Obama is Sarah Palin, am I right? [Smmmmeeeeaaaarrrr.] Nah, but she seems nice. Perkins sure is having a blast down there. Take everybody's wife!"