Member only
Episode
133

What Makes Us Laugh

Feb 16, 2021
How Stuff Works
-
18
minutes
Comedy
Philosophy
Life in the UK
Funny stories
The Human Body
The Victorian Era

Laughing is something that we all do.

But what makes us laugh? Why is something funny?

Discover the theories about why we laugh, what this does to us, and learn about the British sense of humour.

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login
Subtitles will start when you press 'play'
You need to subscribe for the full subtitles
Already a member? Login
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdf
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript only available after your trial

Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Humour, and What Makes Us Laugh.

[00:00:29] It’s a topic that we can all relate to, everyone laughs, it’s one of the things that separates humans from almost every other creature on the planet.

[00:00:39] Yet what actually makes us laugh is complicated, it’s not obvious, and we still don’t fully understand it.

[00:00:48] So, what we are going to do in today’s episode is talk about the science of laughter, of what actually happens when we laugh.

[00:00:57] We’ll then talk about the theories of humour, and laughter, and some of the ideas throughout the years about why people laugh.

[00:01:06] Then we’ll end by talking very briefly about the British sense of humour, which is certainly different. 

[00:01:12] If you do want to learn more about the British sense of humour then I would recommend checking out episode number 60, which is only on the British sense of humour. 

[00:01:22] That’s well worth a listen if you haven’t done so already.

[00:01:27] OK then, humour and laughter.

[00:01:30] It goes without saying that what we find funny, what makes us laugh, varies by age, culture, personality and thousands of different things. We are all different, and what I find funny might not be funny to you. Worse, it might be offensive, hard to understand, or just not funny at all.

[00:01:52] But regardless of who we are and where we come from, humans laugh, it’s an instinctive reaction. 

[00:01:59] Babies laugh way before they start making anything resembling speech, way before they start talking.

[00:02:06] People who are deaf, people who cannot hear, they laugh, even if they have never heard anyone else laughing.

[00:02:14] And we laugh, normally, because we find something funny. It’s not the only occasion that we laugh–indeed laughing in some cultures happens when someone is nervous or embarrassed, or you might see a James Bond villain laughing because they have just done something terribly evil.

[00:02:33] But for the most part, and in most Western cultures, we laugh when we find something funny, so that is going to be the focus of our attention today.

[00:02:44] So, we all know what a laugh sounds like. We all laugh in slightly different ways, but generally it’s a sound that comes from deep within us, that we don’t have full control over.

[00:02:56] Indeed, the part of the brain that controls laughter is located deep in an area of the brain called the subcortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for basic, instinctive, involuntary reflexes.

[00:03:13] This is one of the reasons that controlling laughter is hard. 

[00:03:18] Especially for young children, if they find something funny they struggle to control their laughter, even if they know it’s inappropriate, that they shouldn't be laughing. 

[00:03:29] It’s such a basic, instinctive reaction that it’s hard to control if our brain is telling us to laugh, and similarly it’s hard to convincingly fake, it’s hard to pretend to laugh, if our brains are telling us that we should be laughing.

[00:03:48] This instinctive nature of laughter, and of humour, has puzzled philosophers and psychologists since the dawn of time

[00:03:58] Why is something funny? 

[00:04:00] What makes someone laugh?

[00:04:03] For the ancient Greeks, humour and laughter often came from feeling superior, feeling better than other people.

[00:04:13] An example of an Ancient Greek joke was, apparently:

[00:04:18] “An idiot, wanting to go to sleep but not having a pillow, told his slave to set a jar, a container, under his head. The slave said that the jug was hard. The idiot told him to fill it with feathers.” 

[00:04:34] Hahahah.

[00:04:35] So, not so different to the sort of joke that we might tell each other today, right?

[00:04:41] And that’s one of the funny things about humour, it's that there are some inherently human consistencies about what makes us laugh.

[00:04:51] We might think that we are completely different to someone living in Ancient Rome 2000 years ago, or even someone now living in a completely different culture to us, but a lot of the same things make us laugh.

[00:05:06] A 15 month-old child is probably going to laugh at an adult falling over unexpectedly, whether that child is my child and is alive in 2021 in Europe, whether it's a child that lived 1000 years ago in the Amazon rainforest, or is a child that lived 5000 years ago in Ancient Egypt.

[00:05:29] As we grow up, our cultural environment might influence what we find funny, it might change what makes us laugh, but there are some theories about humour, about laughter, that are believed to be inherently human.

[00:05:45] And when it comes to the theory of humour, of what makes us laugh, there are three main theories.

[00:05:54] The first theory of humour, about what makes us laugh is called the Incongruity Theory.

[00:06:00] If something is incongruous, it means that it’s not in harmony with everything else, it’s in a place you wouldn’t expect it.

[00:06:10] And the Incongruity Theory suggests that one reason we find something funny is when something that we expect to happen is replaced by something unexpected.

[00:06:23] If you’re listening to someone telling a joke, you are following along with a story. Your own experience tells you what is likely to happen in that story, or at least informs you of a few possible scenarios. 

[00:06:39] But if something completely unexpected happens, it’s funny, and you laugh.

[00:06:46] The theory goes that it’s these two different thoughts that make us laugh, that we experience this mismatch between what we thought was going to happen and what actually happens, and that triggers this laughter reaction, or at least makes us think that something is funny.

[00:07:07] Here’s an example of this in action in a joke that I quite like..

[00:07:12] “There was a little boy who had never spoken a word in his entire life. One day, while having dinner, out of the blue he said, "The pasta is disgusting." When the parents heard what their son had just said, they looked at each other full of surprise, then turned to the boy and asked, "How come you never said anything before?" Their son replied, "Well, so far the food you’ve given me has been pretty good."

[00:07:41] So, hahah, maybe you found that funny, maybe you didn’t. 

[00:07:45] The point is that it’s unexpected, and the fact that we’re trying to reconcile our expectations about what we thought would happen with what actually does happen is what makes us laugh.

[00:07:59] Our second theory of humour is called the Superiority Theory.

[00:08:04] Now, if you feel superior to someone, you feel like you are above them, you’re better than them. And the Superiority Theory revolves around the idea of laughing at people, often unfortunately using stereotypes of nationality, where someone is from, age and so on.

[00:08:26] I’m sure this doesn’t need much more explanation, but when kids laugh at someone falling over, this is partly that they feel superior to the adult who has done something silly. When we laugh at someone doing something stupid in a joke, or suffering some kind of misfortune, it’s because we feel superior, so the theory goes at least.

[00:08:50] An interesting part of the superiority theory is the extent to which, culturally, our proximity to the event changes how funny it is considered. 

[00:09:02] What I mean by this is depending on the culture you come from, and the type of humour that is considered acceptable, people are more able to laugh about certain things if they are very removed from them, either in terms of geography or in terms of time, if they happened a long time ago.

[00:09:22] To give you a practical example, if there was some sort of tragic event, it’s very unlikely that it would ever be considered acceptable to laugh about it on the day that it happened, or shortly after. 

[00:09:37] But slowly slowly, as time went on, it might become acceptable in some cultures to use humour to talk about it, as a way of coping with it. 

[00:09:48] British humour is especially guilty of this, and you’ll find that people in Britain are likely to laugh about things that people in other countries would find very unacceptable.

[00:10:02] And the final of the three most prominent theories of humour is called The Relief Theory.

[00:10:10] The Relief Theory dates back to the 18th century, in 1709, and was written by an English Philosopher called Anthony Ashley-Cooper, otherwise known as the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury. It was later developed by Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century, but it actually comes from around 200 years earlier.

[00:10:34] The idea of The Relief Theory is that laughter allows us to release energy and pent-up emotions, emotions that we had been storing up inside us. 

[00:10:47] It’s been adapted a little bit since it was first proposed, but the general idea is that tension can be built up artificially by the story of a joke, or in a film or TV series, then there is a funny ending, where we laugh and release our emotions.

[00:11:06] It’s also the idea that we store up tension inside us, and if there’s a joke, often a rude joke it allows us to release this tension, and be relieved of this pressure.

[00:11:21] I should point out that most serious philosophers of humour, and theorists of laughter, tend to ignore The Relief Theory, but it still persists.

[00:11:32] So, these are three of the most common explanations for why we laugh - because we experience something unexpected, something incongruous, because we feel superior to someone else, because we laugh at their misfortune and finally because of some release of built up emotions and energy.

[00:11:54] Before moving on to British humour, it’s worth pointing out briefly the difference between humour and laughing, because they are evidently not exactly the same.

[00:12:06] We laugh when we find something funny, but if we find something funny we don’t always laugh.

[00:12:12] There’s been a huge amount written on this, and the function that laughter plays, why we actually laugh in some humorous situations and why we don’t in others.

[00:12:23] One theory goes that laughter is a way of enhancing social connection, of bonding with others. When you share a joke with someone, and laugh at the same time, it’s an intimate experience that helps bring you both closer together. 

[00:12:40] Laughter is of course a social activity, and indeed there was a study from the University of Maryland that suggested that we laugh 30 times more in the company of others. 

[00:12:53] No doubt you experience this yourself - if you are watching a film, you are more likely to find yourself laughing out loud if you are with other people than if you are just watching it on your own.

[00:13:05] Meanwhile in a book called Phantoms in the Brain, which was written by a top neuroscientist and a New York Times science writer it was proposed that laughter is our way of indicating to people around us that there’s nothing to worry about. 

[00:13:22] As we heard through the Incongruity Theory, we laugh because we see something we don’t expect, and it’s exactly this laughter that signals to the group that this unexpected thing is nothing to worry about.

[00:13:37] So, these are some of the main theories about what makes us laugh, about what makes something funny.

[00:13:44] And I said that we would talk a little bit about the British sense of humour, so let’s end with that. 

[00:13:50] Again, if you want to know all about the British sense of humour, then you should listen to Episode 60, but here is a little taster.

[00:13:59] For those of you who have spent time in Britain, or who live in Britain, you’ll have noticed that British humour is particular, it’s very different to the humour in most other countries.

[00:14:11] Firstly, Brits love to laugh at themselves. We put ourselves down, we talk about how hopeless we are, we are very happy to laugh at our own misfortunes. That’s certainly a sort of humour that you would rarely find in somewhere like the US, for example.

[00:14:28]  If you watch any of the standup comedy of someone like Ricky Gervais, it’s full of him putting himself down.

[00:14:36] Secondly, Brits are masters of a type of joke delivery called deadpan

[00:14:44] In many other cultures it’s acceptable, or even expected for someone telling a joke that they get excited with their audience, and they laugh along with them. 

[00:14:55] In British humour, this isn’t generally considered funny, and instead the person telling the joke should remain completely calm, and deliver the punchline, the funny, incongruous part in exactly the same tone of voice as the rest of the joke.

[00:15:13] If you want to see some deadpan comedy in action, then you’ll see it in Monty Python or Blackadder.

[00:15:21] And our final part of British humour to mention is satire.

[00:15:25] Satire revolves around criticising people or ideas in a clever, funny way, especially people in positions of power.

[00:15:35] Brits love to laugh at people in positions of authority, and there are entire genres of British comedy based around laughing at prime ministers, government officials, and so on. 

[00:15:47] This type of humour can be explained partly through the Incongruity Theory and partly through the Superiority Theory - we expect people in positions of authority to be clever and without the same flaws as normal people. 

[00:16:03] But they aren’t.

[00:16:04] So we therefore feel surprised and superior.

[00:16:09] And if you are looking for satire, then you will enjoy things like Yes Minister, or the magazine Private Eye.

[00:16:17] Now, although this episode was meant to be about What Makes Us Laugh, it hasn’t been very funny. 

[00:16:23] So let’s at least try and do something about that, and end with a little joke along the theme of the English language.

[00:16:32] The teacher asks, "Alastair, what is the past participle of the verb to ring?"

[00:16:39] Alastair says, "What do you think it is, Sir?"

[00:16:43] The teacher replies, "I don't think, I KNOW!"

[00:16:47] Alastair replies, "I don't think I know either, Sir!"

[00:16:53] OK then, that is it for today's episode on What Makes Us Laugh.

[00:16:58] If you didn’t find it funny in the slightest, that’s ok, as long as you learnt something new.

[00:17:04] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:08] What makes you laugh? How is humour in your country and culture different? And of course, what’s your favourite joke?

[00:17:16] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:17:25] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:17:30] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode

[END OF PODCAST]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Humour, and What Makes Us Laugh.

[00:00:29] It’s a topic that we can all relate to, everyone laughs, it’s one of the things that separates humans from almost every other creature on the planet.

[00:00:39] Yet what actually makes us laugh is complicated, it’s not obvious, and we still don’t fully understand it.

[00:00:48] So, what we are going to do in today’s episode is talk about the science of laughter, of what actually happens when we laugh.

[00:00:57] We’ll then talk about the theories of humour, and laughter, and some of the ideas throughout the years about why people laugh.

[00:01:06] Then we’ll end by talking very briefly about the British sense of humour, which is certainly different. 

[00:01:12] If you do want to learn more about the British sense of humour then I would recommend checking out episode number 60, which is only on the British sense of humour. 

[00:01:22] That’s well worth a listen if you haven’t done so already.

[00:01:27] OK then, humour and laughter.

[00:01:30] It goes without saying that what we find funny, what makes us laugh, varies by age, culture, personality and thousands of different things. We are all different, and what I find funny might not be funny to you. Worse, it might be offensive, hard to understand, or just not funny at all.

[00:01:52] But regardless of who we are and where we come from, humans laugh, it’s an instinctive reaction. 

[00:01:59] Babies laugh way before they start making anything resembling speech, way before they start talking.

[00:02:06] People who are deaf, people who cannot hear, they laugh, even if they have never heard anyone else laughing.

[00:02:14] And we laugh, normally, because we find something funny. It’s not the only occasion that we laugh–indeed laughing in some cultures happens when someone is nervous or embarrassed, or you might see a James Bond villain laughing because they have just done something terribly evil.

[00:02:33] But for the most part, and in most Western cultures, we laugh when we find something funny, so that is going to be the focus of our attention today.

[00:02:44] So, we all know what a laugh sounds like. We all laugh in slightly different ways, but generally it’s a sound that comes from deep within us, that we don’t have full control over.

[00:02:56] Indeed, the part of the brain that controls laughter is located deep in an area of the brain called the subcortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for basic, instinctive, involuntary reflexes.

[00:03:13] This is one of the reasons that controlling laughter is hard. 

[00:03:18] Especially for young children, if they find something funny they struggle to control their laughter, even if they know it’s inappropriate, that they shouldn't be laughing. 

[00:03:29] It’s such a basic, instinctive reaction that it’s hard to control if our brain is telling us to laugh, and similarly it’s hard to convincingly fake, it’s hard to pretend to laugh, if our brains are telling us that we should be laughing.

[00:03:48] This instinctive nature of laughter, and of humour, has puzzled philosophers and psychologists since the dawn of time

[00:03:58] Why is something funny? 

[00:04:00] What makes someone laugh?

[00:04:03] For the ancient Greeks, humour and laughter often came from feeling superior, feeling better than other people.

[00:04:13] An example of an Ancient Greek joke was, apparently:

[00:04:18] “An idiot, wanting to go to sleep but not having a pillow, told his slave to set a jar, a container, under his head. The slave said that the jug was hard. The idiot told him to fill it with feathers.” 

[00:04:34] Hahahah.

[00:04:35] So, not so different to the sort of joke that we might tell each other today, right?

[00:04:41] And that’s one of the funny things about humour, it's that there are some inherently human consistencies about what makes us laugh.

[00:04:51] We might think that we are completely different to someone living in Ancient Rome 2000 years ago, or even someone now living in a completely different culture to us, but a lot of the same things make us laugh.

[00:05:06] A 15 month-old child is probably going to laugh at an adult falling over unexpectedly, whether that child is my child and is alive in 2021 in Europe, whether it's a child that lived 1000 years ago in the Amazon rainforest, or is a child that lived 5000 years ago in Ancient Egypt.

[00:05:29] As we grow up, our cultural environment might influence what we find funny, it might change what makes us laugh, but there are some theories about humour, about laughter, that are believed to be inherently human.

[00:05:45] And when it comes to the theory of humour, of what makes us laugh, there are three main theories.

[00:05:54] The first theory of humour, about what makes us laugh is called the Incongruity Theory.

[00:06:00] If something is incongruous, it means that it’s not in harmony with everything else, it’s in a place you wouldn’t expect it.

[00:06:10] And the Incongruity Theory suggests that one reason we find something funny is when something that we expect to happen is replaced by something unexpected.

[00:06:23] If you’re listening to someone telling a joke, you are following along with a story. Your own experience tells you what is likely to happen in that story, or at least informs you of a few possible scenarios. 

[00:06:39] But if something completely unexpected happens, it’s funny, and you laugh.

[00:06:46] The theory goes that it’s these two different thoughts that make us laugh, that we experience this mismatch between what we thought was going to happen and what actually happens, and that triggers this laughter reaction, or at least makes us think that something is funny.

[00:07:07] Here’s an example of this in action in a joke that I quite like..

[00:07:12] “There was a little boy who had never spoken a word in his entire life. One day, while having dinner, out of the blue he said, "The pasta is disgusting." When the parents heard what their son had just said, they looked at each other full of surprise, then turned to the boy and asked, "How come you never said anything before?" Their son replied, "Well, so far the food you’ve given me has been pretty good."

[00:07:41] So, hahah, maybe you found that funny, maybe you didn’t. 

[00:07:45] The point is that it’s unexpected, and the fact that we’re trying to reconcile our expectations about what we thought would happen with what actually does happen is what makes us laugh.

[00:07:59] Our second theory of humour is called the Superiority Theory.

[00:08:04] Now, if you feel superior to someone, you feel like you are above them, you’re better than them. And the Superiority Theory revolves around the idea of laughing at people, often unfortunately using stereotypes of nationality, where someone is from, age and so on.

[00:08:26] I’m sure this doesn’t need much more explanation, but when kids laugh at someone falling over, this is partly that they feel superior to the adult who has done something silly. When we laugh at someone doing something stupid in a joke, or suffering some kind of misfortune, it’s because we feel superior, so the theory goes at least.

[00:08:50] An interesting part of the superiority theory is the extent to which, culturally, our proximity to the event changes how funny it is considered. 

[00:09:02] What I mean by this is depending on the culture you come from, and the type of humour that is considered acceptable, people are more able to laugh about certain things if they are very removed from them, either in terms of geography or in terms of time, if they happened a long time ago.

[00:09:22] To give you a practical example, if there was some sort of tragic event, it’s very unlikely that it would ever be considered acceptable to laugh about it on the day that it happened, or shortly after. 

[00:09:37] But slowly slowly, as time went on, it might become acceptable in some cultures to use humour to talk about it, as a way of coping with it. 

[00:09:48] British humour is especially guilty of this, and you’ll find that people in Britain are likely to laugh about things that people in other countries would find very unacceptable.

[00:10:02] And the final of the three most prominent theories of humour is called The Relief Theory.

[00:10:10] The Relief Theory dates back to the 18th century, in 1709, and was written by an English Philosopher called Anthony Ashley-Cooper, otherwise known as the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury. It was later developed by Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century, but it actually comes from around 200 years earlier.

[00:10:34] The idea of The Relief Theory is that laughter allows us to release energy and pent-up emotions, emotions that we had been storing up inside us. 

[00:10:47] It’s been adapted a little bit since it was first proposed, but the general idea is that tension can be built up artificially by the story of a joke, or in a film or TV series, then there is a funny ending, where we laugh and release our emotions.

[00:11:06] It’s also the idea that we store up tension inside us, and if there’s a joke, often a rude joke it allows us to release this tension, and be relieved of this pressure.

[00:11:21] I should point out that most serious philosophers of humour, and theorists of laughter, tend to ignore The Relief Theory, but it still persists.

[00:11:32] So, these are three of the most common explanations for why we laugh - because we experience something unexpected, something incongruous, because we feel superior to someone else, because we laugh at their misfortune and finally because of some release of built up emotions and energy.

[00:11:54] Before moving on to British humour, it’s worth pointing out briefly the difference between humour and laughing, because they are evidently not exactly the same.

[00:12:06] We laugh when we find something funny, but if we find something funny we don’t always laugh.

[00:12:12] There’s been a huge amount written on this, and the function that laughter plays, why we actually laugh in some humorous situations and why we don’t in others.

[00:12:23] One theory goes that laughter is a way of enhancing social connection, of bonding with others. When you share a joke with someone, and laugh at the same time, it’s an intimate experience that helps bring you both closer together. 

[00:12:40] Laughter is of course a social activity, and indeed there was a study from the University of Maryland that suggested that we laugh 30 times more in the company of others. 

[00:12:53] No doubt you experience this yourself - if you are watching a film, you are more likely to find yourself laughing out loud if you are with other people than if you are just watching it on your own.

[00:13:05] Meanwhile in a book called Phantoms in the Brain, which was written by a top neuroscientist and a New York Times science writer it was proposed that laughter is our way of indicating to people around us that there’s nothing to worry about. 

[00:13:22] As we heard through the Incongruity Theory, we laugh because we see something we don’t expect, and it’s exactly this laughter that signals to the group that this unexpected thing is nothing to worry about.

[00:13:37] So, these are some of the main theories about what makes us laugh, about what makes something funny.

[00:13:44] And I said that we would talk a little bit about the British sense of humour, so let’s end with that. 

[00:13:50] Again, if you want to know all about the British sense of humour, then you should listen to Episode 60, but here is a little taster.

[00:13:59] For those of you who have spent time in Britain, or who live in Britain, you’ll have noticed that British humour is particular, it’s very different to the humour in most other countries.

[00:14:11] Firstly, Brits love to laugh at themselves. We put ourselves down, we talk about how hopeless we are, we are very happy to laugh at our own misfortunes. That’s certainly a sort of humour that you would rarely find in somewhere like the US, for example.

[00:14:28]  If you watch any of the standup comedy of someone like Ricky Gervais, it’s full of him putting himself down.

[00:14:36] Secondly, Brits are masters of a type of joke delivery called deadpan

[00:14:44] In many other cultures it’s acceptable, or even expected for someone telling a joke that they get excited with their audience, and they laugh along with them. 

[00:14:55] In British humour, this isn’t generally considered funny, and instead the person telling the joke should remain completely calm, and deliver the punchline, the funny, incongruous part in exactly the same tone of voice as the rest of the joke.

[00:15:13] If you want to see some deadpan comedy in action, then you’ll see it in Monty Python or Blackadder.

[00:15:21] And our final part of British humour to mention is satire.

[00:15:25] Satire revolves around criticising people or ideas in a clever, funny way, especially people in positions of power.

[00:15:35] Brits love to laugh at people in positions of authority, and there are entire genres of British comedy based around laughing at prime ministers, government officials, and so on. 

[00:15:47] This type of humour can be explained partly through the Incongruity Theory and partly through the Superiority Theory - we expect people in positions of authority to be clever and without the same flaws as normal people. 

[00:16:03] But they aren’t.

[00:16:04] So we therefore feel surprised and superior.

[00:16:09] And if you are looking for satire, then you will enjoy things like Yes Minister, or the magazine Private Eye.

[00:16:17] Now, although this episode was meant to be about What Makes Us Laugh, it hasn’t been very funny. 

[00:16:23] So let’s at least try and do something about that, and end with a little joke along the theme of the English language.

[00:16:32] The teacher asks, "Alastair, what is the past participle of the verb to ring?"

[00:16:39] Alastair says, "What do you think it is, Sir?"

[00:16:43] The teacher replies, "I don't think, I KNOW!"

[00:16:47] Alastair replies, "I don't think I know either, Sir!"

[00:16:53] OK then, that is it for today's episode on What Makes Us Laugh.

[00:16:58] If you didn’t find it funny in the slightest, that’s ok, as long as you learnt something new.

[00:17:04] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:08] What makes you laugh? How is humour in your country and culture different? And of course, what’s your favourite joke?

[00:17:16] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:17:25] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:17:30] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode

[END OF PODCAST]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Humour, and What Makes Us Laugh.

[00:00:29] It’s a topic that we can all relate to, everyone laughs, it’s one of the things that separates humans from almost every other creature on the planet.

[00:00:39] Yet what actually makes us laugh is complicated, it’s not obvious, and we still don’t fully understand it.

[00:00:48] So, what we are going to do in today’s episode is talk about the science of laughter, of what actually happens when we laugh.

[00:00:57] We’ll then talk about the theories of humour, and laughter, and some of the ideas throughout the years about why people laugh.

[00:01:06] Then we’ll end by talking very briefly about the British sense of humour, which is certainly different. 

[00:01:12] If you do want to learn more about the British sense of humour then I would recommend checking out episode number 60, which is only on the British sense of humour. 

[00:01:22] That’s well worth a listen if you haven’t done so already.

[00:01:27] OK then, humour and laughter.

[00:01:30] It goes without saying that what we find funny, what makes us laugh, varies by age, culture, personality and thousands of different things. We are all different, and what I find funny might not be funny to you. Worse, it might be offensive, hard to understand, or just not funny at all.

[00:01:52] But regardless of who we are and where we come from, humans laugh, it’s an instinctive reaction. 

[00:01:59] Babies laugh way before they start making anything resembling speech, way before they start talking.

[00:02:06] People who are deaf, people who cannot hear, they laugh, even if they have never heard anyone else laughing.

[00:02:14] And we laugh, normally, because we find something funny. It’s not the only occasion that we laugh–indeed laughing in some cultures happens when someone is nervous or embarrassed, or you might see a James Bond villain laughing because they have just done something terribly evil.

[00:02:33] But for the most part, and in most Western cultures, we laugh when we find something funny, so that is going to be the focus of our attention today.

[00:02:44] So, we all know what a laugh sounds like. We all laugh in slightly different ways, but generally it’s a sound that comes from deep within us, that we don’t have full control over.

[00:02:56] Indeed, the part of the brain that controls laughter is located deep in an area of the brain called the subcortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for basic, instinctive, involuntary reflexes.

[00:03:13] This is one of the reasons that controlling laughter is hard. 

[00:03:18] Especially for young children, if they find something funny they struggle to control their laughter, even if they know it’s inappropriate, that they shouldn't be laughing. 

[00:03:29] It’s such a basic, instinctive reaction that it’s hard to control if our brain is telling us to laugh, and similarly it’s hard to convincingly fake, it’s hard to pretend to laugh, if our brains are telling us that we should be laughing.

[00:03:48] This instinctive nature of laughter, and of humour, has puzzled philosophers and psychologists since the dawn of time

[00:03:58] Why is something funny? 

[00:04:00] What makes someone laugh?

[00:04:03] For the ancient Greeks, humour and laughter often came from feeling superior, feeling better than other people.

[00:04:13] An example of an Ancient Greek joke was, apparently:

[00:04:18] “An idiot, wanting to go to sleep but not having a pillow, told his slave to set a jar, a container, under his head. The slave said that the jug was hard. The idiot told him to fill it with feathers.” 

[00:04:34] Hahahah.

[00:04:35] So, not so different to the sort of joke that we might tell each other today, right?

[00:04:41] And that’s one of the funny things about humour, it's that there are some inherently human consistencies about what makes us laugh.

[00:04:51] We might think that we are completely different to someone living in Ancient Rome 2000 years ago, or even someone now living in a completely different culture to us, but a lot of the same things make us laugh.

[00:05:06] A 15 month-old child is probably going to laugh at an adult falling over unexpectedly, whether that child is my child and is alive in 2021 in Europe, whether it's a child that lived 1000 years ago in the Amazon rainforest, or is a child that lived 5000 years ago in Ancient Egypt.

[00:05:29] As we grow up, our cultural environment might influence what we find funny, it might change what makes us laugh, but there are some theories about humour, about laughter, that are believed to be inherently human.

[00:05:45] And when it comes to the theory of humour, of what makes us laugh, there are three main theories.

[00:05:54] The first theory of humour, about what makes us laugh is called the Incongruity Theory.

[00:06:00] If something is incongruous, it means that it’s not in harmony with everything else, it’s in a place you wouldn’t expect it.

[00:06:10] And the Incongruity Theory suggests that one reason we find something funny is when something that we expect to happen is replaced by something unexpected.

[00:06:23] If you’re listening to someone telling a joke, you are following along with a story. Your own experience tells you what is likely to happen in that story, or at least informs you of a few possible scenarios. 

[00:06:39] But if something completely unexpected happens, it’s funny, and you laugh.

[00:06:46] The theory goes that it’s these two different thoughts that make us laugh, that we experience this mismatch between what we thought was going to happen and what actually happens, and that triggers this laughter reaction, or at least makes us think that something is funny.

[00:07:07] Here’s an example of this in action in a joke that I quite like..

[00:07:12] “There was a little boy who had never spoken a word in his entire life. One day, while having dinner, out of the blue he said, "The pasta is disgusting." When the parents heard what their son had just said, they looked at each other full of surprise, then turned to the boy and asked, "How come you never said anything before?" Their son replied, "Well, so far the food you’ve given me has been pretty good."

[00:07:41] So, hahah, maybe you found that funny, maybe you didn’t. 

[00:07:45] The point is that it’s unexpected, and the fact that we’re trying to reconcile our expectations about what we thought would happen with what actually does happen is what makes us laugh.

[00:07:59] Our second theory of humour is called the Superiority Theory.

[00:08:04] Now, if you feel superior to someone, you feel like you are above them, you’re better than them. And the Superiority Theory revolves around the idea of laughing at people, often unfortunately using stereotypes of nationality, where someone is from, age and so on.

[00:08:26] I’m sure this doesn’t need much more explanation, but when kids laugh at someone falling over, this is partly that they feel superior to the adult who has done something silly. When we laugh at someone doing something stupid in a joke, or suffering some kind of misfortune, it’s because we feel superior, so the theory goes at least.

[00:08:50] An interesting part of the superiority theory is the extent to which, culturally, our proximity to the event changes how funny it is considered. 

[00:09:02] What I mean by this is depending on the culture you come from, and the type of humour that is considered acceptable, people are more able to laugh about certain things if they are very removed from them, either in terms of geography or in terms of time, if they happened a long time ago.

[00:09:22] To give you a practical example, if there was some sort of tragic event, it’s very unlikely that it would ever be considered acceptable to laugh about it on the day that it happened, or shortly after. 

[00:09:37] But slowly slowly, as time went on, it might become acceptable in some cultures to use humour to talk about it, as a way of coping with it. 

[00:09:48] British humour is especially guilty of this, and you’ll find that people in Britain are likely to laugh about things that people in other countries would find very unacceptable.

[00:10:02] And the final of the three most prominent theories of humour is called The Relief Theory.

[00:10:10] The Relief Theory dates back to the 18th century, in 1709, and was written by an English Philosopher called Anthony Ashley-Cooper, otherwise known as the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury. It was later developed by Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century, but it actually comes from around 200 years earlier.

[00:10:34] The idea of The Relief Theory is that laughter allows us to release energy and pent-up emotions, emotions that we had been storing up inside us. 

[00:10:47] It’s been adapted a little bit since it was first proposed, but the general idea is that tension can be built up artificially by the story of a joke, or in a film or TV series, then there is a funny ending, where we laugh and release our emotions.

[00:11:06] It’s also the idea that we store up tension inside us, and if there’s a joke, often a rude joke it allows us to release this tension, and be relieved of this pressure.

[00:11:21] I should point out that most serious philosophers of humour, and theorists of laughter, tend to ignore The Relief Theory, but it still persists.

[00:11:32] So, these are three of the most common explanations for why we laugh - because we experience something unexpected, something incongruous, because we feel superior to someone else, because we laugh at their misfortune and finally because of some release of built up emotions and energy.

[00:11:54] Before moving on to British humour, it’s worth pointing out briefly the difference between humour and laughing, because they are evidently not exactly the same.

[00:12:06] We laugh when we find something funny, but if we find something funny we don’t always laugh.

[00:12:12] There’s been a huge amount written on this, and the function that laughter plays, why we actually laugh in some humorous situations and why we don’t in others.

[00:12:23] One theory goes that laughter is a way of enhancing social connection, of bonding with others. When you share a joke with someone, and laugh at the same time, it’s an intimate experience that helps bring you both closer together. 

[00:12:40] Laughter is of course a social activity, and indeed there was a study from the University of Maryland that suggested that we laugh 30 times more in the company of others. 

[00:12:53] No doubt you experience this yourself - if you are watching a film, you are more likely to find yourself laughing out loud if you are with other people than if you are just watching it on your own.

[00:13:05] Meanwhile in a book called Phantoms in the Brain, which was written by a top neuroscientist and a New York Times science writer it was proposed that laughter is our way of indicating to people around us that there’s nothing to worry about. 

[00:13:22] As we heard through the Incongruity Theory, we laugh because we see something we don’t expect, and it’s exactly this laughter that signals to the group that this unexpected thing is nothing to worry about.

[00:13:37] So, these are some of the main theories about what makes us laugh, about what makes something funny.

[00:13:44] And I said that we would talk a little bit about the British sense of humour, so let’s end with that. 

[00:13:50] Again, if you want to know all about the British sense of humour, then you should listen to Episode 60, but here is a little taster.

[00:13:59] For those of you who have spent time in Britain, or who live in Britain, you’ll have noticed that British humour is particular, it’s very different to the humour in most other countries.

[00:14:11] Firstly, Brits love to laugh at themselves. We put ourselves down, we talk about how hopeless we are, we are very happy to laugh at our own misfortunes. That’s certainly a sort of humour that you would rarely find in somewhere like the US, for example.

[00:14:28]  If you watch any of the standup comedy of someone like Ricky Gervais, it’s full of him putting himself down.

[00:14:36] Secondly, Brits are masters of a type of joke delivery called deadpan

[00:14:44] In many other cultures it’s acceptable, or even expected for someone telling a joke that they get excited with their audience, and they laugh along with them. 

[00:14:55] In British humour, this isn’t generally considered funny, and instead the person telling the joke should remain completely calm, and deliver the punchline, the funny, incongruous part in exactly the same tone of voice as the rest of the joke.

[00:15:13] If you want to see some deadpan comedy in action, then you’ll see it in Monty Python or Blackadder.

[00:15:21] And our final part of British humour to mention is satire.

[00:15:25] Satire revolves around criticising people or ideas in a clever, funny way, especially people in positions of power.

[00:15:35] Brits love to laugh at people in positions of authority, and there are entire genres of British comedy based around laughing at prime ministers, government officials, and so on. 

[00:15:47] This type of humour can be explained partly through the Incongruity Theory and partly through the Superiority Theory - we expect people in positions of authority to be clever and without the same flaws as normal people. 

[00:16:03] But they aren’t.

[00:16:04] So we therefore feel surprised and superior.

[00:16:09] And if you are looking for satire, then you will enjoy things like Yes Minister, or the magazine Private Eye.

[00:16:17] Now, although this episode was meant to be about What Makes Us Laugh, it hasn’t been very funny. 

[00:16:23] So let’s at least try and do something about that, and end with a little joke along the theme of the English language.

[00:16:32] The teacher asks, "Alastair, what is the past participle of the verb to ring?"

[00:16:39] Alastair says, "What do you think it is, Sir?"

[00:16:43] The teacher replies, "I don't think, I KNOW!"

[00:16:47] Alastair replies, "I don't think I know either, Sir!"

[00:16:53] OK then, that is it for today's episode on What Makes Us Laugh.

[00:16:58] If you didn’t find it funny in the slightest, that’s ok, as long as you learnt something new.

[00:17:04] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:08] What makes you laugh? How is humour in your country and culture different? And of course, what’s your favourite joke?

[00:17:16] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:17:25] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:17:30] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode

[END OF PODCAST]