Humor Series: Funny to Whom?

funny-old-lady-smoking

Have you heard this one?

Three Humor Science researchers walk into a bar. ….um. Wait. That won’t work. Let me start over.

Get a scientist to talk about humor studies and you get a quick reminder of how science can squeeze the life out of anything.

Dissection is destructive. But no more!

It’s time to find out in a better way:

1. What do people find funny and why?

2. How can YOU become more humorously winsome?

3. How can science and an understanding of human nature and spirituality help us find out?

That’s what this series will be about, and I promise that it won’t be as dull as it’s been when scientists have the mic.

If it’s successful, a long form project will go a lot further and get a lot funnier. That’s up to you.


 

Here’s the story of how it all started:

A friend of mine asked me to speak at a senior residential home on the topic of community. No problem. I speak at plenty of places on plenty of topics. I wrote my bullet points and picked out an outfit…and then things went bad.

The problem?
I didn’t know she was billing me as “hilarious”.

I found that part out only a few days beforehand. I went into a quiet panic. The kind where your hands get clammy and your sweat smells like bad coffee. You run out of TUMS at times like this.

I’d planned on being friendly and informative, not uproarious. I was going to present material and involve them in cute bonding activities, not split their sides in gales of laughter. My friend had been walking around assuring residents that I was the funniest thing going.

Now what?

Maybe, I could stick a joke in there somewhere:

“Have you ever peed your pants laughing? What a silly question–you’re old people. You peed your pants getting out of bed today. Is bladder incontinence a laughing matter? …Depends.”

Depends is right. This wasn’t going to work.

What if they hated me?  Some of them are in chronic pain. Some are grouchy. Some have little patience for sassy youngsters. These people carry canes and some smell like pee.

I could get the beating of my life! And I would deserve it.


 

The terror of bombing at the place drove me to research the topic of humor scientifically.

My purpose was to help these folks have a good time, not offend them.

What resulted was a quest and many discoveries. I had to find out if funniness can be learned, if public speaking can be improved with a formula, if laughter can be predicted, and if old people laugh at jokes about physical deterioration and, if so, under what conditions.

Well, it turns out the last bit is sort of tricky. More on that in future material.

 

On getting funnier

My research dug up a very good find and it might help you too:

One of the ways almost anyone can get funnier to more people is to appear harmless more broadly.

Does that seem counter-intuitive?
Yes, there are foul-mouthed, raunchy comics aplenty and seem to get lots of laughs, but they are not typically funny to the greatest numbers of people compared to plenty of other things (pies in the face, mistaken identity antics, prat falls, kittens jumping in surprise), and there is a scientific reason why.

What more people (on average) actually find funny hinges on giving them something that is funny at a further comedic distance. This explains why Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, and Bill Cosby (before all that drugging women stuff was found out) have huge followings and continued success, and Roseanne Barr gets more annoying as time goes by.

 

What is Comedic Distance?

Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.

-Mel Brooks

In this quote, Mel Brooks underscores what humor researchers are finding empirically true. Distance matters a lot.

If your child falls off the playground slide and bangs himself up, it’s scary. If some man in a cowboy hat suddenly gets kicked in the crotch by an aggressive llama, it’s laughable.

The Kitten vs. Stern Proof

This is why videos of kittens doing silly things trump in spades the popularity of Howard Stern and his radio show antics. The hoards of memes, shares, and overall fans of funny kitten videos means that invariably, kittens kick Howard’s butt. Big time. Kittens won’t squash your dearly held values. Kittens won’t say something gross about bodily fluids. (Kittens are not funny to everyone, but they are funnier on the whole than a raunchy DJ or vulgar comedian. No contest.)

The difference between kittens and Howard Stern is this: Something “dangerous” isn’t personally threatening when kittens are involved.

Comedic distance (whether physical, chronological, or emotional) creates an amusing incident. The surprise pays off and people are thusly amused. If not, that you can get booed.

For me, I played off that my normal Thursday afternoons are spend with prison inmates and that I was REALLY happy for the upgrade.

I was then heckled by a woman who said,

“Don’t be so sure.” (She has it in for a few of her neighbors. It’s been ugly.)

To which I replied, “Well, you are all much better dressed.”

Resounding laughter. A win!


So, see if you can figure out why the photo above is funny (to most people)?

Answer:
The woman has made it to 100 years old and she’s done it her way.
Sure, smoking is dangerous, but apparently not much, in her case.

Having fun?

I hope you are enjoying this series.

Do you have questions about humor theory or getting funnier?
Let me know.

xo

-Lisa

Here are the previous articles in this series:

1. Finding things funny…from birth

2. Humor Studies: Step 1 – Tickle Rats

For the latest info on my humor related projects sign up here.

Are you using a GPS? (advice to communicators and startups)

We tend to think that we operate out of our values as if it’s like a default setting on a washing machine.

 

The truth is, at best, we are consistent at that stuff only sometimes. Not because we are horrid cads, but because we get busy.

If you are a person of faith or want to live from a set of important values, you can’t take this modus operandi for granted.

You have to do some groundwork. (I’ll get to specifics in a moment.)

First, the short story of Jackie will help us out.

taxes

Jackie is tax consultant. She had worked for a national brand firm in town and was striking it out on her own–almost by accident and not all at once.

It started when she kept noticing that some of her friends and family members didn’t know what they were doing. In a panic, usually at the end of March, they started asking her for help. Most of them didn’t know enough to get the best refund, and she heated the idea of that.

She picked up some side work, and within two tax seasons she had herself completely booked at tax time. About 20% of those clients needed accounting help throughout the year for their small business. She also found a few non profits clients too. She really needed help by the third year and had left her other job by then.

Like you would expect, she hired help and plunged into her work.

I didn’t put too much weight into the particulars of hiring. I was so busy with the details of getting the work done. So, the most important thing got steamrolled by the urgency of my work.

Things started going badly.

Out of the 3 part-time workers, only one of them actually had the same values as she did. She realized this too late and it created friction and a tense working environment. One person left and started bad-mouthing her in her small town. The other position seemed like a revolving door of employee turnover. She almost quit the whole thing. It was keeping her up a lot at night.

Jackie didn’t have Human Resources Training or organizational management training. She just had a bunch of work and she was good at those skills. She needed to clone herself.

It didn’t come to that, of course.

Fortunately, a mentor gave her some great advice. She said,

Back up a bit. Sit down and put your most important values and business aims down with ink on paper. It’ll work like a compass or GSP. It will help with both the route and destination.

It worked. Her commitment statements guided all her business decisions after that. Hiring, training, working with clients, getting new clients, and getting her little company running smoothly needed that solid foundation.

It’s a great lesson. If you aren’t using a GPS you’re going to get lost.

Before you take on side work. Before you hire someone. And most importantly, before you get busy, do the ground work so that your priorities and core guiding principles are something that flow out and throughout all your interactions, not get tacked on afterword.

If you value honesty, joy, compassion, and persistence, for instance, make them the anchor for all the skills you execute and all the projects you take on.

Have you initiated your GPS? Do you have your guiding principles on paper and operate from them?

I hope that was helpful.
Do you know someone who might need this advice?

Please share!

Something about a Labyrinth and Surprises

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This time the weather was the coldest I’ve ever experienced in Wernersville. Until now, my times of retreat at the Spiritual Retreat Center were during Spring or Summer.

Stripped of leaves, color, and warm weather, the place seems monochromatic outdoors, but is still restful and precious to me. There are many prayer room options, a beautiful chapel, plus rooms for things like creating art, music, reading, or for meeting with others. Each place seems to wait for your arrival. Anyone can go there for the day without notice. I love that about it. That’s true hospitality. You are always received and welcome. You don’t need to be Catholic either. God is there in a special way and it’s a sacred place created solely for the purpose of divine communion and renewal. To me, that sounds just like Heaven.

Unless you get run over by a jet-powered lawn mower, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The Center has recently added a prayer labyrinth (shown above). Many people aren’t familiar with labyrinths–their purpose or their gifts. They create the opportunity for reflection and spiritual awareness. Some (Evangelical) Christians bristle at the copious statues, candles, prayer mazes, and other unfamiliarities about a Catholic environment. I suppose I’m post-Evangelical: the richness of the Christian history and the solidifying sense of the sacred draws me toward the transcendent in a place like this. Every time in an unexpected way.

That’s what happens when you go there. You find God. You find God at the center. The center of you…in your core where he’s always been, because he’s everywhere-present and boundless in love. He’s been whispering things of love to you and smiling but you thought it was just bad pizza leftovers or something you made up to make yourself feel better.

Life is like a puzzle. A labyrinth is a puzzle. It’s a tool too. You can study a labyrinth before you walk the path through it, but while you are walking through studying it can make it far more confusing. Usually, you stop being stupid and cease trying to decipher the pattern precisely and just follow it like a child might do. This way, a labyrinth can be a lovely stilling and spiritual experience, not because of its own woo woo mystical powers (it doesn’t have that), but because it invites a traveller to concentrate and focus–to place her steps carefully. Most importantly, it forces one to slow down.

We don’t realize how fast our thoughts buzz until we get these sorts of opportunities to be careful. If you walk a labyrinth things mentally wind down and simplify to, “Stay on the path. Follow this narrow way. Pay attention.” Some enjoy walking very slowly and praying as their heart grows hushed.

Searching for the puzzle
I saw a photo of this newly constructed prayer walk inside the Center and I started to search for it outside. It was actually in plain sight but I hadn’t been looking for it, so I didn’t see it. (In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this true story doubles as an allegory.)

When I spotted it, a man driving a zero turn radius lawn mower was zipping and roaring around it, back and forth; expertly, but fast enough for me to wonder about his judgement. Crisp leaves shot into the air and the wind whipped them into little showers of bullets.

“That won’t work,” I said. “What am I suppose do? Have a peaceful prayer time as Zippy here shoots me with leaves and the mower engine drives me to distraction?” I crossed past the paved puzzle a small stretch to a gazebo with park benches set in a circle.

It was still noisy there, but the mower sounded duller. I would wait him out. I tried to settle my mind. Maybe I could do some warm-up praying. No. My thoughts swam. “Who’s Zippy now?” I thought.

Instead of waiting, I went on a short walk in the wood nearby over a little ridge. The path looked to have been crudely bulldozed recently and massive tree parts and 4 inch thick vines were crammed in piles. It was other-worldly–so many thickets covering whole sections like umbrellas, even though most of their foliage was missing. Surreal yellow leaves on the ground seemed day-glow bright. I felt like a zombie putting one foot in front of the other as I made my way around the wet earth and wild terrain. The humming mower served as a beacon to orient me. It was comforting and ironic.

Then a church bell snapped me back. It chimed 11, and I recalled how church bells were auditory calls to prayer and attention. It felt like a call to go home…to something. I immediately wanted to get my bag from the gazebo and look at the church more carefully in a peaceful and maybe prayerful environment. I managed a shortcut straight up a bank after a brief bout with prickly plants. I got my things and trekked toward the church. When I got there, guess who was on the grounds too? Zippy, or some other diligent lawn guardian, was tooling around the church grounds. The noise was worse now because it was bouncing off the stone structure and echoing off the parking lot asphalt.

I decided to double back and sit on a bench near a garden path that featured the Stations of the Cross. (If you’re wondering about the Stations of the Cross, visit again soon, because I’ll be detailing that in a future post.) I munched on some snacks, journaled a few things, prayed some (kinda-sorta), and enjoyed a few sunbeams that momentarily bested the clouds. It felt nice to be there, but, then I started to feel really cold. My nose had a ice cube quality and the sun had ditched me.

I headed toward the large main building. An ancient woman was being rolled toward the main entrance in a wheelchair. Rather than getting in their way, I decided to walk through the covered colonnade and flank out to the door on the right. I passed the prayer garden on my left. It was filled with statues, fountains, and newly manicured hedges and remembered how pretty it had been in full bloom that Spring. It was much warmer then too. I was getting colder by the second. But, then I got to the door–relief.

Except that it was locked. The metal handle sent a shiver to my backbone straight through my arm. But, “No matter,” I said to myself. I’ll just continue around the building and try the next door just around the corner. There are probably no fewer than 25 exit doors to the place. I’ve exited a number of them and try to find a new one to some surprise new part of the grounds whenever possible. It’s all part of the fun.

No. Locked too. Things were getting interesting.

It turns out that there’s just one way into the place. There are plenty of ways to exit outdoors, but the main entrance is referenced on each locked door. I came to this realization by the 5th door. I’m not sure if the cold was my dulling my mind or if I was too distracted laughing to myself. I had just realized I was literally following a footpath around the structure. It wasn’t just  a path but a puzzle. I could have turned back and saved myself a lengthy walk, but I thought, “Oh! Okay God, this is the labyrinth you wanted me to take.”

Then out loud I said, “Stop being so funny.” At that exact moment, a black helicopter hummed overhead and I briefly thought the things were going to end in waterboarding or an unpleasant government website experience and arbitrary fees. Maybe, I was on the psycho path. I pushed my icy hands into my coat pockets, stopped trying to open locked doors, and made my way counter-clockwise to the main entrance–the long way around. This was probably the intended journey in the first place so I might learn something. I was starting to pay attention. Finally.

No, it wasn’t the labyrinth I set out to do. It wasn’t the one I picked to walk or the one studied as I walked by with Zippy swinging his mower wildly nearby, but eventually it would get me inside if I kept going around and circled the place.

As I got most of the way around the complex I could smell lunch cooking from the kitchen. “The kitchen help probably don’t have to go through the main entrance,” I thought. (It was my first useful notion all day.)

Sure enough: I spotted an inconspicuous point of entry, sheltered with an overhang and a coffee can full of sand and cigarette butts sitting outside the door. Maybe it would be open. It was. As I pull the door a blast of warmness greeted me and behind it the smell of comfort food. I was back. I had almost gone full circle, but I had an insiders’ access point to put things to rights.

Just before I left the place for home I took my friend–who had carpooled with me there that morning–to see the new prayer puzzle up close. I walked through slowly but it wasn’t prayerfully. The symbolism had already done its job. I was just canvasing the design and saying my goodbyes. I got to the center of the circle and I knew I was ready to leave for home.

I did a little spin with my arms out because I think if it was a movie that’s what would have happened right at the point, and then I stepped straight through the center to get back out.

The surprise is that you don’t get to ever really pick your own labyrinth. It is picked for you. You can decide how to walk it and how meaningful it will be. You can be frustrated by it and worry about the turns or you can slow down, put one foot after the other, and get to the center. Then you’ll be home.

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