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The Secrets of Humor, and Why We Need It

One writer’s journey into what makes funny funny, and why laughter is so good for us

It all began about six months ago in the San Francisco restaurant Fang, where I sat losing control of my bladder. The term “in stitches” fits best here, as I clung for dear life to the edge of the table—in a way I hadn’t done since my days at the kids’ table during family holidays—laughing in uncontrollable peals followed by noiseless, lung-flattening convulsions. People looked up from their noodles to locate the source of this great, still-vivid laugh: My childhood friend, Emily, across the table from me, calmly reading the text messages she had received earlier that day from her boss, who happened to have been trapped in an elevator at the time.

What was it about Emily’s story that made it so funny? Was it the story itself, with its tendrils of irony, which climaxed around the time the SFFD arrived with a ladder? Or her delivery: straight-faced, sparsely monotone, and perfectly timed? Or was it the fact that after three decades as best friends, I know Emily’s quirks and the intricacies of her mannerisms better than I know my own?

All of it, I’ve decided.

I can only think of a few things that feel as good as laughter, and ever since that cathartic dinner date, I’ve chased the feeling, like a lifeline tossed from a best friend, and plunged into a daily, self-administered IV drip of podcast interviews (WTF with Marc Maron), books, YouTube clips (Maria Bamford and everyone else), Netflix specials (Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra) and stand-up comedy rooms on both coasts.

As roast comic Jeff Ross said in a recent NPR interview: “Life is tough. And if we don’t laugh, our heads will explode.” So I began challenging myself to find something to laugh at every day. I’ll admit, it has taken the edge off the state of the world.

“My mother used to say, ‘If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry,’” says DNA, a comedian and comedy promoter whose ascent into stand-up comedy coincided with the loss of his parents, grandparents, brother, and every single aunt and uncle except for one—his now-102-year-old Aunt Dot—before the age of 30.

Unlike DNA, who began putting on comedy shows at the age of 5, I was born a melancholy child, and for those who can relate, it takes a concerted effort to take yourself (and life) a little less seriously. But if you were born without a funny bone, is it possible to implant one, later in life? The short answer, according to most humorists, is yes.

“A sense of humor is an attitude in how you approach your work and life. It is a skill that can be developed,” says award-winning humorist Jeanne Robertson. It’s a heartening message, and one repeated by the comics I interview, who promise “you can always get funnier.” Unfortunately, how to do such a thing is not so cut and dry. It involves trial and error, lots of stage time (if you’re a comedian), and being OK with the awkward silence of a joke missing its mark.

 

Laughter of the Apes

Found throughout the mammal world, and well-documented in primates and rats, laughter is a behavior that’s intertwined with our evolution as a species. In mammals, it’s associated with tickling, play, and, most relevantly, with interaction.

We are 30 times more likely to laugh when we are with other people, says Robert Provine, a neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, who also found that couples who laugh together report higher levels of satisfaction in their relationships, and stay together longer.

TILL IT HURTS The muscles between our ribs move air in and out of the lungs—and during laughter forcefully contract in a way that pushes air out. PHOTO: 'WHY WE LAUGH' TED TALK WITH SOPHIE SCOTT

TILL IT HURTS The muscles between our ribs move air in and out of the lungs—and during laughter forcefully contract in a way that pushes air out. PHOTO: ‘WHY WE LAUGH’ TED TALK WITH SOPHIE SCOTT

“You laugh [with people] to show that you understand them, that you agree with them, that you like them, that you might actually love them,” says Sophie Scott, a British neuroscientist who explores the differences between posed social laughter and “helpless, involuntary laughter” in her Ted Talk Why We Laugh. When we laugh together, we are accessing “an ancient evolutionary system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain social bonds,” says Scott.

That’s a powerful notion, but even more so when it’s applied to an unlikely population—like the inmates at Brazos County Jail in Texas, who had to behave well for a month in order to gain entry into Jeff Ross’s comedy performance there. “The women had not been spoken to as women in a long time, is what the jailers told me,” says Ross. “They’re spoken to as prisoners. We don’t humanize them. They don’t get to laugh like that, especially in a group. And I think it was cathartic for them, and that’s what they told me afterward, that the morale was really high.”

“I think that’s the release with comedy, that no matter what we’re talking about, you laugh communally as a group,” says DNA, who organizes local comedy shows through standupsantacruz.com. “And you can have two different dominant world paradigms, but you can still share in laughter, it’s just like music, it brings people together.”

 

Natural High

Laughter has been referred to as a medicine, or a drug, and in terms of its immediate effects—it is both. When we have a good laugh, our bodies respond in a most euphoric way: endorphins are released, blood pressure drops, stressful emotions are diffused, and our muscles relax for up to 45 minutes. It also causes the blood vessels in the heart to dilate—similar to what’s seen when we work out—which also reduces inflammation. In the long term, people with a strong sense of humor outlive those who don’t laugh as much, according to a study in Norway.

The list of positive effects of laughter continues, but I’ll end it here with the only effect I could find that comes remotely close to being negative: a good laugh interferes with talking and breathing. And yes, though it’s rare, death by laughter—usually resulting from asphyxiation or cardiac arrest—has been recorded, as in the case of 5th-century Greek painter Zeuxis, who is said to have died laughing at the way he painted Aphrodite, after the elderly woman who commissioned the piece insisted on modeling for it, too. (Personally, I can’t really think of a more joyful way to leave this world.)

One of my happiest childhood memories is of the kids’ table at family holidays. Not the table itself—a collapsible card-table addendum to the adult table, placed strategically close enough for intermittent disciplining and parental green bean countdowns, but not quite close enough to pop the magical bubble surrounding it—but what happened there. At the time, my older cousins were the most hilarious people I had ever hung out with; endless dispensaries of well-timed one-liners, dares, and an annual riffing on grandma’s jello and marshmallow dish that never seemed to get old. We laughed. A lot.

“Emotionally charged events like laughter trigger a dopamine release, which greatly aids memory and information processing,” writes biologist John Medina in his bestselling book Brain Rules. “You can think of it like a post-it note that reads ‘Remember this,’” writes David Nihill, in his book Do You Talk Funny?.

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It was at the kids’ table that I first experienced laughing so hard that milk spewed from my nostrils—something that not only ignited a high-decibel eruption of guffaws, but also a disapproving scowl from grandma. I’ll note here that it’s not really fair to scold children for laughing: genuine laughter, and any sort of bodily leakage that accompanies it, is completely involuntary.

“It’s almost like scaring somebody,” says Chad Opitz, a San Francisco-based comedian who got his start five years ago at the Blue Lagoon. “It’s also kind of based on surprise. It’s just an immediate response. If you tell a joke and no one laughs, it doesn’t work.”

It’s also contagious as hell—and Opitz describes audiences that he can tell just aren’t ready to laugh yet. “People don’t want to be the first ones to laugh. But if other people are laughing, they’re just more comfortable with it,” he says.

Interestingly, our capacity to discern genuine laughter from socially posed laughter doesn’t reach its peak until our late 30s and early 40s, says Scott, who thinks that laughter is less contagious as we age because we understand it better.

In the same way that laughter serves as a highlighter in our memories—including helping comics remember the bits that worked best on stage—it attracts us to others. Funny people are perceived to be more attractive. It’s a common characteristic of managers and considered a competitive advantage in the professional world. “All of the companies stuck in the old mindset that work is work and shouldn’t be fun are getting left in the dust by the companies who embrace a fundamental truth: their employees are humans, and humans respond to humor,” says Andrew Tarvin, the humorist behind the company Humor That Works.
In a world where 83 percent of Americans say they feel stressed at work, 55 percent are unsatisfied with their job, and 47 percent say they struggle to stay happy, Tarvin not only concludes that we could all benefit from more humor, he also puts a number on our present humor deficit: close to a trillion dollars in lost productivity and increased costs.


Harbingers of Humor

If laughter is a drug, then comedians are its prized dealers. Stand-up comedy rooms are like social petri dishes teeming with clues to humor’s innerworkings. Since at least 400 B.C, when cynics in Ancient Greece used the stage to tell the truth without censorship, comedians have risen to meet society’s craving for laughter—a job that even Will Ferrell has called “hard, lonely, and vicious.”

So I visit them—Santa Cruz’s decade-old Thursday night comedy open mic at the Blue Lagoon; the knock-out Cheaper Than Therapy room in San Francisco; the tightly packed basement of New York’s Comedy Cellar, where a two-drink minimum is militantly enforced.

But aside from a few promising theories—like using self deprecation to instantly get an audience on your side, or the ineffable

RISING STAR Chad Opitz performed at Streetlight Records in Santa Cruz during DNA's third annual Comedy Festival, which brought 100 comedians to 10 venues. PHOTO: ADAM FREIDIN

RISING STAR Chad Opitz performed at Streetlight Records in Santa Cruz during DNA’s third annual Comedy Festival, which brought 100 comedians to 10 venues. PHOTO: ADAM FREIDIN

variable of precise timing—I quickly realize there is no simple formula. Sure, there are techniques passed around—words with ‘K’ are supposedly funnier, placing the money-word at the end of a joke packs a better punch, and using callbacks keep the laugh going—but comedy is a space where the woosh of rules being thrown out the window is an exhilarating pastime. Every comic, unless they’re a lowly “joke thief,” is a completely different animal, with their own affect, charm, and set of talents. And that, really, is the beauty of it.

“You’re presenting your brain to people, your perspective, your viewpoint, and it’s no one else’s,” says Chad Opitz. “That’s why I got into comedy, so I could just do my own thing and not have to listen to anybody else.”
What all successful comedians seem to have in common is an unapologetically strong sense of self. “The first thing you need to do if you want to make yourself funnier,” says DNA, “is figure out what makes you laugh.” Indeed, footage of Richard Pryor shows that he is constantly cracking himself up. But I’ve also seen a 5-minute set by a girl who laughed a fake, incessant laugh through her entire act—which made me wonder if she was on drugs or just really nervous, and she didn’t hold the audience for very long. Other comics stay deadpan serious, or, in the words of Stephen Colbert, “hide their erection” while the audience laughs. Because, let’s face it, the euphoria of laughter is a two-way street: it feels good for all parties involved.

“Write a list. And if everything on there is like, funerals and horrible accidents, then you’re a really dark weirdo person—but that’s OK because there’s a lot of dark weirdo comedians,” says DNA. “It’s Shakespearean, be true to yourself.”

It’s the same reason you’ll notice some comedians revealing their most intimate details—like personality virtuoso Maria Bamford’s material around mental illness and her time spent in a mental institution—while others are better at telling jokes about “toasters and blenders,” says DNA. It’s whatever works for you, whatever feels right.

But comics don’t know if what they’re thinking or writing works on stage until they go on stage and test it. In the same way, several months of my own attempts to make co-workers laugh amounted to this rating by Jacob Pierce: “Yeah … I feel like you said something funny.” He’s a dry-humored guy, is what I like to think that means.

“It’s hard because you have ego dissolution,” says DNA. “Your entire sense of self collapses every night and you have to rebuild piece by piece—well, not every night, but every comedian has a bad night, even Will Ferrell.”

The only way to endure, it seems, is to maintain the ability to laugh at yourself. “If you can’t take a joke then you shouldn’t even try comedy,” says DNA. That’s something that came naturally to Opitz, an undeniable talent with a brilliant imagination, a shaggy, bearded appearance, and a long history of being the funny one.

“It was a defensive mechanism. I was the chubby kid,” he says of his childhood, spent constantly placing himself at the butt of jokes—an unbreakable persona he admits grew exhausting at times.

Keeping the Frog Alive

In 1941, E.B. White wrote in “Some Remarks on Humor” a statement that has over the years been boiled down to: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” But my own quest to explain what makes funny funny has not been entirely futile. It’s revealed a few tricks, a deepened awe for those who do it for a living, and some fascinating insights into laughter’s important role as an antidote to the human condition.
Across the board, humor seems to be less about one-liners and telling jokes, and more about making the choice to see the world in a different light—about accepting things about yourself that can’t be changed, and finding humor in situations around you, says Jeanne Robertson.

“Things happen on a daily basis that are really funny, but often people let the funny stuff around them get away—either because they don’t notice stuff that’s funny, or they don’t make it a priority to look for it,” writes David Nihill in Do You Talk Funny?.

Optiz and DNA, and surely all who devote their energies to bringing more laughter to the world, have made it a priority. Advertising is a rich area, says Opitz. But more often than not, it’s about finding levity in dark or difficult situations, often where people are angry—like traffic, says Opitz. Or a boss stuck in an elevator while a crowd of 300 shifts impatiently in their seats, waiting for her speech.

“Just try to smile at [those things]. There is so much you could get upset about,” Opitz says. “But I’m just going to chuckle at it.”

Through it all, the one thing I did not expect to find was this: there is no laugh like the one you have with (or at) someone you love. The ecstasy of such a laugh is, at least for me, impossible to recreate elsewhere.

Managing Editor at Good Times Newspaper |

The managing editor at Good Times, Maria Grusauskas writes the column Wellness, and also gravitates toward stories about earth science. She won a second-place award for environmental reporting in the 2015 CNPA contest. Her interests include humor, traveling without money, the human experience, swimiming slow, lazy laps at the gym pool and gardening for therapy. Her work has also appeared in Astronomy magazine, High Times magazine and on shareable.net.

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