Why Is Funny? How America Lost Its Sense of Humor
Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Episode ‘The Puffy Shirt’ aired September 23, 1993, Season 5. 1990-1998 / Alamy Stock Photo.

Why Is Funny? How America Lost Its Sense of Humor

Robert Lynch
Robert Lynch
17 min read

If you grew up in Detroit in the ’70s, jokes were everywhere. Most of them were Polack jokes, which were so common that it wasn’t until middle school that I realized that not every joke had to involve a guy from Poland. Today, jokes have almost entirely disappeared from public contexts, and have become a discreet affair, reserved for trusted friends. Over my 15 years working at universities in the United States, I have never heard anyone tell a joke—not a corny pun or some stupid meme—but a real joke that actually made me laugh. You know, a funny one. Good jokes can be dangerous and the risk of getting in trouble is just too high. It might not be so bad if the prohibition against telling jokes and policing of humor was limited to scripted jokes but the problem seems to have bled into everyday social interactions. Last week, I was listening to my wife’s co-workers take turns reproaching all the selfish assholes walking around town without masks. I helpfully added that, although I appreciated that everyone else was wearing a mask, I didn’t like to, and had a doctor’s note excusing me by explaining that the straps hurt my ears. I don’t know if they understood that I meant this as a joke, or if they just thought it was in poor taste because my comment lacked a tears-of-joy emoji. I do know, however, that they all hate me now, and that one has even let my wife know that she is there for her if things are bad at home.

The dispute about the propriety of certain jokes is regularly rehashed every time a controversial comedian releases a special or someone tweets something deemed inappropriate. One side says that humor insidiously molds our attitudes and that we must vigilantly censor jokes that might offend in order to reduce prejudice and protect the powerless. The other bristles at any attempt to restrict free speech and contends that a millennial generation empowered by too many participation trophies has become too fragile to hear ideas that might upset them. For every self-righteous progressive seeking to expose sexists for what are often innocuous statements, there is another outraged conservative saying things that are blatantly sexist to honor and defend the first amendment right to offend. Because all of these arguments make basic assumptions about which jokes are funny and how humor shapes our beliefs, resolving them hinges on an understanding of the basic purpose of humor. This essay is about why we laugh and tell jokes and what happens when we lose this ability. Instead of asking what is funny—a question that is deeply personal and ultimately impossible to answer—we should be asking why is funny.

The superiority and incongruity theories of humor

The “superiority theory” was the earliest attempt to explain humor. This view, commonly attributed to Plato, argues that laughter is triggered when we express feelings of superiority over others. Although this hypothesis is rarely cited, it is the tacit justification for why offensive comedy should be forsaken and is characterized by opinion pieces explaining that punching down is never funny, ridiculing the non-privileged is just mean, or offensive humor is psychological abuse. An article in Harpers explains that “Punching at the less powerful is just cruelty.” Although the superiority theory can fit our intuitions about why people laugh, it is an illusion, and despite decades of research, it has received almost no empirical support. The problem is that the hypothesis is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of humor’s function. Jokes frequently have nothing to do with feeling better than others and there are many situations where feeling superior doesn’t lead to laughter. We can, for instance, feel better than dogs, squirrels, or insects without mocking their stupidity and the sight of someone who is homeless is more likely to induce pity than laughter. This is to say nothing of the countless variety of other situations that produce laughter but are unlikely to elicit feelings of superiority, such as witty comments, puns, or even being tickled.

Superiority theory is also inconsistent with what we know about the role of humor in disrupting, rather than perpetuating, hierarchies. Larry Wilde in his book Great Comedians Talk about Comedy says that almost all the comedians he interviewed shared a discomfort with status and hierarchy. Jerry Seinfeld expresses this view in a bit on why comics should never receive awards:

Your whole career as a comedian is about making fun of pretentious, high minded, self-congratulatory BS events like this one. The whole feeling in this room of reverence and honoring is the exact opposite of everything I have wanted my life to be about.

The power of humor, therefore, isn’t in preserving the status quo and current power structures, but in its ability to uncover truths that are often overlooked by those in power. My own research published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior shows that humor can reveal unconscious beliefs and insight into our own biases and those of others. In this way, comedy provides a way to poke holes in orthodoxy and reveals our blindspots. In this interpretation, comedians and jokes pose more of a threat to the “pretentious, high minded, self-congratulatory BS” handed down by cultural elites informing us that “punching down” is never funny, than it does to groups presumed to be powerless. It is also hard to know how much the guidelines prescribing what we are allowed to laugh at are being enforced by the finger wagging class and how many are actually buying it. Dave Chapelle’s scathing special Sticks and Stones, for example, received the maximum approval rating of 99 percent from viewers, 35 percent from critics and a stunning 0 percent from “Top Critics” on Rotten Tomatoes. This divide between the views of elites and everyone else about what is funny can breed resentment. Some have even attributed Trump’s election to many Americans coming to believe that they weren’t allowed to make jokes about anything anymore.

Some comics, like Chapelle, have dismissed criticisms about punching down on other grounds, arguing that some jokes, like those making fun of transsexuals, can help normalize them. My blind brother-in-law, for example, is irritated that comedians never make fun of blind people. Most people don’t really want to be that special or at least not so special that nobody is allowed to make fun of them. Teasing can serve a similar function and being the kid who is ignored rather than teased can be its own kind of hell. Key and Peele satirize this view in a sketch about a comedian working the crowd. The comic scans the room, in turn making fun of a fat guy, a European, and a girl with big tits, but then he comes upon a badly disfigured gay man in a wheelchair who speaks through a hole in his throat. An awkward silence follows as the man begs to be made fun of while the comedian desperately searches for an alternative target. The English philosopher Roger Scruton argued that ethnic jokes helped to normalize new immigrants to America by allowing Poles, Irish, Jews, and Italians to laugh off their differences. Being someone that nobody is allowed to tease also makes you especially vulnerable to the one asshole who never got the memo. In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb argues that some systems, including the human psyche, need shocks, stress, and uncertainty to properly develop. In this interpretation, teasing can build character and inner strength. None of this is to say that there isn’t a shameful history of some humor being used to humiliate, nor is it to argue that insults can’t be disguised as jokes. The tell, however, is whether or not it was meant to be funny. People are often better at determining another person’s intent than you might think, so a more charitable interpretation might even be able to distinguish between bad jokes and put-downs.

Confusion about a joke’s target is another reason that the superiority theory view that humor is an expression of power over others has been so difficult to upend. Not all jokes that involve black people are making fun of them—after Obama’s election in 2008 at the peak of the financial crisis, the Onion ran the headline: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.” Mistaking the subject of a joke for its target can also be magnified when you are the butt of your own joke. This type of self-deprecation can make it difficult to recognize the real mark, which also makes judgements about whether a joke is punching up, down, or sideways harder. At the end of one of our weekly anthropology department staff meetings, a colleague brought up the allegations against Anthony Weiner. Before I had the time to reconsider my stupidity, I blurted out “I mean, come on!!.. Who hasn’t sent a dick pic?!” I don’t know what I was expecting, but the whole table fell silent and I was actually afraid that I might get fired. To me, it was obvious that I was making fun of myself as being the kind of sleazebag who was so clueless that he didn’t realize that not all professors were into sending or receiving pictures of penises on their phones. But for some reason nobody laughed at my joke and I suspect that this was because they were confused and thought I was joking that sending a picture of your penis to random women on the Internet wasn’t such a big deal.

Confusion over humor’s target is likely to increase when jokes address sensitive subjects or are not understood by everyone. Larry David compares comedy to diving, saying that you get more points for degree of difficulty. Although writing a good Hitler joke might yield more laughs, it also increases the danger that someone will think you are making light of the Holocaust. This is exacerbated by the fact that humor relies on ambiguity. The more you explain a joke the less funny it becomes. As EB White noted, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” Flamson and Barrett confirmed this intuition in a 2008 study in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology by showing that making jokes more explicit made them less funny. One of the reasons this happens is that a joke often works like an encrypted code between sender and receiver where shared knowledge is required to understand or get it. This is the essence of the inside joke. If everyone got it, it would no longer be funny. But this is not just true of jokes, it’s true of nearly all communication of shared experiences. I have a joke where I play with the idea of insider knowledge by talking about my colleague in the anthropology department who I assume everyone already knows from his famous work on alternative mating strategies in the red-tufted lemur. I then go on to presume that the audience has all this inside baseball knowledge about various esoteric theories in biological anthropology and end with a punchline exposing my colleague for the fraud that he is for intimating that Homo Ergaster might be a descendant of Homo Heidelbergensis! Ha, what an idiot! The inherent and often necessary exclusivity of jokes can rub those who think that everybody needs to be in on every joke, lest they harm those who might feel left out, the wrong way. It’s also the reason why jokes that are so inclusive that they try to appeal to everyone, like America’s Funniest Home Videos, are both so popular and so predictably stupid (kid fell off his bicycle again, but don’t worry nobody got hurt).

But the real reason that we often don’t think that jokes are funny is not because we don’t understand them, but because they aren’t. Being funny, especially in front of strangers, is really hard. If you don’t think so, just go to any open mic and watch amateur comics awkwardly struggle through their sets, or better yet, just watch my first ever cringe-worthy performance at the Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan. Testing new material and failing—i.e. telling jokes that aren’t funny—is an integral part of the process of producing humor. Even a seasoned veteran like Seinfeld can spend 15 minutes on a single syllable to get a joke right and never knows if a joke will work until he tells it in front of a live audience. Good jokes evolve over months and years and the same material can bomb one night but then, after a few subtle tweaks, kill the next. They are always a work in progress and require critical feedback from an audience. This is not just true of standup; all humor works this way and we only get better at it by practicing it with others. Jokes involve risk and when we aren’t allowed to fail we stop telling them. This can impair everyone’s sense of humor and when jokes become rare we can be oblivious to when something is even intended to be a joke. Last spring, when it was our turn to take Gerry, our daughter’s class gerbil, home for the week, I asked her teacher if it came with a glue trap. She stared at me blankly for a second and then helpfully added “I don’t think so, but Gerry does have an exercise wheel.” Not finding my stupid joke funny is one thing, but not understanding that it was supposed to be a joke is another. Detecting humor is a talent and refining this skill depends on hearing it.

The best supported scientific explanation for why we laugh is called “incongruity theory” and the superiority theory is now considered by most humor researchers to be wildly implausible. Incongruity theory proposes that humor occurs when a contradiction violates our expectations. When identified, it alters our perspective and produces laughter. In the language of standup comedy, the set-up creates the expectation and the punchline violates it. The Onion often puts them both in a headline, such as “School Bully Not So Tough Since Being Molested.” This joke not only illustrates a key distinction between the superiority and incongruity theories, it also highlights the often subtle distinction between the subject and the target of a joke. While the superiority theory presumes that the joke is making fun of people who are either bullied or molested, incongruity theory suggests that the humor lies in the conflict, and surprising relationship, between being both a victim and a perpetrator at the same time. In the latter interpretation, the schoolyard bully is being restored to his rightful status by someone who holds the lowest rung in our society—the child molester. George Meyer, writer for The Simpsons, encapsulated incongruity theory when he said that appreciating humor is “like seeing in two dimensions and then opening the other eye or looking through a View-Master and suddenly seeing in three.” Research showing that humor can help to undermine cognitive biases, identify faulty logic, and detect mistaken reasoning lends support to this intuition.

My research with the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has shown that more self-deceptive people laugh less. This finding builds on incongruity theory and indicates that our ability to detect humor is inhibited when we lie to ourselves. Humor often involves identifying contradictions and revealing new perspectives, which suggests that the less you are in touch with reality, the less likely you are able to identify that something is amiss. This is because rational thought often depends on the ability to view a situation from multiple angles to get a less biased overview. If you are practicing self-deception and blocking out certain angles, however, you will fail to see the contradiction and therefore fail to enjoy the humor when these viewpoints are challenged. Leslie Savan, writing for the Nation, has speculated that Donald Trump is likely to be highly self-deceptive because he is almost never seen laughing. But what’s good for the goose is also good for those on the other side of the political spectrum, and I would make the same point about some of my colleagues in the cultural anthropology department whose apparent inability to detect any sort of humor gave me the idea for the study in the first place.

The evolutionary function of humor

A complete theory of humor, however, should take into account its evolutionary function. Evidence that other species laugh, such as chimpanzees and mice, supports a broader perspective and this requires an understanding of the adaptive problems humans faced in the distant past that appreciating humor solves. Using this framework, evolutionary biologists have converged on the view that laughter—the signal that we appreciate an attempt at humor—is, at its root, a response to play behavior. Play frequently involves mimicking aggression through fighting, stalking, hunting, or fleeing, all of which can be mistaken for aggression. Therefore stereotypical signals telegraphing that the behavior is not threatening have evolved and almost always precede mammalian play. Chimpanzees and human children, for example, laugh when they are being tickled or chased, and a study by the primatologist Takahisa Matsusaka showed that this laughter is a signal to the chaser that the interaction is not being perceived as threatening and that play can continue.

Understanding the role of humor in distinguishing between aggression and play is not only likely to shed light on its evolutionary function, it also offers profound insights into how they are connected. Because jokes are designed to feign aggression, and are therefore lame if they are too tame, it can be difficult and sometimes impossible, to disentangle them from real threats. These intricate relationships between humor, play behavior, and threats will often make the coincident demands for jokes to be both funny while offending no one impossible to achieve. A study analyzing the connection between the funniness and offensiveness of religious jokes concluded that being offended was too unpredictable to use as a basis for attempts to restrict aggressive humor. This leaves a choice—either increase our tolerance for humor we don’t like, or surrender to the rising demands for increasingly neutered, politically sanctioned jokes and accept the consequences. We can’t do both because humor’s mission is not the same as Hallmark cards and jokes aren’t lessons from the gender studies department. The prime directive is to be funny, not to repeat platitudes or promote an ideology.

If we do decide that certain types of jokes are simply no longer worth the risk, we should understand the costs. In addition to helping people cope with anxiety, embarrassment, grief, and even physical pain, humor provides ways for people to react to threats, setbacks, social blunders, misunderstandings, and a countless variety of other mild disturbances. Because humor is logic-chopping, it can also expose paradoxes and reveal hidden truths. My research shows that individuals laugh more in response to jokes that match their unconscious beliefs, which provides support for the folk wisdom that we find things funny because we think they are true. Laughter can also reduce tension and promote social bonds and build trust; across all cultures it is rated as one of the most important traits people look for in a mate. But perhaps the most important benefit humor can have for society today lies in its unparalleled ability to reduce tribalism. By undermining identity, easing tension, and promoting humility, humor encourages us to take ourselves and our ideas a little bit less seriously; it allows us to entertain the possibility that we might be wrong by forcing us to reckon with truths to which we are blind. Like a Geiger counter detecting radioactivity, my inability to laugh can alert me to another insidious and often invisible toxin—self-righteous indignation. Cultural critic Neil Postman saw humor as an antidote to fanaticism in his 1995 book The End of Education:

To be able to hold comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is the source of tolerance, openness, and, most important, a sense of humor, which is the greatest enemy of fanaticism.

In this way cultivating a sense of humor can be a spiritual practice, reminding us of our common humanity. By several measures, political polarization has reached levels not seen since the Civil War and jokes can offer some relief to the exhausting politicization of every conceivable issue. By realigning or disrupting group identities, humor can show people that human beings are defined by more than their political beliefs. Circumscribing the rules around humor in the midst of extraordinary divisiveness does not bode well for jokes being interpreted charitably or forgiving people for making mistakes. Just like comedians, we need to be given the latitude to test out new material. Humor is both complicated and demanding. It relies on ambiguity, insists on a nuanced understanding, can be exclusive, and requires forgiveness when it doesn’t land. Although these are difficult needs to satisfy, jokes offer much in return. Good jokes allow us to alter our perceptions, and by doing so often reveal our fundamental similarities by reminding us of one of the great spiritual principles—”There is no they!”

Whether we see jokes as threatening or playful will be determined by how we view their purpose. If humor is just another way to exert superiority, reinforce stereotypes, and denigrate the most vulnerable, then humor will be seen as a threat. If, on the other hand, humor is fundamentally about seeing reality more clearly, challenging dogmatism, and broadening our point of view, which is what most research suggests, then jokes will be seen as more benign and will also be funnier. Our perspective on this matters because we are the ones who decide what jokes mean, and when intent is obscure or impossible to determine, a more charitable interpretation is probably a good practice anyway. This doesn’t mean that jokes are never malicious. Nor does it mean that people will never gleefully mistake the subject of a joke for its target, or mistake a joke as an endorsement rather than a critique of some reprehensible notion. A more fundamental problem, however, is when people confuse what others think with what they think is funny. In his Netflix special FREEDUMB, Jim Jeffries addresses those in the media who he knows will view his jokes about Bill Cosby as expressing support of a convicted rapist: “This is not my opinion. Not something that I think. It is something that I think is funny. There is a big fucking difference between things that I think and things that I think are funny to say.” He follows with the punchline: “You know who never had someone protest their gigs because of his material… Bill Cosby!!” Which is not to say that a joke never reveals someone’s actual opinion, but assuming it always does is ridiculous.

Regardless of what you think is funny, circumscribing which material is appropriate is antithetical to the very notion of comedy. In order to be funny, jokes must offer up new ways of seeing things, and this often includes talking about things that push the limits of what is acceptable. When taboo topics are combined with our tendency to confuse a joke’s subject with its target, and our frequent inability to accurately distinguish between aggression and play, misunderstandings ensue. This is because understanding a joke frequently requires the humility to admit the possibility of error. Even if humor doesn’t always help us to question our beliefs, it almost certainly allows us to take them less seriously, and maybe this is enough.

The importance of tolerance

Perhaps the simplest reason why we should be more tolerant of humor is because not all of it is for us, and we don’t have to like all of it in order to benefit from it. I would rather watch a Caillou marathon than watch the terminally stupid and pretentious, NPR-approved, comedic stylings of the milquetoast Mike Birbiglia. I also hate George Lopez and the irritating and infantile Adam Sandler. But guess what? I don’t have to watch them. I also know that these comics are loved by millions of people who are all happier and better off being able to laugh at their insipid horseshit. And this makes me and my country better off too. At their best, jokes provide a way to broach difficult topics and allow us to see beyond our differences. They allow us to discuss things that are hard to talk about and unite us in a myriad of subtle and intricate ways. An America left only with politically sanctioned jokes is unlikely to have the effect that many might imagine. Rather than making the world less cruel, it is far more likely to ratchet up the outrage, make it harder for people to get along and even more difficult to talk about the issues that divide us. And it will do all of this without offering a badly needed relief valve for an increasingly smug and intolerant population.

Since the 1970s, Americans have become increasingly polarized, trapped in exhausting culture wars and, by most metrics, less happy. In 1960, four percent of Democrats and Republicans reported that they would be disappointed if their child married someone from the opposite political party. By 2018, these numbers had risen to 45 percent and 35 percent for Democrats and Republicans respectively. During this same period, measures of overall happiness and how much we trust and like each other have plummeted. Current surveys show that nearly half of Americans no longer feel free to speak their minds, a number that has tripled since the question was first asked 60 years ago. The reasons for these changes are a complex array of social, political, and cultural pressures, and our decreasing aptitude for telling jokes and detecting humor is more likely a consequence than a cause. But humor can also be an antivenom. It can help a diverse society filled with people who don’t often like each other much to relax more, take ourselves less seriously, and get along better. Being funny sometimes depends on bringing up topics that we’re most afraid to talk about. If we lose our ability to laugh about the difficult issues, I fear we may lose the courage to bring them up at all. Humor allows us, if only for a moment, to break out of our imprisoning identities in which any sign of nuance is a dog whistle. Jokes entail risk, because in order for them to work, they need to be a bit unsettling, and to get better at telling them we need to be allowed to fail. So people will get offended, and this will probably happen a lot. Still, the costs of letting others decide for us what we think is funny or appropriate are immense. Like all other play behavior, recognizing and evaluating jokes ourselves is crucial for navigating the social world, and it requires finesse. You have to learn how to do it—it’s part of growing up.

EntertainmentLong ReadTop Stories