ivory towers tell us another one, Schopenhauer

William Hartston
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:31

Cedric Brown might be described as the Harvey Creosote of privatised fat-cats; Neil Kinnock may have been called the Icarus of political high- fliers; and Jeffrey Archer's novels have been called the McDonald's hamburgers of literature. But are any of these funny? Thanks to recent research into humour, we are now in a position to find out.

In their paper, entitled "What's so funny about that?: The domains-interaction approach as a model of incongruity and resolution in humour" (Motivation & Emotion, Vol 18 No 1, 1-29), TR Hillson and RA Martin report findings based on "jokes in the structure A is the B of A's domain".

Subjects were asked to rate 250 such jokes for humour and for the semantic difference between A and B. Humour ratings were found to correlate with incongruity (measured as the difference between the domains of A and B) but not with resolution (within-domain distance). The issue is, however, complicated by subjects' assessments of the aptness of the jokes as metaphors, which differed from their humour appreciation.

Further light is thrown on the topic by "Altered joke endings and a joke structure schema", by L Deckers and P Avery (Int J Humor Research, Vol 7 No 4, 313-321), which investigated what happens if you change the punch line of a joke. Since, according to one theory, a joke demands both incongruity and resolution, they should be found less funny if either of these components is absent. So the researchers decided to change the endings of jokes, either to provide a logical ending (eliminating incongruity) or an ending that was illogical even within the joke's original schema (no resolution).

The experiments showed that subjects found such jokes less funny than the originals, though totally illogical non-jokes were rated as less funny than logical non-jokes.

That last result, however, may have been a consequence of the choice of experimental subjects. For the appreciation of illogical jokes was shown, by Willibald Ruch and Franz-Josef Hehl ("Intolerance of ambiguity as a factor in the appreciation of humour", Personality & Individual Differences Vol 4, No 5) to be related to an individual's level of tolerance.

"Incongruity-resolution (IR) jokes and sex jokes contain incongruent (ambiguous) elements that are solvable while nonsense jokes remain unsolvable." The authors predicted that intolerant people, who are liable to demand solvability, would therefore prefer sex jokes to nonsense jokes. After a screening process to select 17 intolerant subjects and 16 tolerant ones from a pool of 143, the experiment continued by asking them all to rate 120 jokes as funny or not funny. The results confirmed the hypothesis.

None of this seems to work in Tamil, however ("Tamil jokes and the polythetic- prototype approach to humor", by GE Ferro-Luzzi; Int J Humor Research, Vol 3 No 2), where some jokes are reported to derive their fun from "heightened congruity or from the fusion of opposites rather than a switch between them".

We should not forget, however, that "humour works at a suprasentential level of language", a point discussed in: "Humor as defeated discourse expectations: Conversational exchange in a Monty Python text" (Int J Humor Research, Vol 3, No 3), where the authors provide "a useful descriptive tool in accounting for deviant discourse".

Schopenhauer's favourite joke, incidentally, was: "What is the angle between a circle and its tangent?" Schopenhauer: the Woody Allen of philosophy.

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