Scientists studying the brain mechanism responsible laughter and humor believe they’ve finally found the reason why some jokes make us laugh, and others don’t.
They say jokes that are direct and easy to follow are key ingredients for making people laugh.
Researchers (from Oxford University) studied the reaction of 55 undergraduates to 65 different jokes from an online compilation of the 101 funniest jokes of all time.
The majority of the jokes used in the study were produced by successful comedians.
Some were one-liners, others were longer and more complex and a third of the jokes were factual with reasonably undemanding observations of idiosyncrasies in the world.
Subjects were told to rate the jokes on a scale from one (not funny) to four (very funny).
Students found jokes that involved two characters and up to five back-and-forth levels of something known as ‘intentionality’ between the comedian and the audience to be the funniest.
For example, an adult can comprehend up to five such levels of intentionality before losing the plot of a too-complex story.
(Conversations that share facts normally involve only three such levels. Greater brain power is needed when people discuss the social behavior of others, because it requires them to think and rethink themselves into the shoes of others.)
According to the study, the best jokes are thought to build on a set of expectations and have a punchline to update the knowledge of the listener in an unexpected way.
Expectations that involve the thoughts or intentions of people other than the joke-teller or the audience, for example the characters in the joke, are harder to pin down.
Our natural ability to handle only a limited number of mindstates comes into play.
However, these findings do not suggest that humor is defined by how clever a joke is, but suggests that there is a limit to how complex its content can be to still be considered funny.
‘Increasing the mentalizing complexity of the joke improves the perceived quality, but only up to a certain point: stand-up comedians cannot afford to tell intricate jokes that leave their audience feeling as if they’ve missed the punchline.’
‘The task of professional comics is to elicit laughs as directly and as fast as possible. They generally do this most effectively when ensuring that they keep within the mental competence of the typical audience member.’
‘If they exceed these limits, the joke will not be perceived as funny.’