Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The dirty secret of being funny

We sit on the cozy couch, watch soccer players or politicians, and we nudge our partner, “hey, I could do this too”. There are some professions though that we are less confident about, we probably would not climb the stage, make fun of ourselves, and enjoy being laughed at. Being a comedian seems to be more challenging than being a soccer player or a politician.
There is a number of theories about how humor works. Most of them have valid points, but they are interesting for serious academics only who study jokes without a smile and who can list an amazing amount of bad jokes in research papers on humor. If you really want to climb the stage and have a humorous performance, you will need a more easily applicable theory. My thoughts I am presenting here are based on the most widely accepted theory which says laughter is a mechanism by which psychological tension is released. My theory goes a step further and says revealing a secret causes relief in the audience.

Witnessing how a secret is revealed reduces stress. The dirty secret shared is something most of us share as well. We all want to see our dearest wife or husband dead in some rare moments (yes, I am looking at you in the second row, I bet you are no exception). We all have sexual fantasies that are outside the current cultural norms. And we are afraid facing those uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. When a comedian shares his or her secret, we can see the source of our deepest fear in daylight. It is less scary now, our fear gets reduced. Having a secret is not only scary, it makes us lonely too. We do not know about anyone else who hides the very same secret, we tend to think we are the only ones. Then we hear someone shares it in public, and boom, we realize we are not alone. We belong to the same group of others in the audience who sit silently or laughing which shows they were hiding it too. And we belong to the same group as the comedian. On top of that, the comedian has a higher rank, she is up on the stage, she is a more important and impactful person, she even gets paid for exposing herself. If she is hiding the secret, it is suddenly more acceptable for an Average Joe to have it too. This is why we love to sneak in the private lives of celebrities and learn they are the same fallible humans as we are.

When we sit in the audience and witness a secret revealed, it is even greater relief than in the privacy of our living room. It does not find us off-guard, we are prepared. The same joke we may find disgusting in another setting suddenly becomes hilarious, because we lowered our emotional shields. We came here to hear uncomfortable topics, we probably even paid for it. We are safe in the crowd, it is someone else who takes the risk. This is a watered down version of public execution that people loved to attend even a century ago. Not only is the risk taken by someone else, it is a greater risk from her perspective. The more people witness a behavior that does not fit the group norm, the more likely it is that the person is singled out by the group. The bigger the group, the more unpredictable its behavior. Frantic selling and buying of stocks that can lead to crashes are examples of the herd behavior even in modern times. But a successful punchline directs the audience to a different way. We just heard the secret and have not punished the person who shared it. Now we are together, we showed our fellows we accepted that questionable behavior, we actually laughed at it. We are privy; if you betray me, I will betray you.

The relief we experience is not completely passive, seeing an example of coping with a dirty secret improves our coping capabilities. The lesson we learn here is social rules around this taboo are not so strict. This guy on the stage just told a joke about masturbation and he is still alive, no thunderbolt came from the sky to teach him proper conduct, no stones were thrown at him by righteous members of the audience. The rules can be bent without those consequences we feared of. We learn it is possible to survive having this secret and sharing it with others. Our fantasy plays the most dreadful movie what would happen if we did the same. The guy not only survived it, he seems to be in control. It is not a forced public confession, it is not his conscience breaking loose and he cannot resist it. He knows what he is doing. Even more, he can make fun of the monster which is the highest form of being in control.

There are other ways of being funny, at least there are other theories. But sharing a weakness, a dirty secret with the audience works. It will reduce their stress, give them a relief, and encourage them to try it at home. Just don’t take yourself too seriously.

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