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The Science of Comedy

Analyzing humor can kill it dead. Jokes are exposed to their bare bones, comic timing is monitored like a heartbeat and there may or may not be an appendix in there somewhere. In Laughter, his book of essays on humor, Henri Bergson says that there is no comedy outside of what is exclusively human. Any analysis of comedy is an analysis of the human condition itself. It is the manipulation of the human, however, that brings forth laughter. Let’s see how dissecting comedy can bring it to life.

ComedyTo Bend Not Break
The banana peel slip is one of the oldest tricks in the book. This joke is only considered funny, however, until the person that falls is actually hurt. According to Bergson, laughter has no greater enemy than emotion. The second the audience feels any sympathy or pain for the character who has fallen, the joke is no longer funny. Comedian W.C. Fields explains, “If one comedian hits another over the head with a crowbar, the crowbar should bend, not break. In legitimate drama, the hero breaks his sword, and it is dramatic. In comedy, the sword bends, and stays bent.” The dehumanization of the characters’ physical bodies gives the audience enough distance to laugh. The opposite is also funny when animals or robots are given human qualities.

Another form of dehumanization—and thus, distancing of emotions—is when humans act in mechanical ways. Plainly, repetition is funny. As Carol Burnett says, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” A change in that repetition is even funnier. Wile E. Coyote’s third fall is intensified if he’s already fallen twice before. This is where stand-up comedians’ and sitcom writers’ “rule of three” comes from.

MallotManipulation of Scale
Sometimes pain can be funny if it’s not on a human scale. Mel Brooks says, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when I fall into an open sewer and die.” Brooks’ explanation is the perfect example of finding humor through a manipulation of scale. The more exaggerated the comic object is, the less sympathy it evokes. This is why exaggerated physical features are funny as well, such as the over the top faces of Lucille Ball in zany situations from I Love Lucy.

The Irrational
It’s funny because it’s true! Exaggerated or distanced objects may be comical, but there is also humor in the exaggeratedly human. Sigmund Freud described humor as a cathartic expression of repressed ideas. Certain jokes are funny because they provide an outlet for repressed urges and desires. The anarchic screaming of Lewis Black, the nonsensical wordplay of the Marx Brothers and the neurotic humor of Woody Allen all stem from Freud’s theory of the repressed unconscious. Another way suppressed emotions are worked out through comedy is through impersonation, such as imitations of your angry boss or family member.

The Comic Life-Force
All forms of comedy come down to a celebration of life. At the end of all of the comedies by Shakespeare or Plautus, characters end up married and society returns to a state of happiness and comfort. Falstaff at home in the tavern embodies the comic spirit. Pseudolus makes us laugh because he is constantly trying to find his own happiness and freedom. Bottom returns to his fully-human form. The dissection of comedy is an unveiling of life, not death.

Garrett Anderson is STC’s 2013-2014 Artistic Fellow. He has interned with Victory Gardens
Theater in Chicago and Bret Adams Talent Agency in New York. Garrett holds a B.A. in
Theatre Arts from The University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.

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