Science Conclusively Determines The Best Kind Of Slapstick

There's an old adage about humor: Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. Nobody's that interested, and the frog dies. It turns out that some people really are that interested. Here's a quick experiment that tries to figure out, scientifically speaking, which sort of slapstick is funnier.


Frog Image: Ren West

Lambert Deckers and Debra Hricik wanted to find out if there was a specific kind of surprise that was funniest, and so they did an odd experiment. They asked volunteers to guess the weight of certain objects on a desk, then asked them to pick the objects up. The objects were either much lighter or much heavier than expected. (An apple could either be hollowed out to make it lighter, or hollowed out and weighted to make it heavier.) They noticed that people often smiled or laughed when they discovered the incongruity. Deckers and Hricik then refined the experiment, and found that, consistently and across genders and ages, people found heavier-than-expected objects much funnier than lighter-than-expected objects.

The focus of the experiment reminds me of stories about Mel Brooks, who would spend hours with his fellow comedy writers debating which of two things were inherently funnier — whether geese were funnier than ducks, or stoats were funnier than ferrets. Brooks even debated whether 1931 sounded funnier than 1934. (Personally, I think 1931 sounds funnier.) Although there's a lot that goes into making up a joke successful, Brooks thought certain things were inherently funnier than others. Looks like according this experiment, at least, he was right. Is there a reason why?

The scientists in the experiment believed that it was the level of 'arousal,' that heavier objects wrung from the participants. In psychological studies, unless the word "arousal" is accompanied by the word "sexual," it's just a general term for the strength of an emotional or physical response. Heavy objects require more response than light ones.

On the other hand, it could be another one of those odd cases of population-wide synesthesia. For some reason, the large majority of people tend to share irrational responses to certain things, believing that rounded shapes are more likely to carry the name "bouba" than "kiki" or believing that lemons are faster than prunes. Perhaps we have a kind of cultural synesthesia that makes us believe that heavy is funnier than light, and geese are funnier than ducks.


[Via Orienting and Humor Responses, Mel Brooks Understands Funny on a Deep Numberical Level.]


Shortly after I got married, my brother-in-law was helping us move and we had a collection of stone tiles that were a part of a coffee table, and the tiles were wrapped up and packed up. We told him, "hey could you pick up that container of towels?" and he tried with hilarious results. So I think it comes from the fact that it was harder to do, not easier—-to me, that's not really what I think of when I think of synesthesia.