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An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar And Asks, 'Why Is This Joke Funny?'

It's Saturday night at the Metropolitan Room, a comedy club in New York City. Host Jimmy Failla is warming up the crowd.

"Where you guys from?" he asks one group in the audience. "Boston? Home of the Red Sox. Personally, we'd prefer you rooted for the Taliban!"

There are 50 or 60 people in the audience, sipping cocktails. Failla has a system. He asks people where they're from. Most are locals. He then hits them with something they can relate to.

"When you drive in New York, this is the only city in the world where you signal after you've already made it into the next lane," Failla quips. "Anywhere else in the world you want to go left, you put on your blinker like, 'Hey, I'm going left.' But if you do that here, they block you. So instead you gotta go left and [then] put on your blinker like [you're saying], 'Ha, ha! I made it!' "

There's a man at one of the tables in the darkened room. Robert Lynch is a local. He's here because he loves comedy. But he's also here because he's a researcher who studies why people laugh.

"It was interesting to me to try to deconstruct a joke and find out what it is that was making people laugh," says Lynch, about why he decided to study humor. He's currently finishing his doctoral degree at Rutgers University.

Laughter turns out to be very interesting from a scientific perspective. People in all cultures laugh; the instinct for humor seems built-in, like the potential for language or the ability to see.

In all likelihood, this means our ability to laugh came about through evolution; a sense of humor must have given our ancestors a functional advantage. Lynch wants to understand what that advantage is: He wants to know why humor evolved.

As Lynch listens to the comics at the Metropolitan, he does two things. He listens to the jokes, but he also observes how the audience reacts.

Take this joke, for instance.

"In college I had a job interview with a guy who date-raped a friend of mine," says comic Jena Friedman. "Very awkward job interview. I thought I nailed it. But I never heard from him. So I waited the two weeks, gave him a call, I was like, 'Hey, did I get the job?' And he said, 'No.' So the next day I showed up, 8 a.m. sharp, ready to go. He's like, 'What are you doing here?' So I said, 'I'm sorry, I thought no meant yes.' "

Lynch believes your reaction to that joke not only says something about whether the joke worked, but something about you.

He recently conducted an experiment that proves this. He had volunteers listen to an edgy, stand-up comic named Bill Burr.

"He has a joke about why men make more money than women for doing the exact some job," Lynch says. "The punchline is, 'I'll tell you why. In the unlikely case we are both on the Titanic and it starts to sink, you get to leave with the kids and I get to stay. So call it a dollar-an-hour surcharge.'"

Lynch also gave the volunteers a psychological test that measured their unconscious gender attitudes. What he found was that volunteers with traditional gender views — people who believed women ought to stay home, rather than go to work — laughed harder at that joke than volunteers with more progressive views.

"People's implicit beliefs, unconscious beliefs and preferences, matched what they found funny," Lynch says.

If I'm writing a joke, often what I do is I look at things that I think are true, that people tend not to admit to, or maybe reluctant to admit to, including myself.

A joke, in other words, is like a little brain scan: When we laugh, we reveal what's inside us.

Lynch thinks evolution may have hardwired a sense of humor into our species because laughter serves as a signal. When you and I laugh at the same joke, we signal to each other that we share the same values, the same beliefs. This may be why people all over the world want friends and romantic partners who share their sense of humor.

In another experiment, Lynch sought to understand the connection between laughter and the psychological trait of self-deception.

Self-deceivers are people who don't see their own values, motives and beliefs clearly.

"I simply gave people a self-deception test and measured their facial expressions in response to a stand-up comedian," he says. "And there was a very strong association between the two."

Self-deceivers were less likely to laugh.

It made sense to Lynch: You laugh when a joke resonates with your inner values and beliefs. If you're out of touch with your own values and beliefs — as self-deceivers are — you're less likely to find jokes funny.

Now, if you're a normal academic, and you make an interesting finding, you publish your paper in a scientific journal and move on.

But for Lynch, that wasn't enough. That's because he has a second life — as a comedian.

At the Metropoloitan, Lynch goes up on stage and introduces himself as an anthropologist. Through much of his set, he keeps building up and dashing the audience's expectations of an academic scholar.

"I work with this guy named Marvin Feldstein," Lynch deadpans. "And you all know him from his famous work on alternative mating strategies in the red-tufted lemur. But the other day I'm chatting with Marv in the hallway, and he's saying, you know, Homo ergaster is the direct descendant of Homo erectus. You know how it goes, right? And I say, "listen, Marv, everybody knows that Homo heidelburgensis is the direct ancestor of ergaster. Alright. That's the kind of s- - - I have to deal with..."

Lynch tells me that doing stand-up helps his anthropology research. And understanding the science of humor helps him as a comic.

Take the study on why people laugh. If a joke works when it strikes a chord inside people, that's like having a scientific roadmap to writing comedy.

"If I'm writing a joke, often what I do is I look at things that I think are true, that people tend not to admit to, or maybe reluctant to admit to, including myself," he says.

Doing stand-up also gives Lynch the kind of real-time feedback on his academic theories that peer-reviewed journal studies don't.

"There's nothing like stand-up comedy where you are being judged every 5 seconds," he says. "If you are not getting laughs, it becomes very awkward. The first time I went up, I had to give a minute of material and no one was laughing and I noticed that my leg was shaking."

At Rutgers, Lynch says, he can lecture to students for an hour without breaking a sweat. But a comedy club is a different animal.

"There's been stuff that I thought would be great that's absolutely bombed," he says about his forays in amateur stand-up comedy. "I've had some total disasters in the East Village with a very hip audience — with just utter silence for three minutes while I was doing my routine. Originally, I was upset with the audience — I thought they're a bunch of idiots."

But after a couple of days feeling sorry for himself, Lynch dragged himself back to the drawing board to work on his jokes.

As an anthropologist, he might say an audience that doesn't laugh is full of self-deceivers. As a card-carrying comic, however, he knows the first rule in comedy is that when a joke doesn't work, it's the comedian who's accountable.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent and the host of Hidden Brain. The focus of his reporting is on human behavior and the social sciences, and how research in those fields can get listeners to think about the news in unusual and interesting ways. Hidden Brain is among the most popular podcasts in the world, with over two million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is featured on some 250 public radio stations across the United States.
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