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10 Ways Academics Say Comedians Make Us Laugh

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Hey, what’re you laughing at? Psychologists debate whether humor arises simply from absurdity and incongruity, from a need to relieve tension, or from a desire to feel superior. Academics have identified 41 humor techniques, 10 of which are listed below. See which psychological motives you think are at play in the following examples.

1. Exaggeration

Taking things over the top can make for hilarious absurdity. In “A Night at the Opera,” Groucho Marx’s stateroom was crowded. How crowded? Take a look.

2. Timing

Speeding up or slowing down speech or actions can make them “funny strange” and “funny ha-ha.” Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter songs, like “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance, set the bar for speed talking. When it comes to slow delivery, pauses are key. Listen to the notoriously stingy Jack Benny’s pause in “Your Money or Your Life.”

3. Repetition

In Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, when the horses rear up and whinny the first time the forbidding Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) gives her name, it’s ominous. Afterward, however, every time her name is mentioned, no matter how casually, the horses never miss their cue. Repetition makes what was once frightening ludicrous.

4. Slapstick

This form of buffoonery takes its name from the slap-stick, or pair of wooden slats fastened at one end, used by clowns since the days of commedia dell’arte to make a loud slapping noise without inflicting real injury. When the top-hatted banker is brought low by a pratfall or a pie in the face, you can believe the desire-to-feel-superior theory. But in slapstick comedies, everyone takes a few knocks or tumbles. Maybe it’s just the absurdity of the goings-on that makes them so sidesplitting. You can’t talk about slapstick without mentioning the classic vaudeville skit, “Slowly I Turned,” performed here by the Three Stooges. It employs repetition and, like any good slapstick routine, it uses timing with precision.

5. Malapropism

Malapropism means substituting a word that sounds like the one you want but means something completely different. The word derives from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in The Rivals, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play, who said things like “pineapple” when she meant “pinnacle.” Here’s comedian Norm Crosby slinging the malapropisms in a 1987 Red Lobster commercial. Malapropisms can be silly, like Crosby’s, or they can be satirical barbs. On a recent edition of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, “Senior Legal Analyst” Aasif Mandvi explains that the recent Supreme Court decision loosening restrictions on campaign contributions is just what the “funding fathers” had in mind.

6. Sarcasm

Like, I’m sure you have no clue what that means and I’m going to have to define it for you. Lewis Black yells and throws up his hands as he pours undiluted sarcasm over his political targets. According to Black, Iran is working on a nuclear bomb that they will eventually put into a missile “and 500 Iranians will throw it at us.” Brian Regan teases the absurdity out of everyday subjects with a lighter brand of sarcasm.

7. Misunderstandings

When two people try repeatedly to communicate but keep talking at cross-purposes, hilarity results. The classic example of failed communication is Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First,” but Key and Peele are great as a man who takes a doctor’s concerns about his mother’s health as an insult competition in “Yo Mama Has Health Problems.”

8. Misdirection

In misdirection, or “garden path sentences,” the humorist leads listeners in one direction, then pivots, forcing them to rethink the beginning of the sentence. In the 1960s, in a discussion on the challenges of machine translation, someone brought up this sentence: “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.” That wasn’t one of Groucho Marx’s lines, but his writers did love garden path sentences, now sometimes known by the pseudo-Greek term “paraprosdokians.” In Animal Crackers, writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind gave Groucho some choice lines. His character, Captain Spaulding, says, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I dunno." In A Night at the Opera (also by Kaufman and Ryskind), Groucho’s character, Otis B. Driftwood, remarks, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”

9. Parody

Parodists imitate the style of a certain writer, artist or genre but exaggerate for comic effect. The Onion is hysterical because of how precisely it mimics the language, graphics and tone of print and TV news while conveying outrageous “facts.”

10. Impersonation

Comic impressions or impersonations parody a particular person or type and have long been a staple of political satire. Increasingly in recent decades, women have come to the fore as impressionists. Tina Fey nailed Sarah Palin’s distinctive mannerisms, accent, and recursive sentence structure. In an exaggerated but authentic-sounding accent, Margaret Cho lovingly lampoons her Korean-immigrant mother. The incongruity of Whoopi Goldberg’s (presumably blonde) surfer girl elicits laughs, which die away at the disturbing ending of the monolog. Tracey Ullman fearlessly impersonates people, real and imagined, of both sexes and various races.

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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers
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Animals
Inside Crumbs & Whiskers, the Bicoastal Cat Cafe That's Saving Kitties' Lives
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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

It took a backpacking trip to Thailand and a bit of serendipity for Kanchan Singh to realize her life goal of saving cats while serving lattes. “I met these two guys on the road [in 2014], and we became friends,” Singh tells Mental Floss about Crumbs & Whiskers, the bicoastal cat cafe she founded in Washington, D.C. in 2015 which, in addition to selling coffee and snacks, fosters adoptable felines from shelters. “They soon noticed that I was feeding every stray dog and cat in sight," and quickly picked up on the fact that their traveling companion was crazy about all things furry and fluffy.

On Singh’s final day in Thailand, which happened to be her birthday, her friends surprised her with a celebratory trip to a cat cafe in the city of Chiang Mai. “I remember walking in there being like, ‘This is the coolest, most amazing, weirdest thing I’ve ever done,'” Singh recalls. “I just connected with it so much on a spiritual level.”

Singh informed her friends that she planned to return to the U.S., quit her corporate consulting job, and open up her own cat cafe in the nation’s capital. They thought she was joking. But three years and two storefronts later, the joke is on everyone except for Singh—and the kitties she and her team have helped to rescue.

A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Crumbs & Whiskers—which, in addition to its flagship D.C. location, also has a Los Angeles outpost—keeps a running count of the cats they've saved from risk of euthanasia and those who have been adopted. At press time, those numbers were 776 and 388, respectively, between the brand’s two locations.

Prices and services vary between establishments, but customers can typically expect to shell out anywhere from $6.50 to $35 to enjoy coffee time with cats (food and drinks are prepared off-site for health and safety reasons), activities like cat yoga sessions, or, in D.C., an entire day of coworking with—you guessed it—cats. Patrons can also participate in the occasional promotion or campaign, ranging from Black Friday fundraisers for shelter kitties to writing an ex-flame's name inside a litter box around Valentine's Day (where the cats will then do their business).

Cat cafes have existed in Asia for nearly 20 years, with the world’s first known one, Cat Flower Garden, opening in Taipei, Taiwan in 1998. The trend gained traction in Japan during the mid 2000s, and quickly spread across Asia. But when Singh visited Chiang Mai, the cat cafe craze—while alive and thriving in Thailand—had not yet hit the U.S. "Why does Thailand get this, but not the U.S.?" Singh remembers thinking.

Once she arrived back home in D.C., Singh set her sights on founding the nation’s first official cat cafe, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped her secure a two-story space in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. Ultimately, though, she was beat to the punch by the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California, which opened to the public in 2014, followed shortly after by establishments like New York City’s Meow Parlour.

LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Still, Crumbs & Whiskers—which officially launched in D.C. in the summer of 2015—was among the nation’s first wave of businesses (and the District's first) to offer customers the chance to enjoy feline companionship with a side of java, along with the opportunity to maybe even save a tiny life. Ultimately, the altruistic concept proved to be so successful that Singh, sensing a market for a similar storefront in Los Angeles, opened up a second location there in the fall of 2016. "I always felt like what L.A. is, culturally, just fits with the type of person that would go to a cat café," she says.

Someday, Singh hopes to bring Crumbs & Whiskers to Chicago and New York, and “for cat cafes as a concept, as an industry, to grow,” she says. “I think that it would be great for this to be the future of adoptions and animal rescues.” Until then, you can learn more about Crumbs & Whiskers (and the animals they rescue) by stopping by if you're in D.C. and LA, or by visiting their website.

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LEGO Ideas
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Design
Fans of The Office, Rejoice: A Dunder Mifflin LEGO Set Could Someday Become a Reality
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LEGO Ideas

After nine seasons filled with pranks, gags, awkward jokes, and just a few too many “That’s what she said's,” the finale of NBC’s The Office aired on May 16, 2013. While the beloved show probably won’t be getting a reboot anytime soon, LEGO fans may someday be able to recreate the cast’s shenanigans with their very own Dunder Mifflin-inspired set.

Jaijai Lewis, a 36-year-old market researcher from New York City, has submitted a toy recreation of the fictional paper sales company’s Scranton branch to the LEGO Ideas website. It’s a miniature replica of the TV show's titular office, complete with the main shared space (cubicles and desk plants included), a conference room, and separate offices for Michael and Darryl. These rooms are designed to be modular, and can either be connected together or remain separate.

Of course, Lewis made sure to include mini-replicas of the whole gang, including Michael, Jim, Pam, Dwight, Angela, Meredith, and more. They come with tiny accessories, like Michael’s Golden Dundie, Meredith’s water bottle, and Pam’s ring. (The last one fits in Jim’s suitcase.)

If 10,000 different fans support a design on the LEGO Ideas blog, it will become eligible for review to become a real-life product. The LEGO Dunder Mifflin has already hit the coveted 10K number, so with any luck, you could eventually see it on the shelves of a toy store near you.

Check out some pictures of Lewis’s design below, or visit the LEGO Ideas site for more details.

LEGO fan Jaijai Lewis's design of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc., a fictional paper company from NBC's TV show 'The Office.'
LEGO Ideas

LEGO fan Jaijai Lewis's design of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc., a fictional paper company from NBC's TV show 'The Office.'
LEGO Ideas

LEGO fan Jaijai Lewis's design of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc., a fictional paper company from NBC's TV show 'The Office.'
LEGO Ideas

LEGO fan Jaijai Lewis's design of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc., a fictional paper company from NBC's TV show 'The Office.'
LEGO Ideas

LEGO fan Jaijai Lewis's design of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc., a fictional paper company from NBC's TV show 'The Office.'
LEGO Ideas

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