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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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Samsung’s Star Wars Vacuums Offer Everything You Want in a Droid
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Hate housecleaning but love Star Wars? Samsung’s got the solution. In anticipation of December’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the newest film in the Star Wars saga, Samsung has transformed a limited number of its VR7000 POWERbot robot vacuum cleaners into two familiar faces from George Lucas’s legendary space opera: a Stormtrooper and Darth Vader (which comes with Wi-Fi connectivity and a remote control).

In order to create a unique device that would truly thrill Star Wars aficionados, Samsung consulted with fans of the film throughout each stage of the process. The result is a pair of custom-crafted robo-vacuums that fill your home with the sounds of a galaxy far, far away as they clean (when you turn Darth Vader on, for example, you'll hear his iconic breathing).

“We are very pleased to be part of the excitement leading up to the release of The Last Jedi and to be launching our limited edition POWERbot in partnership with Star Wars fans,” B.S. Suh, Samsung’s executive vice president, said in a press statement. “From its industry-leading suction power, slim design, and smart features, to the wonderful character-themed voice feedback and sound effects, we are confident the Star Wars limited edition of the VR7000 will be a big hit.”

Be warned that this kind of power suction doesn’t come cheap: while the Stormtrooper POWERbot will set you back $696, the Darth Vader vacuum retails for $798. Who knew the Dark Side was so sparkling clean?


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Tales from the Butterball Hotline
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It’s 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day and you just realized you forgot to thaw your turkey. What do you do?

Don’t panic. You just need to call 1-800-BUTTERBALL. Yes, the Turkey Talk-Line is real. And yes, they really do have poultry experts standing by to help you with your last-minute snafus, flubs, and foul-ups. If you wake up in a cold sweat at 2 a.m. thinking about salmonella or whether you can bathe your turkey with your toddler (see below), never fear—Butterball is there for you. And it's not just about Thanksgiving. The line is open in December, too, to help you with those holiday feasts as well.

When the hotline first opened up to panicked chefs in the early 1980s, a mere six “home economists” responded to 11,000 phone calls during November and December. These days, their staff has expanded to more than 50 and they answer more than 100,000 questions. 

Those staff members have heard it all, too. They get the typical questions you’d expect turkey experts to get, of course: How long will it take to thaw the turkey? How do I stuff a turkey? Are there any allergens in Butterball products? But there’s also the, um, unexpected.

Among the more questionable calls the turkey experts have received: “Can I brine my turkey in the washing machine?” and “The family dog is inside the turkey and can’t get out.” (It was a Chihuahua, in case you’re wondering, and the Butterball expert did manage to help the owners get the dog out safely.)

Another inexperienced caller worried that her turkey wouldn’t come out of the oven because she figured it was going to rise like bread does.

One Butterball employee actually stayed on the line while her caller walked through a grocery store and painstakingly picked out ingredients for his Thanksgiving dinner.

More recently, a hotline employee was surprised to hear from a wife who came home to find the turkey floating in the tub while her husband gave the kids a bath. Believe it or not, because the turkey hadn't been removed from the package, it was salvaged—though the kids complained about the chilly water.

Don’t feel bad if you have to call the Butterball hotline for assistance, though. Even President Bartlet knows when to call in the experts:

By the way, there’s also an option for those of you who prefer assistance in the form of written word: you can text your questions to 1-844-877-3456 through December 24. The company is also answering questions via its social media channels, including Facebook and Twitter. And they've recently added Spanish-speaking experts plus their first male turkey-talker.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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