10 Ways Academics Say Comedians Make Us Laugh


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.

LEGO Is Rolling Out Its First Sustainable, Plant-Based Blocks

LEGO produces roughly 19 billion elements each year [PDF], and until recently, most of those bricks, minifigures, and accessories were made using oil. Now, the toy company has announced that it's experimenting with more sustainable production methods for certain items. As Mashable reports, the company will start selling 'botanical' pieces made from real plants this year.

To craft the new type of material, LEGO is sourcing sugarcane from Brazil. The crops are grown on agricultural land rather than former rainforests, and the sourcing has received the stamp of approval from the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, an organization that encourages corporations to make sustainable, plant-based plastics.

Making LEGO parts from sugarcane results in a softer plastic, so the new method will only be used to make plant pieces like leaves, bushes, and trees for now. The bioplastic botanicals will start appearing in LEGO boxes this year and become standard by the end of 2018.

“The LEGO Group’s decision to pursue sustainably sourced bio-based plastics represents an incredible opportunity to reduce dependence on finite resources," Alix Grabowski, a senior program officer at the World Wildlife Fund, said in a release from LEGO.

Though the switch will reduce the company's carbon footprint, the bioplastic botanicals still only make up of a small fraction of their total product line. LEGO says the change represents one step in its mission to use sustainable materials in core products and packaging by 2030.

[h/t Mashable]

St. Patrick's Day By the Numbers

You know St. Patrick's Day falls on the 17th of March. And you probably know how many green beers is too many green beers for you to consume. But do you know how many boys born in Ireland are named Patrick each year? Or how many people travel to Ireland to celebrate the holiday each March? The folks at RewardExpert, a website dedicated to helping travelers find the best frequent flyer and travel credit card reward programs for their lifestyle, do. And they've gathered it all together in one handy infographic, just in time for the big day.


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