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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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The 5 Most Valuable Pokemon Cards
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Minh Hoang, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

As a teenager, Pokemon creator Satoshi Tajiri was so fond of collecting insects that classmates called him “Mr. Bug.” While it might not have been an affectionate label, Tajiri had the last laugh: His Pokemon video game, originally released for the Nintendo Game Boy in 1996, has become an enduring multimedia success, selling billions in games, merchandise, and phone apps.

The goal of collecting and pitting monsters against one another has been particularly appealing for trading card collectors, who have created an entire secondary market for the low-tech version of the game. First editions, misprints, and other characteristics all affect value. If you’re curious, take a look at the five most valuable Pokemon cards according to Heritage Auctions and other sources.

1. PIKACHU ILLUSTRATOR

A Pikachu Illustrator card
stephychu025, eBay

One of the earliest cards to come out of the Pokemon franchise was this promotional card of Pikachu that was given out to winners of an illustration contest in 1998. An estimated 20 to 39 copies were issued. In late 2016, Heritage Auctions sold one for a whopping $54,970. In 2017, an eBay seller was asking $100,000 for a card graded by professional authenticators to be in virtually perfect condition.

2. CHARIZARD

A first edition Charizard Pokemon card
bakemat_0, eBay

This dragon-esque creature was first seen in 1999. Nearly 20 years later, a perfect “10” graded card sold for $11,999.  

3. MASTER’S KEY PRIZE CARD

A Pokemon Master's Key card
ebirdman, eBay

Given out during a 2010 card championship in Japan, only 34 copies of the Master's Key Prize Card are thought to exist. The scarcity helps the cards fetch four figures when they're spotted on the open market.

4. PRE-RELEASE RAICHU

A Pokemon Raichu card
sken1851, eBay

Collectors love cards that were never intended for public distribution, and this Raichu card fits the bill. Although unconfirmed, Pokemon lore has it that product distributor Wizards of the Coast made just 10 of these Raichu cards for their employees and stamped “pre release” on the front. While it’s rarely offered for sale, collectors believe it can fetch up to $10,000.

5. POKEMON SNAP CARDS

A Pokemon Snap card
base_set_sales, eBay

In a bit of product synergy, Nintendo’s 1999 N64 game, Pokemon Snap, ran a promotion in which players could take a “candid” shot of Pokemon in the game and send it in to a Japanese magazine. Winners would have the image placed on a card. Due to their rarity, the Snaps have reportedly sold for over $8000.

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Tiny Star Wars Fans Can Now Cruise Around in Their Very Own Landspeeders
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Radio Flyer

Some kids collect Hot Wheels, while others own model lightsabers and dream of driving Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder through a galaxy far, far away. Soon, Mashable reports, these pint-sized Jedis-in-training can pilot their very own replicas of the fictional anti-gravity craft: an officially licensed, kid-sized Star Wars Landspeeder, coming in September from American toy company Radio Flyer.

The Landspeeder has an interactive dashboard with light-up buttons, and it plays sounds from the original Star Wars film. The two-seater doesn’t hover, exactly, but it can zoom across desert sands (or suburban sidewalks) at forward speeds of up to 5 mph, and go in reverse at 2 mph.

The vehicle's rechargeable battery allows for around five hours of drive time—just enough for tiny Star Wars fans to reenact their way through both the original 1977 movie and 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. (Sorry, grown-up sci-fi nerds: The toy ride supports only up to 130 pounds, so you’ll have to settle for pretending your car is the Death Star.)

Radio Flyer’s Landspeeder will be sold at Toys “R” Us stores. It costs $500, and is available for pre-order online now.

Watch it in action below:

[h/t Mashable]

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