“In the Soviet Union of 1930s, a man saw his acquaintance walking down the street wearing only one boot, so he yelled: ‘Vanya, Vanya, did you lose a boot?’ Vanya heard him and answered: ‘No, I just found one.’” A classic sarcasm of the grim living standards of the people in a country that claimed superiority to any existing political systems in the world.
I heard this joke from my Soviet history professor, who spent an entire lecture telling Soviet jokes that he’d collected over the past decades. The butt of Soviet jokes was almost always one or a combination of four categories: the unavailability of consumer goods, the nearly pathological obsession with industrialization, the formalistic political culture ailed by bureaucracy, and the pompousness of Party propaganda compared with the meagre reality. If you think about it, these jokes are often as truthful and reflective of the daily life of the Soviet people as figures in a table that keeps count of the yearly grain production under Stalinist agricultural policies. So, why is it that Vanya walking in one picked-up boot is a lot funnier than data points on a chart that documents low supply of consumer goods? By extension, why is any joke funny? Or even more broadly, what makes us laugh?
Let’s start from the more primitive forms of humor, which humans and chimps alike can appreciate. This kind of humor seems to be triggered by “benign violations”, which means that things are funny when they infringe upon one’s sense of security, but in the meantime, provide assurance that the situation is safe and benign (Warren & McGraw, 2015). For example, your friend tickling you can make you laugh, but you tickling yourself (no violation) or a creepy stranger tickling you (not benign) seldom elicits a feeling of mirth. As I just mentioned, benign-violations-induced laughter seems to be shared between us and other primates— this “funny bone” is evolutionarily conserved. One evidence is that wild chimpanzees emit a “play panting” (often deemed as chimpanzee-style laughing) when receiving aggressive acts (violation) intended in a playful way (benign), such as being tickled or chased by a fellow chimpanzee (Matsusaka, 2004).
This study on playful panting also revealed a critical evolutionary role of laughter, that is, enhancing social bonding. It was found that the “aggressive” behaviors on the part of the actor were more frequent if the receiver emitted playful panting (Matsusaka, 2004). That is to say, playful panting, or, in a broader sense, laughter, serves as a positive feedback signal that encourages the actor to continue the “benign violations”, thereby increasing the number of social interactions between individuals and facilitating social communication.
Tickling and chasing might seem somewhat distant from your idea of humor, but this kind of social play does provide the basis for the evolution of humor that led up to the form that we are more preoccupied with today. In fact, a unity of conflicts, as that we’ve seen in “benign violations”, also lies in the core of (cognitive) humor processing that is unique to humans.
The most widely accepted humor processing model suggests that verbal and visual humor depends on “a mismatch between expected and presented stimuli” (Vrticka, Black, & Reiss, 2013); when this incongruity is resolved, that is when you “get” the joke. Take the one-liner joke that I just got from a google search for example: “Did you hear about the crook who stole a calendar? He got twelve months.” This joke is set up in a way that naturally leads you to interpret “he got twelve months” in the context of stealing. Incongruity arises when another unexpected interpretation emerges, which is that the crook literally received 12 months as in the content of a calendar. When you realize both interpretations make sense and resolve the conflict in multiple meanings of the message, you “get” the joke and complete your humor processing. This model has gained backing from neuroimaging studies.
A review of fMRI studies that examined people’s brain activation patterns during the processing of humorous materials (e.g. one-liners, cartoons, funny video clips and etc.) found that all the brain activation patterns seemed to converge on a core processing area, which includes the temporo-parietal junction and extends to the temporo-occipital-parietal junction (Vrticka, Black, & Reiss, 2013). This area takes in stimuli from multiple sensory modalities (sound, sight, and etc.) and, most importantly, detect unexpected stimuli that are relevant to the current context to increase connectivity with ventral parietal-frontal areas, which are involved in attention and decision making (Vrticka, Black, & Reiss, 2013). This area, activated irrespectively of whether the humorous materials were auditory, textual or visual, highly likely represents the incongruity resolution process common to all forms of humor, just as the humor processing model suggested.
In conclusion, humor, with its evolutionary roots, undeniably serves critical functions in social interactions. Judging from the fact that my Soviet history professor brought to class a stack of printed Soviet jokes that was about an inch thick and that a full lecture wasn’t enough time to exhaust his stock of Soviet humor, I would say that humor must be very integral to many people’s lives. I’ve always believed that the purpose of understanding the principle of something lies in its reliable reproduction. Our increasing knowledge of humor from a neuropsychological perspective might yet facilitate the production of higher-quality comedies for the less talented film/TV show crews.
Matsusaka, T. (2004). When does play panting occur during social play in wild chimpanzees? Primates, 45(4), 221–229. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10329-004-0090-z
Vrticka, P., Black, J. M., & Reiss, A. L. (2013). The neural basis of humour processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14, 860. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3566
Warren, C., & McGraw, A. P. (2015). Opinion: What makes things humorous. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(23), 7105 LP-7106. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1503836112
Another Soviet joke for your leisure. Did you detect the incongruity? Were you able to resolve it?
Soviet Party officials held a small meeting discussing what present they should give to Lithuania as a gesture that celebrates Lithuania-Soviet friendship. One Party official grunted in good Soviet fashion: “Give them tractors.” Another said: “No, no. Give them combines.” Finally, they decided on giving an artwork that would depict the glory of their great leader, comrade Lenin. So, an artist was commissioned to make a painting with the theme “Lenin in Lithuania”. Several days later, the painting was finished. The artist lifted the cover on the painting, and to the absolute horror of the Party officials, what they saw was a lively depiction of Lenin’s wife in bed with Trotsky! Furious, the Party official growled: “But where is Lenin?” The artist answered: “Lenin is in Lithuania.”
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