An intuitive sense of humour

I’ve just discovered a delightful <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/may/23/germany.features11
http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2007/feb/10/comedy.television
“>article by English comedian Stewart Lee on why British people don¬¥t get German humour. He argues that the English language is full of ambiguities and that many jokes rely on resolving these in ways which are much less possible in the German language owing to the sentence structure.

It reminded me of a more recent article by another English comedian, Simon Pegg, on why Americans sometimes miss the irony in British humour. He argues that it’s not that they don’t understand irony, as the stereotype suggests, but that British people use it in situations which Americans are not familiar with, making it harder to understand as intentional humour.

Neither are scientific and both are really just opinion pieces, but it struck me that there are interesting parallels with the recent series of articles where professional magicians have collaborated with cognitive scientists to understand the consciousness and attention.

The gist was that stage magicians have developed a keen intuitive sense of how the human attentional system works in order to fool it, and cognitive scientists can benefit from this knowledge as it is eminently useful in designing experiments.

As far as I know, no similar collaboration has happened with professional comedians and cognitive scientists studying the psychology of humour, despite the fact that both the articles mentioned above seem to demonstrate an intuitive sense of the what makes things funny.

Richard Herring (a one-time comedic partner of Stewart Lee in a past double act) recently wrote a shorter piece on honing jokes that seemed also to capture some of this intuitive knowledge.

A beautifully chosen, unexpected adjective can transform a comedy routine into poetry, while the banal repetition of a common place noun can make that word, and consequently all language, suddenly appear ridiculous.

If you are a stand-up you can hone your material over successive performances, based on the audience response. Changing a single word or altering the pace or emphasis can make a previously failed witticism work.

You might be saying too much. Let the audience discover the consequences of a comedic notion themselves. A pause can be as effective as a paragraph of exposition.

Finally, remember that you will learn the most through trial and error.

Link to ‘Lost in translation’ on humour and the German language.
Link to article ‘What are you laughing at?’ on Americans and irony.
Link to article on honing a joke.

3 Comments

  1. Posted October 6, 2008 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    “jist” should be “gist”

  2. Posted October 7, 2008 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for that. Now fixed!

  3. Posted October 12, 2008 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    thanks for the post, i found stewart lee’s article especially interesting since i’m from germany but have been living in the UK for 6 years now – yet some british humour still escapes me and likewise i seem largely incapable to being funny in english, which can be quite annoying sometimes. good to know it’s not necessarily a personal shortcoming, just a different way of being funny.


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