Brains, Comedy, and Steve Martin
In my last post I discussed the neuroscience of music. I concluded that renowned musicians share one thing in common: they understand the importance of patterns, expectations, prediction in music. I encourage you to read it if you have not already.
This post takes the ideas of the last – patterns, expectations, and prediction – and applies it to comedy. Comedy is made possible by creating and fulfilling expectations while considering the importance of delivery, context, and timing. Consider this joke, taken from a recent article from Discovermagazine.com.
A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing; his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency service. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says: “Take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says, “OK, now what?”
Why is this funny? It starts by establishing a familiar pattern; in this case, the pattern is the standard beginning-middle-punch line structure that many jokes are structured by. Then, it creates an expectation; implicit in the statement, “First, let’s make sure he’s dead” is the expectation that the hunter is going to do something reasonable to see if his friend is dead. Finally, the comedy is delivered when the answer deviates from the expectation – we expected x, but we got y, i.e., we never though the alive hunter would shoot his friend just to make sure he was dead. Most importantly, the entire joke still maintains the beginning-middle-punch line pattern.
The best jokes have the most unexpected punch lines but maintain the pattern. Neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran explains this in his 1998 book Phantoms in the Brain.
Despite all their surface diversity, most jokes and funny incidents have the following logical structure: Typically you lead the listener along a garden path of expectation, slowly building up tension. At the very end, you introduce an unexpected twist that entails a complete reinterpretation of all the preceding data, and moreover, it’s critical that the new interpretation, though wholly unexpected, makes as much “sense” of the entire set of facts as did the originally “expected” interpretation (Ramachandran, p. 204).
From Richard Pryor to Chris Rock, comedians rely on what Ramachandran is describing. It is their ability to create and relieve tension, and deliver the unexpected while maintaining the pattern, that makes them so funny.
Steve Martin is one of my favorite comedians and is someone who understands this well. If you are familiar with Martin’s standup you will know his unique style. Like Pryor and the Rock, Martin did not change the medium per se; he simply altered the expectations that defined the medium. For example, here is an opening bit from one of Martin’s routines: “I’d like to open up with sort of a funny comedy bit. This has really been a big one for me… I’m sure most of you will recognize the title when I mention it; it’s the Nose on Microphone routine.” Martin would then lean in and placed his nose on the microphone for a few seconds, step back, take a few bows, and move on to his next joke. The “laugh came not then, but only after they realized I had already moved on to the next bit.”
Martin’s anticlimax style ended up defining his stand up. But it did not come to him in the blink of an eye, rather, it was the product of years of trial and error. He describes this in his autobiography Born Standing Up:
With conventional joke telling, there’s a moment when the comedian delivers the punch line, and the audience knows it’s the punch line, and their response ranges from polite to uproarious… These notions stayed with me for months, until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: what if there were no punch lines… What if I created tension and never realised it… Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh… My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh (Martin, p. 111-113).
Note how similar Martin’s remarks are to Ramachandran’s. They are talking about the relationship between patterns and expectations, and understand that something which is funny denies the initial expectation and challenges the observer to understand the new pattern. Like a Pryor or Rock joke, Martin’s Microphone bit takes the observer down a familiar path to start, but leaves her at an unfamiliar destination. Yet, she is not entirely lost for she still exists in the context of the joke. In other words, she knows that she is supposed to laugh – and she does – but she doesn’t know why.
Below is a video that illustrates an extreme example of this. Here we seen Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal perform a bit at the 2008 Melbourne comedy festival. After a brief opening dialog, Braunohler and Schaal begin an impressive staging that seems to defy comedic logic. However, underneath all the repetition Braunohler and Schaal remain committed to the same principles that Martin and all successful jokes are committed to.
This is funny for the same reason the New Jersey joke is funny – it introduces a pattern, creates an expectation, and breaks an expectation while keeping to the pattern. But the genius of Braunohler and Schaal is that they break the expectation by not breaking the expectation. In other words, you don’t expect them to keep doing the “Kristin Schaal is a horse” dance, but they do, and that’s why its funny. Like Martin’s joke, the punch line is that there isn’t a punch line. Again, the audience is left in hysterics even though they couldn’t have reasonable said what is so funny. And this is one of the secrets of comedy – breaking an expectation in such an unexpected way that they audience can only respond by laughing.