BOOK REVIEW: Inside Jokes by Matthew M. Hurley, et. al.

Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the MindInside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Matthew M. Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the science of why we find funny what we find funny. Most people probably feel about this as did E.B. White who said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Still, while analyzing humor may not be as fun as reveling in it, it’s fascinating to scientifically inquiring minds.

Humor is universal (not the humor of a specific joke, but the experience of somethings being humorous.) A skilled science fiction writer might conjure up an alien race that is credibly humorless. But it defies credulity that even the remotest of aboriginal Earthling wouldn’t giggle or guffaw at the sight of an off-course ball careening into an unsuspecting man’s crotch. Humor’s universality begs certain questions. First and foremost, one expects there to be some evolutionary advantage to a sense of humor. That evolutionary mechanism is precisely what Hurley, Dennett, and Adams attempt to demonstrate in this book. The authors suggest that the pleasure associated with humor is a reward for recognizing an incongruity, and they go into great deal to fill in the details needed to explain the panoply of things people find funny, while suggesting why alternate explanations are inferior.

While there’s a lot of frog-killing academic analytics and needlessly messy scholarly language, this book does offer a vast collection of examples of humor to support and clarify the authors’ points. So, unlike many books on evolutionary and cognitive science, this book does have a built-in light side. WARNING: there’s also a discussion of why some attempts at humor fail. This means one is also subjected to a number of puns, elementary school jokes, and comedic misfires that show the reader why sometimes humor implodes.

The book starts by building a common understanding of what humor is. It turns out that this isn’t simple because people find many different kinds of things funny–from caricatures to wordplay. (And, whatever the initial evolutionary purpose of humor, our species has run with that reward system to places that couldn’t have been readily anticipated.) Next, the authors discuss the many varieties of theories of humor that have been raised. This subject has been studied for some time, and thinkers have suggested that humor’s pleasure derives from a number of different causes from feeling superior to recognizing surprise–just to name a couple. After considering the competition, Hurley et. al. start laying out the basis of a cognitive / evolutionary explanation. In chapter five they describe 20 questions they think must be dealt with, and–in the last chapter (13)–they give their responses as a summation of the book’s main points. Along the way, the authors take on important related questions such as why humor sometimes fails, what others will see as the weakness of their argument, whether a robot could be humorous, and why we laugh. The last point opens another can of worms. Even if one concludes–as the authors have–that humor is a reward system for recognizing incongruities, the question of why there is an advantage to spontaneously announcing that recognition still arises.

There’re are a few graphics in the book, mostly these are cartoons and humorous photos that serve as examples. The book is published by MIT Press, so all the usual scholarly features of notes and citations apply.

I found this book to be thought-provoking, and the plentiful examples of jokes made it enjoyable to read as well. I’d recommend it for those interested in the science of the mind. It’s a bit dry in places for readers looking for light reading about humor.

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The Maai of Jokes

From my martial arts blog Jissen Budōka.


A duck walks into the dōjō for his first session. He’s awkward and seems to be getting everything wrong.

The Sensei calls out, “Duck!”

The duck snaps to attention and says, “Yes, Sensei” — boot to the head.

Maai often gets boiled down to “distancing.” Understanding distancing is simple, understanding maai is challenging. First, maai understood in three dimensions is maai misunderstood. The fourth dimension, time, is critical. Second, maai is always interactive. Rules of thumb will only get one so far because the peculiarities of the opponent matters. Third, the interval between recognition and response that occurs in the mind is as important as the physical distance.

It behooves the martial artist to see the maai  existing in exchanges outside the dōjō. Thinking of maai solely in terms of kenjutsu, for example, can encourage one to focus on the physical distance. The distance gap is what we can see, and that is what is most easily analyzed. However, another area in which maai is critical is joke telling, and in jokes one has to optimize for intangibles –timing and audience response to the joke.  Not that this should be an intellectual exercise (that slows everything down); I presume it’s intuitive for people with the skill. 

A joke has a two-part anatomy: 1.) a set up that is straight, plausible, and –perhaps even– factual; 2.) a punch line that must turn expectations on their head with punch. The interval between parts 1 and 2 separates masterful joke tellers from horrible ones. If one runs the punchline into the setup, one risks the joke falling flat. If the recipient doesn’t recognize the transition they may start thinking about what was said (ugh –analysis is the nemesis of humor.) However, if one pauses too long, one risks the recipient anticipating the ending. Some jokes are easier to tell than others. The one that opened this post is easily anticipated. Recognition of the dual-use of “duck” happens quickly.

For a more user-friendly joke consider the one that a scholarly survey suggested was the world’s funniest joke:

A woman gets onto a bus with an infant. The driver vomits in his mouth a little and says, “Lord, that is the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen.”

The woman is appalled and speechless. She scowls, pays the fare, and proceeds to the rear of the bus.

Sitting down, she says to the woman next to her, “I’m outraged; I can’t believe how insulting the bus driver was.”

The woman says, “Well go give him a piece of your mind. Don’t worry. I’ll hold your monkey.”

The elaborate set up makes it difficult to anticipate the ending, and the twist between kindness and cruelty is readily apparent. (“Monkey” is very visual.) The punchline is really a punchword, the very last word.

Other jokes have more balance between set up and punchline, and that increases anticipation risk.

I was in the bookstore the other day and I asked the clerk for the self-help section.

She said that if she told me it would defeat the purpose.

Here one starts getting clues much earlier.

Other joke concepts are so well-known they invite anticipation.

Blonds all want to be like Vanna White, they yearn to know the… alphabet.

As for rushing the punch line, consider the joke:

I’m thoroughly familiar with 25 letters of the alphabet. I don’t know “Y.”

While in writing the joke is clear, this is the type of joke that can easily be missed and fall flat. It’s not just because it’s not exactly hilarious, but because the recipient may have to reconstruct the joke or, worse yet, have it explained to them –both of which are death.

The other thing that one must recognize is that there are always specific exceptions that work. “Interrupting cow” is the perfect example of a rushed punchword that works.