Inside Joke

how humor can bind groups together and tear nations apart...

Stop me if you’ve heard this one...

A war is waging and the dictator’s body doubles are watching the news in their barracks when they see a report that the tyrant’s palace has been bombed.

The phone rings. It’s one of dictator’s advisers with good news and bad news.

“The good news: the dictator survived the attack. You all still have your jobs. Congratulations!”

“So, what’s the bad news?” one of the body doubles asks.

“He lost his right arm.”

Funny? Repulsive? Meh? Common sense might hold that it’s hard to predict how any one person will respond to a joke, because humor depends so much on personal taste.

Yet the “common sense” on which this view is based is probably wrong. Recent research has shown that the workings of humor are not as wildly random as laypeople tend to believe.

When the anthropologists Thomas J. Flamson and H. Clark Barrett tried the dictator joke (in a version with the late Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in the starring role) in a lab experiment, they found that subjects found the gag funnier if they had background information to understand the humor. That may sound obvious, but it’s the key to a new and profound idea of how humor works.

Any Joke

Flamson and Barrett argue, is an efficient way for like-minded people to figure out who knows what. When we say, “you had to be there” to “get” a joke, we’re alluding to this effect: Humor sorts people into those who have some shared information (they’re the ones laughing) and those who don’t. This is one reason why jokes work in one company, culture or country, but fall on their face in another.

So when we say “you have to understand x” in order to “get” some comedian’s humor, we’re acknowledging that the surface of the joke, the actual words and images, are not the important  message. To enjoy the humor, you need background knowledge. In other words, a joke, Flamson saw, has the same information architecture as a code. The sender’s explicit message says little of importance. But when the receiver applies his “key” — information he shares with the teller and the people who are laughing — then he can appreciate the real point. You “get” a joke the way you decipher a secret message.

Humor, Flamson argues, evolved as a way for human beings to find allies and collaborators. A funny remark that gets a laugh, Flamson and Barrett wrote in an influential paper published in 2008 in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, “functions as an honest signal of the fact of common knowledge, attitudes and preferences.” When you laugh at an “inside” joke, it’s like being a member of an exclusive club.

Humor is as close as we get to an “honest signaling mechanism.” It’s very hard to fake “getting” a joke. People who are laughing together at a funny remark can be assured that they share information  —  not just facts like the dictator’s name and country, but experiences and emotions that reveal what that dictator means to those hearing the joke.

In their experiment, Flamson and Barrett gave some of their volunteers a version of the dictator joke much like the one with which I began this essay. Others, though, received a version that carefully explained who Saddam was, why he needed body doubles — and even why it mattered to his doubles if he lost an arm. The researchers asked volunteers to rate how funny they found a series of jokes, all of which came in “normal” and “full-information” versions.

The findings: People enjoyed jokes more when they already had the key information needed to understand them. And this effect was much more pronounced with the normal (what the researchers called “high encryption”) jokes than it was for the jokes that explained themselves.  In other words, the ability to decode a joke’s social message was a reliable predictor of how much hearers would like it.

Flamson and Barrett’s theory goes a long way toward explaining why, though they might seem antagonistic, humorists and leaders have a magnetic pull for one another, from King Lear and his Fool to the interaction of U.S. presidents and comedians every year at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Coded speech  —  to say one thing literally while at the same time getting your audience to feel that your “true” message is about the kind of people they are  —  is the work of leaders and of comics. Both occupations involve convincing listeners that they’re aligned with others, by artfully shaping their beliefs about who they are and persuading them to laugh and think and act together.

There’s little doubt that laughter can bring people together and make them more open to one another’s thoughts, feelings and values. This is why some animal behaviorists think that laughter evolved from the noises animals make when they are mobbing another animal — predator, prey or enemy.

“After 10 years of research on this little-studied topic,” the neuroscientist Robert Provine wrote in Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, “I concluded that laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together. It is a hidden \"\"language that we all speak.” When we laugh, we are responding to cues that tell us who is together with us and who isn’t. The trouble is, those cues are shifty. As many of us know, listeners can go from laughing with you to laughing at you quite quickly.

Laughter is a behavior humans share with other mammals to some degree. (Chimpanzees and even rats are known to indulge in it.) But humor  —  the deliberate quest, through words and images, to induce laughter  —  is distinctly human. One reason is that it requires cultural knowledge to appreciate. That adds another layer of highly volatile information to the already unstable mix that is shared laughter. So while humor can make work lighter and lift morale, it can also undermine leaders and their goals. The wrong kind of laughter can shatter an initiative, fuel resentment and pit people against one another.

Of course, there is an important difference between the audience for a standup routine and the recipient of a classic code message. In the case of a code, the message is fixed and unchangeable. The sender created it, and the receiver will reproduce it using the key. Comedy and leadership, however, involve a much more dynamic process.

Part of the genius of comedy is that is does not just appeal to shared knowledge  —  it also creates shared knowledge. First, if a comic is “cool,” then any audience member who doesn’t “get it” is motivated to fill in what they’re missing. Recipients in these circumstances don’t just say, “Oh, well, I don’t see what’s so funny.” Instead, they eagerly seek out the information  —  facts, attitudes, opinions  —  that will “let them in on the joke.”

Second, and more subtly, a humorist gets an audience to see what they already know in a new way. Rather than just referencing information the audience already has, comics get their listeners to see that information in a new light.

Consider this joke told in wartime: “A dictator visits a lunatic asylum. The patients line up and give him a big, over-the-top salute. As the dictator passes down the line, he comes across a woman who isn’t saluting.

‘Why aren’t you saluting like the others?’ the dictator barks.

‘Sir, I’m the nurse,’ comes the answer.

‘I’m not crazy!’”

The joke didn’t just summon up awareness of the ubiquity of the cult around dictators. It recast that knowledge: Instead of being a part of the background of daily life or a natural reverence for a “superhuman” leader, the act of saluting a dictator was recategorized as deranged behavior.

This is the creative power of humor, which isn’t quite captured by a model that depicts it as a code. Codes don’t change the information they convey. Humor often does, making people think about things in new ways. This is part of the reason authoritarian regimes punish “innocent” jokes.

This transformative power of humor can accelerate positive social change. A certain kind of humor, for example, has helped spur the progress of diversity in the international corporate world.

The history of “mainstream” humor about Native Americans offers a clear example. In the first half of the past century, “American Indians” in American and European popular culture wore feathers, held up their palms and said “how” to greet others, and whooped when they went on the “warpath,” which was often. In 1933,  there was no popular uproar when a football team was named the Boston Redskins. (The team plays on today as the Washington Redskins, but in 2014 it seems unlikely that this name will endure much longer.)

It is easy to claim that this kind of casual racism is a thing of the past. But a quick jaunt through the world of comments on Web sites will show that this isn’t the case. Racist attitudes toward Native Americans are still around and are being expressed in 2014.

What has changed, though, is the valence of social support. The code of American Indian jokes 75 years ago was that “we,” the joke-teller and the hearers, all “knew” that Native Americans were silly and primitive. Then, comedians began to shift the meanings of the jokes.

For decades, Native American characters in American movies had been played by white actors (“Chuck Connors as Geronimo! That’s like Adam Sandler as Malcolm X!,” as the American Indian comedian Charlie Hill puts it). Then humorists took that once-standard Hollywood stereotype and made it ridiculous. In Mel Brooks’s 1974 Blazing Saddles, the Indian warriors are still played by white actors, but they speak Yiddish. The “key” to this code is knowing that what was once an acceptable practice (white actors cast as Native Americans) was in fact as absurd as writing a script in which the “Indians” speak Yiddish. It’s no longer Native Americans who are ignorant and “uncool.” Instead, the old-school Hollywood “squares” who stereotyped them are now the laughing stock.

Should we conclude then that skillfully guided laughter always helps to bring people out of their preconceptions and promote diversity? If we do, we are a few sandwiches short of a picnic. There is no inevitable direction or trend toward greater social harmony in the effects of humor. Humorists can switch the codes just as easily in the opposite direction.

Consider the case of a French comedian named Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. A gifted mimic and impressionist, Dieudonné, whose father was from Cameroon and whose mother was from Brittany, began his career performing with a Jewish friend named Élie Semoun. The two made jokes about blacks and Jews and whites, mocking the famous.

The pair caught on in 1990s France, as Alexander Stille wrote this year, because “their routine seemed to offer the possibility of dealing more freely with cultural and ethnic difference.” That possibility did not stem from a new message. In fact, the men traded in conventional phrases. It was, rather, that they offered a new key  —  a way of interpreting racist invective, as neither acceptable nor a solemn pathology, but as a joke. “We would insult each other on stage,” Semoun told an interviewer in 2010, “and it was obvious that it wasn’t to be taken at face value.”

Dieudonné and Semoun thus developed a reputation as anti-racist progressives, whose humor helped tolerant people find one another and encouraged less-tolerant people to join their more open-minded fellow citizens.

However, as the 1990s turned into the 2000s, the code in Dieudonné’s routines shifted when he went out on his own. He stopped sending the message that anti-Semitic phrases were for the “uncool” and unenlightened. Instead, he began to say the opposite. He was addressing a different “club.”

In a few years, Dieudonné established himself as the spokesman of those who feel disrespected and ignored by France’s comfortable political establishment. Some of Dieudonné’s fans are the children of immigrants, as is he. Others are middle-class and working-class French citizens who feel as if they aren’t heard in the Eurozone. The angry children of immigrants and the angry children of conservative whites might have in common a sense of being left out, unnoticed and snubbed. Dieudonné spoke to that, as well as another resentment shared by both groups: anti-Semitism. The “club” Dieudonné had joined was an angry group, and Dieudonné exploited that bitterness.

As ever, fights about humor are fights about the code you use to understand why it is funny  —  which are also the codes you use to understand who you see as “us” and who you see as “them.” Which is why when a speaker is at the lectern, humor — one of the most powerful tools for opening minds and bringing people together  —  can also be one of the most powerful tools for closing minds and tearing people apart.

Authors

  • David Berreby

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute