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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Column: Snot funny

Last week I told a story about my mother and it has come to my attention that we will not still be in school over Father’s Day and that this is unfair to my male parent. So I will tell an equally flattering story.

When I was little and a budding comedian I used to make jokes in which I would rib my pops (giving each other a hard time is basically a Hempstead family tradition), to which he would invariably reply, “That’s snot funny! It’s snot, it’s snot, it’s snot.” Upon which the aforementioned snot would fly out of my nose as I cackled uncontrollably in the passenger seat of his truck at what was definitely the funniest joke ever made. My dad is great.

Funniness is subjective. I’m into comedy in a big way and the thing is you can never tell exactly what will make someone laugh. In fact, you can’t even really tell what will make you laugh. It’s not like you’re sitting in front of an Apatow movie, saying to yourself, “that gentleman just referenced the act of coitus! How droll, I believe I shall laugh now. Hah! Hah!” It would be a very different kind of world if we thought that way.

So if you can never predict what people will find funny, how do you be funny on purpose? Don’t look at me, I don’t have a freaking clue.

Ok fiiiine, I’ll look into it.

Here’s something interesting. Did you know that your average baby laughs 15 times more per day that an adult? Which makes me question just what the duck is so funny that our babies are cracking up all day? What are these infants seeing that we’re not? Have we become so jaded to the wonderful funniness of the world that we’ve lost our ability to laugh? Or maybe their standards for what’s funny are just way lower than ours because babies are dumb. Either way.

Time for a science party! When you laugh, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lights up, which is the part that squirts out endorphins. But from the ridiculously tiny bit of research I’ve read on the subject, it’s not totally clear to me which happens first. That is to say, do you observe something, laugh at it and then receive a big endorphin boost, or are the endorphins the cause of the laughter? Does happiness make you laugh or does laughter make you happy? There’s probably an answer somewhere that I don’t know because I’m basically as dumb as a dumb, stupid baby.

So I did something in that last paragraph that comedy people term a “callback.” That’s when you reference something that happened earlier, funny or not, in the hopes that your audience will remember it and giggle. Callbacks are satisfying to hear because — even if they’re as cheap as mine just was — you feel smart for catching on. Which, of course, you are. You’re also very good looking and have perfect hands. Please keep reading my column?

Another thing comedy nerds talk about is the rule of three, in which you set up the premise for a joke, repeat it in a slightly different permutation and then defy the expectation you’ve just set up. I sort of did it when I was complimenting you. I called you smart (established that you are being complimented), called you pretty (a natural successor to “smart” that creates a pattern of flattery) and then said you have perfect hands, which was probably borderline creepy. Rule of three, bro.

Hey, here’s something I’ve been thinking about. Folklorists in a couple countries have demonstrated the existence of what they’re calling “joke cycles.” These are the kinds of jokes we all know and eye-roll at, dead baby jokes or dumb blonde jokes or those annoying “blank that blank people say” videos that have fortunately gone away.

They find these formulaic jokes everywhere and my hypothesis on why they’re so popular is that they’re both comfortable and rich with possibility. When someone says “why did Helen Keller’s dog run away” you know exactly what you’re about to get — namely something tasteless about an American hero. The jokes are simultaneously old and new, a gently surprising twist on a familiar recipe, transgressive but not too transgressive. And to our weird mammal brains, that feels nice.

It’s okay if you didn’t find this column funny, neither did KATELYN HEMPSTEAD, who can be reached at khempstead@ucdavis.edu.

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