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« A Second Glance | Main | CotL # 34 »

March 15, 2007


It is funny that I originally invited you to be an author on A.B. after you and I engaged in a couple of long, protracted arguments about the role of science in the arts, literature and popular culture in general. Although I am inclined to give more credence to scientific studies of mundane behavior, I agree with you that journalists and scientists themselves often have a tendency to go overboard with their interpretations and conclusions.

The "Laughter" article irritated me right off the bat with the following opening sentence.

So there are these two muffins baking in an oven. One of them yells, “Wow, it’s hot in here!”
And the other muffin replies: “Holy cow! A talking muffin!”

Did that alleged joke make you laugh? I would guess (and hope) not.

Why not, I asked? On what authority did the author declare that we shouldn't find the joke funny? Very similar to the irritation I feel when snooty art mavens and critics superciliously tell us what is "art." The flaw in the article was to not make a distinction between "humor" which is independent of who is present and "laughter" which for the most part is a social reaction.

You already quoted me on my take on whether laughter is exclusively a social activity and if humor is independent of the setting. I often laugh by myself, alone at home when I read or hear something funny. True, there is an impulse to immediately call or e-mail someone to share the joke. So, yes, laughter is best enjoyed in company. But the ability to detect and appreciate humor can happen in solitude. When my sister and I are together, we go into hysterics so frequently and over such "unfunny" things that our husbands and children are convinced that we put up a cliquish wall against the rest of them. But that is not true because we do that just by ourselves even when no one else is around.

There is one thing true in the article to some extent. The boss and underling angle. It is true that the weak are more likely to laugh than the powerful in identical social settings and a rich man's joke is always funny. But the weak can also manipulate a situation to their advantage with laughter. Women know very well that they can make a man "do" things for them by laughing at his jokes. They can also intimidate. There is nothing that will turn a man's knees to jelly faster than believing that a gaggle of females is giggling at him. Most of this happens without forethought or planning and it transcends age, social settings and class barriers - in school, at parties, at the hardware store or at the auto repair shop.

The article on mathematical modeling and the pitfalls of overinterpretation is very illuminating.

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