Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Why men and women laugh out loud

The secret to tickling his or her funny bone.

It was somewhere in the middle of one of the Jackass films – when a Jackassinine was climbing hand over hand on a rope strung across a crocodile pit, a dead chicken hanging off his backside as hungry crocs lunged – that I thought, It doesn't get any funnier than this. Then I glanced over at my wife, who had an expression on her face that was more horrified than amused. She asked, "Why are you laughing?"

It was an excellent question, and one I couldn't really answer. I knew her friends preferred the lovelorn characters in Nora Ephron's romantic comedies or the gentle whimsy of radio humorist Garrison Keillor. But given a choice between watching an Ephron film with its sharp comic patter, or waiting to see what happens when some dude straps bottle rockets to his roller skates, I'll watch the dude. And the truth is the only way I would listen to a radio variety show was if someone duct-taped me to a chair.

I find the brilliant Mr Keillor too subtle and his wordplay way too clever. Certainly nothing in Keillor's armamentarium of bons mots equals Curly's enchantingly lyrical "nyuk nyuk nyuk".

All of this leads to one of the great questions of the ages. Is my wife's consistent good taste in humour representative of women everywhere? Is my proclivity for dim-witted entertainment typical? Or, to paraphrase Freud, what do women and men want to laugh at?

Cerebral comedy
The glimmerings of an answer appeared back in the late '90s, far from the brick walls and open mikes of comedy clubs. According to science journalist Kathleen Stein, it was happening inside the hallowed halls of London's Institute of Neurology. In her recent book The Genius Engine, Stein describes how researchers there used MRIs to photograph the brain as it processed a joke.

Neuroscientists Dr Vinod Goel and Dr Raymond Dolan bombarded their captive audience with corny jokes (Q: Why don't sharks bite lawyers? A: Professional courtesy), tricky semantics (Q: What do you give the man who has everything? A: Antibiotics) and slightly edgier stuff like this one from Chris Rock: "The only thing I know about Africa is that it's far, far away. About a 35-hour flight. The boat ride's so long, there are still slaves on their way here."

The scientists watched the subjects' brain cells spark into activity and pinpointed the neurological equivalent of the funny bone. It resides in a region called the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a neighbourhood of convoluted grey matter tucked in the front of the brain where some of the higher functions of language and thought reside.

Not only were neuronal responses positively ablaze in the PFC, but they also varied according to the funniness of the joke. "When a participant laughed out loud," says Stein, "a specific region lit up." It was a subsection with the tongue-twisting name of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. "The brain's comedy central," she says.

What does it take to tickle someone's ventromedial prefrontal cortex? Why does a woman like the hapless, shambling but sweet and romantic Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents and a guy prefer the loutish Ben Stiller in DodgeBall, which has many, many scenes where guys are hit in the groin?

To get a deeper insight into this mysterious process, Stanford University psychiatrist Dr Allan Reiss recruited 20 male and female university students. Inside an MRI, the men and women looked at 70 cartoons flashed on a small overhead screen and rated them on a funniness scale. When the results came back, Reiss made an unexpected discovery: men and women process funny differently. The analytical region of women's brains was more active than the men's, suggesting women studied the cartoons more. When they found the cartoon amusing, the reward region of their brains lit up noticeably more than the guys'.

All of which is a fancy way of saying women appear to think a little more about whether they find something humorous. They don't necessarily expect to laugh and so they enjoy it a lot more when the joke works for them. With men, apparently, it was more like, "Hey. . . cartoon. Must be funny. Funny is good."

So it's no surprise comedians find that women make tougher crowds. Insult comic Lisa Lampanelli says, "The first thing women do when you get on that stage is size you up." Do they ever, agrees Eddie Brill, an experienced stand-up who books comedians for David Letterman. "They even look at my shoes," he laughs. "So with an all-female crowd, I'll wear really nice shoes."

The smartest comics know how to work both sides of the room. New York City comic Shaun Eli admits it's self-serving. "If you bash women at a comedy club and half the people there are on dates, the women aren't going to laugh, and the men are going to realise their girlfriends aren't laughing, so they're not going to laugh," he says. "You alienate the audience." Consequently, Eli, who has braved the stage since 2003, avoids put-downs and instead tees off on quirky news items, like "In Florida, three masked men stole $4 million in coins. They were described as armed and extremely sore."

Men vs women
But why are women so selective, and why do guys laugh at pretty much . . . anything? To get an answer, I described my Jackass viewing experience to Regina Barreca, a professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut. She has made a career of studying men and women and humour, so I thought she would know. "You mean Jackass, the movie?" she said with more than a touch of sarcasm. "I love that. I guess you don't confuse it with Jackass, the opera, or Jackass, the ballet."

I defensively tried to deconstruct the funniness of a dude clinging to a rope with a dead chicken hanging off him but didn't make much headway. I was laughing too hard.

Women may bash men for having the sense of humour of a nine-year-old boy, but men strike right back, accusing women of having no sense of humour at all. It's a misperception, Barreca says, based on three things. One is that women don't like crude. "We don't do eye-poking, head-slamming humour. No woman has gone up to another woman and said, 'Pull my finger'."

Second, women don't tell jokes. They tell stories. When a woman says, "I have something funny to tell you," if you're smart, you'll sit down, because you're going to be there for a long, long time.

Third, women don't enjoy humour that makes fun of others' physical shortcomings. By contrast, men make fun of just about everyone. "Men taunt other men with clever nicknames and insults," says John Morreall, a humour expert at the College of William and Mary. "That isn't something women do." There's a joke on that goes, "If Laura, Suzanne, Debra and Rose go out for lunch, they will call one another Laura, Suzanne, Debra and Rose. If Mike, Charlie, Bob and John go out, they will affectionately refer to one another as Fat Boy, Godzilla, Peanut-Head and Scrappy."

If women laugh at anyone, it's at themselves and their quirks. As Lisa Lampanelli puts it, "With us, it's about our looks and our weight."

Barreca agrees. "We think we're fat if we can't fit into the jeans we wore in high school. Men think they're fat if they can't fit into a foreign car."

But between the jokelands of men and women is a vast common ground. Nielsen Media Research breaks down the gender of audiences for television comedies. It turns out we all watch the same shows: In the 1990s, it was Seinfeld, Frasier, Home Improvement, Roseanne, Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends. Today's top sitcoms, Two and a Half Men and Rules of Engagement, are popular with both sexes. Comedy Central – which gave the world South Park and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and its offspring, The Colbert Report – has a viewership that's about 40 percent female. "The common ground is in the absurdities of everyday life," says Barreca.

Yet for all we have learnt about the he/she factor in humour, one mystery abides. Why watch plotless 20-minute comedy shorts in which three potsy middle-aged men with bizarre haircuts basically boing, clonk and blammo one another over and over again for no real reason?

A possible answer may come from another study, this one done at the University of Toronto, where researchers were studying how injuries affect the higher levels of intellectual operation. They asked normal and brain-damaged individuals to evaluate jokes. Those with certain neurological damage had difficulty picking out the appropriate punch line for jokes like "A teenager is being interviewed for a summer job. 'You'll get $50 a week to start off,' says his boss. 'Then after a month, you'll get a raise to $75 a week.' 'That's great!' the kid says. 'I'll come back in a month'." The group with the neurological damage didn't get the joke but did show "a preference for silly, slapstick humour – surprising but illogical endings that are the hallmarks of such acts as the Three Stooges".

Of course, this is not to suggest that most men have the humour sensibilities of a brain-damaged patient. Well, actually, I guess it does. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.


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