Friday, August 9, 2013

It's Funny 'Cause it's... Repetitive

Rarely is an explanation of why something is funny, funny in and of itself. Attempts at eliciting laughs by dissecting a joke often rely on the “it’s funny ‘cause it’s [blank]” formula, with “it’s funny ‘cause it’s true” seated at the head of the table.

Surely I’m wrong, but I credit the first mainstream usage of this line to Steve Pepoon who penned the words for Homer Simpson back in 1991, in the only episode of the series he ever wrote. Over the last 22 years, this line or a variant of it has popped up across the comedy landscape from the 2001 flop, Corky Romano, to a season two episode of The Big Bang Theory in ‘09. While the explaining-a-joke joke may be stumbling about on tired legs, there is certainly merit to the thoughtful dissection of jokes without laughter as the end goal.

If you don’t disagree, read the following. 
It’s not funny ‘cause it’s not supposed to be.

On a Radiolab podcast titled Loops, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich introduce a comedy bit of Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal’s which relies heavily on repetition in finding its laughs. Check out the clip below:

What makes repetition so funny, or at the very least amusing?

The NPR podcast points out that there is something comical about the “Kristen Schaal is a horse” bit right out of the gate. Combine the cadence of Braunohler’s voice as he spits out the bizarre lyric with Schaal’s unorthodox horse dance, and it’s odd-ball humor at its finest. Initially, it works in as much as it’s piqued the audience’s curiosity; they digest it as the set-up for an imminent punchline.

But there is no punchline, either imminent or off in the distance. In some ways, the audience has been cheated, the comic-audience contract breached. But, instead of making amends, the comedy duo force-feeds the crowd the same five lines. Then, they do it again. Repetition should kill jokes. Then, they do it again. With each occasion of hearing the same joke. And again. The joke becomes less and less striking. And again. Consider the “it’s funny because it’s [blank]” line. But instead of coming across as tired, the repetitive joke comes off as positively insistent.

What’s interesting is that, when played for laughs, repetition like this ultimately seems to get them. Just not in a conventional way. The absurdity of the act makes you wonder why, and then it makes you mutter why. It makes you question why so much that you may consider asking why not, and then, eventually, it makes you laugh.

Speculating about the mechanism behind this particular kind of humor, I couldn’t help liken the reaction to that of a baby responding to a game of peekaboo, with its drawn out and repetitive nature. As it turns out this association wasn’t unwarranted. Thomas Veatch outlines, in his theory published in the International Journal of Humor Research, that the reason babies are entertained by peekaboo is that they don’t yet understand object permanence (that objects—including people—continue to exist even when you can’t see them). So, for babies, every time your face pops out from behind your hands, you are violating their expectations, you are violating the principle that exists in their minds that when your face disappears behind your hands it literally disappears.

According to Veatch’s theory, all humor is derived from situations in which one can simultaneously feel that a principle is being violated and that the same principle is being upheld. Laughter is the result, as we recognize—albeit with suspicion—that everything is as it should be.

What a repetitive joke seems to do differently is that it makes the joke itself the violated principle. Depending on how attached you are to the principle that a joke will follow a standard set-up > punchline format, you may or may not find situations that violate this principle to be funny. If you are too attached to the principle, then you may find “Kristen Schaal is a horse” offensive. If you are too detached from the principle, you may find the bit entirely unremarkable.

Repetitive jokes may simultaneously be the most deserving of an explanation and the hardest to explain. It may very well be that it’s wondering why they make us laugh that actually makes us laugh. It’s from the very bewilderment as to why it’s funny that it is so funny. In other words, it’s beyond explanation. It’s so very absurd, that we find funny our own attempts to analyze it under a critical light.

By performing live, Braunohler and Schaal have a leg-up over the king of repetitive laughs, Seth MacFarlane, who, relegated to his animated worlds (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) is free to exploit repetition without physically exerting himself (see below). Braunohler and Schaal on the other hand, are exhausted and it shows. Lucky for them, it only elevates the humor as the hoarseness of Braunohler’s voice surpasses the horseness of Schaal’s dance.

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