Incongruity! Left posterior temporal gyrus! Now THAT’S funny! (How to use the science of funny.)

February 14, 2010 — 2 Comments

Growing up as a Wallman was funny. We laughed a lot. It wasn’t until after I performed and wrote a lot of comedy that I realized how many things I learned about comedy while growing up: timing, delivering a punch line, working a room, surprise, and listening. Being the youngest of five kids helped, as we always a built-in audience.

I was lucky enough to perform and write comedy for many years. About 8 years in improv (ComedySportz), and 5 in sketch comedy (The Prom Committee). Getting paid to deliberately make people laugh put a few general comedy maxims in my head. I could always lean on one of these tactics to get a laugh. Use `em yourself. They’re easy.

  • Surprise – an unexpected thing or statement or moment always works. Surprise is the most powerful of human situations. This German coffee commercial does a great job of using surprise.
  • Conflict – setting up a conflict leads to funny. Groucho Marx as a crass wise guy at a hoity-toity party is great conflict.
  • The least likely scenario – moving a scene along was always aided by inserting something that didn’t exactly belong. This whole scene from A Night at the Opera was built on “What’s the next least-likely thing that could happen?”

Whilst stumbling around the internet, I found some cool contemporary thinking about the science of funny, from The Science of Humor (, and The comedy circuit: When your brain gets the joke (

– Incongruity is the name of the game. Surprise, conflict and the least likely scenario are all forms of incongruity.

– A jolt hits the brain’s limbic system when we “get” a joke, the same kind of jolt associated with dopamine release and reward processing, possibly explaining why getting a joke feels good.

– People laugh an average of 17.5 times per day. (“The Psychology of Humor“, Rod Martin.)

– Where does the funny come from?
11% of daily laughter comes from jokes
17% is prompted by media
72% arises spontaneously in social interaction
(“Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes“, by Jim Holt)

That one is kinda sad. Before the internet, TV, radio and movies, we humans were less dependent on funny being fed to us. This doesn’t bode well for our ability to be funny with each other for the next 100 years.

Here’s more than your daily average of 17.5 laughs, courtesy of Steve Martin.

2 responses to Incongruity! Left posterior temporal gyrus! Now THAT’S funny! (How to use the science of funny.)


    Another good reason to bring the funny: Affinity.

    When you’re “in on the joke,” it’s a great feeling. I’m cool! I get it! I’m being laughed with, not at!

    Which reminds me of a comedy-in-advertising caveat — be careful not to make your target audience … well, the target.

    A couple of years ago, Bud Light ran one of their “Real Men of Genius” radio spots skewering the dorks who play fantasy football. (And yes, yes, I’m a fantasy football player so I’m sensitive.)

    This is the same Bud Light who placed their logo all over our fantasy football poster that year, the same way they paid to sponsor our league’s fantasy football web site.

    Hard to have it both ways, Bud Light. You’re with us or agin us.


    Nice words of wisdom Matt! Thanks. Your blog is cool. I almost had a fantastic heart attack looking at Baconfest shots.

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