Humor as Massage

As I grow older, I find fewer things funny. Curiously elephant jokes still work on me. The steady rise of my chuckle-or-cringe threshold hasn’t been a monotonic progression from childish to sophisticated. Things are more complex.

One reason, I suppose, is that over an adult decade-and-half, I’ve experienced at least one complete cycle of innovation in humor (the rise and fall of Seinfeld-Leno style observational humor) and consumed a critical quantity of at least three major kinds of humor (Indian, British and American, in order of influence on me). The result is that these days I can often place a joke or gag in space and time and explain it away quickly enough to kill the chuckle before it is born. Sometimes before the punchline.

A second reason, I suppose, is that as a member of one of those steady money-making professions (engineering) that efficiently converts marginalized adolescent sensibilities into comfortably mainstream blunted-bourgeois Babbitt-sensibilities, it becomes harder every year to relate to the dyspeptic  poverty-honed gloom of the professional comic. A steady paycheck can bring us comedy consumers to that place comedians dread: where we are moved neither to laughter, nor discomfort by their work, but merely to pity. Both identity humor and trivial observational humor  just leave me tired, with a sense of a yawning, unbridgeable gap between those of us who live in the thick of the globalized world and make a living understanding and manipulating it, and those on the outside, staring in with mute incomprehension.  And it’s not just those relatively mature genres that leave me spectacularly unaffected. Self-consciously “innovative” humorists like Sarah Silverman leave me with a I get it, and it isn’t doing anything for me feeling. It is no wonder that many lesser humorists give up the challenge of reaching real audiences altogether, and turn to mutual admiration based on technique and craft rather than content.

There is no real pattern to what I still like. I like the recent revival of sketch comedy, and the older Monty Python and Fry and Laurie shows, Demetri Martin’s uneven but genre-creating Important Things and The Office. The Simpsons and South Park still manage to surprise me occasionally. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have gone from being humor sources to actual news sources for me. I am starting to like Conan O’Brien. P. G. Wodehouse is starting to lose me, as is the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Modern Indian (Hindi) stand-up comedy leaves me cold, but a few recent movies, like the poignant-slapstick Khosla ka Ghosla, had me bent over with laughter.

I’ve been watching a good deal of the ongoing PBS series, Make ’em laugh, a history of comedy in America, and that got me to wondering about what I find funny and why. Yes, I am one of those killjoys who can’t help but analyze humor. When you dissect humor, you kill it, but you learn something. You lose the ability to ever laugh at that kind of joke again, but the consolation is that you gain a little spoonful of self-awareness each time. I must be one of the many squares who half-hoped that Dave Barry’s classic Why Humor is Funny would actually contain an answer. But somewhere between age 18, when I found him hilarious, and today, when I find him dull, I must have at least subconsciously found myself some answers.

But examining the data from a couple of decades, I am finally beginning to understand some things explicitly about humor. Humor works like massage on the brain. You walk around with tens of thousands of tensions, repressions and denials everyday, each like a little knot in your brain. As with a knot in your muscles, if you become aware of it, you stretch or shift your posture to get rid of it. If it is extremely deep-rooted, even the strongest masseuse will not be able to find it. The professional comedian can target with precision only a handful of commonly-held just-below-the-surface tensions in a set. With the long-tail-ization of the world, there are fewer and fewer such universally-held adult tensions. Adult in-groups are getting impossibly balkanized. Elephant jokes might be the last universally accessible kind of humor.

For a comedian, I suspect the most devastating way to bomb is to find that your audience has long since permanently relieved for itself with an insight, a brain-knot that you seek to relieve temporarily with a joke. Krusty the Clown, in an episode of the Simpsons, as part of a desperate attempt to reinvent himself as an observational comic, makes up a joke about why phone books have blue, yellow and white pages. The joke falls flat and Lisa, in puzzlement, explains to him that they represent government, business and personal phone numbers. “Oh, that makes sense” says Krusty. When things make sense, they cannot be funny. Humor is the bleeding edge in the dull and deadening progress of knowledge,. Progress that gradually converts fears into yawns. The most fundamental mysteries are the ones we discover, deny and repress early in childhood, which is why elephant jokes will remain fundamentally mysterious and funny long after Sarah Silverman has been explained away.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I remember Douglas Adams describing a similar effect, when he heard the one about “why can’t they make airplanes with the same stuff they make black boxes with?” The real reason was so obvious to him that he didn’t find it funny, and in fact was concerned at the anti-science nature of much of popular humour.

    I think there’s another angle to it – our old friend, supply and demand.

    When we were growing up in the Indira Gandhi days, humour, like rice and wheat, was a scarce resource. Rationed quantities were distributed to the Indian family via their weekly half-hoursworth of Mungeri Lal and Jaspal Bhatti (“Saheb ne froot bheja hai”, the lineman’s flunky grinned, courting Bhatti’s daughter with a tall bundle of sugarcane, sending a whole nation into gales of laughter.)

    And if we were really, really good, we’d get an extra dollop of Yes, Minister with our Diwali bonus.

    There were rumours at school, that there was no law of physics that constrained the number of TV channels to 2, rumours that there were channels abroad – RTV or MTV or something – which played western music all day long, even at night!

    And so along the western seaboard, fathers and sons added sticks to their antenna, pointing due west at the deserts of Arabia, from where the monsoon winds would sometimes blow grainy cartoons and Arabic news channels across our shores.

    When the satellite revolution finally came, I was hit hard. Glued to the TV all day, taking toilet breaks every now and then, I was determined not to let a nuance slip my grasp. I actually used to get irritated at myself for forgetting last week’s episode which had that priceless joke…

    And now… the age of superabundance. There is so much worth reading and so much worth watching – because there are so many smart, literate people online – that you could never ever hope to catch more than a fraction. So I’ve finally arrived at this jaded steady state. There could be a hundred Seinfeld episodes lying unwatched, or hundreds of Onion articles unread, unseen… but it’s OK. I’ll watch ’em if I have time. Some time.

  2. There is definitely a supply-limit and a demand-limit effect. But I am not sure that with ubiquity, that we learn to discriminate any better.

    Consider the counterfactual: if we’d grown up, and continued without cable in India, would our tastes still have matured? Our thresholds still risen?

    I think, yes. Even in limited supply, there is usually enough variety, and we form our judgments and launch on our maturation paths. Even in those supply-limited days, I’d say Yes Minister would have helped define the outer limits of my spectrum of quality, and I suspect I could tell crap very early on. Probably because real life itself, and private humor, set the default bar quite high.

    What supply limit does cause though, is non-satiation of our basic appetites. It is not enough to be able to tell great food from bad food. You also need enough food.


  3. Q: How is elephant and milk the same?




    A: They both come in gallons

  4. On a more serious note, I’ve noticed that humor often allows you to say things you couldn’t say otherwise. An example is “anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac”.

    The joke highlights a much larger point about subjectivity & interpretation but I’ve found that if you explain it in a long form solution, people start to instinctively raise their psychological defenses and resist the point your trying to make.

    A joke slips through like a knife between the ribs and causes that moment of identification that would not have occurred otherwise.

  5. Xianhang:

    Interesting point. I think I personally make a distinction between humor for humor’s sake vs. humor as a rhetorical tactic. The latter makes me rather uncomfortable actually, since the laughter you get (especially from the butt of the joke) is always polite/fake, and you don’t gain much over just making the point in a straight way. For your two examples, I’d use different feedback:

    “It feels unsafe, driving this slow. Could you speed up and go with the flow?”

    “Can you slow down? You’re making me anxious.”


  6. Venkat: The joke about drivers is not actually about cars.

    One scenario could be:

    You: “Ugh, I don’t like James at all, he just prattles on and on about everything and it’s a bore to listen to him. And Suzy isn’t much better, she just sits in the corner and doesn’t say a word”

    Me: “So what you’re saying is that anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac?”

    Incidentally, this posts just reminded me of another use of humor:

  7. A couple of (not humorous?!) quotes on humor:

    There is more logic in humor than in anything else. Because, you see, humor is truth.
    -Victor Borge

    Humor is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.
    -Mary Hirsch

    Guy Kawasaki had blogged about a book called Why Smart People Do Dumb Things that said:

    Your humor reflects your attitudes toward people. The mature person uses humor not as a bludgeoning hammer but rather as a plane to shave off rough edges.

    My reaction to that was:

    I like the way two types of humour have been identified: one that you might use as a weapon (the bad kind) and one that helps you smoothen your rough edges (the good kind). I often see a third kind: humour used as a shield (neutral).

    A word of caution: it is all well to feel oneself “outgrowing” the humor of a Charlie Chaplin/PG Wodehouse/Yes Minister/Seinfeld/Dave Barry and so on. But it could be a treacherous slope… one could slide down into boring morosity. After all:

    Don’t take life too seriously. You will never get out of it alive.
    -Elbert Hubbard

    If we imagine a humor quality index that starts at the bottom with flat/crude/obnoxious/context-specific and proceeds to subtle/universal/timeless, I like to believe that it is a blessing to be able to derive fun from the lowest value beyond a threshold index.

  8. “For a comedian, I suspect the most devastating way to bomb is to find that your audience has long since permanently relieved for itself with an insight, a brain-knot that you seek to relieve temporarily with a joke.”

    Just realized why this resonated so much. Replace comedian with philosopher or theologian and the result would be the same. One of the best things science has done for me is to relieve me of the trouble of having to bother with largish chunks of philosophy.

    And here’s a Simpsons quote to you too..
    Lisa: I want you to shut off the logical part of your mind.
    Bart: Okay.
    Lisa: Embrace nothingness.
    Bart: You got it.
    Lisa: Become like an uncarved stone.
    Bart: Done.
    Lisa: What is the sound of one hand clapping?
    Bart: Piece of cake. [claps with one hand]
    Lisa: No, Bart, it’s a 3000-year-old riddle with no anwer.
    It’s supposed to clear your mind of conscious thought.
    Bart: No answer? Lisa, listen up! [claps with one hand]
    Lisa: If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around, does it make a sound?
    Bart: Absolutely! [makes the sound of a tree falling]

  9. Trees falling in the woods reminded me of Sir Ken Robinson’s wisecrack:

    If a man speaks his mind in the forest and no woman is around to hear it, is he still wrong?

    These and other gems can be found in his impassioned plea to change our views about creativity and the education of children in the TED video at

    This is a rare 18-minute speech that, every time I view it, makes me laugh out loud and feel moved even after having watched it 4-5 times.

  10. Thanks for the ted talk link Ganesh. Hadn’t seen this one before. The ‘school killing creativity’ seems to be a rather tired lament though.

    Speaking of laments…