Illustration by Anastasiia Zubareva

The Not-So-Funny Part of a Funny Joke

Humor can induce feelings of ease and comfort, but what about the person who isn't laughing — the person who wasn't even aware that laughter was warranted?

Oct 30, 2016

I’ll be blunt: I hate going out with a group of people who know each other better than they know me. It’s not because we almost always end up finding a table with an odd number of chairs, leaving me to sit at another table nearby, crane my neck and stare at them longingly. It’s also not because this group happens to be very confused as to why a random girl they’ve really only waved to a couple of times keeps following them around and trying to listen to their conversations.
It’s because of the inside jokes.
When I hang out with a group of people, I want to do so wholeheartedly. This means that if they decide to go eat Mexican food, I will pull out my sombrero. If they say that orange really is the new black, I’ll make sure to write a Gazelle article about it to make it official. And if they like jumping off bridges on Friday nights, I might as well follow suit because who else would I hang out with if they’re all dead?
But when they laugh at an inside joke, I can’t laugh along with them — that’s just absurd.
Think about it: humor is almost always used in building relationships. If I tell you a joke and you laugh, that reflects a tacit understanding that you approve of me, think highly of my intelligence and enjoy my company.
“I do think that many of my relationships are based on humor. One’s ability to make me laugh is automatically a plus point for that person, and I think that humor is how most relationships are sparked,” noted freshman Muhannad Ramlawi.
The presence of laughter can also ensure a lively mood and help to ease tension.
“I do use humor to connect to people, even if I don’t know them that well. I like to make a fool of myself so people can feel comfortable around me,” said junior Gaby Flores. Ramlawi also mentioned that he is much funnier when he is speaking in his native language because the linguistic ease allows him to be more expressive and confident. Laughter and humor can induce these feelings of ease and comfort, but what about the person who isn’t laughing — the person who wasn’t even aware that laughter was warranted?
This concept is similar to how Mr. Bean, a character from a British TV sitcom, is blissfully unaware of the strangeness of his actions. Mr. Bean, albeit being a show with little to no dialogue — most of which consists mainly of grunts and mumbles and a jarringly artificial laugh track — remains a timeless comedy. Whether an episode depicts Mr. Bean attempting to get off an escalator but failing to do so, or awkwardly trying to make a friend, his exaggerated and ridiculous actions never cease to incite laughter.
But seen from Mr. Bean’s perspective, the things he does are not strange. His actions fall under his personal framework and they most definitely do not warrant laughter. Yet watching him in his state of confusion, unable to understand the fundamental aspects of the way we operate in society, prompts us to laugh. His unconventionality indicates to us that he is perhaps not considered a part of our world at all.
There’s us on one side, and him on the other — much like an inside joke, with them on one side and me on the other.
On a larger scale, this phenomenon can be referred to as what British sociologist and humor scholar Christie Davies calls the Stupidity Joke, the tendency to make fun of people who’ve been labeled as simpletons and, often, outsiders.
As Davies puts it, the jokes do not stem from ill-intention or hostility, but rather as a need to prove ourselves superior to others — the need to consider ourselves exceptional yet part of a group at the same time.
The Stupidity Joke is perhaps one of the most universal types of humor, because almost all cultures have their own version of a region-specific joke.
“We make fun of Pathans the way the Brits make fun of the Irish,” said sophomore Rida Zafar on the workings of Pakistani humor.
In an article by humor researchers Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, they reflect on their travels in Japan and the high context-based humor that the Japanese employ. According to them, the humor there is so remarkably uniform that most jokes don’t even bother with a set-up, they just get right to the punch line.
“One common joke, about an Olympic gymnast whose leotard was hiked embarrassingly high during a performance, has apparently become so familiar that even the punch line isn’t necessary. All you have to do is gesture to your upper thigh,” McGraw and Warner write.
Once again, those who can partake in the laughter in this situation would be considered part of an in-group, while those who do not understand the humor would be considered outsiders.
While laughter and humor can most definitely connect us, it can just as easily act as a divisive factor. Perhaps there is something very human about othering people and forming exclusive groups. Or perhaps I just need to hang out with people who know me better.
Larayb Abrar is Features Editor. Email her at
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