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Sunday, 22 December 2013

Subtle humour sucks

"I've stopped reading Twitter in the morning," Rachel tells me, as we're trying to work in the physics library at the University, and I'm wondering if it can get any chillier in here. The heating system seems to think it's mid-summer and is blasting cold air through large vents in the wall. I'm icing up fast. 

"It's relentless," she says. "It makes me feel everything is far worse than I thought. Sexism, homophobia, Tory cuts, terrorism, climate change, ocean pollution, cold feet, badly-fitting bras, the hierarchy problem in particle physics.

"Twitter tells me stuff I can't do anything about. But once you start reading you can't stop. You're fascinated and appalled. You desperately want to do something to help, but you can't because the world's problems are enormous."
"Don't stand there gawping - help me out here."
"You sound like my son," I say, pulling the collar of my jacket up and sinking my head down, to get some heat into frozen ears. "He avoids the news because it makes him feel bad."

"That's going too far," she says. "You have to force yourself to face stuff or you're not living in the real world. I just don't want it coming at me too early and all at once. It ruins my day."

"Follow some funny guys then," I say. "It's what I do. Lightens my mood in the morning. Paul Bassett Davies makes me laugh. He does these offbeat one-liners on Twitter and writes a blog. 

"I like his advice to aspiring writers: 'Begin with a sex scene. Then do some writing.'" 

"I don't know him," Rachel says. "But what puts me off Internet humour is the brainless boy-jokes. Mostly visual and slapstick, and often cruel. It's like Mel Brooks says: 'Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.' I don't like that. I like subtlety."

"I don't," I say. "I like Mel Brooks. You can't beat a good fart joke. Then there's that scene where the black sheriff shouts 'Hey, where the white women at?' to the Ku Klux Klan.' That was funny."

"Hilarious," she says. 
Scottish humour

"Subtle humour is just a way to flaunt your superiority," I say. "Then you laugh again at the people who don't get the joke. It's not funny. It's peacock posturing."

"And crude stand-up isn't?" she says. 

"I don't like that either," I say. "So is there a science of humour?"

"Not so much a science," she says. "More a bunch of theories that go back to Aristotle."

"Did he do stand-up? Aristotle at the Apollo?"

"No but he had theories about everything, most of them wrong. He reckoned all humour had its origins in that feeling of superiority you mentioned. So did Thomas Hobbes, much later

"It was Francis Hutcheson, the father of the Scottish Enlightenment, who first pointed out that humour is multi-faceted and often arises from the convergence of two mismatched ideas."

"Interesting," I say. "So do you want to hear a subtle, multi-faceted joke?"

"Yes, please," she says.

"Two philosophers meet in a bar. 'How did you get so wet?' Descartes says. 

"'Turns out I was wrong," Heraclitus replies. 'Can I get you a drink?' 

"'I think not,' says Descartes and disappears."

"Ha ha," Rachel says.

"I rest my case," I say. 

Science of humour
The good sense of humour (GSOH) everyone's looking for might be different for men and women, according to research. "To a woman, 'sense of humour' means someone who makes her laugh; to a man, a sense of humour means someone who appreciates his jokes."

Prof Sophie Scott regularly tweets and laughter is one of her research interests.

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