51: Caleb Warren (What Makes Things Funny)

Danielle Krage interviews Caleb Warren, Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Arizona. Caleb researches and writes about what makes things funny, what makes things cool, and what helps people reach their goals. In this conversation, Caleb shares some of his key findings about humour and how it works.

00:00 Introduction to Consumer Psychology and Humour

01:20 How Caleb Got into the Study of Humour

04:01 Physical Comedy and Empathy

06:00 Psychological Distance and Humour

07:27 The Role of Absurdity in Comedy

08:21 Psychological Distance and Animation

09:08 The Difference Between Comedy and Serious Settings

09:39 The Flawed Theory of Surprise in Humour

10:40 The Relationship Between Surprise and Humour

11:36 The Benign Violation Experiment

13:19 The Difference Between Humour and Coolness

14:18 Coolness as a Positive Deviation from the Norm

15:10 How Coolness and Humour Overlap

16:00 The Importance of Autonomy and Enjoyment in Goal Pursuit

18:27 The Importance of Product in Marketing

19:54 The Role of Humour in Marketing

20:20 The Benefits of Humour in Enjoyment and Happiness

21:46 How Humour Translates and Changes with Distance

22:44 How Sense of Humour Changes with Age

23:46 The Evolution of Humour and Cultural Norms

26:56 Research on Coolness Across Different Cultures

28:57 The Personality Traits of Cool People

30:06 The Role of Effort in Coolness and Status

32:27 The Tension Between Marketing and Coolness

35:23 The Importance of Being Good vs. Being Cool

36:54 Caleb’s Band and Songwriting

You can find Caleb here:

Research website: https://www.calebwarrenresearch.com/
TedX talks:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jxh-ispLUmA
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Z7hkfkCEno
Band website: https://bandoftownies.com/

CLICK HERE FOR TRANSCRIPT

Danielle (00:00.)

Hey everybody. Today I am very excited to have Caleb Warren with me. Caleb is Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Arizona. And he has the most brilliant area of research and that he writes and talks about, which is how to make things funny, how to make things cool and how to help people achieve their goals, which is such a fun combination. So we’re really going to be diving into what makes things funny particularly today, but also where they might cross over.

But before we dive in, Caleb, is there anything else you’d love people to know about you and your work?

Caleb (00:33.262)

So all those things you said are true. My broader field is consumer psychology, which is a subfield of marketing. And so I’m in a department where our goal is to try to figure out how to better understand consumers, what makes them tick, what makes them happy, what makes them buy, what makes them keep buying, and ultimately to try to help them buy and do things that make them happier in the long run, not necessarily just the short run.

So that’s where, that’s sort of the broader field from which I study humour and coolness and goal pursuit.

Danielle (01:07.675)

Yeah, I love it. And how did you start focusing on humour? Because it’s such an interesting area and it’s quite under, well, to my taste, quite under-researched. So how what brought you into it?

Caleb (01:20.718)

I kind of got into it by accident. So I was studying marketing at the University of Colorado where I did my PhD. And one of my professors there, Peter McGraw, his research was on moral psychology. So what makes people judge things as wrong or inappropriate. And he taught a class on this and I was in class and I was reading some papers and some of the scenarios in the paper, like a family that eats their dead pet dog after it dies, or…a man that buys a chicken at the supermarket and has sex with it and then cooks it and eats it. And these just other crazy scenarios that Jonathan Haidt, the researcher, was portraying as being wrong because people are disgusted by them, even if they can’t come up with a reason for it.

I was reading these and thought they were hilarious. And Pete was having similar things with his moral psychology talks. He would present scenarios like a church that would raffle off a Hummer SUV to recruit new members or an outsource of prayer to India. So typical marketing actions. And he was saying, oh, people are really upset by this. But when he’d present them in an academic department, a lot of times people would laugh. So between his experience and my experience there, we’re like…we need to figure out why things that people think are wrong can also be funny. And from this narrower question of why are moral violations or things that are wrong also funny, we kind of discovered what we think is a more general theory of humor.

And that is that something is funny when there’s a violation and this isn’t just a moral violation, something that seems wrong, but anything that threatens a person’s sense of how the world should be or operate. So that can be something illogical, something that seems incorrect, something that seems physically threatening or threatening to your identity. When that happens and you’re also able to see it as okay, not a big deal, harmless, benign. If you get both of those interpretations at the same time, we argue and we have some data supporting, that’s when people experience humour, laughter, amusement, perception that something is funny. They’re both subjective impressions, but if I see this as… oh, that’s wrong, but it’s also okay, or that’s, oh, that’s not right, but it doesn’t matter, then that’s when we experience humour.

Danielle (03:36.731)

Yeah, and I never come across it expressed that way… when I saw benign violation theory. And I definitely recommend listeners watch your TEDx talk too, because it’s like really great to see the kind of graphics that go with that and where it overlaps.

I wanted to ask you, does this explain why when I watch Jackass style accidents, you know, the kind where someone’s riding a bike and they go up a ramp and they fall off and they crash… I just like clutch my chest and go, oh no. And I don’t laugh, I just get really tense.

Caleb (04:01.326)

Uh huh.

Danielle (04:05.763)

Whereas if someone like Jackie Chan is doing sort of clowning physical comedy and he’s such a skilled martial artist, so when he falls, then often I do laugh. Is that because of benign violation theory? Like how much damage is being done? Or is that something different, do think?

Caleb (04:23.214)

I think I could probably explain it. So the physical comedy is one of the more universal forms of humour and that it is one of the few types of comedy that can translate across cultures and across languages. And if you look at something like tickling or rough and tumble play, sort of chasing games, to some extent, practical jokes, these are more universal forms of humour. We experience them in every culture and often other animals, mammals especially, will laugh when tickled. Children laugh when tickled or when play fighting and there the violation piece is clear. There’s this physical threat, but you also know this other person isn’t going to hurt you. So to relate that to your example with Jackass, the physical threats are very clear. And to the extent that you are worried for the person in there, it’s less likely to seem benign and you’re less likely to think it’s funny.

Danielle (05:15.067)

Hmm.

Caleb (05:19.918)

If on the other hand, you really, uh, you know, that Jackie Chan’s not going to be hurt, then that can make it seem benign. If you don’t care about the people who are getting hurt, that can make it seem benign.So yeah, I think one difference in what people find physical comedy funny is whether they are likely to be empathic towards the people who are getting injured or maimed or embarrassed if it’s more like cringe type comedy.

Danielle (05:51.611)

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I wanted to ask you related to that, and don’t worry if you don’t know, but Muppets. So I’ve been thinking about Muppets and puppets for quite a long time. I’m wondering why, basically, in real life, I laugh at quite a lot of things. As soon as I’m in front of a screen watching something, I love comedies, really enjoy comedies, but it’s actually quite hard to get me to laugh out loud.

Caleb (06:00.686)

Okay.

Danielle (06:18.683)

But if you substitute in the humans for muppets or puppets, the bar changes, and I am so much more willing to laugh. And so I’m wondering what’s going on there. And if you don’t know, that’s fine. But I thought I would ask.

Caleb (06:32.91)

Yeah, I mean, there could be a few reasons. One that I’ll speculate, and this probably holds for a lot of animation too, in addition to puppets and muppets, is that, yeah, it adds, what it does is it makes it seem less real. So there’s this construct called psychological distance, and it’s how close or far something feels away from you. And it can be physical distance, like, you know, right here in front of me versus miles away. It can be time now versus distant, the past or the future.

Danielle (06:38.169)

Mmm. Yeah, I love animation.

Caleb (07:01.71)

It can be socially, like me, my friends versus someone who I don’t know. But it can also be whether it’s hypothetical or real. And if something is more real, it’s closer psychologically than if it’s hypothetical. Now this matters because as something is farther away, it’s easier to see as benign. And so when there are violations, so the puppet does something embarrassing or gets hurt or says something incorrect, morally wrong, whatever, you have this extra layer of distance that makes it easier to see that violation as benign. This is one reason why South Park, which is not only cartoons, but also really crudely drawn cartoons, I think can get away with a lot more than a live action sitcom can in terms of the edginess of its jokes.

Danielle (07:48.027)

Yeah. Oh, that’s super fascinating. That makes a lot of sense because yeah, I do find a lot of animations funnier too. For example, I really love Rick and Morty and that is quite outrageous and Morty does get really damaged, but I think it is maybe the animation, the separation again. That’s super interesting.

And also I’m wondering then if that’s the same thing that’s a play with absurdity. Because generally when things are taken, if it’s humans who are doing it, so it’s not a muppet or a puppet or animation, but as an actual human, if the situation is more absurd I find it easier to laugh. So I don’t know if that’s the same thing. It’s at the distance.

Caleb (08:20.974)

Yeah, I guess I’d ask what you mean by absurd.

Danielle (08:23.419)

That it almost becomes more cartoonish in the level of their character and their behaviours or the situations that they’re in. So it’s less, it is sort of less realistic. So they might be in more almost like fantastical situations. Like for example, Mythic Quest.

Caleb (08:42.318)

Yeah, that would do it. That would have a similar effect. Or even just sort of a stand -up comedian being on stage. Like they’re gonna be able to get away with a lot more there than if they are in front of a boardroom giving a talk to their employees or teaching a class, talking to students. There’s sort of this extra layer of it’s okay for them to take risks, to make jokes, this isn’t real. It’s okay for them to say things they don’t necessarily believe or endorse to get a laugh.

Danielle (09:13.499)

Right. Yeah, I love that. So already, I love this concept. I find it really useful, benign violation. It’s very helpful for me to think about. And psychological distance or distance. Are there any other things that you either have researched or that you are interested in or speculate about in humour that you might think it might be good for people to have think about as a concept?

Caleb (09:39.342)

That’s a kind of a broad question, but I’ll use that to maybe not answer the way you were thinking, but if that’s the case, then come back to it and try again. One of the main ideas that we’ve tried to combat in our research is this notion that things are funny because they’re surprising or unexpected. And I think this is a deeply flawed theory of humour because there are so many things that are surprising that are not funny.

Danielle (10:08.763)

True.

Caleb (10:09.366)

Like if you were to, you know, run someone over with your car. But there’s also so many things that are funny, even though they’re not surprising or they are expected. I’ve already mentioned South Park once, but in that show, they kill the same character every episode for the first like 180 episodes. And like good comedians will go back to a joke they’ve already told and consumers, viewers, movie watchers will laugh at the same movie that they’ve seen three, four, five times. So we laugh even when we expect something. And a lot of our research has tried to sort of pit these two explanations against each other, whether something’s funny because it’s unexpected or whether it’s something’s funny because it’s a benign violation.

One of my favourite experiments, we brought participants into a lab and we had them sit next to what appeared to be another person taking a study, but this was actually an actor we had hired. And they were filling out a survey and there’s a bowl of Skittles next to this actor. And the participant comes in and sits across the table for them and starts to fill out what they think is the actual survey. But what we kind of care about is how they respond to the actor. And the actor is going to either do something surprising or do something after telling them what they’re going to do. And they’re either going to do something that’s a violation, inappropriate, or something that’s not.

So what we do is we have them, either we have them offer the bowl of Skittles to the participant, so that is not a violation, that’s a normal behavior, appropriate. Or they take the bowl of Skittles and they throw it on the participant. And that comes either after telling them they’re gonna do it, so they say, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I need to offer these Skittles to you, would you like some Skittles? Or, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I need to throw this bowl of Skittles on you. And then they throw the Skittles. And what we measure is how much the person laughs, how likely they are to laugh when this happens.

Danielle (12:02.043)

Right.

Caleb (12:05.134)

And if humour is about surprise, then there should be more laughing when they’re either offered the Skittles or thrown the Skittles without any explanation. But that’s not what we find. What we find is that they’re more likely to laugh when the Skittles are thrown on them than when they’re not. So that’s the violation. But the warning in this case, which makes it more expected, also makes it benign. Because when they hear, I need to throw this bowl of Skittles on you, now they kind of realize like, oh, this is…something else is going on here. This is part of the experiment. It’s not just them being a jerk.

So it makes them, it makes the act seem more benign, even though it’s less surprising. So we have, we have a lot of different studies that are kind of like this, that sort of test different theories against each other. But I wanted to give you a sense of one of the ways that we try to distinguish between what a benign violation is and how that’s different than just being unexpected.

Danielle (13:00.123)

That’s great because we do hear that so much, the surprise and the unexpected thing and it’s lovely explaining it in that way with the experiment. And I was reading some of your experiments that you did about what makes things cool as well. Do you see an overlap with humour or do you see them as quite separate areas? And I know that’s quite a tricky question.

Caleb (13:19.534)

Well, no, the overlap, thank you for the question. I’ve thought about this a lot. The overlap is that both are generally positive responses to abnormal behaviors. So behaviours that part from some norm or convention. But there’s a difference in terms of the, I would say, the valence of this deviation from the norm and that with humour, the violation is generally negative. Like we see something is wrong and we’re okay with it. Like we accept it. And our response is to kind of laugh it off, which generally doesn’t, it’s less likely to inspire change or social movement with coolness. This deviation from the norm is seen more as a positive thing. Like this is different in a good way. And it is more likely to inspire change to like move culture than humour is because it’s different. It’s more different in a good way. Whereas humour is like different in a bad way, but it’s not a big deal.

That’s kind of an overly crude way of describing the difference between what is cool and what is funny. And of course there are people who do both. And like Lenny Bruce to me is a classic example of a comedian who was cool. And he did so by questioning many of the more restrictive social norms and suggesting they should be changed, which people saw as being valuable. So that’s what made him cool. But his vehicle for doing that was often by being funny, by saying things that maybe themselves weren’t meant to be changed. Like they were seen as as sort of bad things to say, but people were okay with it because he knew they knew he was coming from a good place. And I should have done some Lenny Bruce research to offer one of his jokes, but I don’t have any on with me. I’m sorry.

Danielle (15:05.179)

No worries, that can be your homework listeners, go and find some on the internet. And you can also watch Caleb’s TEDx talk of what makes things cool as well, which I found really fascinating. So I think they’re both very stimulating. I love that. And I did want to ask you one question about the third area that’s listed on the site of research about what helps people reach their goals. Because I was like, oh gosh, like all these things fit together in such an interesting way.

Caleb (15:16.43)

Thank you.

Danielle (15:33.435)

And there’ll be lots of listeners who are setting creative goals for themselves. And I know that might be tangential to the kind of goals you think about, but if you were considering a listener who this year is setting themselves a creative goal, whether it’s to do with their book or to do with creating a show, or if it’s even to do with marketing that show, what would you prompt them to at least be thinking about?

Caleb (15:59.854)

I’m going to pull for some research that isn’t my own on this because I think it has helped me and I think it’s most relevant. It’s especially relevant to people who have creative goals. The wisdom a lot of times is the way to reach your goals is to have stronger self -control, stronger willpower. And what the data ended up saying, when larger swaths of data were looked at and in more realistic settings, is the people who are most successful at reaching their goals didn’t have to exude much self -control because they were doing things that they had internalized. Either they were habits or they just felt like they were fun to them.

So to the extent that you can make, if you have like a writing goal, the extent that you can make that both, either or both a habit or something you do for fun. Because if you’re trying to force yourself to do something, whether it’s write, whether it’s eat healthy, whether it’s exercise, whatever it is, it is near impossible to do that over the long run, unless you’re able to enjoy the process or do it without thinking about it. Basically make it a habit.

Danielle (17:08.411)

Oh, that’s super practical advice. I love it. And because you have got this brilliant brain, I’m going to ask you about marketing as well, because I know that, in your intro, you told us about some of the kind of fields that you’re looking at marketing in. But from that, do you think there are any concepts that again, it would be helpful for writer creators to think about who feel like they lack marketing skills in a time when it is quite noisy? On social media and trying to think in terms of promotion. Any, bits of concepts or research or questions you’d like to ask for someone who’s like…I need to do a better job of getting my work out and seen and heard as a creator.

Caleb (17:54.478)

All right, so you’re specifically asking about one element of marketing, which is the promotion element. Successful marketing also relies on three other core pillars, and probably the most… price is one of them, which is tricky in entertainment. I don’t want to get into that. Distribution is another. But then the one I do want to mention a little more detail is product, which is the actual experience you’re creating for consumers. And it doesn’t matter how good your promotion is, if the core product isn’t good, then it’s not going to succeed. So I would say that number one, the most important thing is to, if you’re writing comedy, have funny stuff.

With that said, I think for promoting, it’s really, it’s a difficult industry because with any sort of entertainment, the price has gone almost to zero because we can…people can access things everywhere. And so that means if you’re trying to break through as a comedian, whether you’re using TikTok, YouTube, whether you’re touring, it’s just consumers of comedy. Fans have so much more access to everything. So it’s so difficult to break through. And I think the content is probably the most important piece, but to the extent that, and I talk about this more outside of comedy, one of the main benefits of humour is people will pay attention to it when otherwise they ignore most marketing messages.

So in a way, comedians are better suited to market their material than most because their material is humour and people want to pay attention to humour. They will pay attention to humour. If you’re trying to market a laundry detergent, that’s a lot harder because people don’t, unless they need to do laundry right then, or really unless they need to buy laundry detergent right then, they’re not going to pay attention to laundry detergent.

But people will pay attention to things that make them laugh, even if that’s not directly related to whatever goal they’re pursuing at the time. And especially if they’re not pursuing any one goal, if they’re more in sort of a psychological state that isn’t oriented towards a specific goal, then we’re more looking to enjoy our time and to experience things that we find fun and make us happy. And humour, comedy are one of those things that are almost universally, at least the comedy that people find funny is always appreciated. I think sometimes the benefits of humour are overblown, but there’s a very clear benefit on feeling better in the moment when we’re laughing or when we’re experiencing comedy that we think is funny.

Danielle (20:47.419)

Yeah, so much to think about there. I love it. And, in your TEDx talk, What Makes Things Funny, you solicit at the beginning, different examples from friends of what they find funny. So I was curious for you, what kind of things really tickle you? What shows do you enjoy, or do you like to read, or what makes you laugh in real life. And what, what is at play there? Just using that as one example.

Caleb (21:17.166)

I mean, I laugh the most from other people, from friends who are very funny. And a lot of times the things that I laugh at in the moment, they don’t translate. You can’t like take them out and they’re… because they’re not jokes. They’re, I don’t know, astute observations or play on the context or something else that it’s just it’s funny in the moment. And then with a little bit of distance. So as I talked about earlier, distance reduces threat and that can make things that seem really bad funnier. But if things are just a little bit threatening to begin with, then distance removes the threat. So, you know, a funny comment in a conversation with a friend might make you laugh then. And if you try to recount the story, you’ll end up being like, oh, you had to be there because the distance has removed the threat completely. So that’s one of the interesting dynamics between psychological distance and threat and how much threat is funny.

So at South Park, you need much higher levels of threat to be so funny than on something like a sitcom like Seinfeld, where it seems more realistic. And the fact that like, oh, a car, a rental company doesn’t actually keep its reservations. Like that’s kind of a smaller level of threat, but can be funny in a more realistic show. So yeah, that’s maybe not as personal as you were asking. But in terms of, in terms of comedy, I mentioned South Park. I really liked The Simpsons, so some cartoons. Trying to think what I’ve seen more recently that made me laugh. I really enjoyed the Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, which is also a comment on the comedy industry. Arrested Development was one of my favourite TV shows.

Danielle (22:56.475)

Yeah, same. I mean, the speed of Arrested Development…

Caleb (23:03.354)

Yeah, the Big Lebowski, one of my favourite movies. I find that one hilarious. My sense of humour has changed. I was a lot more into slapstick when I was a kid. I loved the Naked Gun movies and Police Academy. One movie that I saw as an adult that I loved as a kid is this movie called Ski Patrol from the 1980s. It was very lowbrow humour. I don’t how old I was, like six or so when I saw it. I thought it was the funniest movie ever. I saw it, I remember watching it as an adult about 10 years ago, like, this movie’s awful. So my sense of humour has definitely changed as I’ve gotten older.

Danielle (23:41.563)

Yeah, I think that’s true for… apart from the puppet thing, which I know from context was a Saturday Night Live sketch when I was like about eight. I probably should not have been watching it again. It had a puppet in it, deer head. So the puppet thing, we know it’s gone on…. But other things I do think…I’ve gone back and watched movies like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I remember laughing at a particular scene when I was a kid. And as an adult, I was just like, oh, I don’t know, it’s kind of cringey. And when I’ve chatted with my husband, it sounds like movies that he liked as a young boy were different in terms of what he finds. Like again, that slapstick. So I wonder if that is something that changes and why. I don’t expect you to answer that now, but I’m gonna muse on that.

Caleb (24:20.91)

Well, there’s a lot that changes. So one is your awareness, your sense of culture. What is okay, what is appropriate, and what is not. So when you’re a kid, there’s so many cultural norms that you just don’t understand at all. So you’re gonna miss references to them. So especially like high brow humor or plays on wordplay, if you don’t speak the language and understand the language and both meanings of a word, then that’s gonna go right over your head.

So as you develop a broader and deeper understanding of norms, identity, culture, that opens up the possibility of things that can be threatened, that can be violations, and then can also cause humour. The other thing that happens is your sense of what’s acceptable changes. And one way that culture, especially in Western Europe and the United States, has changed is an understanding and appreciation of how harmful things like racism and sexism and homophobia are. And these used to be, if you weren’t part of the disparaged race or sex or person, then this used to be ripe fodder for comedy. Because someone could, to a white audience make fun of black people, like the blackface minstrels, and that would be a ripe source for humour.

Now, I think as rightfully, we’ve recognized that even though this is just a joke and they say it’s just a joke, it has real consequences because it reinforces these negative beliefs about a whole class of people. And comedy and humour can be used to try to make that seem okay. And so the move in culture has made a lot of things that we found funny as a culture now seem not funny, now seem unacceptable. And personally, I’ve noticed some jokes that I probably thought were funny as younger. Now I hear them like, oh, that’s just kind of mean. I don’t know that I’d be okay with that. So I think that is one way that both one reason why what we find funny changes as an individual and also as a culture is our understanding of norms and what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate changes over time.

Danielle (26:34.427)

Oh yeah, that makes so much sense. And so many interesting things to think about. I love it. And are there any questions that you, or hunches that you have right now, whether it’s relates to what makes things funny or what makes things cool or goals, that you’re excited to test this year? What are you focused on?

Caleb (26:55.822)

The project I’m most focused on at the moment is what makes people cool across different cultures. So we have data and specifically we’re looking at a difference between people who are cool versus people who are good. Because a lot of times when the word cool is used, it’s just used as a synonym to say, oh, I like it, or that person’s good. So we’re trying to figure out what is it that’s distinct about coolness and then also how that changes in different cultures. And so we have data from the United States, Australia, let’s see… Chile, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Nigeria, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Spain, Germany. So really all over. And what we found that shocked me is it’s the same. Coolness is the same everywhere.

Danielle (27:41.915)

Really?

Caleb (27:53.774)

So yeah, at a deep level, the types of people we think are cool, the personality traits of cool people and the values they hold are similar. Now how those get instantiated, like the clothing they’re wearing, to signal, that will change from culture to culture. But that’s the project I’m most excited about.

And a preview of what we’re finding is that there’s sort of six personality traits or characteristics of cool people around the globe. And that’s that they’re autonomous, they’re adventurous, they’re open to new ideas and experiences, they’re extroverted, so they communicate with other people. They’re hedonistic, which I thought was a little bit interesting, and they’re powerful.

So these are again the traits that are either cool but not good or they are more cool than good. So they’re found, they’re specifically found in people who are cool rather than just people who are viewed positively or favourably.

Danielle (28:36.987)

That’s super fascinating. And I might have misremembered this, but I seem to remember in your How to Make Things Cool talk as well, you talk about some things that work against that. And I think you had enthusiasm as one of the things that works against that. Have I remembered that correctly or not? And if so, how does that fit?

Caleb (28:57.326)

I don’t think I said that.

Danielle (28:57.403)

Did you not? I think, because I think I got it from the beginning where you were talking about the…or maybe I’m  projecting onto this, but I took it as you trying to be like, the boy that you’d seen and that your enthusiasm kind of…

Caleb (29:10.51)

Oh, effort. So effort can backfire, especially if you’re trying to be cool. If people think you’re trying to be cool or you’re trying to gain the approval of others, that is not cool. But in part, that’s because it shows a lack of autonomy. It shows you’re not pursuing your own path. It shows that you are just seeking approval of others. And so another project that I had published recently with my brother, who’s also a marketing scholar, we’re looking at the role of effort for gaining status in different status systems.

One way of thinking about coolness is that it’s this alternative social hierarchy that’s kind of different than traditional class-based systems that are based more on wealth or economic, economic prowess. And what we show in this paper is that if you try, if you’re trying to be cool, you get lower status, less respect, less esteem than if you’re cool without trying. But if this is applied to wealth, it reverses. So if you try to become wealthy, then you have more status, people respect you more than if you become wealthy without trying.

Danielle (30:21.273)

Oh, that’s fascinating. Yeah.

Caleb (30:24.654)

So that’s maybe related to, it’s not enthusiasm, but it’s effort.

Danielle (30:27.149)

Yeah. I think I was just imagining you as this, as this young kid, trying to do it and trying with the clothes. And I could really empathize.

Caleb (30:36.766)

Yeah. And it also depends what you’re directing it for. Like you can put a lot of effort or enthusiasm into pursuing something that you personally think is important, your own personal interests. It just can’t be seen as you’re doing that to gain the approval to fit in, to follow the norm. Uh, because cool, the value from coolness comes from people and brands and objects, cultural symbols that show a difference from what is accepted or normal in a way that people are like, oh, this, this offers a new opportunity. Coolness I see as sort of like an oil for cultural change. And the people who are able to change culture in a good way, they get rewarded by being cool, which is a sort of other form of status that doesn’t come from the same things that say drove status in an industrial economy, which was much more based on how much stuff you could produce.

Or in a feudal economy where it was like, how high are you born? How close are you to God? Are you a king who’s the closest? Or nobles and clergy? Or just a peasant? So all of these status systems depend on the whole belief system of a culture and it’s related to economics. We’re very far from comedy at this point, but that’s another area of my research.

Danielle (31:56.283)

Mm, no, I love it. It’s brilliant that you have all these things. And I did want to ask you again, slightly separate to comedy, but because you were also in a band and, and I’m interested then when you’re talking about like effort and coolness, how that fits with bands. And I did see when you were like testing how people would review different bands based on their looks and their logos and their names and things. That was fun too.

Caleb (32:25.23)

Oh yes, one of my first experiments.

Danielle
I’m imagining a musician…how does effort and cool fit? Like if they’re really obsessive and they’re like really practising the guitar, and that could be a comedian that’s really, really practicing their jokes. So the effort in that area is okay. But then if they try to put the effort into the cool, then that’s where it goes wrong, or their image.

Caleb (32:43.374)

Well, yeah, what’s interesting is you’re not supposed to seem like you care about your audience. And so there’s a tension between marketing, where good marketing is about figuring out what your audience wants and delivering that. And coolness, which is about following your passion or pursuit, regardless of what others think. So there’s this tension there. But if you are, as a musician or a comedian, if you’re focusing on your craft, rather than the response to it, then that will come across as cool.

So there’s another… I think, you know, with humour, if you’re in the business of humour, if you’re a comedian, the funnier you are, the better. Um, the cooler you are, the coolness and whether it’s comedy, music, or any other type of marketing is really useful for people that are starting out brands that are unknown to become known. But once a person, a comedian or a brand, if you’re well known, a band, if you’re a musician, being cool no longer helps. At that point, you’re better off being good or just what people want. Because they’re already aware of you. What coolness does is it helps generate word of mouth. It helps people pay attention. But cool is a moving target. And if you stay where you are, you’re going to lose that coolness. And if you’re not also providing some other value, some goodness, then cool is not a permanent solution. So my advice to marketers who care about being cool is like, okay, where’s your brand? And if you’re already a market leader, you probably shouldn’t focus on being cool.

And this is, I think, also true of comedy and comedy writers. If you’re getting started, if you don’t have an established brand, then this might be an effective means for breaking through the incredibly cluttered field you’re in. But if you’re already a well -known market leader, then you just need to keep focusing on what is it that you’re doing that people find valuable. If it’s a comedian, I mean, it’s being funny and probably, you know, the types of jokes that people aren’t enjoying.

So, I mean, there can be this tension between being market-oriented and being sort of this pure artistic vision. And so there sometimes is a tension there. But, yeah, I don’t have a solution for that. If your goal is to sell the most, then you want to be in the sort of market-oriented camp once you’re established.

Danielle (35:17.211)

Hmm. Yeah, it’s really interesting to think about those tensions. I love it.

Caleb (35:23.95)

But I, yeah, I don’t want to take a moral stand on saying you should do that. Because I think there’s also value in pursuing this more artistic vision that is more likely to change culture, comedy, even the world at large. It’s just, it’s riskier. It’s less likely to work. It’s more likely to alienate people. And so if your goal is just to, you know, stay, stay as popular or as profitable as you can be, it’s probably not the best path if you’re already established.

Danielle (35:54.203)

Hmm. That’s interesting. I really like your work for bringing language to things that I kind of think about in a more wooly sense, but haven’t put concepts to, so now it’s interesting. I’ve got more filters to run things through when I’m thinking about say, really fascinating comedians like Jerrod Carmichael, I don’t know if you’ve come across his work, but he’s really interesting in terms of

how he’s perceived and how much he’s really testing the audience and how much he seems to almost not care about his audience at this point and how he’s still cool.

So it’s just really interesting things to think about. I love as well that you actually ran experiments and you shared some of those with us today. So that’s brilliant. And before we wrap up, are there any other things that you wish that you’d been able to introduce to people today who are writers and creators at home? And as I say, I want to put some links in the show notes for where they can go and find out things in more detail, but just in our last couple of minutes.

Caleb (36:53.614)

I think we’ve talked about everything. So there’s the two TED Talks I’ve given, one on humour, one on coolness. There’s links to both on my website, calebwarremresearch.com, which I’m sure you’ll post. We even talked about my band. If you’re interested in that, bandoftownies.com. I write a blog there too, where I talk about music and sometimes other topics like academics. So I think we’ve covered most things about me in a pretty short period of time. Thank you for having me here.

Danielle (37:20.187)

Brilliant. No, you’re so very welcome. I’m actually, just because I haven’t asked you, I’m going to have to ask you about the band before we wrap up. It’s just, what do you love most about playing in the band? And it seems to have a really unique style from all the research…. I’ve never heard you play, but from all the research that I’ve done…that’s really cool. That’s really fun.

Caleb (37:40.238)

Ah, I just enjoyed it. I mean, I’ve always loved music and I didn’t start playing till I was pretty late, till I was in college. I didn’t pick up a guitar till then, but I had been writing songs before. And then I didn’t, I was never in a band until I moved to Arizona seven years ago and my neighbour was a guitar player and has been in a lot of bands and we started a band together and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s an outlet for my songwriting, which I think I’m a stronger songwriter than I am a musician.

And the rest of the guys in the band are pretty good musicians so they can compensate for me there. And that’s just been really fun. I get to write about sort of the people I’ve come across. Sometimes I cover similar themes as academic work, but usually not. Usually I’m just talking about the people I’ve met or come across and some of the struggles they’ve had or I’ve had. And it’s a really nice outlet that’s very different than for academic writing, which is what I spend a majority of my time doing. Yeah, so we’re called Band of Townies. And a lot of our songs are about townies, which is a term, I think it’s a lot of places, but very common in the northeast where I grew up and it refers to someone who never really leaves their town. And it has a very sort of local, local view of the world. But there’s there’s also this sort of, I think, snobbish element towards people like that. And so it’s trying to play with some of the cultural differences between these characters and then the people that I’m interacting with as an academic who’s with people from all over the world. And I think some of the tensions between these two different cultural worldviews that I try to put into the characters and the songs.

Danielle (39:28.027)

I love it. You’re operating at all the places where there’s super interesting tensions and questions and creativity and research and perspectives. And that’s what’s really fun. And I’m so glad that I got to have you on the show to talk about some of them. So thank you, Caleb. I’ll put all those links in the show notes and it’s been awesome chatting.

Caleb (39:46.894)

Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.