57: Professor Neil Martin (The Psychology of Comedy)

Danielle Krage interviews Neil Martin, Honorary Professor of Psychology at Regent’s University London. Neil is the author of The Psychology of Comedy, and in this conversation he introduces and dissects some of the key research and theories in the field of laughter, humour and comedy.

Chapters

00:00 Introduction and Neil’s Background in Comedy

03:24 The Neglect of Comedy in Psychological Research

06:44 Gallows Humour as a Coping Mechanism

08:31 Exploring the Humour Styles Questionnaire

23:11 The Timelessness of Comedy

24:27 The Influence of Laughter on Enjoyment

28:18 Humour in Learning

29:16 Sex Differences in Comedy

34:36 Comedy and Mental Well-being

41:18 Exploring Different Mediums of Comedy

44:01 The Influence of Sensory Experiences on Comedy

You can find Neil (including his contact email) here:

https://twitter.com/ThatNeilMartin

Neil’s Deadpan piece: https://www.the-fence.com/well-theyre-not-laughing-now

CLICK HERE FOR TRANSCRIPT

Danielle Krage (00:04.174)

Hey everybody. I am thrilled to have Neil Martin with me today, who is an Honorary Professor of Psychology at Regents University in London. And he’s also the author of the fantastic book, The Psychology of Comedy, which we’re going to be doing a deep dive into today. But Neil, you’ve done so many different things. Is there anything else people should know about you and your connections to comedy?

Neil

You call the book fantastic. That’s all I’m interested in. Okay. Well, it’s…I mean, the journey to psychology, I mean, I’ve always been interested in comedy. I used to write sort of jokes and sketches for TV and radio when I was younger. I had my first joke on Steve Wright in the afternoon. If you’re really desperate and I mean desperate, I might tell you what it is a bit later on.

Danielle

Oh, you’re gonna have to, yeah. Okay. I’ll keep you to that.

Neil

I’ll be like, the competition winner will get a private viewing of that joke. And yeah, then I sort of started writing for like the local newspaper. I had a column called Neil Martin’s fascinating facts column, which meant that the readership was somewhat limited. It was based on a book that Charles Brandreth did called Charles Brandreth’s Fascinating Facts. I mean, it was from the book. That was the idea. Then went to university. My undergraduate thesis was on the effect of audience laughter. And that excited me so much. I went on and did my PhD at Warwick on the brain’s response to food aroma, because that’s the natural leapfrog you would make between comedy and that. But I was still interested in comedy though. So when I was doing my PhD, I started writing for Deadpan magazine, which people might remember at the time, well, it still is. It was the UK’s first national magazine about comedy. Not a comic magazine, but about comedy.

For about 13 issues. And then a couple of other magazines came after that. So eventually I became its books editor and I used to sort of review some comedians for it.

But I’ve always had that interesting comedy, the scientific interesting comedy, which is not the broader questions like, you know, why do we laugh? What makes us funny? Because those questions are too big. You simply cannot answer them. You can answer very specific scientific questions, you know, such as, do people respond more positively to audio than audiovisual forms of comedy? Can you measure cross -cultural differences to comedy? Does laughter benefit you in some health capacity? Does it improve your wellbeing and reduce anxiety? All those sort of specific questions you can look at. So then when I developed what passes for a career in psychology, I spend a bit of my time still looking at the psychology of humour. And then as you said very kindly, the Psychology of Comedy book came out about, well, just after lockdown. So it was written during lockdown. And that was trying to condense sort of what we know and what we don’t know in the psychology of comedy. And I tried to look at some of the, most of the major areas. There’s not much research on it compared to, you know, other topics, but there is some and some of it is quite interesting.

Danielle

And why do you think there’s not so much research on it compared to other areas?

Neil

It’s a little bit, there are certain subjects in psychology which people tend to sort of shy away for various reasons. I mean, other career reasons, lack of interest reasons or importance reasons. I mean, if you think of horror, for example, and the sense of smell, less so taste, but the sense of smell and comedy, though they’re considered to be sort of minor subjects, you know, in a way compared to say illness and vision and stress, which are perceived to be important topics to study in psychology. I mean, I sort of take the opposite view. All three of these are very important for human beings. Joel Morris has just brought a book out you may know called Be Funny or Die. He argues that, well, be funny or die, you know, in the title.

Sense of smell is very similar. Most people think, you know, when they have a cold that they can’t taste anything, it’s completely wrong. You can taste. What you can’t do is smell the food because flavours are like 80 % olfactory. And so because of these,  sort of topics have a reputation for being, and I’m going to use the cliche, the, the Cinderella of the behavioural sciences. And I think with humour specifically, the neglect or the stigma has been pretty embedded because psychology has always had like a tenderness taboo. Most of the work you tended to find in textbooks was on negative emotion and perhaps correctly because those are the emotions that are most likely to affect us personally, our health and our wellbeing. So you want to study those in order to stop you being unwell and to stop you being unhealthy. So you can understand the rationale. So, you know, anxiety, depression, anger, fear, all those sort of things.

Also those negative emotions are much easier to study in a laboratory. So fear is the most widely studied emotion in psychology, of the basic six emotions or so, but it’s easy to study because you can study that in animals because the behavioural response you get to an afraid animal is pretty well-demarcated, whereas happiness, joy, excitement, it’s a little fuzzier. So up until about probably about 50 years ago, you tended to find that lots of textbooks had this tenderness taboo, but it is sort of changing now. It’s changing very slowly, but it is. And then in terms of humour, I just think frankly, I don’t think it’s regarded as being a topic of particular importance that people don’t feel is important to study. Even when you look at the health work involving humour, such as, you know, does generating laughter make you feel better? Does it improve your health and all those sorts of things? Even there, there’s not much work. And even those sort of workshops are looked upon rather dismissively as being slightly trivial or as being slightly epiphenomenal to the daily world. I mean, I would argue the opposite. It’s not as important as other subjects, clearly, but I still think it is important because it’s a key component of human life, especially in the Western world. We need to be a bit careful because often when we talk about humour and comedy, we tend to have like a Western lens through which we see it.

And of course there are some cross -cultural differences in the way we use humour and the way we appreciate it as well. So that’s a very long -winded answer to your very short question.

Danielle

No, that’s great. And I mean, because obviously I think it’s super important or I wouldn’t be devoting so much time to asking you these kinds of questions. And I was interested in the book, there was an interesting section about gallows humour which was something that kind of put language to something that I was interested in at quite a young age. Because my dad was a deep sea diver and was involved in doing the clean up operation for Piper Alpha, which for those of you who don’t know was a big oil disaster, lots of fatalities.

Neil

Yeah. I was literally in Aberdeen. My first degree was in Aberdeen. I was studying in Aberdeen when Piper Alpha happened.

Danielle

Were you? Yeah. So, a big…disaster and doing the cleanup of it. So we there was lots of things that he talked about and talked about the culture and felt a lot of shame around afterwards for jokes that people were making. And I had a very sense very early on that it’s a necessary, but not so spoken about part. And you hear people who are, you know, paramedics or police officers who’ve been involved in all kinds of situations who have gallows humour. And we do when it’s related to funerals or different things. So I think it’s super interesting. And you talk about it in the book potentially numbing painful thoughts. And I wondered if you could speak a little bit more to that, like what you think the role of gallows humour is or any of the research on it.

Neil

There’s not much research on it. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear. I think in answer to any of the questions I’m going to say. I mean, there’s quite a bit of research on sex differences, interestingly, but and laughter, but not on these sort of, you know, fairly specific topics. Yeah, I mean, gallows humour, one way of conceiving it has been as a form of emotional anaesthesia. So it sort of protects you from the trauma and the absolute horror of what you’re encountering. And therefore you adopt either deliberately or not deliberately this barrier between you and the horrific event or the horrific stimulus. So in that sense, you could see it as a coping mechanism or a coping device. I mean, that is amongst those who want to cope. I mean, we have to concede that there may be some people who make jokes that are, what would be considered slightly bad taste, because they have bad taste. They’re not particularly bad people. So they will make these sort of comments. But what you tend to hear is from people who do work in industries such as the paramedic industry, and even medicine. Doctors face death daily, patients die. And you become enured to death at some point because it’s part of the job. And then what you tend to find is that using humour as a coping mechanism can become therefore much more of a common way of just treating the job, which can seem to an outsider as being maybe somewhat callous and impersonal, simply because you’ve been exposed to this material for so long. You develop some sort of resistance to its negative impact.

But there’s not much work on it, apart from, as I say, to suggest that people use it as a coping mechanism.

Danielle

Yeah. And I loved in the book that you went into so many humour theories that I hadn’t heard of before. And I hadn’t heard of the humour styles questionnaire, for example, measuring the four different styles of humour. But I found that interesting, both in terms of kind of diagnosing what it is that I like to create in comedy and also what I like to consume in comedy and the kinds of comedy I don’t. It gave me some language around that. So I wondered if you wouldn’t mind introducing it to listeners who haven’t come across that, any of their categories and kind of what goes into them.

Neil

Human researchers love their questionnaires. There’s a brilliant book by Wilhelm Ruch called The Sense of Humour, which is a book about the sense of humour. And at the back, he has a collection of over 100 different questionnaires that people have used just to study humour. And in terms of the theories of humour as well, I mean, there are sort of three, possibly four broad theories of humour, but they tend to be theories of laughter. This is where it gets a little bit messy because we often talk about humour and comedy, but many of the theories are about laughter, like why do we laugh? What makes us laugh? But let’s park that for the time being.

So there are about 88 individual theories of humour and laughter, but there are sort of three or four basic ones. And the question that you mentioned, which is the humour styles question of Martin et al 2023, not this Martin, the Canadian Martin, who’s Rod Martin. It is a questionnaire which seeks to determine the types of ways in which people can be classified according to the way they use humour. And on the basis of that questionnaire, it’s about 64 items or such, they were able to condense those items into four factors. And they were self -effacing, affiliative, self -defeating, and then aggressive. Now the aggressive one, I think, is pretty self -explanatory. So it’s people use humour in a very aggressive way. Plato’s views of laughter, as was Aristotle’s, was not positive. You know, I mean, Plato argued that laughter is derives from malice and their views of humour weren’t very positive. So that’s an easy one.

Then you’ve got affiliative humor and that’s the ability to use humour in order to get on with others. And that’s a positive factor. So that does correlate with lots of things like well -being, low anxiety, low depression and so on.

And then you have the self, which one am I missing? Self enhancing, which is the ability to use humour to enhance the self. And that has some pros and has some cons, but generally positive. Self -defeating on the other hand, tends to be, although it might seem rather to signify modesty, there is evidence to suggest that that is associated with slightly more negative personality traits like neuroticism, fear of other people and fear of disease and fear of contagion and so on. So it’s using humour in order to negatively project yourself, hence self -defeating humor. So that’s, it’s a big question, it’s very widely used and lots of work has been done correlating those factors with, for example, personality and wellbeing and stress and anxiety and depression and all sorts of other sort of variables.

I mean, the one thing that comes across fairly consistently is that the certainly affiliative humour factor is the one that tends to correlate most positively with positive personality traits, things like openness to experience and conscientiousness and extroversion. And again, stop me if you’re not familiar with all this jargony stuff in psychology, but in personality psychology at the moment,

the current dominant model is the big five model, which suggests that we all differ across five personality dimensions. It’s called the ocean model. O for open, this is where I get it wrong. C for conscientiousness. E for extraversion. A for agreeableness. N for neuroticism. Yes. Right. So that’s where most of the work has occurred.

Danielle

 Yeah. And what are some of the shows that you have really enjoyed watching or listening to and where do you think they fit within that if they fit at all? Or do you think they kind of use a blend?

Neil

Well, that is such a brilliant question. I think it’s a brilliant question because it’s so difficult to answer. You know, if you ask, what’s your favourite comedy? I think what’s your favourite film? I mean, it’s impossible to answer. I mean, I do remember. Well, actually, OK, let’s work backwards. The most recent thing I’ve watched, which I thought was absolutely outstanding, was Hacks.

Danielle

Oh, I love Hacks. It’s coming back. It’s next series tomorrow.

Neil

And it isn’t just the script. The script is brilliant. The performances, the two key performances have such comedic brilliance to them. I mean, one was understated. One could have gone completely exuberant, but didn’t and sort of reined it in. And the combination of those two was brilliant.

And there’s a joke about Bill Cosby’s pharmacy in season one that has stayed with me ever since. Because I remember laughing out loud when I heard it on screen. So that’s a brilliant one. And then I remember when I was growing up, you were brought up with comics. So, you know, the Beano, Crazy, Cheeky, all those sort of things. Those are things that made you laugh, you know, Mr. Hathamillion and Grimly Fiendish and all those sort of things. And then you have the load of ITV sitcoms like, you know, Rising Damp. Even Mind Your Language, which you look at it now and you think, my word, how did that ever get to have a mini series?

And then for me, something changed. I liked the humour that was quite cutting. So Not the Nine O’Clock News, I thought was outstanding. And the album kind of lingers. I think it’s probably the best double album of comedy ever created. And I had the opportunity to meet John Lloyd, sort of, last year we were doing a TV thing together and by coincidence he was doing the same thing we did like a talking heads thing and you know I very rarely get starstruck you know I’m a psychologist Danielle I’m trained to predict and understand human behaviour but honestly meeting John Lloyd was one of the highlights of my career. And then when we went to the Joel Morris book launch who should I see outside but John Lloyd again so you know Kismet so that

album is an absolute work of genius. So you have things like that and also Carrots Lib was a favourite program at the time which was live, it was Saturday evening, it had a raft of really well -known comedy writers at the time which you know if you knew Neil Shand all these people who were writing all the comedy back in the 80s on BBC and ITV, mainly BBC rather than ITV.

So that when I was younger, that’s what I loved, that sort of comedy. And then, you know, you come through to the modern times and you’ve got, you know, The Office and The Thick of It and The League of Gentlemen, Inside Number Nine, you know, that sort of comedy. I mean, I love the comedy that is very, very clever that often you don’t laugh at, but internally you go, oh yes, that’s the good. How about you? Well, what’s…

What’s your top three?

Danielle

Also, massive fan of Hacks, brilliant show. I’m really excited for the new season, which is coming out imminently. And I think a lot of the things you’ll recognise from previous episodes, because I like to give a shout out to books as well, because I think comedy is really hard to do in a novel. So more recently I’ve read Amp’d by Ken Pisani and Ken was a guest on the show. It was a Thurber prize finalist, Trevor Noah won, but Ken was a finalist and it’s a genius book. And oh gosh, so many things that I would put under comedy drama now. So like Shrinking, for example, comedy drama, it was on Apple, really brilliant. And you said three, but I have only recently watched Fleabag as well, which so many people told me to watch. Again, shout out to Chris Head, who’s been on the show, who recommended it to me and showed some clips and it’s just taken me this long to get around to it and it’s as brilliant as everyone said it was.

Neil

 It’s very similar to Fawlty Towers in that they produced two very short brilliant series with six episodes each and then just left it and yeah I mean each one of them is completely standalone and absolutely exceptional. I was reading the play which it was based on recently – just like a stack of things you know prefaces from the original producer and director and so on. And the amount of work that went through that, you know, to sort of test that material before it got to the television stage. It’s still amazing how much you saw on screen was in the original, you know. The was it the Soho Theatre or Leicester Square? Leicester Square, I think.

Danielle

 I don’t remember. Yeah, I don’t remember.

Neil

But the other things they sort of tweaked, you know, along the way. But the evolution of that and how it began and it took so long. The gestation was so long before it got to, you know, the TV was, you know, just extraordinary.

Danielle

But I think it shows in the quality of it. I mean, I just kept watching… so many things and it was just like…because I do watch things with, you know, a writer’s hat on as well as I’m sure many comedy lovers do too. And this one, I just kept saying to my husband after every episode, I was like, I have no notes. I don’t know how that could be made better. Just everything, the performances, the writing, amazing.

And so when you watch things or listen to things or read things, do you do so with your psychology hat on. And if you do, what kind of things come to mind? Like, do you end up being like, oh, that’s interesting. They’re using that theory. Oh, if they thought about this, that could have been strengthened. Or are you able to just be a viewer and enjoy it?

Neil

Yeah, I think Terry Jones said that unlike tragedy, bad comedy makes people angry. And that’s the thing about really bad comedy. It really gets people riled and everybody has a view about bad comedy.

Good comedy is sort of slightly different because then you think, oh, that you can see how certain constructions were made, how certain glances were exchanged and how that contributes to the comedy. So when I’m looking at something that I think is good, I think it’s good because it seems effortless. It’s effortful when you find yourself being pulled out of it and you’re like an observer to the comedy rather than observing the comedy. See what I mean?

So you look at it as, oh, well, I see what they’re trying to do there, but this doesn’t sort of work because they’ve done this, that and the other. Or it may be too broad. I mean, I’m not a big fan of broad humour, although broad humour, you know, Miranda has broad humour, which is, I think, absolutely spectacular. But, you know, things like Mrs. Brown’s Boys, I mean,it’s one I’ve found very hard to sort of take to my bosom.

So when I’m looking at it, I genuinely don’t think as a psychologist, because the psychology research I do is about not about creating jokes and how do they make people laugh. It’s looking at the other things that can influence our response to comedy. Just as examples, whether it’s temperature or lighting or having other people there, having people of different sexes, having people of different classes, different races, you know, those sort of influences, whether the laughter is canned or not, whether the canned laughter is appropriate or not. I mean, when I look at comedy, I look on it with an appreciation for the skill and the art, because it is a skill, you know, and it is an art, and that’s what I have the appreciation for. And I’m sort of, you know, I’m in awe of people who can create that level of work. And often you think, oh, must have spent ages on that. And then you discover it was like a last-minute thing where they had to do a script like the night before.

You know, they produced the best thing ever. I mean, the one example I will give you that is probably the best example of this simply because it was just created by one man and that was only Fools and Horses, John Sullivan. I mean, to have produced that level of consistent comedy across decades produced by just one person is phenomenal. And it’s properly Shakespearean because, and I don’t mean that to be pompous, but you can look at all of those now and watch them as if you watch them for the first time. Although the scenery dates, the currency dates, lots of other things date, the clothes definitely date, the comedy is actually timeless because it’s about the relationships and language and how those two interact. So Only Fools and Horses, I forgot Only Fools and Horses, I think is absolutely outstanding.

Danielle Krage (23:34.062)

And when you meet people who are interested in comedy but haven’t read your book yet and are asking you about it, what are some of the things… if they do show a genuine interest in comedy and they’re asking about the research or asking about the different theories…Are there favourite ones that you love to share? Because I have particular ones I’m going to ask you about. I just wondered…if they’re genuinely interested, what do you like to share from the book?

Neil

Do you mean like in terms of research?

Danielle

 Yeah, in terms of research or theories or things that they might not have heard about or know about.

Neil

Oh, yes, actually. I mean, one’s, I was going to say one’s dull, but it’s not really dull. But it’s interesting. That is how laughter affects us. You know, there’s this notion that laughter is contagious. And…I mentioned my undergraduate thesis earlier. I mean, that was born out of the fact that I was looking at the literature, again, not very much of it, it’s about 20 papers or so. But there was a theme coming through which suggested that men, women and girls, rather than boys and men, were more influenced by laughter. What they found was that the girls and women laughed more, but also found the comedy funnier when there was an audience, when there was a laughter track accompanying the comedy.

But I would look at the literature and I thought, well, actually, this isn’t consistent. And some studies have looked at adults, some have looked at, you know, girls. So it’s a bit of a mess. And also methodologically, the area at the time was not what you might call particularly sound. So what I decided to do was, okay, let’s examine sex differences to humour in the presence of audience laughter. So I had a radio show, just topical at the time. And I selected the quickies in that radio show that had the most live audience laughter. And then I sort of edited the tape together so that I’d keep the jokes with the laughter in. And then for another group of participants, I had the same comedy, but with the laughter removed and pauses in between the jokes. And then asked men and women to listen to both. What I found was that there was no sex difference as I sort of predicted, but laughter had a statistically significant effect, not just on the behavioural response. So people laughed more in the presence of audience laughter, but they also found the comedy funnier and more enjoyable as well. And it sort of gives light to the, you know, the canard about canned laughter being irritating, which has a grain of truth in it, because if canned laughter is used inappropriately, you just shoehorn it in, whenever there’s a joke, just to signal in the joke, the comedy isn’t going to be funny because audience realize that is the natural reaction.

On the flip side though, you might remember when Ben Hilton produced his first sitcom as a solo writer of just Happy Families. Jennifer Saunders playing different characters of a family through six series. And the producer at the time was bemoaning the fact that it wasn’t well received and it wasn’t, especially after the Young Ones, you know, but he said, well, the problem was it was stuffed full of jokes, but there was no laughter track to signal them in. So I think the reasoning was that had you shown it to like a live studio audience, they could have seen it on screen, they would have laughed along with it, and therefore the response would have been sort of slightly more positive. And so that’s what I find in that sort of, you know, little study that we did.

And I think that’s an interesting study because it shows how important an audience’s laughter might be to the general experience of comedy you know even if maybe ironically given what I’ve just said most of us watch comedy maybe on our own or with a couple of other people on television you know where there is no audience and often where there is no audience on the  the comedy. I mean Hacks we’ve just talked about hasn’t, The Office hasn’t, League of Gentlemen… none of these you know have comedy tracks.

So that was one. So the other one that I think is, there are a couple of ones really. I mean, the research about learning is interesting. So, you know, if you use humour during your lectures, for example, you talk to somebody about something, does that work? And the evidence suggests that it does. There was one study of university courses that found that 80 % of them featured lecturers who used humour or comedy in some way. And it tends to work because people, students who attend lectures where the teacher tends to be quite humorous tend to do rather better in the exams, you know, a bit later on. Where the humour doesn’t work is if you try and introduce humour in an exam question. Some people have tried doing this.

Danielle

Oh, really?

Neil

Oh, God, yeah. I mean, it’s the last thing you want when you’re sitting in exam to, you know, your tutor to sort of, and by the way, it’s your tutor, not a professional comedian, introducing a joke when you’re trying to answer a question about, you know, two -way mixed analysis or variance of something. You’re much too stressed. So that research, I think, is interesting. And then the other field I think is interesting is in two parts.

One is sex differences and whether women, men and women enjoy different types of comedy and produce different amounts of comedy. Now the answer to the first one is probably no. There’s not much of a sex difference between, in terms of enjoyment of comedy. So many women tend to like the same sort of things by and large. There is, though, a difference when it comes to, so again, the term is humour production ability. Psychologists have to have a term for everything. So this is the ability to produce humour and men tend to produce more of it than do women. And there may be a reason for that, come onto it in a second.

And then the other interesting question is, and this is much more controversial, and that is, and it’s not a question I like asking because it seems such a facile, stupid question to which the answer is obviously no. And that is, are men funnier than women? Now the answer to that is clearly no, because, obviously not, because there are many funny men. There are many unfunny men, there are many funny women, there are many unfunny women. But the question is often asked, you know, are women funny? And of course it’s a ridiculous question to ask. I remember, I think it was David Baddiel’s wife who co -wrote some of the scripts for Slow Horses. Oh, so good. Morwenna Banks. Morwenna Banks.

She co -wrote a book about funny women back in the 90s, I think. And when she told, she was working at the BBC at the time. And in the preface, she tells this anecdote. She was telling a very senior management person at the BBC, she was writing a book about women and comedy. He said to her, oh, that’ll be a short book. So it just shows you the sort of stigma and the sort of, you know, the neglect and the standoffishness that existed in some parts of the media world at that time. I don’t think it’s there much anymore, but it was telling, I think, that comment.

So tied to that, there is some research to suggest, interestingly, that both men and women find men funnier, which is an interesting finding. There was a review published, back in 2020, where they did a meta -analysis of all the papers. And this was the finding that sort of came out. Other studies have found that, by and large, men tend to produce about 63 to 65 % of all humour attempts, as they call it. Men tend to deploy or use or produce humour more than do women. And I think that may be tied to the other strand of this research, and that is mating.

Obviously Danielle, everything goes back to sex, or maybe not. But one reason for this, why men produce more humour or comedy than do women, the evolutionary psychologist suggests is that it is a mental fitness indicator. So if you look at lonely hearts adverts, you tend to find that men tend to ask for specific things, women tend to ask for specific things. Women tend to ask for sense of humour in a partner. Usually men don’t. Men go for sort of more physical attributes or frothy, bubbly and all that sort of shallow nonsense, right? Women cite wanting someone with a sense of humour. So that difference is interesting. And when you ask men and women to rank the traits in a potential mate that they think is more important, again, for women, sense of humour comes much further up the top of the scale than it does for men. And so the reason for that phenomenon is thought to be this mental fitness indicator. And what it means is this, that men use humour because in some way it indicates their mental fitness. Because in order to produce comedy, you have to be quite clever. You have to be quite verbally adept, you have to be quite cognitively agile, you have to see relations between two things that don’t necessarily go together. So it’s seen as a way of competing with another mate. This is how evolutionary psychologists talk. Danielle, don’t tell me off. I’m simply a messenger.

So this is how they phrase it. So, and that research is interesting because if you look at the data that’s examined, say, verbal IQ and production of humour, those people with the higher verbal IQs are the ones that tend to produce the most humour and also tend to generate the funniest comedy as well. So there is not very much, but there is some link between intelligence or at least some subscales of intelligence and the production of humour. So those little bits I think are interesting.

The wellbeing stuff is interesting as well, I suppose. I mean, there’s quite a bit of research showing that simulated laughter has been associated with a reduction in stress, negative wellbeing and an improvement in wellbeing and feeling happy as opposed to natural laughter. I mean, simulated laughter is where you get people just to laugh as they do in these sort of therapy sessions that you can see online. But whether that’s because of the laughter or the physical motor act of moving your muscles here, I mean, it could be the other types of motor activity will produce the same uplift in mood, who knows.

But that’s what the current reviews anyway seem to suggest.

Danielle

I have so many questions and I know you won’t be able to answer this, but I’m wondering, and this is just my wondering with no scientific fact behind it, if I’d be super curious to look at what these studies are and how they’re designed and what kind of humour and how jokes based it is and who the subjects of the jokes are and in what context. I would love to pick all of that because I do wonder if in the same way that now so many studies they’ve looked at the fact that, for example, in a lot of the places that studies are done. They have access to a lot of students and a lot of those students who have the time to do it are white male students. And then they base their data off that. So I’d be very curious to pick so much of this. I think it’s a super fascinating area in terms of.

Yeah, because there’s so many kinds of humour. And I think about all the different kinds of humour that I use with my friends and my female friends are like, would they have even showed up in the study? And would they have like had a label for that? And yeah, super interesting.

Neil

That is, it’s a really important question. And it’s an important observation. I mean, I can, a couple of things to set, three things actually to say, the male thing, probably not as relevant because most studies now tend to include, half and half, unless it was a particularly bad journal, all the editorial practices were extremely lax. It would be very unusual for a study like that to be published these days, or even a study with a low end, I mean, like a low number of participants. So, which again was a big problem back in the, well, before the 1990s, publishing studies with 20 or 40 people was quite common. And of course, that’s what’s called underpowered in the literature. So, you know, you haven’t got enough participants basically to draw conclusion.

The student issue is a very good point. And, you know, one of the criticisms has been of psychology is that its samples are weird, you know, Western, educated, industrialized. What’s the other one? From democracies, you know, rich was the other one. I knew I’d get them in the right order somehow. It’s like an audio visual dyslexia here, Danielle.

That is changing sort of slightly slowly, slowly because there’s not much work done in humour. So you don’t get as much of it as you do in other areas of psychology where people have paid attention to this bias and have tried to rectify it. So I think that that’s a really important caveat, as is the caveat you made about materials. I mean, it’s a perfectly valid point. I mean, a lot of the studies that were carried out in the 60s, 70s and 80s, you look back at them now and you think,

One, how did they choose these materials? Why did they choose these materials? Because they weren’t particularly funny to many people’s ears. And then you sort of discover that in some of the studies as well, the materials were created by the researcher. And in some cases, even performed by the researcher. So you had the author of the paper doing the standard routine to the participants, which isn’t sort of how you do it these days.

So these days, though, I would like to think and it’s something I do in my studies that if you do choose a piece of humour, then you do a pilot test on not just that, but other pieces of comedy as well. And so you make sure that the comedy that you’re choosing and your aims for it have been confirmed by the pilot group, you know, and even if you use things like cartoons or jokes.

A couple of years ago I had a poor student, I said poor student, he wanted to do this, but this is what he had to do. He wanted to give people a series of jokes. Some of them were sexist, some of them were not sexist in order to determine people’s perception of sexist jokes. But in order to determine the most sexist and the least sexist, he had to do a pilot study where he administered about 50 of each to a group of pilot participants and they then made their judgments, to whittle them down to about, you know, ten in each category.

So if you do your research properly, that is what you do now. You don’t just think, oh, well, I think this is funny. We’ll stick it in and everybody shares the same opinion of comedy as I do. Because often, you know, Mrs. Brown’sBboys, that opinion is not shared.

Danielle

Yeah, so many kinds of comedy and comedy for everybody. And we find different things funny as well, I think based on our context and there are some contexts that are still developing and… so many things I could ask you about, but I can see we’re coming up on time soon and I’ve only got to a fraction of my questions. So I’d love to ask you.

Neil

I’ll give you one word answer, three words.

Danielle

No, you don’t have to because it is a subject that merits this interesting discussion. So I’d love to know just if there are any aspects of comedy that you have hunches about that you haven’t been able to study or haven’t been able to study conclusively, but you think, oh gosh….if I had more time, more money available and all the magic things you need to make a study… that you’d love to kind of test or dig into a little bit more, what would you love to study?

Neil

 I think there are lots of things you can still do that people sort of haven’t done. I mean, one of the studies I was most proud of, but has not been remotely well -cited at all is one we did, and I mentioned it briefly earlier, where we compared people’s responses to a script, an audio, and an audiovisual version of the sync.

Danielle

That is interesting.

Neil

Yeah, because I wanted to see, well, does the medium, does the format of the comedy influence your perception of it? So we used a type of comedy that was available in all three formats, which was the Dish and Dishonesty episode from Black Adder 3. So we had people reading the script, we had the audio tape, or we had them watching the sitcom. And we had, you know, cameras, video recording, they’re smiling and they’re laughting. And then we asked them to rate the funniness and enjoyment and all those sort of things afterwards. And what we found was that the cameras sort of inhibited some of the laughter. But in, and it’s, people certainly didn’t laugh almost at all in the script version, but they didn’t find it less funny than the other versions. And that was, there was no significant difference in the funniness rating between the script and the other two types. And I’ve always thought that’s a really interesting.

Danielle

I agree.

Neil

Yeah. And whether the camera, having a camera in front of you influences your behaviour as well. So, you know, this idea that, you know, being recorded influences your own behaviour in slightly different ways. I think there’s lots of things you can do. I mean, temperature and lighting, size of screen, I think is something fascinating.

Danielle

That is fascinating for how we’re consuming media now.

Neil

And I’ve often thought that in terms of horror as well. So I imagine if you had like a massive screen and you’re showing a horror film, people would be significantly more horrified than if you just had a TV screen.

Danielle Krage (42:36.878)

You know, I don’t know. I’m such a wimp when it comes to horror. Shout out to my friend Zanandi who’s been on the show….she’s brilliant at studying horror, comedy and horror. But I am so wimpy. But it’s a fascinating area.

Neil

Lots of parallels, actually, because I mean, there is one there’s one theory of humour that’s very similar to a theory of horror. There’s the reversal, Bellini’s reversal theory, no, the arousal model, not the reversal, the arousal model, which states that as we listen to a joke, we hear the setup, we hear the setup, then we get the punchline and that bit there is called the jag and then there’s the decline. So there’s like an inverted U of arousal and then it declines. Similar thing happens in horror. You know, you go, you know, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, thump and then the horror declines. And the, it’s called the excitation transfer model in horror. And the idea is that if you carried on with that arousal, you wouldn’t have a relief from tension, you’d have dread because it would just carry on and it wouldn’t be enjoyable sort of anymore.

Danielle

No, but that’s great. I just think I build up too much dread too early and then I can’t take it in the horror. That’s why I need it in, I need the comedy. But yeah, that’s interesting with the tension. Love it.

Neil

And also the other one thing I would mention, I think no one’s done this, is combining smell and comedy. Like, would the presence of certain aromas make the comedy less or more funny or more enjoyable?

Danielle

I have never thought about that. See, that’s a new thought for my brain.

Neil

 I mean, you need to sort of, you need to sort of sound rational. I mean, OK, you could think malodours would make people judge a comedy as maybe, maybe even less funny, even though it’s not as objectively not less funny than it would be in the presence of another scent.

Simply the presence of a malodour would possibly distract you, which means that you’re not paying much attention, therefore you don’t find it as funny. So there’s a bit some problems with malodour, but I often wonder whether, you know, if you had like an alerting odour or a relaxing odour, whether that would, you know, influence your response, even your behavioural response, you know, your laughter and your smiling to comedy.

Danielle

Fascinating. Oh my goodness, fascinating area of work. Thank you so much, Neil, today for stretching my brain and giving me lots of interesting things to chew on and think about. Same for your book. I would say so many other things that I found fascinating in the book. So I do recommend readers and listeners go and find it, The Psychology of Comedy, particularly if you’re a comedy nerd like me. So thank you so much, Neil. And where can people go to find out more about you and your work?

Neil

And thank you Danielle for this, for the podcast as well. It’s been great. Thank you. We should do part two. That’s what we should do. I know, I know. So yes, if you’re still on Twitter, some people still are, you can find me there at thatNeilMartin. Or if you want to email me, you can email me at neiloncomedyatoutlook.com. So get in touch and if you’ve read the book, let me know what you think. If you bought the book, thank you very much. Means I’ll be able to afford some bread this week. So much appreciated. And thank you again for listening to me. And yeah, the psychology of comedy is a very interesting world. But there’s all the world to explore, I think.

Danielle

Perfect. Thank you so much.