02 June, 2016

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Funniness

Epistemic Status: exploratory, plausible, uncertain
Tagged in: amateur sociology, memes,


The typical explanation for the funniness of jokes is surprise; a joke is funny because it is unexpected, because it challenges expectations. This jives well with experience; you typically don't laugh as hard when you've heard the same chestnut twenty time: it becomes predictable.

As parsimonious as this explanation is, and it's pretty good (see Hurley et al. for a deeper treatment), I want to explore a kind of extension, that models some aspects of the phenomena well.

There is a certain class of statements, such as "We have them surrounded in their tanks!", that are seemingly intrinsically funny; you can hear it again and again and you at least crack a smile each time. This contradicts the surprise model, since not only is it not meaningfully violating object-level expectations, it doesn't seem to get less funny with time, indeed if the author plays his hand right he can even make it more funny because you've heard it before.

Contrast this with what I'll call extrinsically funny statements. This are the jokes with old, time-tested formula for execution: knock-knock jokes, 'whadaya call x' jokes, 'these dudes walk into a bar' jokes, etc. They are plainly funny because they violate object-level expectations at the surface level. This can be done in two ways. First when a word means something different than what you thought it meant but everything makes sense when you substitute the new meaning (puns) and ones where the words mean their usual things, but the solution is unexpected and fits (though this heavily overlaps with wonder in Sarah Perry's theory of puzzles)