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)


I find the line ("We have them surrounded in their tanks!") quite entertaining, curiously so, and had to wonder if it would ever stop being amusing. It will, if it becomes popular.

To illustrate my reasoning here, I'd just point to the joke about 'programming' essentially being 'googling stackoverflow'. Anyone with a bit of programming experience likely found this quite funny when they first heard it. My emphasis is, of course, telling. The subreddit /r/programmerhumor ruined this set of jokes for me, because, like most of reddit, they found every available instance to use a funny meme, 'til it wasn't.

This leads to a model of a intrinsic funniness and a finite resource. Every time you call upon the funniness of a joke, you squeeze a few more laughs out of it. Eventually it becomes a farce, then trite, then a chestnut.

Intrinsic funniness regenerates to its maximum, and can be supplemented with extrinsic funniness. In this category are the really funny memes, the ones that are funny for reasons other than being a meme.

This is really something like Gresham's Law; if you can get upvotes for posting formulaic variations on meme, and a similar amount of upvotes for truly brilliant humor, no sane person is going to put in the effort.

(perhaps a system where you ban everyone who doesn't make you laugh could work; people would only post if they were damn sure their material was funny)

Kneeling Bus has an excellent piece on the insult 'basic'. The key insight, is the 'basic' is that which adds nothing new. Basic humor is memes, plain and simple.

More precisely, basic humor relies entirely on the intrinsic funniness of an extrinsic formula. An illustration: if knock knock jokes were memes, you could get people to crack up just by yelling 'knock knock' to your interlocutors.

Of course, to level my rants at the appropriate target, I'll make another distinction: between leverage memes and consumable memes. Consumable memes are image macros. Leverage memes are more subtle.


There is a place called 4chan. It's not a nice place, and I don't go there anymore. But there is something to be said about the cultural norm of 'lurk more'. It's a barb directed universally and precisely at the outgroup. In a single verbal motion you can take the initiative and wield the social might of Anonymous against your enemy. At least, in that thread and only as long as you yourself are 'Anonymous' in sense deeper than simply leaving the name field blank. It's quite useful as a rhetorical trick, but it's more interesting as a piece of cultural technology.

Like language, reading, and recently the internet, 4chan facilitates a specific type of consciousness, with its own network effects. 'Lurk more' lets those anonymous of 4chan pressure the newbie, leading them either abandoning the imageboard, or lurking more and gaining the 4chan consciousness themselves.

The details of the 4chan consciousness elude me, as my own version of it has atrophied. The broad strokes can be captured in the stilted, idiosyncratic dialogue format endogenous to 4chan, and sometimes funnyjunk.

Image result for smug anime girl>be me
>writing a blogpost giving free advertising to 4chan
>need to explain just what 4chan consciousness is
>probably ineffable, what do
>fuck it, I'll just give a demonstration
>can even still do one of these?
>tfw it's been ages
>mfw I still got it
>pic related

Most of us seem to talk about internal narratives. I'd guess this has to do a lot with constantly chatting with folk or reading, which gives a kind second-nature familiarity with the subtleties of working with that specific medium of thought.

4chan has its own media of thought, foremost among them the greentext story and the associate image macro. Once you immerse yourself in 4chan, you start thinking in greentext. It becomes clunky to communicate narratives in prose, the efficient thought-packet format of greentext being so much easier to do.

That's leverage.


4chan has many of these kinds of leverage memes, >that feel when, >what do, >implying implications (!), >pic related, etc. Most communities have them. They very convenient shibboleths, nothing says outgroup member like using weird jargon and bizarre dialoguing. But they're more than that, they are way of thinking. >implying, for instance, is such a convenient emblem of mind. You will not get a more concise way to express condescending disdain (if you are a 4chan-user, you need to do this a lot). >that feel when is also great, but feels less profound because normies -- there's another one! -- have their own version "That moment when...".

It's interesting. Like the social norm of 'lurk more', it's a very pragmatic piece of cultural tech, where 'lurk more' enforces 4chan consciousness hegemony, '>implying' allows for efficient status warfare in very specific form, '>tfw' allows for efficient communication of feelings.

I could go on here, about how greentext quoting allowed for a kind of comprehensive yet shallow arguing style, how image macros influenced discussion, but I'd by going overboard, and I can't exactly write a dissertation on a dying breed of internet fora that I don't even use anymore.

The point I grasp should be clear now: I'm talking about leverage memes, ergonomic tool for thoughts that cut through convenience and in-group identification in a single swing.


This is not a post about leverage memes, really, but consumable memes. Jokes, macros, memes.

To pick up the thread I abandon to persue the path of leverge, there's something of a 2x2 here. Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic, Memes vs. Jokes.

Intrinsic Memes are 'we have them surrounded in their tanks'

Intrinsic Jokes are in-jokes, a joke about in-group specific ideas that doesn't make sense to outsiders.

Extrinsic Memes use both the intrinsic funniness of certain phrases together in the form of joke, to maximize funniness. These are the image macros.

Extrinsic Jokes, are, well, jokes. Nothing special.

No comments:

Post a Comment