Why is The Office funny? An academic perspective

Academic research sometimes requires a researcher to do something fun. A new paper focusing on how humor is made and received in the sitcom The Office (UK) provides an example of a research process that probably included some fun.

The research focuses on the idea that when people make sense of information, they create mental models, an internal mental representation of the external world. One way of looking at a conversation is thinking of it as people exchanging their mental models with each other. Things get funny when a speaker shares an intentionally manipulated mental model, as long as the listener can detect that it’s been manipulated, making it incongruous with the speaker’s actual mental model.

If this account describes how humor comes about, sitcom viewers actually have a pretty tough task: they often need to infer what a speaker actually experienced (his private mental model) based on what he says (his public mental model), recognizing when his speech shares a manipulated model, and what about it has been manipulated, revealing the incongruencies between the private and public mental models. Then they laugh. Viewers often use the characters’ behaviors in their situational context to do some of their inferences.

For example, when the manager (Brent) says to someone on the phone that the man he’s suggesting be hired to be the forklift driver has first aid training, the audience doesn’t actually know whether this is true. But as the manager makes his statement, his free hand comes up to his nose, and he gestures his nose growing outwards, Pinocchio-style. Now the viewers know: Brent’s private mental model is that the applicant does not have the training. His public mental model is that the guy does. His Pinocchio gesture demonstrates that he knows these mental models are incongruous, and viewers will probably chuckle over the incongruity.

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The author of the paper dissects the first 5 scenes of the first episode, pointing out the mental model incongruities and the ways that viewers infer the incongruities, resulting in humor. This is just one of the examples of how the paper uses The Office to demonstrate that academic theories of communication can be applied to the sitcom to shed light on why people find things funny. This strikes me as a fun project.

I don’t want to sell the paper short, to suggest that the author Henri de Jogste just sat on his couch, watched the beginning of a funny show a few times, wrote about it, and slapped it on his academic CV as an example of his productivity. The paper is theoretically deep, bringing in theories from many scholars. His analysis is detailed and thorough. And after watching the Pinocchio scene 50 times, it probably wasn’t very funny anymore. This project wasn’t a frivolous way to get credit for watching a sitcom; instead, it was a demonstration that academic theories and ideas about communication aren’t confined to the Ivory Tower. They describe practices and phenomena we’re all familiar with, though often not explicitly, and they show the relevance of academic work to mainstream cultural elements.

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