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.

Review of Inside Jokes

This review is thanks to my friend Dan and was originally published in volume 26 of HUMOR: The International Journal for Humor Research:

In “Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind,” Daniel Dennett, along with Matthew Hurley and Reginald B. Adams Jr., attempt to build a unified theory of the development and anatomy of human humor. In this single volume, they claim to construct an overarching explanation for a wide variety of humor-related constructs, ranging from laughter to wordplay. Although Dennett is the book’s second author, “Inside Jokes” operates out of Dennett’s paradigm. His work on intentionality, memetics and evolutionary psychology serves as the philosophical backdrop to “Inside Jokes.”

The main thesis of “Inside Jokes” is that humor is an evolved adaptation used by humans to “debug” mental representations, i.e. find tacit incongruities and contradictions within representations and bring them to light. Our desire for logical consistency—formed in infancy with the development of object permanence—drives our preference for salient mental representations. For example, take this one-liner from Mitch Hedberg: “A severed foot is the ultimate stocking stuffer.” Hedberg corrects our representation of a “stocking stuffer”. One represents the “ultimate stocking stuffer” as a quality holiday gift; however, Hedberg elicits laughs by literalizing the representation based on what would best fill up some holiday hosiery? The mirth we often feel on the execution of a particularly good gag stems from the activation of a neural pleasure center, engineered over generations of selection. One’s sense of humor is a sort of cognitive sweet tooth: just as we enjoy sweets due to a Paleolithic taste for sugar, we too laugh at jokes for an innate cognitive satisfaction.

According to Hurley et al., the evolutionary origins of both humor and laughter lie in “half-serious mock-aggressive play” such as tickling or chasing. While at a glance tickling may seem to be an aggressive act, it obviously is not. In our hunter-gatherer past though, Hurley et al. speculate, violence was quick to escalate, even if based on a faulty perception. We therefore evolved laughter and smiling as a method of communicating the playfulness of the mock-aggression. They are reverse alarm-calls, common to many social primates. Humor and laughter grew concomitant through the evolution of theory of mind, the authors propose. That is, as we as a species grew more concerned with one another’s mental states, we developed methods of information transmission to infer each other’s thoughts. Laughter is one of those adaptations, allowing us to quickly delineate like-minded in-groups and different-thinking out-groups in social settings.

Following Dennett’s philosophy on memetics, the authors note that jokes are language-based cultural memes. Memetics is a subfield of evolutionary psychology, first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene.”  According to Dawkins and Dennett, memes are “cultural units of information” that are contained in the minds of individuals, much like genes in a genome. Memes, like genes, undergo Darwinian selection, with “fitter” memes surviving and reproducing between minds while less fit memes die off. Jokes are “self-contained mirth delivery units” that fulfill our evolved thirst for humor. Better, funnier jokes display a higher degree of evolutionary fitness Hurley et al. surmise. They are spread more rapidly between people in a manner similar to Dennett’s other “dangerous memes” such as religion and political ideology. Lame puns and childish gags face the harsh realities of selection, and are not propagated to the same extent. Because of jokes’ memetic status and humor’s deep-seated evolutionary history, Hurley et al., claim that humor is a potentially valuable tool for understanding the human mind. Because funniness comes from incongruous mental representations, the authors insist that jokes, puns, and slapstick all may afford insight into the mind, particularly the workings of the penumbra of unconscious thought. It follows from their theory that humor may allow the future researcher to “reverse engineer” our buggy mental spaces and get a glimpse into the computational maneuverings we employ to correct them.

Throughout history, theories of the brain and mind have been susceptible to becoming metaphorized to the technological innovations of the time. The fountains and pumps developed in antiquity directly influenced the Greek pneumatic picture of the soul, Enlightenment scientists identified the mind as akin to clockwork and Freud proclaimed that the unconscious held similarities to the steam-based hydraulic technology developed in the 19th century. Since World War II, the emergence of digital technology has birthed the “mind as computer” metaphor, an analogy championed by Hurley, Dennett et al. The authors’ conception of humor as a cognitive “debugging” aligns well with contemporary computational accounts of the mind. Thus, digital-age readers may be inclined to find credence in Hurley et al.’s work as it overlays nicely with today’s popular psychological metaphors. “Inside Jokes” though does not go beyond these metaphors and will disappoint old-fashioned readers, since it offers little beyond an update in underlying metaphors.