The New Yorker:
What would happen if Communism were introduced to Saudi Arabia? Nothing—at first. But soon there’d be a shortage of sand.
This—one of many political jokes circulating inside the Soviet Union during the late Cold War—is Joel Warner’s favorite. Warner is the co-author, with Peter McGraw, of “The Humor Code,” which was released on April Fool’s Day. “It can be analyzed all sorts of ways,” he told me. “Did Soviet citizens tell jokes like this as a form of coping, of using humor to lessen their psychological distress? Or was it a reflection of changing attitudes and growing unease among the populace? Or was the joke actually planted by the K.G.B., allowing folks to make light of their plight instead of fighting against it?”
Warner and McGraw recently travelled the world in an attempt to answer a question that has eluded us for millennia: What makes things funny? Laughter is thought by evolutionary biologists to be an indicator, in pre-historic tribes, that all was well. Comedy has long been a source of relief for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder and for the terminally ill. In 2010, Raffi Khatchadourian wrote about an international laughter-yoga movement. And, recently, a Northwestern University professor named Jeffrey Burgdorf found that “tickling” rats to the point of inducing “laughter” might help make them resilient to depression and anxiety. But a scientific explanation for humor has been hard to pin down.
Many academics consider their humor-researching counterparts unserious, McGraw said. “It’s just by nature not a serious thing,” he told me. “So that association carries over.” And yet, in March, Salvatore Attardo, the dean of humanities, social sciences, and arts at Texas A&M-Commerce, published a two-volume, nine-hundred-and-eighty-four-page sledgehammer called the “Encyclopedia of Humor Studies,” meant as an introduction for the growing number of humor-research students in today’s universities. “It’s become respectable,” Attardo said. “There is an explosion of research, and in many disciplines.”
Read the whole story: The New Yorker
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