Explaining the Funny, Then Not Funny, Then Funny Again Joke

New York Magazine: 

There’s a scene in the rom-com parody They Came Together that goes like this:

Bartender: “You look like you’ve had a bad day.”

Paul Rudd: “You can say that again.”

Bartender: “Well, you came in here looking like crap and you haven’t said very much.”

Rudd: “Tell me about it.”

Bartender: “Well, you came in here looking like crap and you haven’t said very much.”

Rudd: “You can say that again.”

Bartender: “Well, you came in here looking like crap and you haven’t said very much.”

Rudd: “Tell me about it.”

… and this repeats, like, eight more times.

So, while it’s true that nothing is less funny than trying to explain why a joke is funny, it’s still worth asking: What makes the long-joke work? “It’s a puzzling question,” said Peter McGraw, a humor researcher and co-author of the recent book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. McGraw said that while he couldn’t recall any studies that examine this phenomenon specifically, it does remind him of his own research on comedy and timing. In a paper recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Science that tested the classic saying, “tragedy plus time equals comedy,” McGraw and his colleagues used tweets about Hurricane Sandy to plug some numbers into that equation: Fifteen days was too soon, 99 days was too long, but 36 days was just right.

When the long-joke works, it could also be thanks to a second comedy equation: the Rule of Threes — the idea that jokes are funniest when there are no more or no fewer than two repetitions preceding the punch line, Jyotsna Vaid, a psychologist at Texas A&M who studies humor, said in an email to Science of Us. “We found support for this idea but only when each repetition involved a progressive incremental shift in meaning,” Vaid said in an email. “When the repetition did not involve any progression in meaning or intensity, we found that jokes with three repetitions before the punchline were actually judged funnier than those with two repetitions. Long jokes would seem to be an extreme case of this latter type.”

Read the whole story: New York Magazine

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