It's Funny How Humor Works
As Groucho knew, it's a form of mental exercise that expands our flexibility and stamina
By Scott Weems
March 21, 2014 7:09 p.m. ET
Julius Henry Marx in 'Duck Soup,' 1933. He knew 'Groucho' was funnier.Mary Evans/Paramount Pictures/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection
"I just shot an elephant in my pajamas," goes the old Groucho Marx joke. "How he got in my pajamas I don't know."
You've probably heard that one before, or something similar. For example, while viewing polling data for the 2008 presidential election on Comedy Central, Stephen Colbert deadpanned, "If I'm reading this graph correctly…I'd be very surprised."
Zingers like these aren't just good lines. They reveal something unusual about how the mind operates—and they show us how humor works. Simply put, the brain likes to jump the gun. We are always guessing where things are going, and we often get it wrong. But this isn't necessarily bad. It's why we laugh.
Humor is a form of exercise—a way of keeping the brain engaged. Mr. Colbert's line is a fine example of this kind of mental calisthenics. If he had simply observed that polling data are hard to interpret, you would have heard crickets chirping. Instead, he misdirected his listeners, leading them to expect ponderous analysis and then bolting in the other direction to declare his own ignorance. He got a laugh as his audience's minds caught up with him and enjoyed the experience of being fooled.
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