The Science of Humor

Sunday, November 25, 2007
First Aired: 
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

What Is It

Being funny isn't easy. Figuring out what makes things funny is even harder. Still, a number of psychologists (e.g., Freud) and philosophers (e.g., Bergson) have tried. Now computer scientists are trying to learn enough about humor to construct programs that can write good jokes; maybe an artificial stand-up comedian is on the way. Ken and John discuss the art, philosophy and science of humor with Tony Veale, an Irish computer scientist who knows a good joke when his program produces one.

Listening Notes

The science of humor sounds almost oxymoronic to Ken. He inquires as to what science has to do with humor; it seems to be more of an art or skill than anything. But the science and philosophy behind humor is just what this episode is about. There are computer scientists trying to write programs that can come up with good jokes, like the guest Tony Veale, which brings humor into the scientific domain.

Veale argues that humor can facilitate an understanding of language in much the same way that experiments on fruit flies have aided our understanding of genetics. Because jokes are so fragile, since there are so many things that can go wrong with them, understanding how people create and process humor will say a lot about the language that is the vehicle for the joke. Aristotle had a view that humor and jokes were about educated insolence, they referred to a person's knowledge and were insolent towards someone or something else. Veale presents another theory of humor which states that humor is about superiority, and putting people and ideas down. It's a "darker" view of what humor is about. Another theory is the incongruity theory, in which the resolution of an incongruence situation presents the humor because of the large gap that is often left unexplained by language.

When considering what computers have to offer for comedy, Veale states that the humor that computers can generate is still very juvenile, limited largely to puns or acronyms. However, for software to be able to process language effectively it has to be able recognize idiomatic language, which is often used in humor. In this way, greater understanding of both programs that recognize language and programs that generate humor will aid the development of each. When considering the difficulty of creating a program for humor, one facet of humor that throws a wrench into the process is the fact that while some jokes are funny to some people, they are not funny to others, and neither side can explain this to the other! There is an approach from mathematics called the catastrophe theory view, which contains a metaphor relevant to computer science and humor. The metaphor states that a story is a landscape, and that jokes have these horrible chasms in the landscape. A comic is supposed to walk a person along a gently rolling landscape and right into the chasm, unsuspectingly. For Veale, programming a computer to understand and generate humor is all about defining this landscape.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 04:21): Polly Stryker goes to two stand up comics to see what they think about a computer doing their job. Each one discusses what it takes to be humorous and what causes a joke to go badly.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 40:32): Ian Shoales gives a quick history of Socrates, the philosopher and the comedian.


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