The Audience's Part

When someone tells a joke, how does the Audience react? This varies, not only with the funny anecdote and how it is told, but also with what the Audience does or doesn't do.

We have all seen scenes like the following --

It is coffee break time and Jack is relating a funny story to his co-workers. When he gets to the punch line, Tim is overcome with uncontrollable laughter, Roger just smiles, and Winston and Mei Lee look puzzled.

"That's a great story," says Roger, "but I already heard it when I was driving to work. I laughed so hard I almost ran off the road."

Suddenly Winston has a flash of insight and begins to laugh. "Oh, now I get it! 'Wash the windows!" he exclaims, repeating a phrase from the punch line.

Mei Lee still looks confused, so Roger patiently explains the joke to her, pointing out that some of the words had an additional meaning of which she was unaware. "Do you get it now?" he asks. "Oh, yes," she says nodding with understanding, but not pleasure.

This scene illustrates several observable facts about the Audience's response to humor.

  1. The Audience tries to "get the joke".
  2. Getting the joke" results in a pleasurable emotional experience which is frequently intense and accompanied by laughter.
  3. The pleasure is felt at the instant the person "gets the joke." This is usually when perceiving the punch line, but may occur later (as in the case of Winston).
  4. The enjoyment of humor is most intense the first time you "get it". After that you "have it." It is the process of acquiring "it" that is pleasurable.
  5. To enjoy humor, a person must "get it" by himself. If someone else explains a joke, you may understand it, but it is not the same as if you "got it" on you own.
  6. "Getting it" requires a certain context of knowledge and familiarity with the words and concepts in the joke.

What is the Audience doing when it "gets it?" What is "it?"

The answer lies in the relationship between the setup and punch line.



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