On Humor

Frameworks for thinking about comedy

One hobby I’d maybe like to pick up over the next few decades is stand-up comedy. Most precisely I’d like to study what makes something funny and then reverse-engineer it. That process—the studying and reverse-engineering—is one of my favorite things to do. It didn’t work as much with basketball, but it has with other things (like community building).

This post isn’t about reverse-engineering, but it is about comedy. Here are four mental models I’ve picked up for how to think about comedy.

1/ Comedy is all about misdirection.

Misdirection is getting someone to think one thing when you really mean something else. In magic, this psychological method is used to trick you — "the hand is quicker than the eye." The magician is getting you to look one place while he does something else in another.

In comedy, for a joke to land, it's quite similar. A successful comedian gives you about 10% of the information you need to know and lets your brain fill in the rest. After all, a punchline is that single piece of information proving your assumptions about a story's facts and logical structure were wrong.

For controversial humor: to be funny, you have to tread a fine line on what may be taboo. You make people think you're saying something controversial, but really the joke's on them — because their head went there in the first place!

As a result, people laugh, often as an adaptive behavior to stay calm in what (to them) is an otherwise uncomfortable position.

In Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson & Kevin Simler propose laughter is how we signal 'play' in situations where our words/actions could be dangerous or threatening. It's the shared signal of 'It's ok, nothing serious happening'."

So on one hand, misdirection can be used to make humor effective; on the other hand, it can also be used to misdirect us from pain & discomfort.

2/ Laughing is an adaptive behavior to stay calm under stress.

The neurobiology behind comedy comes from sparring.

When animals wrestle they laugh to indicate to other animals that everything's okay: "We're all good, even though we're fighting."

A similar thing is true with humans, especially in their early ages — kids love play fighting, and the predominant emotion involved is happiness, including laughter for the same signalling effect (until one kid gets kicked in the face and starts crying, that is...).

But to consider more broadly how we use laughter as a coping mechanism, consider this thought experiment:

Imagine a Neanderthal walking up a mountain expecting food. He hasn't eaten in 5 days. When he gets to the top of the mountain, he finds no food.

The brain could have one of two responses:

a) "Holy shit, I'm hungry. Where's the food?" *Proceeds to freak out, make a bad decision, and dies*

b) "LOL. That sucks. Guess I'll keep searching." *Moves on*

If you can remain calm & upbeat, even when you're getting punched in the jaw, you’ll bounce back quicker. Laughing off your losses helps redirect focus and prevents making bad decisions out of anger.

Laughing has always been healing to me. For whatever reason, laughter is how I’ve often processed nervousness or anger. I was the kid who always laughed at the most inappropriate time, got in trouble for laughing and then would start laughing harder and get even more trouble. I’ve had to curb this tendency lest I offend others, but I’ve often wondered why is it considered poor form to laugh at serious moments or topics? Why does laughing imply "take less seriously" instead of "I take this so seriously I'm nervous to talk about it?"

3/ Comedy is a way to introduce new ideas into society.

In addition to redirecting focus, studying comedy also means learning how to consider orthogonal perspectives that surprise others.

Comedy can be a means of understanding those whose opinions you disagree with. The art form gets us to question the validity of proposed claims, thinking across dimensions to grasp the author's true motives.

Further, humor is the mechanism by which we sort out the grey area of what can and can't be said.

If you actually want to know what's "on the edge" of popular society, go hang out at a comedy club.

When a comic finds a funny joke, they're unearthing a truth that people are barely aware of but then grasp when they realize everyone else gets it, resulting in laughter. The laughter can be thought of as the sound of comprehension.

Humor treads at the edge, the fringe of consciousness, and that what happens when a comic finds a truly funny joke, is that they're unearthing a truth that people are only kind of aware of but it's so universal that the whole room suddenly grasps it.

4/ Comedy is about power.

In any society, there’s always a culture & counterculture — one is ascendant and the other is renegade. You can tell who the culture is by who controls the institutions, and you can tell who the counterculture is because they’re generally funnier.

Comedy is about punching up, not punching down; so if it’s ok to laugh, it means there's power somewhere in the equation.

Some people gain their power precisely from seeming powerless, so this assumption of power is existential — they can’t afford to let itself be laughed at, since that exposes its power, so that’s why they censor.

Censorship does not have a particularly good track record. The Soviet Union hated photocopiers, for example, because they could be used to spread arguments against the dominant ethos. Censorship of comedy seems particularly dangerous, since comedy is often the last refuge of critiquing absolute power, by doing so in an indirect way.

So for people like those explained above, comedy seems like a threat.

But if humor helps us sort out what we can and can't say, if we cut it off and say "you can't say that," well, then, how exactly do we figure out where the line is?

Often, one has to step beyond the line to figure out where the line is; and if the room laughs, you know you're onto something.

Comedy is an art form that includes, among other things, offending surgically exactly who needs to be offended with minimal collateral damage. A great comedian is like a sniper: they take out the hostage taker while leaving the hostage intact.


OK. That’s it. I’m curious for any mental models you have around comedy, as well as any favorite comedy snippets. My favorite comedians include Dave Chapelle, Hannibal Buress, and Patrice O’Neal, among many others.

Read of the week: Special, by Max Nussenbaum

Listen of the week: Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz

Watch of the week: Comedians against Comedy. Ryan Long’s whole channel is remarkable.

Another note: A Clubhouse show I co-host, Big Ideas, featured Byrne Hobart, Martin Gurri, and Matt Taibbi last week. This week we’ll have Bruno Macaes on Tuesday, Anduril Co-founders on Wednesday, and Michael Tracey on Thursday, all at 730 PM PST.

Until next week,

Erik