Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Humor Experience

The humor experience is unique compared to most other psychoactive thoughts, and it is highly variable, malleable, and tacit in nature. Laughers’ descriptions of their experiences are intensely personal and oftentimes difficult to put into words. How do laughers describe and assign meaning to their humorous experiences? 

The humor experience is perceived, interpreted, and described metaphorically. Laughers employ a great variety of metaphors to comprehend and find meaning in their humorous experiences. These metaphors allow for communication and exchange of ideas and information about humor and its effects. In the 1960s, terminology evolved for this experience that emphasized three words still popular today:  cool, duh, and right on. 

Metaphorical Pharmacology of Humor

When I was a kid
I once saw a flying pig
It winked at me
and said
Won’t you have a slice of sanguine bread? 

The four humors of Hippocratic medicine are black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, and each corresponds to one of four temperaments. 

The four temperaments are sanguine (pleasure-seeking and sociable), choleric (ambitious and leader-like), melancholic (introverted and thoughtful), and phlegmatic (relaxed and quiet). 

The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC) utilized the four temperaments in his medical theories. The four temperaments have since been used as part of many theories of medicine, psychology, and literature.

Naturally, these temperaments also result from the use of humor. For many laughers in a variety of cultures, humor is a remedy imparting medicinal effects. Humor’s health benefits have been known for centuries, since before the time when Reader’s Digest first appeared on grandparents’ coffee tables. It is from this concept that the medical benefits stemming from humor movement derived its meaning. 

Humor produces positive, beneficial effects, but it also produces negative, harmful effects (such as when an individual is “laughed at”). It is considered by Freud a device, “a means of obtaining pleasure in spite of the distressing effects that interface with it.”  Humor shouldn’t be utilized to make others feel “bad” - that not only destroys progress, it distracts our focus from addressing more serious behavior and challenges. 

Humor is also perceived as a mystical experience and given magical, fantastical descriptions and meanings associated with the ancient tradition of birth, death, and renewal from which the concept of carnival arose. 

Humor effects, individual and subjective in nature, challenge interpretation and description, especially when experience with laughter is limited.  

Laughter is characteristic as well as a regular feature of humor intoxication in that the act of speaking is bound up with a sort of resignation; from the beginning of the onset of laughter the possibility of speaking is renounced. In this respect, the individual laughs rather than speaks about the incidental, trifling, or otherwise unsayable. 

Consider the four humors and various metaphorical descriptions in the following accounts of humorous experiences from Facebook posts and Twitter tweets. Difficulty in expressing the nature and meaning of the experience is manifest; metaphors abound to illustrate effects. Accounts from online social media sites refer to humor has something “LOL”, while most old-school laugher accounts usually reference to actual laughing. Few people use the word “humor” when referring to it as “something funny.” 

I was speaking to a French guy the other day who told me of his humor experience partaken at a comedy club in Paris: 

“The jokes I heard seemed the most exquisite wine, the one-liners, once in my mind, became strawberries, the strawberries, neurons...I abandoned myself to the fantastic effects of the comedy ... the club was filled with extraordinary figures, such as those comedians found on late night television... Not all the jokes were funny... in this hip smoky Parisian club. I myself melted into the jokes I enjoyed...I felt my mind desperately trying to remember them so that I could retell them at fancy dinner parties...I was comedian in the middle of life’s comedic stage...I became mad, delirious, funny... I was overcome with humor, for, in lifting my mind to the ridiculous, I found it open, and I lost consciousness of all things serious.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Differing Views on Humor

This French guy also reported on what other French people were saying about their experiences: “I’m dying with laughter! I’m rolling on the floor with laughter! I’m plunging into the depths of delight!... Today is the day we must die laughing.” 

Humor and the horrors associated with dying from laughter were moralized by the very serious looking woman at the FNAC check-out counter: 

“People think of laughter caused by humor as a land of miracles, a huge conjuror’s theater where everything is marvelously funny. This is an ill-formed notion, a complete misunderstanding of the seriousness of life... Humor is a disorderly demon... What, after all, is a joke bought at the price of one’s eternal salvation?”

She referred to humor as both marvelous and ill-formed and argued that her descriptions of the evils of humor should not be seen as exaggerated metaphor. She noted the important influence of the laugher set (state of mind, intentions in using humor, other obligations and serious thoughts) and setting (physical comedy, funny images) on the nature and meaning of the humorous experience. She also remarked on the occurrence of synesthesia during the experience: “Laughter clothes itself in Rose-colored glasses, and Rose-colored glasses contain Paris.”

A trippy couple I once met out hiking in an exotic area of the Yucatan Jungle once told me of humor:

“The Spirit (demon, shall I not say?) of Humor had entire possession of me. I laughed so hard I fell off the side of the pyramid. In an instant after laughing, I was cast upon a flashback of illusions...I suddenly found myself at the foot of Nohoch Mul.” 

A journalist with a blue jean backpack, whom I met at an airport while waiting for a delayed flight, told me that of humor: 

“The moment that side-splitting laughter hit my gut, I squeezed my eyes and immediate saw a vision of celestial glory burst upon me. A giant flock of butterflies danced on the silver strand of a translucent boundless lake.” 

She also mentioned two laws of the humor experience: first, after the completion of one set of humorous effects, fantasia, or dreams, there is a shifting of the action to another set of humorous effects entirely different (“like when the moment you really get the joke”); and second, after the first humorously intense sublimity passes, the next vision is generally of a quiet, relaxing nature. 

One of the guys that used to play in my brother’s garage band told me of his early “comics” which inspired his free-flowing musical style:

When you first start laughing you see things in a wonderful soothing, easygoing new light. All of a sudden the world is stripped of its quiet shrouds and becomes one big bellyful of giggles, a spherical laugh, bathed in brilliant, sparkling colors that hit you like a rubber duck...there’s a humorous tickle and great meaning as you contemplate the chicken crossing the road...your senses open up like subwoofers, your ears stretch out past your surround sound, hungry and thirsty for new laughs and haha’s; and every chuckle, when it comes, is the most exciting one you’ve ever had. You can’t get enough of it - you want to laugh all damned day long just for the fun of it. Them first laughs are a killer.” 

He didn’t really say that, but wouldn’t it be cool if he had? If he had said this, his slogan might have been Lighten up and laugh. 

With resurgent use of humor in society’s countercultures and later mainstream use, these colorfully exotic, extravagant, literarily embellished accounts of humor and humorous experiences disappeared in favor of shorter, simpler one-liners that are more vague, tacit, and obscure in nature. That is when the terms “cool,” “duh,” and “right on” came into common usage as ways to describe the humor experience, and it continues today. 

Each of these three words and many others, succinctly describes the humorous experience. Or do they? 

What does it mean when a laugher says, “That was cool,” “duh,” or “right on”?  The word “cool” has limited and singular meaning in reference to humorous effects, while the experience of recognizing a situation as belong to the classification ‘duh’ involves more descriptors; but still, the general meaning seems more commonly accepted among laughers. It is the experience of feeling humorous in which descriptions and metaphors truly expand with a variety of meanings. What’s confusing is that besides being major descriptors for the humorous experience, all three words have been applied differently to other experiences, especially cinematography special effects, and many types of interesting visual stimulants.


The state of being cool is experienced after one or two laughs. This coolness factor is of short duration (30-60 seconds), with minimal physical, mental, and social effects. The cool state is a calming, enjoyable feeling, somewhat lightheaded in nature, with little impact on the laugher’s ability to go about life’s business. “A chuckle here or there” is an invitation to laugh once or at most twice and sometimes refers to a laugher listening in on someone else’s conversation and then laughing about it. Coolness only works in low doses. 


The higher state of “duh” comes about for experienced laughers who have either already heard or instinctively “get” the punchlines from all jokes. This is a moderate dose of humor with a longer duration (10-15 minutes) of laughing after the joke ends. This state makes objects and events in the social context seem funnier, with racing, unfocused thoughts, anxiety or paranoia about laughing “too hard” in public, but in general a good feeling with sensory enhancement. The laugher becomes more talkative and most physiological effects (tears, belly cramps) are evident. The laugher feels active and lightheaded (more so than when in the cool state), with perceived enhancement of all that is ridiculous, but still with an ability to engage in and appreciate them. Most laughers say “getting it” entails a feeling of energy and being social. Some laughers, however, note that the type of faux pas produces different types of effects, usually centered as a brain-melt (sedating) and are viewed more like a “down” experience. 

Right On

The right on state results from a larger dose than that which produces the duh realization. It might entail listening to an entire stand-up comedy routine or continuous use of one-liners over a period of time. The duration of effects can be many hours, even most of a day. A full range of physical and mental effects are experienced, most prominently excitation, enthusiasm, alertness, a quickening of the thinking process or unnatural thought processes that entertain thinking, and a dream-like state with random butterflies breakdancing around your head. The laugher does not want to move much physically or exert his or her mind on serious or focused thought. Extreme instances of being "high on life" induce states that are difficult to describe in large part due to the farcical action of various chemical constituents on the laugher’s perceptual systems, memory and cognition. The right on state also has been portrayed in may graphic and symbolic formats just for laughs and giggles.

Are the duh state and right on state different and dose dependent, or synonymous in terms of how the experience is described and understood, or simply related states that occur at different points in time during the humorous experience? 

Most laughers feel there is a big difference between duh and right on, with the latter coming from a much higher understanding of metahumor. When in a state of duh, the laugher wants to chill out instead of doing a bunch of things, while when in a state of right on, the laugher wants to be active and move around making others laugh. For a few laughers, interestingly, the words duh and right on are interchangeable for the same type of humorous experience. 

For some laughers, it is simply a temporal issue, moving from the duh state to the right on state over time during the same experience from the same joke, usually a Seinfeldian joke or a surreal Mitch Hedbergian joke. They progress from saying duh, during the first 10-15 minutes of the experience, to being right on for like an hour. In this explanation, however, it is obvious that the Seinfeldian joke would get you like duh but may not get you over time to the next level, of being Hedbergianed. Being Seinfeldian versus being Hedbergianed, then, is based on the specific effects as perceived by the laugher. 

Some laughers attribute their duh state to the use of one-liners, while the right on state is attributed to incongruous convections, again with a mind-body difference, or perhaps based on various active constituents and their concentrations in the specific humor device. The names of different types of jokes thus become an indicator of potential effects. Metaphorical descriptions of the joking experience, more so than physical effects, often have less correlation with actual laughing and humorous activity. 

Synonyms in general for the word “cool” are calm, composed, poised, untroubled, or laid-back; for the word “duh” they include: whatever, as if, no shit Sherlock, and obviously; and for the words right on they include: sweet, fantabulous, freaky, and live. The words “right on” are a classic up metaphor, while the word “duh” implies something heavy and is a down metaphor. 

Metaphor is a bit of language used to describe something new in terms of jokes that are more familiar. It sets up a relationship between the known joke (such as a Joe Miller Joke) and the novel thing (“that’s a good one”) so as to make the novel interpretable and understandable. Humor effects are described metaphorically, using words that relate to other more familiar humor experiences in the laugher’s life to provide meaning and attribution to the joke that was told. 

The state of being right on has by far the greatest number of alternative metaphors and descriptors. The can be grouped into interesting categories, such as joking metaphors (pun, quip, jest); brain/mind metaphors (brain-melt, blown away); and joker slang (killer joke, lmao). Other descriptors that do not fit these categories include: wacked-out, trippy, and unfreakingbelievable. 

The cool, duh, and right on states correlate closely with physiological and psychological research on the health effects of humor over the past few years since that guy Norman Cousins got everyone all excited over being able to cure oneself watching The Three Stooges. Effects measured in these studies occur during stages of a distinct experience and are dose dependent (7-hours Three Stooges marathon, non-stop happy songs about gay little elves, or someone slipping on a banana peel or otherwise falling down played over and over on YouTube). 

There are three levels of humorification with eight distinct phenomena. One mildly funny joke (a riddle or quip) produces a sensation of wellbeing but imperceptible physical effects. Increased doses of Groucho Marx, for example, produce physical effects and feelings of restlessness and uneasiness. Considerable doses of someone getting hit on the head with a rubber chicken produce strong physical effects and nervous phenomena. Those phenomena (seemingly dose dependent) include a feeling of happiness, excitement and dissociation of one’s troubles (i.e., ideas, errors of time and space, synesthesia, fixed ideas, changes in emotion, irresistible impulses, and finally illusions of grandeur and Kamakazie Bunny hallucinations). The three levels of humorification effects, referred to today as being cool, like duh, or right on, correspond well to the three levels and eight phenomena.

Humorification: “a childish mirth with irrelevant and irresistible hilarity and an initial anxiety followed by a momentary lull that one has not yet relinquished; the second phase consists of relaxation, calm, and languor or stupor, missing one's French lessons, though seemingly not bothered by this fact; and the third phase presents an acuity of senses, a change in the duh state, the second state is similar to being very tuned in or otherwise right [on], while the third phase also represents aspects of being completely right on, which would, if disclosed to a suitor, surely result in a disastrous courtship.” 

My friends on Facebook have given me considerable insight on what's funny and what's not. In FB groups, I have uncovered an astonishing and extensive array and variety of effects as experienced and described by laughers in my studies. With as little embellishment as possible - yeah, right - I have identified five levels of humorification influenced primarily by dose: (1) Just fine or totally cool with it (a threshold level with barely perceptible effects); (2) Duh (don’t these jerkwads have anything better going on?); (3) Right on (a quieting, opening, calming, or relaxing state with sensory enhancement, greater sensitivity to positive suggestions and to others in social settings, and feelings of efficiency, or a centeredness and ability to focus and work well); (4) Seriously, dude, right on (alterations in perception of space and time, imagery intensified, alterations in memory function, feelings of happiness, and enhanced awareness of internal body processes); and (5) Totally right on (so freaking right on one risks loss of consciousness from floating in the clouds for so long). 

The humorous experience, then, is significantly inspired by what laughers think about the effects, the meanings they hold, and how they are described. The application of meaning to a specific joke or comedy experience entails a struggle to describe what is funny but not lame, and to comprehend its value and consequence in the laugher’s life. 

Humorous Effects and Meanings Applied

Funny is essentially how humans interpret and comprehend someone falling down on their tuckus (misspelling of the Yiddish word, tuchus, meaning bottom, rear, buttocks, back-end). It is viewed as a mental process or activity or a state of behavior and is typically dependent on someone actually falling down on their tuckus in broad daylight in which the meaning was originally applied. It also is important in attribution of experience to that which produced and fashioned it, i.e. slippery slopes. If the person slips in a new, unexpected, or otherwise interesting way, the experience is novel, and therefore funny, which shifts the brain in gear to determine and apply new meaning, usually concocting appropriate metaphors to go along with the humorous story they told their friends at last night’s dinner party. 

Funny jokes are instrumental in a number of ways in which they produce humorous effects: setting expectations of the effects of punchlines to be experienced; perceiving, interpreting, and describing effects of a lingering joke; attributing effects (beneficial or adverse) of how a joke affected one’s self-esteem; and condemning or glorifying the comedian who inspired the humor experience.  Studies of metaphors and meanings in the context of joke telling suggest that meaning is a powerful component in humorous behavior and plays a key role in whether or not a joke is well-received. As meaning is constructed from a neurochemical basis to language to its depiction in thought and behavior, it is formulated and labeled in specific ways, often metaphorically, in words, images, and symbols. 

It is this process of humorous symbolization which, in certain humorous states, gives every punchline a significance beyond mere one-liners or tweets.

These meanings help laughers better understand the humorous experience, how it is shaped, what it signifies to them, and how it affects behavior, either for good or bad (good or bad sense of humor). Being humorous or experiencing any humorous state is a learned thing. Laughers discover that the longer they live, the funnier life becomes. Laughers learn how to interpret changes called effects and describe these changes from what they heard at the office party, from other friends, and eventually from their past experiences listening to professional comedians.

Effects are modified greatly by the laugher set, setting, and other social factors. Research on online social interaction has shown that both internal and external factors shape and determine the humorous experience (what you post on your wall, and what others post for you). A humorous experience begins with happy molecules (the species/strain of happy molecules with actively witty components), the dose taken (amount of time listening to or reading something funny), and finally, the route of administration (club, online experience, personal experience). 

Expectations of effects, prior to a humor experience, are generated from previous experiences or information and knowledge about the humorous venue. The experience is greatly influenced by laugher set (prior mood and body state, beliefs, suggestibility, effect sensitivity and tolerance for humor level, personality, perceptual capacity, and reason for going to the comedy club in the first place), and physical and social setting of use. The laugher also employs internal and external cues to perceive and define how funny he or she is and whether or not their sense of humor is desirable. 

Sincere attention to how the humor experience is perceived and described, and its meaning in relation to how humor is used, results in a better humor experience. If the desire is simply to “laugh,” then go for it! The varieties of humor experiences are never lost on those who overdose on humor or who have vague notions of the effects they wish to experience. 

If the humor experience is metaphorically one of being totally cool, then what is accomplished is also right on target. Humorous experiences that provide relaxation, sensory enhancement, social interaction, and creative inspiration, and that are poignant and pleasurable to describe and retell, should be the aspiration of all enlightened jokers. 


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