12 May 2012

Review Inside Jokes 1

Review Inside Jokes 1


I am currently reading Inside Jokes by Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams Jr. So far, the book has been enlightening.

Brief summary

Their theory, which seems likely to me, is that humor occurs when you retract an active, committed, covertly entered belief.
It's active in your mind at the moment. They base this on a Just-In-Time Spreading Activation model.
Covertly entered
Not a belief that you consciously same to. You assumed it "automatically".
A belief that you're sure about, as opposed to a "maybe". To an ordinary degree, not neccessarily to a metaphysical certitude.
And a blocking condition: Strong negative emotions block humor.

Basic humor

What they call "basic" humor is purely in your own "simple" (my word) mental frame. That frame is not interpersonal, doesn't have a theory of mind. Eg, when you suddenly realize where you left your car keys and it's a place that you foolishly ruled out before, which is often funny, that's basic humor.

Non-basic humor

Non-basic humor occurs in other mental frames. These frames have to include a theory of mind. Ie, we can't joke about clams - normal clams, not anthropomorphized in some way. I expect this follows from the requirement of retracting a belief in that frame.

Did they miss a trick?

They say that that in third-person humor, the belief we retract is in our frame of how another person is thinking, what I might call an "empathetic frame".
I think that's a mis-step. A lot of jokes end with the butt of the joke plainly unenlightened. It's clear to everyone that nothing has been retracted in his or her mind. ISTM this doesn't fit at all.

Try social common ground instead.

I think they miss a more likely frame, one which I'd call social common ground. (More about it below)
We can't just unilaterally retract a belief that exists in social common ground. "Just disbelieving it" would be simply not doing social common ground. And we as social creatures have a great deal of investment in it.
To retract a belief in social common ground, something has to license us to do so, and it generally also impels us to. ISTM the need to create that license/impulse explains why idiot jokes are the way they are.
This also explains why the butt of the joke not "getting it" doesn't prevent a joke from being funny, and even enhances the mirth. His or her failure to "get it" doesn't block social license to retract.
Covert entry fits naturally here too. As social creatures, we also have a great deal of experience and habit regarding social common ground. This gives plenty of room for covert entry.

What's social common ground?

Linguistic common ground

"Common ground" is perhaps more easily explained in linguistics. If I mention (say) the book Inside Jokes, then you can say "it" to refer to it, even though you haven't previously mentioned the book yourself. But neither of us can just anaphorically1 refer to "it" when we collectively haven't mentioned it before.
We have a sort of shared frame that we both draw presuppositions from. Of course, it's not really, truly shared. It's a form of co-operation and it can break. But normally it's shared.

From language common ground to social common ground

I don't think it's controversial to say that:
  • A similar common ground frame always holds socially, even outside language.
  • Normal people maintain a sense of this common ground during social interactions.
  • Sometimes they do so even at odds with their wishes, the same way they can't help understanding speech in their native language.


1 Pedantry: There are also non-anaphoric "it"s, such as "It's raining."


  1. In a conversation some years back, I had occasion to refer to an incident I'd heard tell of, where in Nazi Germany the board of directors of I.G. Farben voted, purely as a business decision, to open a privatized death camp. The person I was speaking with (a descendant of Russian Jews, as it happens) laughed. Then remarked after a moment's thought, that of course it wasn't funny. Then remarked, after another moment's deeper thought, that there was really no way of dealing with it except to laugh.

    I tend to think humor is, at its root, an extremely simple thing, which makes me wonder if 'retracting an active, committed, covertly entered belief' is really simple enough. I'm not committing to a position, just wondering. How does the case study I've described above square with the book's account of humor?

    1. > How does the case study I've described above square with the book's account of humor?

      Hard to say, since I wasn't there and only he knows exactly what he was thinking.

      But ISTM that's more whether how we should laugh than why we actually do. We all know that normal, non-sadistic people laugh at things that we "shouldn't". If something's funny and it's not blocked by strong negative emotion, it triggers. So ISTM that "shouldn't" has more to do with would-be social engineering than with a theory of humor. Like, it's exhorting you to have a high degree of empathy and therefore feel strong negative emotion.

      And maybe the second part is him creating a justification that supersedes that exhortation, because he's human like the rest of us.

      > [...] which makes me wonder if 'retracting an active, committed, covertly entered belief' is really simple enough.

      But is it that complex? It's one corner of a cube, a triggering stimulus and a common-sense blocking condition.

      Anyways, ISTM they made a good case for each of those criteria, except the blocking they presented as common sense (no argument here). By way of a short example, they relate the following ruined joke:

      Before you criticize someone, you should (as we say metaphorically) walk a mile in their shoes. Then you've got a mile headstart and they're barefoot.

      When the covert entry of "metaphorically" become overt, the joke was ruined.

  2. there is a funny little quip I heard from tom lehre and I still don't quite understand why it is funny.

    "Life is like a sewer.
    What you get out of it depends on what you put in"

    What belife did I have to retract?

  3. What song is that from?

    I do find it slightly amusing (2 stars of 10). I don't know that I'm the best exponent of what's funny about it, but I'll make a stab at it. My suspicion is that the joke logic runs something like this:

    * We hear the familiar "what you get out ... what you put in" trope.
    * We automatically call up its usual high-minded moral associations. "Do well by doing good"(*).
    * Waitaminnit, what you get out of a sewer, even if it does contain everything you put into it, is sewage.
    * This is inconsistent with the trope's affectual implications. Having sewage is not "doing well".
    * We retract one of the colliding beliefs, probably the high-minded moral inference that we just made.

    (*) "The Old Dope Peddler".

  4. It's from "an evening wasted with tom lehre"
    it prefaces "we will all go together when we go"

    here is a transcript

    when I hear it, my though process goes like so;
    he means 'life sucks'.
    Hmm input=output usually means "it's your own fault that you're unhappy'
    i suppose I can reconcile it if life is shitty because that is where people shit. Which would make it an ironic reversal of exactly the type I expect.

    wait, why is he taking things out of the sewer??
    then I laugh.

    but it still seem that according to naive analysis the punch-line comes before the setup.