“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog


Why is Funny Funny?

Occasionally, I hear the opinion that topical TV panel shows such as Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week are “scripted”. Clearly, this is meant pejoratively, not merely descriptively. A scripted programme would not presenting itself to us honestly.

I don’t believe this (I have seen a couple of recordings of similar shows, and there isn’t any evidence of scripting to my eye), but equally they aren’t simply a handful of people going into a studio for half-an-hour and chatting off the top of their head. My best guess for what is happening is a mixture of genuinely off-the-cuff chat, lines prepared in advance by the performers themselves, lines suggested by programme associates, material workshopped briefly before the performance, and some pre-agreed topics so that performers can work in material that they use in their live performances. All this, of course, topped by the fact that a lot of material is recorded, and the final programme is a selective edit of this material.

But, if it were to be scripted from end-to-end, and the performers essentially actors reading off an autocue, why would that be a problem? Like Pierre Menard’s version of Don Quixote, we wouldn’t know the difference. Why would knowledge that these programmes were scripted actually make them less funny? That is, that knowledge would make us laugh less at them—this isn’t just some contextual information, where we would still find it just as funny, but feel slightly cheated that it wasn’t as spontaneous as we are led to believe. We would, I would imagine, actually find it less funny.

There’s something about the human connection here. Even though we don’t know the performers personally, there is still some idea of it being “contextually funny”. Perhaps in some odd way it is “funny enough” to be funny if we believe it to be spontaneous, but not funny enough if we believe it to be scripted. Perhaps we are admiring the skill of being able to come up with the lines “on the fly”—but admiration doesn’t usually cash out in laughter. Somehow, it seems to do with the human connection that we have with these people. We find it genuinely funny because of the context.

I’ve often wondered why I can’t find other country’s political satire funny. I can work out the wordplay in Le Canard enchaîné, but I don’t chuckle at it. I might admire it, but the subjects of the satire are just too distant; perhaps I don’t have a stake in the subjects in the same way that I do in the people that I read about in Private Eye.

When I used to lecture on the Computational Creativity module at Kent, I would talk about the Joking Computer system, an NLP system that could generate competent puns such as “What do you get if you cross a frog with a street? A main toad.”. I used to say that we would find that joke funny—genuinely funny—if it was told to us by a six-year-old child, say your younger brother or sister, even though it isn’t a hilarious joke. Similarly, perhaps, we might give the computer some leeway—it isn’t going to produce an amazingly funny joke, but it is funny for a computer. But, this argument always felt a bit flat. Perhaps it is the human connection—we don’t care that the (soul-less) computer has “managed” to make a joke, we lack that human connection.

My drama teacher at school used to say about the performances that we took part in that he wanted people to say that they had seen a “good play”, not a “good school play”. There is something in that. Perhaps, the same is true for computational creativity. It needs to be “creative enough” to be essentially acontextual before we start to find it genuinely creative.

Leave a Reply