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Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Paul Lewis, Professor of English at Boston College and author of "Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict"

Paul Ingles: The conclusion of your 2006 book, Cracking Up, brings together some of the elements of humor that, I guess, have me squirming a little bit as I get older. You juxtapose a joke that Jay Leno told on The Tonight Show back in 2005, with some facts from a press release that fueled the joke, about the problem of teasing and bullying in schools. Would you be willing to read those quotes for us so we can talk about it?

Paul Lewis: Sure. The first one, Jay Leno delivered on his January 24th show that, year and he said this, it was a joke among many. “Do you know what week this is in our public schools? I’m not making this up. This week is national No Name-Calling Week. They don’t want any name calling in our public schools. What stupid dork came up with this idea?” And coincidentally perhaps on the very same day, this press release came out from a group called the “No Name-Calling Week Coalition” and it said, “results from 2004 bullying surveys in schools indicated that students reported a significant decrease in the amount of bullying and harassment in school after taking part in the first No Name-Calling Week and its activities. More than 5000 educators and administrators have officially registered to take part in the 2005 week.”

Ingles: So why did this strike youas a good way to start your conclusion chapter in this book?

Paul Lewis: Well, the book is about the need to think more reflectively about humor and how it operates in society and culture. And I know, that for many people that idea is off putting. They think if you reflect on humor, you’re some kind of kill-joy or you’re some kind of geek. But this is an example, where Jay Leno, intending no harm, I’m sure, but nevertheless kind of stumbles into making fun of something, which its easy enough to make fun of, but the consequences of making that program seem ridiculous and empowering students who might actually hear this joke to resist its lessons. I think it could very well prove destructive. And there’s so much of violence in American High Schools. We lead the world in school shootings, hardly a category where we want to be ahead in. And just in that same year, you know, the Minnesota Red Lake High School shootings sort of rocked the country. So where does that joke fit into a culture where violence can erupt and where people of goodwill are trying to do something to stop it?

Ingles: So what’s important for us to understand about that? I mean because, I’m certainly sensitive to these issues, being the host of this type of radio program for one thing but, you know, I can see how I might impulsively laugh at that joke or even appreciate that it was sort of a clever joke.

Lewis: Well the last thing, I’d want to do is try to legislate what people should find funny or in anyway try to exert control about it. But there is a great deal of talk, loose talk I think in American culture, about the benefits of humor. And how humor is a kind of panacea that provides for both physical health and psychological well-being. And it makes us think in a way that is very open to any sorts of humor and any uses of humor and then we miss the nuances, we miss the possibility that some humor uses, however delightful it is in general, can actually be harmful and in a number of different ways, which we might not be aware of.

Ingles: Okay, so I guess I am coming to this realization here in my mid 50’s. I’m noticing how much popular humor stems from people putting other people down. Whether it’s in popular stand-up comedy or movies or sitcoms or political pundit shows for that matter. And I’m wondering if teasing behavior by young people and wise-cracking behavior by adults who is sort of being fueled by at all leading to more conflict and tension.

Lewis: Well, ridicule is probably as old as human civilization. So I don’t think that, what we are seeing is necessarily new or radically different and it’s possible to argue that. Ridicule is actually a positive force in its general evolutionary function.

Ingles: Well, yeah, and how far back does it go?

Lewis: Well, who knows how far back it goes. It goes further back then we have an ability to track it going back. But if you think about the way in which ridicule and comic putdown operates in the sort of support and even policing of social norms and correct behavior within society. And what the alternative to that is. This is this Freud’s great insight about humor, which is that, yes it can’t express aggression, it can be a kind of force that allows you to say critical things about other people. But the alternative will be smacking the person. So if you’re not smacking them, but you’re putting them down, well that’s a move in the direction of civilization. Freud would have said, we can’t control the imposed violence and aggression but we can mediate how we express it and presumably humor in the form of putdown say or ridicule can allow us to make a point, provide a correction, but do it without using our fists.

Ingles: Yeah. Well, that makes me think I sort of did a personal inventory of exposure to put down humor in my lifetime and then, there’s no shortage, I mean, I reach back to Abbott & Costello and The Three Stooges wherein there was put down and smacking, right?

Lewis: Yes.

Ingles: And then, you know, you move up to the 60’s and you have vintage comedians like Don Rickles and Joan Rivers. And then scores of sitcoms particularly since All in the Family in the early 1970’s up through programs like, Cheers and Roseanne and Seinfeld, Friends, The Office, and Two and a Half Men. To me it seems, (these are) all situations were friends and families in these scenarios, more often zing each other with putdowns for laughs than any other form of humor. And I guess it makes me wonder if there’s, if there’s an absorption going on. I’m wondering how much you think that sinks in so that as we’re out in out world, in our social settings and our work settings and family settings, that we’re expecting to hear the laugh track in our own brain reinforce our behavior.

Lewis: Well these are complicated issues. As far back as Aristotle, comic theorists have been noticing that comedy deals with characters who are generally inferior to the average whereas tragedy deals with people who have a kind of stature and superiority although they’re flawed. So even ancient comedies are about characters who, do silly things, fall into silly mistakes, have their identities mistaken, behave in ways is that are not socially permitted. So again that sense of, sort of castigating or mocking inappropriate behavior is a fundamental tool of our comic writing. Sitcoms are interesting because nothing really ever happens in them. As a genre, as a kind of comedy. They don’t change, they don’t show the world in transition whereas say a romantic comedy or Shakespeare comedy starts out with one social group and ends up with a new social arrangement, new marriages, new lives come together. But in sitcoms you have to maintain the same static situation, the same 4 characters, the same 4 friends or 8 friends. And so whatever seems to happen or change or threatening to change the group, it can’t and I think a lot of that putdown humor is directed at characters who threaten to come into the circle and really bring love or a new relationship. Why can’t Jerry ever find anyone to marry in Seinfeld? It’s because he is so self-absorbed. But that self-absorption allows him to remain locked in that group, that static group which is of course a profitable formula that they can carry on from season to season.

Ingles: Well, I know you’re not a neuroscientist…

Lewis: Not even close.

Ingles: …but I know you’ve read a lot of the impact of humor. Why is this type of humor so appealing as entertainment to the human brain?

Lewis: Wow. Well, I don’t know. In classic humor theory, nothing to do with humor, and neuroscience but Thomas Hobbes argued that people are always looking for ways to make fun of others as a way of, sort of, asserting their own superiority. So humor isn’t the only way that we do this. By correcting other people’s grammar would be another way that we do it. It makes us feel better and makes us feel superior. Whether it helps us affiliate with the people who are around us or just pisses them off is another question. But the same thing is true about humor. That is to say some humor is a way of embracing the people who are around you and saying, you know, “I have affection for you, we like the same things, we laugh at the same things.” Other humor is a way of saying “you’re an idiot, and I don’t like you and I don’t want to be in your group.” And I think it’s when you become aware of the nuance and subtlety of what’s going on in any particular situation that you can start to notice how humor is operating between people and groups.

Ingles: You’ve mentioned in our conversation Thomas Hobbes and Freud and in your book I think you also cite Henri Bergson?

Lewis: Well Bergson sees ridicule as really important but the reason he sees it as important is very much along this line of providing enforcement of norms. He thinks that when people behave in ways that are too rigid, human life requiring flexibility, that they’re often mocked for that and that sort of reminds them of the importance of breaking out of their molds or their habits. So for Bergson, it’s kind of a life-affirming proposition but it is still very much a force of society saying to the individual “Snap out of it. Don’t be a miser, don’t be someone who acts habitually in a way that isn’t productive.”

Ingles: So when I have these types of conversations I always think about growing up and trying to manage as children these elements and these concepts. And when I’m with my family, watching my nieces and nephews, friend’s kids, I notice siblings or playmates using humor to put down often younger or more vulnerable people in their group. Where is the behavior sourced in those examples?

Lewis: Michael Billig has an interesting book on ridicule in which he argues that children develop their sense of humor in middle school years – sort of the middle child years, 8 to adolescence. And they know by then what they think is funny but they start to develop a sense of how to use humor in interacting with other people. And what they learn from their parents, who presumably mocked them for their misbehavior, again rather than smacking them one would hope, is both what it is to misbehave but also the norms that need to be followed. But also the power of ridicule and mockery, so they start to do that too. And if they are tactful and adroit in the way they do it, then no one is wounded all that much, a point is made that was worth making. But if they’re not tactful then they can sort of shift over into a kind of cruelty which is painful and which actually will have the effect of sort of distancing other people from them rather than reaching out to them.

Ingles: From what you said, I would think that you would say there is some value to joking our way to some degree of distraction in times of conflict as long as we also carry a certain amount of awareness about how far we’re going and whether we’re trivializing important issues.

Lewis: I think that’s exactly right. You know, we have to find pleasure where we can find it in this world. And I think the great thing about humor is that it is so delightful. It is so pleasant. It’s hard to imagine. It’s like, if you strip it from human expression you’re almost at the robot level. You know, Data on Star Trek, he couldn’t get the joke, you know. So that’s a horrible nightmare scenario. A world without humor would be a world without human beings. But that said, that doesn’t mean that everyway in which humor operates in the world around us is actually productive, makes for happiness, makes for well-being or you know, leads us to understanding and coping with the very serious and real challenges that we face.

Ingles: Well, as we wrap-up, is there something that you would want to leave our listeners with in this field that you’ve studied so much and that we’ve been talking about?

Lewis: I suppose that I’d like to make people more thoughtful in the reception of humor. Not so thoughtful that they don’t find things funny, but thoughtful in the fact that they think about what’s funny about it after they’ve enjoyed it perhaps after they laugh like you with the Leno joke that we started with. It’s fine to laugh at that joke. I think it’s pretty funny too, it’s not the funniest joke in that monologue, but it wasn’t bad. But then sort of think where does this joke take us, where is it trying to take us?. Where is it leading us in terms of how seriously we’re going to think about whatever is being joked about. Humor runs deep, it’s one of the most important human experiences. It obviously cuts to our very core values and our relationships in this world and so we should take time to think about it, reflect on it and make sure that we are, in our use of humor and our appreciation of it, our best selves.

Ingles: Paul Lewis, is an English professor at Boston College, who teaches a course on understanding and creating humor. He helped start an academic journal devoted to humor research and has written op-ed pieces on such subjects with humor and terror, fake news and satire and disaster jokes. He is also the author of Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict. Paul, thanks for joining us, it’s a been fun.

Lewis: Thanks so much Paul, I’ve enjoyed it too.

Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at UC-Berkeley, director of the Greater Good Science Center, and author of "Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life"

Paul Ingles: Your take on the tease is that it plays an important and useful role in social life. You write “teasing, when done well, provides a platform for negotiating conflict-laden relationships.” And that sounds quite different from my concern over its aggressive, hurtful nature that you, I should say, acknowledge can be a part of the tease as well. But tell me more about teasing, actually solving problems of intimate life.

Dacher Keltner: Well as a complex mammal like, you know, the human has all these different kinds of relationships and we have to negotiate the terms of those relationships. We fold into social hierarchies very routinely. We fall in love, we negotiate the complexities of love, we try to teach our children how to be moral agents and entities and what we have started to discover, in our laboratory studies of teasing is that teasing is this very light-hearted, playful - when done correctly - manner in which we negotiate these terms of complicated relationships. So just to give a little bit of concrete touch to that statement, you know, take the case of hierarchies, right. We fold in the social hierarchies in almost every context and a lot of species rely on direct confrontation to negotiate hierarchies. Who’s the bigger alpha female or male? As you move up the mammalian hierarchy, if you will, what you find is they start to use really symbolic, playful, indirect ways of signaling status right? Like particular kinds of vocalizations or calls or displays and that’s really what teasing is in humans, one of the things we do is we sort out our position in a social hierarchy.

Ingles: Well you do make a distinction between bullying and what you call “the artful tease” by pointing to four lessons learned from playgrounds and offices and maybe your research as well.

Keltner: Yeah.

Ingles: You say the first lesson is the nature of the provocation. What do you mean by that?

Keltner: Well, you know, Paul this is one of the central questions in our work and you know, there is so much concern about bullying right now in our society and I am happy to report, thanks to anti-bullying campaigns in schools, bullying is actually down in US schools right now. But how do we differentiate the tease from a form of bullying or sexual harassment in the work place? And that really was the central motivating question of our research. And what we did is broke it down into a few different ways or distinctions. One is teases have this slightly aggressive what we call, provocation it’s a way of provoking somebody. It can be a, you know, a noogie or a shoulder punch or a comment or a nick name or something like that. And what we found is that really hostile forms of teasing, which start to feel to the recipient like bullying, the provocation is more personal, it’s more aggressive, it’s a punch to the stomach rather than a playful nudge to the shoulder. And that is really a clear way of differentiating teasing from bullying.
And then Paul, the other part in terms of thinking about the content of the tease that helps us here, is the other piece of the tease. And this is where the teasing gets very playful and creative and friendly and what we call artistic or artful, and that’s these amazing brief, subtle, linguistic acts that we call the off-record markers. And what great teases involve our little linguistic acts let’s say “Hey, you know, I just provoked you a bit, but I don’t mean it. Or maybe I mean the opposite, but I’m not being entirely serious here. So we shift our tone of voice, we exaggerate, we use metaphors or funny words to make this provocative comments. And what you find in bullying is there are no off-record markers, there is no play to a bully’s tease, whereas the teasing amongst friends is full of these kind of playful devices.

Ingles: Yeah we talked before we went on the, you and I both share a lot of basketball, so I’ll share a story about myself. I play with these, you know, older fellows - age appropriate opponents - a couple of times a week. And there is good natured, put down humor and teasing.

Keltner: Yeah.

Ingles: And I guess the source of this program for me has been, in part, a little bit of an evolution on my part or just a change in how I feel these moments. Like I’m coming off the court and a buddy of mine will point to the one embarrassing play that I had in an otherwise good game, you know? And I’m starting to feel like, “okay, wait a minute. Why aren’t we saying something about all the other stuff?”

Keltner: Right.

Paul Ingles: What’s going on here?

Keltner: Right, well yeah and we have to ask the question that you are asking Paul, which is, why not just compliment or why not express gratitude? And I think that teasing doesn’t preclude that and we need more of that. But I think what we know about teasing and it may relate to the development on nature of your question is that teasing is this way in which we sort out complex and conflictual circumstances and it really peaks, it’s very frequent, in the adolescent years, for example, when people are sorting out their romantic dynamics. It’s very intense in work settings where there is a lot of competition and it’s used to sort out more cooperative arrangements. And so maybe what you are observing in your own life, Paul, is, as you move in to less competitive types of basketball and a more grateful period of life, you don’t need to tease. But what we do know is teasing is good in helping members of young social groups find their place. It’s good in family dynamics when parents have to deal with adolescent kids. It’s good in romantic contexts early in life.

Ingles: Yeah, I want to ask you more about that later.

Keltner: Yeah.

Ingles: In doing research for this program, doing some web searches, I was looking at some articles from I guess whom you’d would call business coaches - people who will go into work places and help with organizational communication and that sort of thing. And one gentlemen was sort of alarmed at the amount of teasing and use of put down humor in the office place.

Keltner: Yeah.

Ingles: I am sure you have heard of these concerns or maybe have thought or studied about them. Where do the lines get muddy in those environments and what can people who are in them maybe, do to work their heart around these issues?

Keltner: Yeah, you know, I speak a lot to organizations and executives and you are absolutely right. It is this very complicated language that people have to negotiate in a set of social rules that people have to negotiate. And you’ll have, for example, I remember a female executive talking to me about how she worked in the stock market on a trading floor and there the humor and the putdowns were shark-like and just devastating and she could never quite adjust to that. And so I think the first thing that we have to remind ourselves of is that this science of teasing really clarifies what the boundaries are between the playful, affectionate tease that says “I’m a colleague of yours.” It‘s playful, it has those off-record markers. It’s done in the right context, around the right kind of people versus an act that’s more aggressive in intention where we don’t have the off-record playfulness that we’ve talked about. So I think this science is useful in really clarifying the kinds of teasing that promote good will in organizations and the kinds that don’t.
The second thing I think we really learn not only from teasing, but any kind of social behavior. You know, I do a lot of research on touch and it’s the same thing. That we all have different styles, right? We all have different levels of comfort. And when I talk to people in organizations they will know. Like, “oh, I see I am kind of too direct in my teasing and I can soften it through these techniques you have described.” Whereas other people maybe they’re not the kind of person you’d want to negotiate something with the tease and are better at the earnest dialogue.

Ingles: Yeah and then the issue of touch becomes very tricky in office place or in school situations.

Keltner: Absolutely. Although I am interested in a lot of prosocial emotions like compassion and gratitude and reverence, I work in these two provocative areas of teasing and touch. And I really take a lesson from the literature on, you know, controversial speech, which is we do have to allow a certain freedom of expression. It’s really part of the DNA of this culture and the more sophisticated the analysis of the active communication via teasing or touch, the better we are able to really allow a lot of freedom of expression, really clearly define what is the bullying episode and prevent that as school campaigns are doing so I take heart in that.

Ingles: Well I mentioned four lessons and you touched on the nature of the provocation and the off- record markers and I think we just been talking about understanding social context is maybe the third one right? I think you also mentioned earlier that teasing gets better with age. How so?

Keltner: Thank goodness. Regrettably, many of our memories of teasing are of that devastating tease when we are eight or nine. Well here is what happens. As children develop, at around age ten or eleven, cognitively they develop this capacity to understand contradictory statements as being both possible, right? And that is the very heart of irony and teasing which is I say one thing, but I actually mean the opposite or the opposite is possible. I am telling you that you dance like an ox, but what I am really saying you are a graceful dancer. And at around age ten or eleven - and parents will quickly pick this up because the eleven, twelve years olds really start to tease their parents. They start to use funny nicknames, they develop a sense of sarcasm or irony. And at that age, their mind has developed this capacity that allows them to tease and understand teasing better. And what we find in different studies in classrooms, in the incidents of bullying, in playgrounds, is that kids start to like teasing a lot more at about ten or eleven and there is a just a general developmental trend of liking it more and more.

Ingles: But are they also picking up on the subtleties or it or as you know if you would say the art of the tease?

Keltner: Yeah absolutely. So one part of it is that just better producing a really effective tease, or an artful, playful kind-hearted tease, and the other is that they are attuned to, you know, how you can use the voice to be ironic or how we can exaggerate things to say we don’t mean what we say.

Ingles: I think I’m remembering correctly that maybe Milton Berle (comedian) was the inspiration for your thought that laughter is a two to three second vacation from reality. You write, “That it’s a vacation from encumbrances, burdens and gravity of the world of literal truths and sincere commitments.”

Keltner: Yeah.

Ingles: So are we saying that, in the case of put down humor, is it acceptable because we are taking a short break from better manners or kindness or the kinds of sincere commitments we’re told make up a caring society?

Keltner: I think that’s a fair analysis of put down humor. I have done studies of laughter amongst couples and friends and showing that it really benefits relationships as your listeners I am sure would anticipate. I really was trying to figure out why, in the deeper sense, that laughter does that - if it’s not about humor per se. In our own studies it didn’t seem to be. And I think Milton Berle got it right. He said, laughter is a vacation and what we are doing when we laugh is we’re saying, right now, you and I can share a non-serious moment. So let me give you empirical example. Several studies have found, when we bring romantic couples into the lab - and God knows they have a lot to negotiate - that when couples laugh, even if they’re talking about really serious stuff and they share that moment of laughter, they calm down physiologically, they’re better able to reach an agreement on the issue they are discussing, and they like each other more. So it’s a little break from the seriousness of life.

Ingles: I am wondering if you could read that last paragraph of your chapter on Laughter.

Keltner: Okay. “Laughter may just be the first step to nirvana. When people laugh they are enjoying a vacation from the conflicts of social living. They are exhaling, blowing out and their bodies are moving toward a peaceful state incapable of fight or flight. People see their lives from a different point of view with new perspective and detachment. Their laughter spreads to others in milliseconds through the firing of the networks of mirror neurons. In shared laughter people touch, they make eye contact, their breathing and muscle actions are in sync, they enjoy the realm of intimate play. Conflicts are softened and often resolved. Hierarchies negotiated. Attraction and intimacy are created. What was once conflict, tension and frustration, fades away. People move closer to one another in peaceful ways.”