sylwesterEat a live toad in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to either of you for the rest of the day.

Almost everyone considers a sense of humor to be a prized human characteristic, but ask someone to define it and you’ll typically get a muddled rather than precise definition. For example, try to explain why most folks think that the joke above is funny.

A sense of humor thus joins such commonly used fuzzy concepts as chair, vegetable, love, and fairness that lack the definitional precision of such concepts as female, even number, boat, and smile.

TV begins the week with Sunday morning talk shows that seriously explore current political and cultural issues, but TV ends each workday with late night comics who humorously explore the same issues. What is it about the Leno, Letterman, Stewart, Colbert, etc. commentaries that create a different audience response than what the talking heads on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and This Week elicit?

It’s similarly relatively easy to observe several classroom teachers who teach the same subject or grade, and then to assess their basic approach as either serious or humorous, without being able to precisely pinpoint the difference between the two sets of teachers.

Maybe it’s best to simply leave well enough alone. The humorist E. B. White suggested that “humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

Laughter, an instinctive contagious outburst that can both bond and humiliate people, is often the result of a humorous comment or situation, but the two concepts aren’t really the same. Robert Provine researched the biological and social underpinnings of laughter, and published his findings in a fascinating informative book, discussed in an earlier column, Laughter, A Scientific investigation (2000, Viking).

Like chair, humor and the jokes that tend to hang around it come in many forms, and this may be its definitional problem. For example, much humor arises out of an unexpected event or comment. Our brain will attend to an unexpected event if it had been primed to expect something different, and the discrepancy between the expected and unexpected can be viewed in either comedic or tragic terms.

Think of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which begins with a four-note theme, followed by a close repetition, followed by a new extended but related theme. Notice how close this is to the pattern used in blues songs – a statement, a close repetition, and then a longer, considerably different statement that typically explains the singer’s reason for feeling blue.

Consider the classic joke pattern – a minister, priest, and rabbi were having a conversation… The first two men typically make similar responses to the issue at hand, and the third utters the dissimilar punch line. The first two comments set us up to expect something similar – but we get dissimilar, just as we did in Beethoven’s 5th and in almost every blues song. We laugh at the joke, but not at Beethoven or the blues. Why?

Betty White’s three-sentence humorous comment exemplifies the pattern:

All creatures must learn to coexist.
That’s why the brown bear and the field mouse share their lives in harmony.
Of course they can’t mate or the mouse would explode.

Steven Wright’s dry wit often follows the pattern:

I got interested in astronomy.
So I installed a skylight.
The people in the apartment above me are furious.

Many ethnic jokes also follow the pattern:

Ole and Lena went to the Olympics.
While he was sitting on a bench, a lady turned to Ole and asked, “Are you a pole vaulter?”
Ole replied, “No I’m Norvegian, and my name isn’t Valter.”

Humor Research
Despite the complexity of a simple definition, several groups are seriously studying humor, to see if a better understanding will result in a better cultural use of the phenomenon.

The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH) seeks to advance the understanding and application of humor and laughter for their positive benefits (www.aath.org). Its monthly e-zine for members highlights current humor research.

The International Society for Humor Studies is a scholarly organization focused on humor research (www.hnu.edu/ishs). Its informative website provides useful links to individuals and organizations engaged in this kind of research

The Humor Project focuses on the positive power of humor, and is a resource for inserting humor into conferences and life in general (www.humorproject.com/about/)

Humor in the Classroom
Mary Kay Morrison (www.questforhumor.com) is widely known for her work with educators in the promotion and creation of humor in classroom life. She has now developed a very useful book for educators, Using Humor to Maximize Learning: The Links Between Positive Emotions and Education (2008, Rowman and Littlefield Education).

The current focus on state standards and assessment, and the irrational political zeal to provide students with the cheapest possible education have combined to reduce the potential for a light-hearted approach to education. Morrison’s book is thus very welcome. She doesn’t focus on an academic analysis of humor, but rather on how teachers can insert the joy of humor into a classroom and still meet state standards.

The cost of a humor-driven classroom? Humor is cheap, and the results are bountiful!

What teachers do in a classroom isn’t all that different from the three part jokes discussed above. We teach a fact or skill. We vary it slightly. And then we toss students a curve – if this, and this, what about this?

The same phenomenon produces much of the appeal in sports. A basketball team makes a couple baskets via a much-practiced set play (such as the pick and roll), and then the defensive team stymies the third attempt, which forces the offensive team to improvise. The fans of the successful team laugh and cheer in good humor.

Humor is thus everywhere, and Morrison not only argues successfully that it should be integral to classroom life, but she also provides a very practical guide and helpful resources on how to do it (and her book also provided most of the jokes in this column).

Finally, if you have ten minutes to spare, click here: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/223 for the Rispyni Brothers’ humorous take on juggling that frequently uses the three-part pattern discussed above.

But if you think the three-part joke is the only avenue to humor, think again. Humor is as broad as life and as deep as the ocean.

Which reminds me, if you’re in deep water, close your mouth.