Thursday, July 1, 2010

What Makes Something Funny?

Sometimes I find something funny and I don't know why. Nonetheless, it will make me laugh and laugh out loud for minutes and minutes whenever I think of it, even if I'm all alone. Below, I recount an experience that I find extremely funny, followed by some thoughts on what makes it funny. The section recounting the experience is rather long because it takes many words to describe the ins and outs of what happened.


While I was living in North Carolina, in 2008, I noticed that I was feeling tired quite a lot, and I suspected that I might have sleep apnea. I went for a sleep study at a hospital sleep center in Asheville. I spent two nights at the sleep center, about two weeks apart. The first night determined that I do have sleep apnea, and the second night determined the proper treatment.

For the sleep study, I was hooked up to monitors so that I could be monitored while I slept. Right after the monitors were put in place in the evening and again right before they were removed in the morning, I was asked to perform certain simple actions to determine that the monitors were working properly. One action I was asked to perform was to make three snoring noises. So I did.

In the two weeks between sleep studies, as I thought about the instruction to make three snoring noises, it began to seem more and more funny to me. Even funnier, I thought, would be to respond with three roaring noises (to which, if corrected, I could reply, "Oh, three snoring noises; I thought you said three roaring noises") or three hooting noises or three noises like the second half of a hee-haw (just the haw). Every time I thought of this, I would laugh and laugh and laugh.

I decided to actually do it when I went for the second sleep study. Every time I thought about making these alternative noises, I would laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh - usually all by myself!

And I did follow through! In the evening of the second sleep study, when asked to make three snoring noises, I made three hooting noises ("Hooooo, Hooooooo, Hoooooo"), and in the morning, when asked to make three snoring noises, I made three noises like the second half of a hee-haw ("Haaaawwww, Haaaaawwww, Haaaawwww"). The technician, by the way, accepted these noises without comment! When I pointed out that I hadn't exactly made snoring noises, she replied that she just needed me to make some kind of similar noise to check the equipment.

Well, I emailed my friend Donna Glee to tell her about the sleep study and about the hooting noises and the noises like the second half of a hee-haw. Only I made a mistake in the email message and said that it was the first half of a hee-haw, rather than the second half. Later I realized my mistake and emailed a correction: "Donna Glee, I made a mistake in my previous email message. The noise I made wasn't really the first half of a hee-haw. It was actually the second half of a hee-haw." I thought that this was extremely funny, writing to correct which half of a hee-haw constituted the noise I had made. This made me laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh - all by myself - every time I thought of it. Donna Glee chose to ignore this frivolity.

Finally, one day soon thereafter when I was with Donna Glee in person, I actually told her about making the alternative noises at the second sleep study. I was laughing so hard I could hardly tell the story. Donna Glee did not laugh. She just looked at me and said, "You know, all those silly things you did are recorded on your hospital chart." This made me laugh harder and harder. I could just imagine this as part of my PERMANENT RECORD: "The patient, when asked to make three snoring noises in the evening, substituted three hooting noises; presented with the same request for three snoring noises in the morning, the patient substituted three noises like the second half of a hee-haw"!!! Oh, I just couldn't stop laughing!


Okay, now, why do I find this so funny? Part of it is being silly and serious at the same time. First of all, the serious request, coming from the sleep study technician, to make three snoring noises, has a silly feel to it. Then, to respond seriously with the wrong noise is also silly. A hooting noise is silly. A roaring noise is silly, especially if you're corrected and reply, "Oh, a snoring noise; I thought you said a roaring noise." And to seriously make a noise like the second half of a hee-haw is extremely silly.

Then, to write an email correction about whether the noise is the first or the second half of a hee-haw is completely silly.

Finally, to imagine all this as part of a serious hospital chart is utterly silly. And Donna Glee's not laughing made it even more funny to me.

I think that the funniness comes from the juxtaposition of something silly with something serious. The context is serious - an instruction to a patient, a response from the patient, an email correction, a recording on a hospital chart. Yet the content is silly - three snoring sounds, three hoots or roars or haws, the second half rather than the first half of a hee-haw, the fact that the patient hooted or hawed when instructed to make three snoring sounds. Putting that silly content into a serious context is very funny. And the more unfunny another person finds it, the funnier I find it - probably because the other's unsmiling response to my laughter emphasizes the juxtaposition of serious and silly.

I would love to hear how a humor scholar would analyze this!

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