Terry Jones, a member of the Monty Python, recounts an episode related to the test screening of the group’s first feature film, none other than Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The test-audience had been warned that the creators wanted to check if the movie was funny before they ship it off to the movie theaters. Result? They laughed for only about five minutes and concluded that the film was “all right”.
“All right”? Just “all right”? This?! Are you deaf and blind?!
Although worried by this cold reception, the crew sent the feature to a movie festival in L.A., where the viewers were self-selected and had to pay to get the tickets and… laughed a great deal throughout the movie.
In my first piece of research related to humor, I used funny and neutral cartoons to manipulate the experimental versus control conditions.
I meticulously picked the initial pool of non-offensive cartoons (kind of important in psychological research if you don’t want your subjects start throwing pencils at you), which I personally regarded as so-hilarious-that-virtually-everybody-will-just-have-to-laugh kind of funny. Before I conducted the proper experiment, I employed a smaller group of people (called the competent judges in psychological research) to pre-select the funniest cartoon from my initial pool. As expected, some of the cartoons were rated as funnier than others. However, none of them was rated as very funny, rather just moderate to somewhat funny. Could my competent judges lacked the sense of humor?
Well, the average ratings in the proper experiment, with a large sample, were also in the area of somewhat to moderate funny – not very impressive, but at least none pencils thrown in my direction neither…
Of course, you can pin it on me for picking the wrong and not so funny cartoons (but by God, half of my kingdom to whoever can show me a universally funny cartoon that everybody would understand and which would still make it to the New Yorker). However, I later on run into one of the competent judges and she told me that when she saw the cartoons again, couple of months later and without an explicit objective of rating them in head, she did find many of them funny – hilarious, even.
It made me think that there probably has to be some kind of mechanism at play here – one that has to have something to do with what Terry Jones observed happened during the first screening of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Part of Jones’ explanation for what happened was that “you don’t ever say to anybody: ‘we’re really worried about this comedy film, would you come and look, and see if it’s funny’, because they’re not going to find it funny” (Jones in: Parker, Jones, Timlet 2009, Episode 4).
If one relates this statement to the poor funniness ratings of the cartoons in my experiment, one can think that people rating them, be it the competent judges or the study participants, could have assumed that I wasn’t sure whether they are funny – otherwise, why would I ask them to rate them? – and expected them to be rather dull from the beginning.
There’s another explanation, which could be more interesting, though:
Apter – in his theoretical formulation of humor (1982) – suggested that humor is more likely to occur when person’s only objective in processing information is to understand and enjoy it. When, on the other hand, a person has a more specific goal related to processing information, the cognitive activity that is involved in reaching it interferes with the general comprehension processes that give rise to amusement (Wyer & Collins 1992).
In the case of my funny cartoons and the Holy Grail, asking viewers to rate the funniness of what they’re perceiving, the very act of making an assessment, could constitute such “specific goal” and thus interfere with the general processes of simply understanding it and enjoying it as funny.
I am not convinced that it was so in terms of my cartoons, but the Monty Python and the Holy Grail example makes for a strong case that could encourage studies investigating this interesting research question, with both practical and methodological consequences.
For now, if I was to learn if something is really funny, I would rather just go for it and have the person’s reaction observed, or asked some time after, so that he or she gets some time to have a proper fun with it.
Apter, M. J. (1982). The experience of motivation. London: Academic Press.
Parker, A. G., Jones, B., & Timlett, B. (Directors). (2009). Monty Python: Almost the Truth – Lawyers Cut. Episode 4. [TV Series].
Wyer, R. S., & Collins, J. E. (1992). A Theory of Humor Elicitation. Psychological Review, 99(4), 663-688.