an unanticipated consequence of
Jack M. Balkin
Jack Balkin: jackbalkin at yahoo.com
Bruce Ackerman bruce.ackerman at yale.edu
Ian Ayres ian.ayres at yale.edu
Mary Dudziak mary.l.dudziak at emory.edu
Joey Fishkin joey.fishkin at gmail.com
Heather Gerken heather.gerken at yale.edu
Mark Graber mgraber at law.umaryland.edu
Stephen Griffin sgriffin at tulane.edu
Bernard Harcourt harcourt at uchicago.edu
Scott Horton shorto at law.columbia.edu
Andrew Koppelman akoppelman at law.northwestern.edu
Marty Lederman marty.lederman at comcast.net
Sanford Levinson slevinson at law.utexas.edu
David Luban david.luban at gmail.com
Gerard Magliocca gmaglioc at iupui.edu
Jason Mazzone mazzonej at illinois.edu
Linda McClain lmcclain at bu.edu
John Mikhail mikhail at law.georgetown.edu
Frank Pasquale pasquale.frank at gmail.com
Nate Persily npersily at gmail.com
Michael Stokes Paulsen michaelstokespaulsen at gmail.com
Deborah Pearlstein dpearlst at princeton.edu
Rick Pildes rick.pildes at nyu.edu
Alice Ristroph alice.ristroph at shu.edu
Brian Tamanaha btamanaha at wulaw.wustl.edu
Mark Tushnet mtushnet at law.harvard.edu
Adam Winkler winkler at ucla.edu
This article in the New York Times asserts that the muffin joke is not funny; we only laugh at it because we want to get along with other people in social situations.
I disagree. When I first heard the muffin joke, I thought it was very funny. Still do.
Of course to explain why it's funny will make it no longer funny to anyone, but here goes.
The muffin joke is funny because it is self-undermining. The punch line undermines the suspension of disbelief that the joke's narrative presumes. It is kind of like breaching the fourth wall in drama. It's like the line in Dr.Strangelove "You can't fight in here. This is the War Room!" or the Atheist Hymn we came up with in high school: "There is no God, there is no God, He told me so himself."
Now, you see, I've ruined it. The muffin joke is no longer funny. Damn the New York Times and their stupid science articles!
It's kind of hard to know where to start with this article, but one fact is clear: lots of smart folks have tried to figure out why we laugh.
This attempt seems to take an interesting approach: lump every single behavior that looks similar to a laugh into on huge category, then point use a distinct subgroup to explain everything, hmmm, sounds like laughism.
How many 'obvious' assumptions were made along the way. Laughter is obviously not a choice it is an 'instinctual survival tool for social animals.' Oh, I get it!
Wouldn't it be more helpful to describe the variation? The assumption is that if some laughter is used by (mostly) women as punctuation, then all is easily explained: Ha Ha, get it?
Here is an idea: laughter is caused by something, but not all behaviors that look like laughter actually qualify.
Actual laughter is caused by the simultaneous perception of an idea and an opposing idea. The Muffin Joke is no exception.
The key here is 'perception'. If someone tells a joke and I don't perceive, consciously or otherwise, the two contradictory ideas, I probably will not laugh. But maybe in a group I'll chuckle along anyway. Maybe I'm faking it, or maybe I'm perceiving another contradiction: they fact that everyone else appears to get it, but I don't. Problem with these experiments is that they are so easy to predetermine the result by assuming what might be the cause. He He.
The perception of the two ideas is semi-voluntary. For instance, do I voluntarily understand these words? I don't know what I could do to not perceive them and their potential meaning. But imagine a friend who is known to always make certain types of jokes with a double meaning to certain words. When you are around this friend you could choose to 'prime' your perceptions with his/her special vocabulary. Something that might not be that funny in the abstract might be if your friend says it. Wink, Wink.
Or my perceptions could fall on the other end of the spectrum: I don't know the person, I'm not in the mood to joke or laugh, I simply am too dumb to see the contradiction, or I don't understand the words or gesture. Maybe I've just decided to never find anything he/she says as funny. Piss off.
But placing all laughter into the same pot, and trying to tie the quality of the laugh to the assumed cause along an objective scale is pretty laughable all by itself. Maybe the article was a joke, to see who got it and who didn't. Jokes on me, in that case.
in a world that is overanalyzed in the extreme, why on earth can't we just say that we found the joke funny and laughed? i don't care why i laughed when i read the joke. the fact is that i laughed, and felt better for a few moments. do i care why i laughed? absolutely not. do i care if others wonder why i laughed? even less. the old saying that laughter makes the best medicine still fits.
by the way, two peanuts were walking through central park at neight. one was assaulted...
you have my permission to laugh if you wish, and i won't ask why, or think any less of you if you don't.
Bad science. You always know it's crap when a neuroscientist tries to do psychology - he tries to reduce it to neurons, but since we don't know enough about neurons to actually do the reduction, we just end up with nonsense. If they put an MRI in the equation, you might as well dump the paper right there.
1. The study quoted in the NY Times article is making a very obvious baseline error. The study observes that people in positions of authority are less likely to laugh at jokes, while subordinates are more likely to laugh at jokes. From this data, they conclude that the reason that subordinates laugh is to make friends. But that conclusion isn't necessary. My first reaction on seeing the data was that people in positions of authority may be more likely to suppress laughter because they do not want to show weakness. In other words, there is still the possibility that laughter is not a manipulative/performative act; instead, it is the absence of laughter that is manipulative.
2. I also think the muffin joke is much funnier if it ends right after the first muffin speaks.
I'm disappointed in the NYT. That's one of my favorite jokes.
It's funny from a series of incongruities: First, it's about talking muffins. Second, talking muffins unconcerned about being burned to death in an over. Third, talking muffins breaking the fourth wall. That's 3 punch lines in 3 lines, a very high ratio.
A joke is not a thing but a process, a trick you play on the listener's mind. You start him off toward a plausible goal, and then by a sudden twist you land him nowhere at all or just where he didn't expect to go. -- Max Eastman, 1936
Chris at 16:10: Damn I put that joke into the Babel fish translator and had to go to the hospital for a short time. The doctors told me that I was lucky that the translation was so poor or it might have been fatal.
adding to the fun and games of serious joke analysis, my wife tells me that whether or not you find the joke funny depends upon whether or not we are talking about blueberry or chocolate chip muffins...
My wife was on a business trip and nobody got the muffin joke, then she went to a party of people she knew who had similar tastes and everyone liked the muffin joke. So it does seem to be a divider.
Punchlines of jokes are usually unexpected. I think it was Michael O'Donoughue of the Lampoon and SNL who described jokes as little explosions that go off in your head. The explosion of the muffin joke is a shift in point of view. The first muffin is talking to another muffin, but the second muffin is talking to us. The second muffin does not consider himself to be anything like the first muffin. He is peers with us not just some mere muffin.
When I first heard it, a friend who headed up a game studio would walk around late at night and tell it to his programmers. If they laughed, they are too tired to code well, and they were sent home.
Of course, I blow his theory out of the water. Whenever I hear it, I laugh uncontrollably. All someone has to say is 'two muffins' near me and I start to lose it. It's bad, but folks seem to enjoy tormenting me :)