The science of humour reveals a lot about why we find some things funny and not others. Studies show that people are 30 times more likely to laugh in the presence of others than alone. Which is why videos with canned laughter trigger a higher laugh response than ones without a laugh track. It seems, more than a joke, what it takes to make someone laugh, is company to laugh with.
Evolution has encoded many tools in us humans to ensure that we survive as a group. Laughter is a crowd favourite for its ability to create shared realities and strong in-groups. But being part of a group is a tough job. You must stay within strongly drawn lines and disallow ideas that challenge the group’s idea of safety, sameness and hierarchy. For our ancestors out in the wild, these rules were the difference between becoming dinner and being served some. Precisely why humour is so special. Humour allows one to access thoughts that are otherwise forbidden, with social permission from members who are also indulging in these thoughts with you. Laughing in the presence of others indicates that the interaction is safe and that the group is intact.
It is not difficult to make the connection between evolutionary biology and culture. To explain the famously unique Russian sense of humour, Ben Lewis, who extensively documented communist jokes, claims that the exclusive political conditions, economy and system of repression in Imperial and Soviet eras created inherently amusing situations. Instead of crying about all the arm wringing, people began to laugh about their collective world. By laughing at it, they owned their strife. Trained by the unforgiving cold of both the land and the leaders, the humour took on a dry quality, rich with hidden resolve.
Culture, thus defines what is funny and what is not. For example, while Russians can make dry jokes about strife, in China, there’s no humour in misfortune. A great example of this is Australian viral sensation, comedian He Huang, who had to recently face Chinese backlash for joking about things ‘outsiders’ otherwise consider innocent, like her name or being unmarried at 30.
Over the last few years, Indian comedians, brands and content creators have had to walk on eggshells around numerous topics, worried about losing subscribers, followers or loyalists. Brands have begun to issue large lists of forbidden topics for creative storytellers to steer clear of, leaving specific kosher spaces to toy with. While it appears to be a recent trend owing to an overarching label of the uber-sensitive consumer, culture, at the core of it, will direct us better.
The sense of humour of a nation is a unique trait of its culture. Like a personality, it doesn’t entirely change over time, but gradually evolves, in a familiar direction.
9th century Sanskrit poet Amaruka lets us overhear a conversation between a woman and her friend, tasked to carry a message from her lover, translated below.
‘Why is your face all covered with sweat?’
‘The heat of the sun posed quite a threat.’
‘But your eyes are wet; why are they red?’
‘The words of your lover filled me with dread.’
‘But your hair is dishevelled; why such a mess?’
‘The wind was blowing; no need for distress.’
‘Your makeup is gone; rubbed all away!’
‘Yes, rubbed off by the shawl I was wearing today.’
‘But your breathing is heavy; why are you tired?’
‘From working so hard, doing what you desired.’
‘Very clever my friend, you’ve not made a slip.
So tell me what rhymes with the bite on your lip!’
The wordplay is clever. The situation is hilarious. A doubting woman lets her clever friend know that she is not fooled by her cleverness, because she is cleverer. This is a common trope in our jokes. From Keshtu a.k.a Johnny Walker to Johnny Lever, Kannada simpleton Rampanna to Tinkle’s Supandi, our humour has a definitive theme. For a culture that has celebrated knowledge and wisdom for eight millenia, it makes sense that every time a wiseguy outsmarts an idiot, an Indian howls with laughter. But remember, it’s only funny as long as it is the wiseguy, who is representative of 8000 years of know-how and intelligence. As an experiment, consider this.
In 1981, Indian space scientists had trouble transporting our first communication satellite, APPLE, from Guiana Space Centre, France for some tests before a final launch. So to transport it, they loaded it onto a bullock-cart.
It was a Rs.150 elegant solution to an extremely technical and expensive problem that ISRO is, to date, immensely proud of. And it should be. In any other context, the suggestion that this image is funny, is offensive. But when you look at how our scientists outsmarted a complex situation, this picture brings a wry smile.
It’s not funny if we look bad. It has never been. Laughing at one defining trait of Indian identity is laughing at it all, and this is culturally unacceptable. Because we have always been a collective, the only way to laugh at ourselves is to single out stereotypes and let one outsmart the other. Even Khushwant Singh knew this, when he picked on A.I., or Air India, but only in the context of poking fun at P.I.A or Pakistan International Airlines, also. He joked, P.I.A stood for ‘Please Inform Allah.’ And Air India, “Already Informed.”
The sense of humour of a nation is a unique trait of its culture. Like a personality, it doesn’t entirely change over time, but gradually evolves, in a familiar direction. 80’s India celebrated the jugaadu transportation of a missile and didn't think the bullock cart funny. Forty years later, it is still a commendable feat and offensive to laugh at. As brands grapple with what they can say to a consumer and what is off limits, it is important to note that the voice of the Indian Collective has evolved - but its humour remains the same.
The Indian identity today is all about a renewed pride and understanding of heritage and identity where even the Global Desi has begun to own his Brown Mundeism, and her 18th-90th degree connect to Rishi Sunak. Whom does this Indian laugh at, regardless of his ideology? Who is today’s Supandi whom she can outsmart?
She can outsmart the rootless Indian. The out-of-touch ‘Coconut’- brown on the outside, white on the inside. The urban reality-starved Indian who, in the early 00’s, asked the waiter in a canteen, “Bhaji mein organic aalu hai kya?” This is the new Santa Singh. As is tradition, we will always find it funny when we are able to outsmart him. It comes naturally to us to elbow a friend and say, “Dekh raha hai na Binod.”
The Indian sense of humour is best showcased in the following anecdote from the early days of free Internet access in the country. In 2002, psychologist Richard Wiseman launched LaughLab where anyone from around the world could submit and rate jokes, in a bid to find a joke that works universally. There were over 41,000 entries and close to 1.5 million votes. The following joke won.
As brands grapple with what they can say to a consumer and what is off limits, it is important to note that the voice of the Indian Collective has evolved - but its humour remains the same.
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says "OK, now what?"
It was submitted by psychiatrist Gurpal Ghosal.
Explaining, he said "I like the joke as it makes people feel better, because it reminds them that there is always someone out there who is doing something more stupid than themselves."
Prakash Sharma and Reshma Tonse are the co-founders of 1001 Stories, a user-consumer research and solutions consultancy which uses Behavioural Science and Context Architecture to analyse, understand and influence human behaviour. They write the column Brain Matters on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.