How Humour Makes Us Human – at the RSA

The panel was Martin Rowson, Jonathan Miller (yes!) and Natalie Haynes.

I like Natalie Haynes a lot – I wonder if she knows as much Latin as she makes out. She told us than women comprise 10% of comedians. I always wondered why I don’t find many woman comedians funny and now I realise that I probably find the same proportion of woman comedians funny as I do men.  What a relief that I’m not yet pinned down as a misogynist.

Jonathan Miller believes that all mirth is based on recognition of category mistakes – e.g. the  squirrel who tells his psychiatrist “You know, as I always say, you are what you eat”. Squirrels don’t have psychiatrists and they don’t “always say” anything at all. If he thinks it’s all about category mistakes, he’s wrong – a big ingredient of humour is the way you tell em. He of all people should agree.

Martin Rowson told a very funny anecdote about Alastair Cambell which I won’t even try to repeat since Matt reckons that the absence of rolling in our aisles is down to the way I tell em. MR believes that humour is a way of counteracting the sheer unpleasantness of being alive.

My favourite question – which nobody even tried to address – was whether humour was like learning. I know what he meant – when you find humour, you’re making a new connection. But you can find the same joke funny for the same reasons for ages and you can forget jokes – it must be a different kind of connection from e.g. learning French, remembering the key events of the Bosnian war in the right order, etc. Cognitive psychologists may know.


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