It’s Saturday night at the Metropolitan Room, a comedy club in New York City. Host Jimmy Failla is warming up the crowd.
“Where you guys from?” he asks one group in the audience. “Boston? Home of the Red Sox. Personally, we’d prefer you rooted for the Taliban!”
There are 50 or 60 people in the audience, sipping cocktails. Failla has a system. He asks people where they’re from. Most are locals. He then hits them with something they can relate to.
“When you drive in New York, this is the only city in the world where you signal after you’ve already made it into the next lane,” Failla quips. “Anywhere else in the world you want to go left, you put on your blinker like, ‘Hey, I’m going left.’ But if you do that here, they block you. So instead you gotta go left and [then] put on your blinker like [you’re saying], ‘Ha, ha! I made it!’ ”
There’s a man at one of the tables in the darkened room. Robert Lynch is a local. He’s here because he loves comedy. But he’s also here because he’s a researcher who studies why people laugh.
“It was interesting to me to try to deconstruct a joke and find out what it is that was making people laugh,” says Lynch, about why he decided to study humor. He’s currently finishing his doctoral degree at Rutgers University.
Laughter turns out to be very interesting from a scientific perspective. People in all cultures laugh; the instinct for humor seems built-in, like the potential for language or the ability to see.
In all likelihood, this means our ability to laugh came about through evolution; a sense of humor must have given our ancestors a functional advantage. Lynch wants to understand what that advantage is: He wants to know why humor evolved.
As Lynch listens to the comics at the Metropolitan, he does two things. He listens to the jokes, but he also observes how the audience reacts.
Take this joke, for instance.
“In college I had a job interview with a guy who date-raped a friend of mine,” says comic Jena Friedman. “Very awkward job interview. I thought I nailed it. But I never heard from him. So I waited the two weeks, gave him a call, I was like, ‘Hey, did I get the job?’ And he said, ‘No.’ So the next day I showed up, 8 a.m. sharp, ready to go. He’s like, ‘What are you doing here?’ So I said, ‘I’m sorry, I thought no meant yes.’ ”
Lynch believes your reaction to that joke not only says something about whether the joke worked, but something about you.
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