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The Debunker: Is Laughter For When We Hear Something Funny?

by Ken Jennings

We live in an increasingly unfunny world, which might be why comedy is booming in our culture like never before. Today, every ad tries to be funny, every politician tries to be funny. Many of us get our news from comedy shows , if we haven't already been filled in by the day's viral tweets and Facebook memes. Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings has a new book out about our comedy-first culture, called Planet Funny, which is on sale now, so we've asked him to spend June debunking some popular misconceptions about humor and comedy. He'll be here all month! Tip your waitress.

The Debunker: Is Laughter For When We Hear Something Funny?

"Present mirth hath present laughter; what's to come is still unsure," wrote William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night. That's a guy who wrote over a dozen comedies that are stone-cold classics, even if they haven't really been that funny to audiences for at least two hundred years. Surely he knows what he's talking about! Mirth, or amusement, causes laughter, everybody knows that. More simply put, we laugh at jokes.

The Debunker

But it's interesting how that simplistic conception of laughter falls apart when it's actually tested. The most notable work in this field has been done by a University of Maryland neurobiologist named Robert Provine. Dr. Provine and his grad students have spent decades studying laughter "in the wild," as it were. They eavesdrop on thousands of strangers at food courts and bus stops, precisely notating how laughter dots the conversations around them. As Provine wrote in his 2000 book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, the results were shocking.

According to Provine's work, 80 to 90 percent of our daily laughter doesn't follow humor at all. (And the 10-20 percent that do rarely follow an overt witticism that you could even call a "joke"—they're mostly deployed for mildly playful conversation.) Even more surprisingly, speakers laugh 46 percent more than listeners. Provine's hypothesis is that laughter is not primarily a joke response. Instead, it's a social signal, a hard-to-fake demonstration of good feelings that lubricates friendly interaction. It probably evolved from the noises and grimaces made by our primate ancestors to distinguish juvenile horseplay from actual combat. That would explain why, according to Provine's work, we laugh thirty times more frequently with others than we do alone. In other words, Internet acronyms like "lol" and "rotfl" are almost always a lie.

Quick Quiz: What Australian bird, a species of kingfisher, was previously known as the "laughing jackass"?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.