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The Fundamentals of Physical Humor

Our common bodily needs and goals make physical humor the most universal form.

Key points

  • The Mutual Vulnerability Theory of Laughter sheds light on why physical limitations provide the most reliable sources of amusement.
  • Because our emotional, cognitive, and social abilities evolved to increase survival and reproduction, all humor is ultimately physical.
  • A wonderful example of performance humor, along with the MVT, reveals how effectively laughter can be inspired.

The central premise of evolutionary psychology is that our behavior is inextricably linked to the pursuit of goals prescribed, in large part, by our evolutionary history. We are each the product of ancestral lineages whose members succeeded in a dozen or so fundamental pursuits. Among other things, they were able to: move through their environment in search of resources, shelter, and mates; accumulate needed sustenance; effectively manipulate tools and materials; maintain a relatively stable and safe body temperature; accurately assess their physical environment; avoid life-threatening illnesses and injuries; and, of course, successfully reproduce.

When we talk about vulnerability being at the core of our laugh response, we are inevitably referring to these sorts of capabilities. Our numerous and varied emotional, cognitive, and social abilities are little more than underwriters of physical success. It should come as no surprise, then, that the most universal, the most cross-culturally significant means of inspiring laughter are those that reference corporal concerns.

In previous posts, I have summarized, ever so briefly, the basic elements of the Mutual Vulnerability Theory of Laughter. Before going into greater detail (and there is much detail yet to discuss), I thought you might enjoy actually seeing the theory at work, so to speak. I will provide a link to a YouTube video at the end of this post. As you watch, the MVT will help you understand why the audience feels compelled to laugh in response to the words and actions of this one particular performer. His name is Frank Olivier, a juggler, and the video is of a routine he did for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

As you will see, Olivier is not simply a juggler. Yes, he has the ability to solicit applause from The Tonight Show viewers, but also numerous laughs as well.

So, using what you’ve learned about the MVT, laughter, and humor from my first few posts, see if you can explain the proximate cause for each bout of laughter expressed by the audience. What did Olivier do or say just prior to each outburst that could have inspired such a response? How did his words and actions relate to physical vulnerability and it what way?

As you watch, keep in mind the following concepts:

  • Strength
  • Coordination
  • Balance
  • Agility
  • Body Temperature
  • Restricted Mobility
  • Pain/Injury
  • Visual Acuity

Ask yourself as well, is Olivier exposing relatively minor impediments to his success or serious failures? Are there any others whose vulnerabilities are being highlighted and by whom? Do you suspect the audience was laughing sympathetically with Olivier or derisively at him? Even though they are unlikely to match the level of skill he demonstrates, do audience members appear to relate to Olivier’s apparent shortcomings? Do they know what it’s like to perform at the very limits of their ability? Have they dropped things that resulted in embarrassment? Have they overestimated their level of strength or coordination? Have they ever injured themselves as they’ve run or walked through their environment, or while on some form of conveyance?

From their reaction, I think it is safe to assume most, if not all of them, have. If we traveled back in time, would it be possible to test for correlations between personal experience and laugh response? My suspicion is we most definitely could.

I’ll offer my analysis of the performance in a subsequent post and then we can compare notes.

Watch and enjoy.

Watch Frank Olivier on the Tonight Show.

© John Charles Simon