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Laughing at Senior Moments and Fish Out of Water

Failings of “higher” brain functions have always been a staple of humor.

Key points

  • Laughter is intimately linked to vulnerability. Emotions affect our physical well-being, but it’s our cognitive skills that direct our emotions.
  • Much of our humor is based on the absence of essential information or the inability to process it in a way that leads to successful outcomes.
  • TV and movie comedies often star one or more characters who have a below-average knowledge base and/or intellectual competence.

There seems a strong link between, for lack of a better term, stupidity and laughter. Humans have found amusement in cognitive shortfalls of one sort or another from the day our ancestors came down from the trees. Which I believe was a Tuesday.

Established laughter theories explain this relationship in various ways. However, the Mutual Vulnerability Theory, if correct, seems particularly well suited to the challenge. If our laughter does function to remind others of our shared limitations and shortcomings, it would be truly surprising if mental missteps did not comprise one very important subcategory. And it follows that if amusement is a common response to spontaneous occurrences of, for example, confusion, then intentionally manufacturing or highlighting the same state of affairs through humor would appear to be…well…a no-brainer.

Of course, I’m not referring only to a general and persistent lack of common sense. Very smart people, after all, have their share of brain farts. Anyone exhibiting ignorance on a topic, even temporarily due to faulty memory recall, can generate others’ sympathetic laughter. At one time or another, we all lack awareness, misperceive, miscalculate, or misread important elements in our physical and social environment. We can focus too little on something critical to our success or too much on something that isn’t. Our problem-solving skills can be inadequate to the task at hand. Or it might be that the implementation of an otherwise viable solution is itself faulty.

Cognitive-based Humor

I look back at some of the TV sitcoms I have enjoyed over the years. It doesn’t take long to find a pattern running though most of them: one or more characters were either lacking crucial information or in some way experienced difficulty processing the information they did have.

In this first group belongs Uncle Martin of My Favorite Martian and Mork of Mork and Mindy, both extraterrestrials unfamiliar with the society with which they now must interact. Jeannie of I Dream of Jeannie is an “alien” of a different sort, but has similar shortfalls. The title character of Gomer Pyle, Rose Nyland of The Golden Girls, and others were raised in relatively sheltered small towns but later found themselves in a more complicated and cosmopolitan social environment.

In a second group are characters such as Ed Norton of The Honeymooners, Gilligan of Gilligan’s Island, Maxwell Smart of Get Smart, Barney Fife of The Andy Griffith Show, Archie Bunker of All in the Family, Major Frank Burns of M.A.S.H., Jim Ignatowski of Taxi, Woody Boyd of Cheers, and Joey Tribbiani of Friends.

Some, like Jethro Bodine of The Beverly Hillbillies, could occupy both camps.

The list could go on for pages.

Comedy duos would often have one member playing the fool. Think and Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy, Gracie Allen with George Burns, or Tommy Smothers of The Smothers Brothers.

One such comedy team developed a classic routine that involves what is arguably the most complex and vital cognitive task we perform as humans: communicating through language. For your homework assignment today, relax, get comfortable, and check out this clip from Bud Abbott and his partner, the confused but lovable Lou Costello. There’s a bit of physical humor and many instances of emotional humor on display in this classic routine, but the real star of the show is none other than cognitive vulnerability. Enjoy.

© John Charles Simon