“Our basic mantra is ‘truth in comedy.' People want to see themselves on stage, and they want to see people they know on stage,” says Bellavia, who also teaches a class on improv comedy. “When they see that, it resonates with them and it causes them, for some reason, to laugh.”
Exactly what people will find funny, however, often surprises Bellavia and his fellow actors.
“As a performer, [audience laughter] can be very disorienting,” says WIT member Anna Trester. “Sometimes I'll do something that I don't even intend to be funny, and it will be hysterical to someone.”
Like these comedians, some psychologists are attempting to pinpoint exactly what people laugh at, and why. And while scientists have been investigating humor since at least the 1960s, only recently have they brought the data together into encompassing theories of humor, says University of Western Ontario psychology professor Rod Martin, PhD, author of “The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach” (Academic Press, 2006).
“There is a lot of research out there—I found over 4,000 articles, peer-reviewed journal articles, on the psychology of humor—but it hardly ever gets mentioned in textbooks or scholarly books,” Martin says.
What these studies are adding up to is the idea that incongruity—when an idea or an object is out of place—is the heart of humor, Martin says. Truth plays an important role as well: The juxtaposition of the two things often gives people a new insight into a familiar situation, he notes. In fact, much of the enjoyment of humor may come from seeing familiar situations with new eyes.
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