Could You Eliminate Sarcasm From Your Speech?

Last year, North Korea banned sarcasm in daily conversations. That’s how dangerous (aka effective) they think humor is in dismantling an authoritarian regime. Could it? That question probably warrants another thread of research. But for a second, set aside that giant scary thought you just had about authoritarian regimes and think about this—can you imagine eliminating all sarcasm from your speech?

I can’t. It's too ingrained in American speech patterns and our current style of humor. Sarcastic statements sting because they are laced with contempt. 

In North Korea, the consequences of uttering sarcastic phrases would be “enough to make you and your family ‘disappear’ from society and end up in a political prison camp” according to Liberty In North Korea. Meetings were held to warn citizens about saying things like “a fool who cannot see the outside world, ” and “this is all America’s fault” or a version of “Thanks, Obama.”

Words are important, and not just the sarcastic ones. So, our fearless Commander In Chief better be careful saying things like this to North Korea on Twitter:

There’s no sign of sarcasm in this tweet, the contempt is direct. And it sure does make me nervous.

Jon Stewart On Satire And Its Limitations

I’ve watched a lot of interviews with Jon Stewart and I’ve always wanted to hear his perspective on the effects of satire. A few weeks ago on Charlie Rose, he spoke at length about the limits of satire in the form of The Daily Show. Give it a watch or read a portion below in full form. This excerpt picks up right after Jon described a moment in the show where they caught John McCain in a lie on tape.

Jon Stewart: We nailed you. And then what do we have to do at that point? We let you go. It's catch and release because we have to undercut it with a laugh, and it gets to the joy and frustration of doing that type of job, which is -- and it's when we realize, too, that access didn't help us. So, it's that idea, I got you, and here's my one moment and I'm going to, with a scalpel, go at the crux of your identity as a politician and expose it for everybody to see, and then I'm going to have to make a joke about it, walk away, and you're going to laugh, and it's going to humanize you. One of the difficulties of this is satire began to take the place of reality. I think this has been given a greater place in the discussion, and a larger role in the discourse than is warranted. And once that started to happen, I think you began to question if it's a good thing or a bad thing. And I know it's not a black and white issue, but controlling the culture -- and for as much fun as we could make of the tea party, like, while we were up there passing around viral videos of eviscerations, they were in a Friendlies off the highway taking over a school board. And we've just had an election where the Democrats won the popular vote by probably more than a million votes, and they don't control the presidency, they don't control the house, they don't control the senate, they don't control governorship, they don't control state legislatures. This may be the largest disconnect between majority rule and majority power that we've had in this country in ages. And I'm in no way saying -- and we're responsible, and I'm responsible. But what I am saying is there is a comforting culture that can be mistaken for real power. There's only two towns in the world I've ever been that I thought were delusional, one was Washington, D.C., but the other was Los Angeles. And the only difference between Los Angeles and Washington, is in Los Angeles they actually believe they have power. But D.C. like -- that's where it is, man.

Charlie Rose: OK. But are you saying, essentially, that whatever we're saying about culture and the influence you have on the culture, in the end, it's not political power, and in the end it's not --

Jon Stewart: And in the end it's not real cultural influence, even. It's a story we tell ourselves about the rightness of our position. But it is argument, and it's not without weight, but it is not with so much weight. It's -- I believe that culture played a good role in marriage equality. I think it brought a story out that had been so much of what occurs with inequality is ignorance, and I don't mean that in a malevolent way. I mean that in a way that I have no experience with this. I don't know what that is. So exposure to that can be positive, although, generally, in an entertainment sense, the exposure is two-dimensional.

Jon Stewart: But you have to meet force with force, and The Daily Show is -- what I would say we are -- and, again, I'm not saying this to denigrate what we did. I am so incredibly proud of this was the best iteration of for me what I could do with satire and we prosecuted it to its fullest extent as far as I was concerned, as far as my brain could go. One of the reasons I left is I just -- I would just gonna be redundant and keep going back and forth with the same thing. I'm going to really do a terrible analogy, but we were Patrick Swayze after he died in Ghost. We were in the subway yelling at dead people and raging and no one could hear us. But if we focused everything that we had in one moment at just the right time, at just the right moment with everything we had, we could move the can just a little bit...


Jon Stewart: We're impotently raging. Zadroga was ten years of back-breaking labor by John Feal and these first responders. It was corruption at a government level at the highest order that could be done. It was the people that had been hailed as heroes that ran into burning buildings that were told by our government, the EPA, that the air was safe but the air was not safe. They are dying. They continue to die to this day. They were forced with their afflictions to go down and hat in hand, knock on doors to people who wouldn't even meet their eyesight. And those ten years of working, they did all the construction and at the very end, Cindy Lou Who came in with just a little star and went ‘bink,’ and got way more credit for it than was deserved. They deserved that and continued to.

What I’ve taken away from this exchange is that satire assists change— it doesn’t make it reality on its own. It takes thoughtful organizing and lots of dedicated people taking direct action to shift culture to the point of it being represented in our laws. Though, it's clear the application of humor or satire can be used to get people to recognize the problem. Or as Jon Stewart suggested, perhaps it needs to be applied at just the right moment to garner the attention tip the scales in the direction of the cause. In a future post, we’ll take a look at John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight and his satirical calls to action.

Writing Jokes For President Obama

President Obama has often used comedy to connect with the nation throughout his terms in office–perhaps more than any other President to date. Of course, President Obama doesn’t come up with all these zingers on his own, he has a team of speechwriters who craft jokes for his speeches.

Let’s look at the Affordable Care Act as one example. In this speech from September 2013, early in the rollout, I count 26 annotations of laughter in the transcript. I also count four instances of boos, an expression of ridicule that was directed at the opposition.

One of his former speechwriters, David Litt, commented on the President’s use of humor to get the word out on the Affordable Care Act in his New York Times Op-Ed. He said, “By March 2014, the health care exchanges were finally working, but most young people didn’t seem to know that. Not enough of them were signing up. One solution, at least in part, was for President Obama to plug the site on the comedian Zach Galifianakis’s online talk show Between Two Ferns. The commander in chief sat between two ferns and listened as the comedian asked him, “What’s it like to be the last black president?” before they got around to talking health care….The day the “Ferns” video appeared online it was viewed by 11 million people, and traffic to spiked 40 percent. Of course that video isn’t the only reason the administration can now report that 20 million people are enrolled in insurance through the Affordable Care Act. But it certainly helped get the word out.”

Even during more serious speeches, jokes are strategically woven in to connect better with the American public. Jon Lovett, one of Obama’s speech writers says, ”I think we find...jokes have a use and even in a serious speech, but they're always risky and it's so hard to explain why it's worth the risk, right? Why's it worth having a joke jammed in the middle of a serious remark about the economy or something? Well actually, if it works, people hear about it, people will talk about it. And then well, OK, well that's what we're trying to do anyway. It's a difficult thing to say well, even though you don't need it and even though the speech will be fine without it, we think it's worth saying something funny in the hopes that it resonates with people.”

Every year when I watch The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I think about what it must be like to write jokes for the President. President Obama is a natural comedian, and this is an occasion where it’s safe to make the year’s jabs both at himself and others. But, how does his speechwriting team determine what is appropriate for the President to make a joke about?

From a scientific perspective it’s worth looking at the Benign Violation Theory. It suggests that jokes have to fall within a certain threshold of violating your beliefs to make you laugh. If the joke is too safe or too edgy then no one laughs. This margin of error is heightened for the President who is the voice of the people after all and a gaf will be heard around the world—this isn’t some basement comedy club. 

To provide some insight I’ve gathered some thoughts about the joke writing process from his speechwriters. And you can catch them all on their fantastic new political podcast, Pod Save America.

David Litt: There are some topics no president, even a genuinely funny one, can joke about. National security is off limits. So are all but the gentlest mentions of the first family...Part of the joke when the President is telling a joke, is that the President is telling a joke, and I think he understands that, too. He understands what makes him funny. You're looking for jokes that make more sense for the President to tell than for a comedian to tell.

Jon Favreau: I mean, I think the first thing we're always looking for is making sure there's a joke for every topic that you have to hit, right? So this year, we know we want to have Trump jokes, we know we need a Hillary joke, a Biden joke, a republican joke, a Merrick Garland joke. I mean, there are certain topical things in the news that you want to make sure for each one of those categories, you have a joke for. So when everyone sends in jokes, we start putting them into categories by topic and then see where we're thin and where we have too many, that's sort of the first thing.

Jon Lovett: We're starting with the topics and trying to find as many jokes as we can for all of those topics. But I think for the beginning, it's always a search for a line that's kind of confident and pithy and that makes a joke that kind of says like, "Hey, this is what this year has been about or this is what this moment's about." Like this year, he said the thing about this being his last and perhaps, the White House Correspondents' Dinner. I think that's really like, "Oh, that's right," you know, all that stuff is going on.

[Sources: David Litt’s NYT Op-Ed and a Charlie Rose transcript featuring an interview with David Litt, Jon Favreau, and Jon Lovett.]

More than ever, it seems like humor is essential to get people’s attention. David Litt closed out his Op-Ed with this thought, “But I do think that presidential comedy has played a role in this chapter in American history. The bully pulpit has splintered. It’s become harder than ever to get people’s attention. And the White House has recognized what class clowns have known all along. Being funny helps.”

It seems unlikely that President Trump will have President Obama’s natural comedic talent or a command of what is within the bounds of the Benign Violation Theory for the American public. Who can forget his attempt at a humorous speech at the Al Smith Charity Dinner prior to his election. The boos were directed at him.  

The World's Oldest Documented Joke

AJ Jacobs, an American journalist and author, recently looked into the world’s oldest joke. His research surfaced a written joke from Bronze Age Sumeria, circa 1900 B.C..  

Here’s the joke:
What has never happened since time immemoriam?
A young wife has not farted on her husband's lap.

A fart joke; I should have guessed. From his research, it seems lowbrow jokes are the only ones that were written down and preserved.

To find out if ancient Greek jokes are funny to a modern audience he even had Jim Gaffigan put them to the test on stage at Gotham Theatre. I bet you can’t guess how that turned out. Check out the full piece on NPR right here.

It makes me wonder what jokes from the modern age will hold up or still do hold up with audiences. And what does that say about our shifting values? I can imagine a study where we curate a series of top rated comedian’s jokes about a set of social issues and then study whether and how much our values have shifted over the last few decades.

Can Humor Increase Your Status At Work?

I’m consistently surprised by how little research has been done in the field of humor, specifically its positive effects on our lives and behavior. Though, this new study from the Wharton School of Business entitled, Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status, suggests that when humor is used appropriately at work, it increases your status. But if you tell an inappropriate or bad joke it will backfire and likely decrease your status. This isn’t a shocking scientific discovery, but interestingly they found that whether you tell a bad joke or a good joke it still increases your perceived confidence.

They also suggest that those who effectively use humor could even influence other people’s behaviors. In this interview, one of the authors of the study, T. Bradford Bitterly said, “One of the conclusions that I found particularly surprising was in our second study we found that someone who effectively used humor, they were not only perceived to be more confident, competent and higher in status, they were even more likely to be elected as a group leader for a subsequent task. So here we see humor not only influencing perceptions of one another, but even influencing behavior.”

So if your sights are set on a leadership role, it might be time to take a comedy class. Check out the details of the full study here.

Can You Teach An AI How To Recognize Visual Comedy?

A recent study from Virginia Tech tackled this very question. Their study is called We Are Humor Beings: Understanding and Predicting Visual Humor

According to this MIT Technology Review,  "Arjun Chandrasekaran from Virginia Tech and pals say they’ve trained a machine-learning algorithm to recognize humorous scenes and even to create them. They say their machine can accurately predict when a scene is funny and when it is not, even though it knows nothing of the social context of what it is seeing." 

They started by utilizing Amazon's Mechanical Turk service to create and amass 6,400 funny and unfunny scenes using a clip art program. For the funny scene submissions, they also asked for a one sentence description describing why the scene was funny. Then, they asked the AMT's to rate the level of funniness in each scene.

Above are some scenes from their study. The scene submissions led them to ask whether or not the funny object could be replaced by a similar, but unfunny counterpart in an attempt to home in on the semantics of humor. So they had AMT's create 15,000 alternatives to the funny scenes.

According to the study, the algorithm is relatively good at predicting the funniness of a scene. It finds that animate objects like people and animals tend to lead to a funnier scene than say inanimate objects. 

These studies still make me wonder if we know enough about what makes something funny to tell if the machine really gets humor. The MIT Technology Review really captures this by saying, "Of course, an important question is what exactly the machine is learning to do. In this work, funniness may be a proxy for something else entirely. Indeed, if Chandrasekaran and co’s paper were rewritten with every instance of the word “funniness” replaced with the word “oddness” or “incongruity” or “unexpectedness,” the results would be no less valid."

Still, this is one of the most fascinating studies I've read in the field of computational humor. I look forward to contributing to the discussion by conducting my own comedy AI experiment soon.


Satirical Games That Invite You To Participate In The Joke

Written satire is one of my favorite forms of comedy. Outrage gets to wear a witty disguise. Someone or something gets skewered all while making you laugh. Though, consuming satirical writing invites the viewer to have a passive experience with comedy.

The satirical political games in the GOP Arcade turn that old paradigm on its head by inviting you to participate in the satirical jab. They offer a new way to conceptualize satire—one that is designed to involve the viewer in the layers of the joke. One of my recent favorites is Thoughts & Prayers which came out shortly after the Orlando attacks. It pokes fun at all the politicians who want to solve gun violence with thoughts and prayers.

I'd like to push this concept even further by designing public experiences where strangers are invited to engage in a satirical game. That way people can play a part and embody both sides of the argument. I wonder if this sort of role play will encourage a deeper understanding or empathy for an issue. And as a bonus, these in person experiences might bring strangers together and in a sense force a discussion about the issue in question.

But how far do discussions and thoughts go to create change? Many debate whether or not satire creates legislative or social change. If you are interested in learning more about that debate, here is an interesting primer from the iWonder BBC series on that very topic. More on this soon as it deserves its own inquiry.

Photographing Found Banana Peels

For the past year, I've been documenting found banana peels. Once you start looking, you'll see these comedic interventions everywhere. It seems to be the only fruit casing people are happy to discard. To my delight, it's one of comedy's greatest slapstick cliches.

I'm yet to catch anyone in the act of discarding a peel, but I can't wait for the day that I do. I have so many questions: For starters, am I right to assume people have no shame when they cast off a banana peel? Or do people look around before they toss them to ensure they aren't caught in the act? Do people think they bio-degrade and are therefore not a form of litter? Did people forget that banana peels are a great slipping hazard? 

Every time I see a banana peel I'm also reminded of the wise Nora Ephron. She once said in a New York Times interview, “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you, but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.” So if you do fall victim to a comedic intervention, get up, and then go tell someone about it.

Facebook's Investigation Of E-Laughter

Facebook was inspired by Sara Larson's article, Hahaha vs. Hehehe, about e-laughter and conducted their own thorough study of Facebook communications. Check out the results here

What type of e-laugher are you? Here's Facebook's findings from their 2015 study:

 As the pie chart shows, the vast majority of people in our dataset are haha-ers (51.4%), then there are the emoji lovers (33.7%), the hehe-ers (12.7%), and finally, the lol-ers (1.9%).

As the pie chart shows, the vast majority of people in our dataset are haha-ers (51.4%), then there are the emoji lovers (33.7%), the hehe-ers (12.7%), and finally, the lol-ers (1.9%).

The study delves deeper into age and gender e-laughter preference, and regional usage. Check it out. I hope they do this study each year.

Margaret Cho's Do-Over With Her Disappointed Audience

A moderated discussion about a failed stand-up set with the audience? This is quite possibly a comedy first. Recently, Margaret Cho acknowledged to Jerry Seinfeld that she bombed a show at a New Jersey club. Audible boos were captured on TMZ. 

Jerry Seinfeld told the New York Times, “At most workplaces, if there’s a problem on the job, there’s a conversation and usually some sort of outcome. But when a stand-up show doesn’t go well, the audience and the comedian both go home unhappy, sometimes not really sure what went wrong.”

He goes on to explain, “So as I was talking with Margaret about this show last week during the taping in L.A., we started wondering, wouldn’t it be something if we could go back to New Jersey, back to that club with the same audience and try to make things right? Have a discussion where both sides — comedian and audience — could talk about what happened? And then both of us could do a show — a sort of redo for the audience?”

Apparently the moderated discussion was filmed for Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. I'm looking forward to seeing how Seinfeld moderated the discussion and the audience's response. Was it a particular joke early in the set that put them off or a series of jokes that amounted to a total meltdown? Was her comedy too edgy and if so why? Did anyone enjoy the show and feel unable to laugh?