Why are Christmas cracker jokes funny?

16 December 2014

Interview with

Dr Elena Hoicka, University of Sheffield

Let's get serious about those cracker jokes. Crackers go back to the mid-19th Christmas Crackercentury when London confectioner Tom Smith started by adding love messages to the wrappers for his bon bons bon sweets. As the years wore on, mini fireworks, mottos, trinkets and finally cheesy jokes were added to the mix. At the risk of examining an inherent human trait that's probably better left alone, if we're going to look at the science of why Christmas jokes are entertaining, we have to look at the psychology of laughter. Elena Hoicka from the University of Sheffield told Chris Smith how children come to understand puns and why cracker jokes are (or aren't) funny.

Elena -  Babies actually start laughing as early 3 to 4 months, but not necessarily at jokes.  So, they might laugh spontaneously or someone tickles them.  But even in the first year, babies do start to understand things that are funny.  So, in one study, they found that if mothers did things like put a sock in their mouth, babies around 10 months would start to laugh at this.

Chris -  Why is putting a sock in your mouth funny?

Elena -  Yeah.  Basically, I think what a lot of cognitive psychologists would agree is that humour involves something that's unexpected, out of the ordinary.  And so, putting the sock in your mouth, that's kind of strange.  So, you might laugh at that because it seems kind of strange and you can take joy from that.  Even though jokes get more complicated, this kind of unexpectedness is usually at the heart of most jokes.

Chris -  If I were to look inside my brain when I'm laughing or something, when I'm being tickled by something whether it's one of those rubbish jokes I told earlier or actually something genuinely funny, what actually is happening in my brain to make me titter.

Elena -  So, what happens is there's activation in the dopamine area of your brain and when I say 'dopamine', this is an area that can make you feel good.  Other areas in your brain can activate too depending on the kind of joke.  So, if it's a kind of joke where it might be about understanding human interactions then areas of the brain to do with things like understanding how people think, social cognition, those brain areas will activate as well.

Chris -  But there are different types of things that are funny, aren't they?

Elena -  Yes.

Chris -  There is the literally putting the sock in your mouth and laughing at that because it's a bit unusual.  But then there are clever plays on words, which they're not visual but they're crafty plays on words and they're funny in their own way, aren't they?  Is it then that laughter is like a final common pathway and there are different ways to activate that?

Elena -  So, I think kind of coming back to this idea that something is funny if it's unexpected, it really captures both of those types of jokes.

Chris -  So, like a funny cracker joke would actually be funny because it's unexpected.

Elena -  Exactly.  So often, the punch line of a cracker joke, it just sounds kind of weird when you first hear it.  When you think of the second meaning, then it starts to make sense.  And so, you hear something unexpected and then you kind of solve that problem, and so, it makes you feel good and it's enjoyable and you find it funny.

Chris -  What about, going back to your research on age,  How kids learn from an early age to find things funny or develop humour?  Does everyone develop the same sense of humour?  Does it matter whether you're living on one side of the world speaking one language or living on this other world speaking English?  Do you find the same sorts of things funny?

Elena -  I suspect initially, babies will find the same types of things funny such as blowing raspberries or hearing strange sounds.  But parents play a really big role in development of their children's humour.  So even in the first year, parents will go clown around, they'll make silly faces, and at 3 months, babies don't really get it.  They don't seem to laugh or smile in response to the parent's behaviours, but by 6 months, they do.  So, it seems like they're starting to learn what's funny.  

In my own research, we found that even by 18 to 24 months, parents, when they tell a joke, they essentially explain it.  So, I think they might be a bit afraid that the kids don't get it or they might learn the information and think it's true.  So, if they say something like ducks say moo, will often then follow that up with, ducks don't say moo.  What do ducks really say and really make sure their kids understand it was a joke, why it was a joke, and so on.  

 So, in terms of different types of jokes in different parts of the world, the styles of jokes might be similar, you have word play all over the world for instance, but the content might be different.  So, depending on your cultural values, you might find different things funny.  So, maybe a capitalist society would find some notion communism funny and a communist society would find some notion of capitalism funny.  And that's really going to be about your culture although the format of the joke might be similar.

Chris -  Can we try it if I give you some kids?  Do you want to have a go and see if some of your predictions are right because I've got some kids on tap?  Actually, I'm going to lend you my children.  So, what would you like to start with, a younger one or an older one?

Elena -  We could start with a younger one and see how it goes.

Chris -  Well, this is Tim.  He's 6.  What would you expect his humour capacity to be?

Elena -  Certainly, from 2 years up until about 7, children really appreciate the nonsense humour.  So, they might not understand puns as puns, but they might find a pun funny just because it sounds kind of crazy and weird.  So, with the kind of Christmas cracker jokes, you might find them funny, but maybe for a different reason to why and adult would find it funny.

Chris -  Okay, so let's give it a go.

Elena -  So, what's the loudest things Santa eats?

Tim -  I don't know.

Elena -  Christmas crackers!

Chris -  So, he's actually laughing.  Why is that funny?

Tim -  Because it is.

Chris -  So, he can't explain.  Did he laugh because we laughed?

Elena -  That's possible and research finds that as kids get older, they're usually better explaining the jokes and certainly, children research finds will laugh if other people laugh, but he have also just found it funny that Santa would eat a Christmas cracker because it's not edible and it's paper and it's kind of strange.

Chris -  Well, let's go up the scale a bit.  So Amelia is 8.  What would you expect her to be able to grapple with joke-wise?

Elena -  I think in this particular case, she might just kind of be about the brink of understanding that there's maybe two meanings going on here.

Chris -  Okay, so let's stress test her.  What have you got for her?

Elena -  Why did the man get fired from the orange juice factory?

Amelia -  I don't know.

Elena -  Because he couldn't concentrate.

Chris -  That let her kind of cold.  So, we're all laughing, but do you have any idea why that's funny Amelia?

Amelia -  No.

Elena -  Can I try another one?  Let's try another one.  What do you call a cow that plays the guitar?

Amelia -  I don't know.

Elena -  A moo-sician.

Chris -  Well, that got a sort of vague titter.  So, why do you think that's funny, Amelia?

Amelia -  Well, cows go moo and if it's playing a guitar, it sounds like the musician sounds like moo-sician and it's funny because it's a cow.

Chris -  So, it's funny because it's a cow being a musician, but there's a play on the fact that the cow goes moo.  So, she obviously got the joke.

Elena -  Yeah, that's a fantastic explanation as well.  So, you could really hear from her explanation, she understood the two meanings to that word.  Moo-sician is kind of made-up world.

Chris -  I thought she explained it because I'm still grappling with myself.

Elena -  And it shows that she can hold two ideas in her head at the same time, this is related to operational thinking.  So, it's kind of a stage and development when it's not just in terms of humour but also, where you understand that maybe a tall skinny glass of juice actually contains the same amount as this short fat glass of juice.

Chris -  But some jokes are also very cultural context dependent.  If I say to you, why does a Frenchman only have one egg for breakfast?

Elena -  Why?

Chris -  Because one's an oeuf.

Elena -  Okay, yeah.

Chris -  It depends on you having that knowledge that an egg means - but it's the same sort of mechanism.  It sounds like the word that you want.

Elena -  Yeah, so for that one to work, if people don't oeuf is egg in French then if you didn't know that, you wouldn't quite get the joke.  If you understand that then actually, that's a nice bilingual pun just on there.

Chris -  Well, I'm glad we brought up because it gave me an opportunity to deploy that rather rubbish joke.  Lastly I want to ask you about, obviously, it is Christmas and in a minute, we're going to be tasting some extremely fine wines.  What about the business of when you get drunk, you find everything incredibly funny?  Is that just because you find everything funny for some reason because disinhibiting bits of your brain or is it actually doing something else to you?  I mean, obviously you're working on child psychology.  Alcohol and child probably won't have to do with it.

Elena -  We don't know how to put those two together.

Chris -  But why do you think that might happen?

Elena -  Okay.  So, one possibility is that you are disinhibited.  You might just be jolly or you might laugh more when other people are.  Another possibility could be that maybe it's kind of changing how you're interpreting unexpected things.  And so, instead of being grumpy about it or being concerned, you might enjoy it more.

Chris -  Elena, thank you very much.  Before you go, we made Mark pull a cracker.  Would you like to please pull a joke out of that?  come on, give us a parting joke.

Elena -  What is father Christmas's favourite band?

Chris -  I don't know.

Elena -  Santana.

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