Is not being funny a neurological disorder (requiring a radical frontal lobotomy?)

I mentioned that I’ve been doing a lot of open mics. I’ve also noted that the musical talent on display at these open mics tends to be middling; most people are average, a few people are exceptionally good (like myself), a few exceptionally bad. Every so often you get a comedian. The comedians at open mic are almost universally awful. And not just bad in that they might be nervous, or mess up their jokes, but their core material just isn’t funny. And it’s obvious that these “comics” don’t know that they aren’t funny. They tell a bad joke and are baffled that the audience isn’t rolling in the aisles.

This condition, this not knowing that they aren’t funny, reminds me of a neurological condition called anosognosia. People suffering from this condition are unaware that they possess a disability. For example, someone has a stroke and loses use of the left arm, but because the stroke also affects the brain in such a way as to cause anosognosia, the person essentially refuses to admit that they have lost use of their arm.

Of course, an arm disability is an obvious condition. Provided we’re mentally competent, we all recognize it in other people. A lack of a sense of humor is a more vague, a bit harder to recognize. I often note that these unfunny people make statements that sound like jokes, but in some ethereal way just aren’t. I’m reminded in one particularly awful comedian I saw recently. After wasting five minutes with various statements that garnered no laughs, he switched gears. “I’m gay,” he announced. This is interesting I thought to myself. The comedian, an overweight, casually dressed guy in his 50s, certainly didn’t seem gay. Perhaps he was going to use his experiences as a slovenly gay man — a contradictory character if I’ve ever heard of one — to his humorous advantage.

Nope, it turned out that was the joke. Since he obviously wasn’t gay, he thought it would be funny to announce otherwise. You could hear the audience’s collective inner groan.

So what makes jokes funny? That’s obviously a gigantic and long discussed topic, but I think we would agree there’s an element of abstract thought involved. Good comedians see tangential connections between disparate topics, or see things that look like connections but ultimately really aren’t. (A lot of humorous wordplay is based on this. If I say “lube on the boob sets the mood,” it seems funny, whereas if I say, “a good way to initiate sexual intimacy is by applying lotion to a woman’s breasts,” it does not. Rhyming implies a connection between the words.) We also know that there are parts of the brain involved in abstract thinking. Is it possible that in the case of these unfunny comedians, that part of the brain is damaged or debilitated?

But there’s another possible analysis of all this. I’ve long considered myself to be undeniably funny, and presumed that anyone who didn’t laugh at my humor was a moron. This implies a kind of absolutist view of humor — some jokes (mine) are funny, and others aren’t. But, I’ve recently been arguing that appreciation of music is subjective. A Pakistani man might not enjoy Ozzy Osbourne, not because it’s bad music (it rocks!) but because he doesn’t have the proper cultural and musical context to understand it. Citizens of the Western world hear the build up to a guitar solo and think, “Here comes the awesome guitar solo.” A Pakistani man hears it and thinks, “What’s happening now? It sounds like someone’s playing some strange distorted melodic instrument? I don’t get it.” (I’m probably presuming the average Pakistani is more illiterate about Western music than he actually is. Substitute “Martian” for “Pakistani” above.)

It’s possible humor is just as subjective. It’s possible that the right kind of crowd might have thought the “I’m gay,” comment was hilarious*, and maybe there’s nothing neurologically wrong with the joke teller. I think the only way we can determine an answer is by randomly applying massive doses of electroshock therapy to various unfunny people (I can provide a list) and seeing what happens. (I know, I know: in the title I recommended a frontal lobotomy. I’m allowed to change my mind.)

* I would presume that the reason the “I’m gay” joke failed with me was entirely because of cultural context. I’m sophisticated and metropolitan enough to know that there are gay people who don’t fit the gay stereotype — the two fat dudes on “The Sarah Silverman Show” for example. The joke teller might have led such a sheltered life that he thought all gays had to fit the annoying, hyper-femme twink stereotype, to which he obviously didn’t belong.

3 Responses to “Is not being funny a neurological disorder (requiring a radical frontal lobotomy?)”


  1. AnonymousZ

    Check out PUNCHLINE at Crackle, the 1988 film that starred taut performances by Sally Field and Tom Hanks, about the perils and pleasures of stand-up comics in competitive New York. Good humor is all about fast-paced delivery and recognition of the absurd.

  2. John Saleeby

    Remember when you said “I’m gay.” and we all thought you were joking so we laughed and laughed until you started crying and locked yourself up in your room and listened to Judy Garland records for two and a half weeks? Way to commit to a premise, guy!

  3. Wil

    Hey, nobody knows her way around a melody like Judy!