So what’s the funniest town in America?
In April, the Daily Beast published its list of the 30 funniest cities. The analysis was based on self-assessment (Do you consider yourself funny?) and the percentage of the population that watches primetime and syndicated comedy shows on TV. According to the Daily Beast, Austin, Texas is the funniest town in the United States, followed by New Orleans, Waco, Atlanta, and Baton Rouge.
According to this analysis my hometown, Denver, doesn’t even make it into the Top 30. But then, we have a lot of things to do in Denver and don’t sit around and watch a lot of TV. Still, it beggars belief that a Baptist town like Waco would be rated funnier than Denver.
Now there’s another ranking of funny towns, based on a more “scientific” algorithm. It’s published by the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at the University of Colorado. (So that’s where our marijuana tax dollars go). According to this ranking, Chicago is the funniest town in America, followed by Boston, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon.
Denver ranks eighth on the HuRL list. Four of the ten least funny towns are clustered in Texas, including Arlington, El Paso, Fort Worth, and San Antonio. Somehow, this seems a lot more logical to me than the Daily Beast analysis. (However, the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, did generate a lot of laughter in the last presidential election).
So what makes a town funny? The HuRL researchers looked at variables like types of entertainment supported in the town, and a “need for levity” personality test. They then rolled these measures into a supposedly impartial “humor algorithm” that they could use to rank cities.
Is the algorithm really impartial? Does it really measure how funny a city is? Does it actually measure anything meaningful? I’m not so sure but I think we could put it to the test. We learned a few weeks ago (here and here) that humor promotes health by reducing stress, blood pressure, and general paranoia. (Humor, however, doesn’t seem to promote longer lives).
If humor promotes health then there should be a correlation between funny towns and healthy towns. I don’t have the data yet I think we should correlate the HuRL list to a healthy cities list to see if there’s any relationship. If there is, then maybe the HuRL list actually provides something meaningful. We might even use such data to lower the cost of healthcare in America. Instead of investing in new pharmaceuticals, we might invest in better jokes.
I should mention that the University of Colorado researchers produced a pretty good book along the way. It’s called The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. You can find jokes from the top 10 cities here.
My mother was a strong-willed woman. My older sister is a strong-willed woman. My wife is a strong-willed woman. I have a very good sense of humor.
Are these phenomena related? I think they are. Psychologists classify humor as a Level 4 defense mechanism. Like other Level 4 mechanisms (altruism, gratitude, tolerance, mercy, etc.), humor is “…found among emotionally healthy adults … and [has] been adapted through the years to optimize success in human relationships and society”. More specifically, humor “is an overt expression of ideas and feelings … that give pleasure to others”.
So, if you find yourself surrounded by powerful people, humor is a good way to express your feelings, give pleasure to others, and build successful relationships. It may even help you get your way.
But wait, there’s more. According to the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, laughter may signal that an apparently dangerous situation isn’t really so awful. He writes, “…laughter evolved to inform our kin … : don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm”. Nervous laughter may be a signal to ourselves that what we’re experiencing is not as terrible as it seems. That would explain audience laughter during Quentin Tarrantino movies (which seem like pumped up, colorized, vaguely delusional versions of The Three Stooges).
Laughter may also help us endure traumas, both physical and psychological. How long can you hold your hand in a bucket of ice cold water? Not long. As Scott Weems points out, however, if someone makes you laugh before you submerge your hand, you can keep it there longer. Laughter, in other words, can help us endure. By laughing at our trauma, we show ourselves that it’s really not so bad. We survived, didn’t we?
I wonder if this is why we tell grim jokes about tragic events. When the Challenger exploded in 1986, I remember hearing jokes within just a few days. I was shocked and numbed by the disaster, but I laughed out loud at the jokes. I was surprised at my own fecklessness but, apparently, my laughter was a “soothing balm”.
Weems notes that laughter – like chocolate – releases dopamine in our brains. It makes us feel good. It’s not just a feeling. Laughter can also lower our blood pressure, improve blood flow, and stimulate the immune system. Apparently, it can even help us recover from surgery. Indeed, Weems claims that, “Humor is also a form of exercise, keeping your minds healthy the same way that physical exertion helps our bodies.”
With all its health benefits, you might assume that people with a good sense of humor would live longer. But you’d be wrong. Weems cites two different studies that suggest that humor can make you healthier and happier but not older. In fact, the reverse may be true.
One longitudinal study sought to correlate personality traits, health, and longevity. The personality trait that promoted longevity best was conscientiousness, which “reflects how prudent and thoughtful a person is when dealing with others….”
Unlike conscientiousness, humor was negatively correlated with longevity. Why? No one really knows, but it may be that humorous people don’t take very good care of themselves. They’d rather be laughing than dieting or exercising. In fact, as we’ve seen before, people who are laughing just want to go on laughing. That’s not a bad thing unless you’re trying to motivate them to action.
Humor can help lubricate social mechanisms. It can help soothe and smooth. It can help us defend our interests and build successful relationships. It may not help us live longer but it helps us live better. If applied conscientiously, it can even help you live with talented, intelligent, strong-willed women.