It’s Friday, and we want to make you laugh… or at least think about laughing. I talked to two of the funniest writers at The Atlantic, James Hamblin and Olga Khazan, about humor—how it has changed since the 2016 election, and why it’s more often associated with men than with women. Then a quick follow up to last week: Masthead member Matt W. has read the longreads recommendations, and we have a winner.
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HOW TO BE FUNNY WHEN EVERYTHING SEEMS SO SERIOUS
If you’ve ever read a story by Dr. James Hamblin, or watched one of his videos, you’ll know he’s one of the funniest journalists working today. We chatted about how he does it.
Caroline: As a comedic writer, how do you find a way to be funny in this fraught political moment?
Jim: You can take something extremely seriously with humor. It's a little bit risky, but the payoff is bigger when it works. I think if you look at the best satire, the kind that really resonates with people and sticks with them, it has to be edge enough that at least some people won't recognize it as satire. Or will see it as frivolous or insincere.
Caroline: Give me an example.
Jim: “The Eclipse Conspiracy” was one that did well on the site recently. It was a five-paragraph satire where I basically said, “The eclipse may or may not happen. There are two sides to every story, so you can’t really trust anything.” People are using this tactic now to talk about issues like climate change. This was a satire of that way of thinking. I think people liked it because they weren’t being lectured to. They were laughing along with me, which is the best.
Caroline: What if people don’t get it?
Jim: There is an expression in comedy: “If you treat the audience like poets and geniuses, that’s what they’ll become.” Play to the top of everyone’s intelligence. You should assume you’re talking to someone who is extremely intelligent and reading between the lines. The second you seem like you’re being condescending, it’s over. But of course, you’re taking the chance that someone won’t get your joke.
If you make satire that 100 percent of people recognize as satire, then you’ve failed. No one will love it. After “The Eclipse Conspiracy,” some people wrote to me and CC’ed Jeffrey Goldberg, our editor-in-chief, asking, “Why would The Atlantic stoop to conspiracy theories, especially from a doctor?” I responded to those people saying, “This is satire, thank you for writing.”
Caroline: You’ve written humor pieces for The Atlantic for the past five years. Has the work changed since Trump became president?
Jim: There are different approaches to being an authoritative public voice. The gentleman and the jester are the two forms of ethical pedagogy (yes, this is horribly gendered). I like being a jester and figuring out how to make people laugh. But when the president of the United States has a famously antagonistic relationship with the media, that role becomes more difficult. We’re seeing a revival of this antiquated notion that humor means you aren’t a serious person. But that overlooks the fact that humor can be a very effective tool.
Caroline: Are comedians and comedic writers telling different kinds of jokes now than they did before the election?
Jim: Five years ago, when I started, a lot of humor was about saying something kind of absurd, and building up these crazy hypothetical situations. But now, absurd situations don’t need to be invented. On Saturday Night Live, the cold opening often seems close to a transcript of what the president has said. There is humor in highlighting contradictions… in the past, someone would quote Trump, and then a tweet from a year ago of him contradicting himself—and it would go viral because it was funny. But now that can happen within the same day. So I think a lot of comedians have turned into ranty advocates.
Caroline: Now I’m going to ask you to put on your doctor’s hat. Why do humans laugh?
Jim: It’s a way of connecting with each other. Note that, if you’re alone watching Netflix, you’re going to laugh at the exact same thing a lot less than you would if you watched it with a group of friends. That’s not just because laughter is contagious—this is how we express our feelings outwardly to each other. It’s a reflex. Laughter is a way of signaling that you’re not going to hurt the person you’re with—that you’re friendly or good.
Caroline: What makes something funny?
Jim: I don’t think too analytically about humor. Things have to be authentic and genuine for them to be funny. When you’re thinking—this would fit into this very particular rubric of a funny joke, it smells of performance. That’s why we improvised our video series, “If Our Bodies Could Talk.”
Caroline: Yes. Let’s talk about the video series. I was rewatching a bunch of them last night and, to me, there are two things that make them absolutely hysterical: the way you use self-deprecating humor, and the way you use pauses. Let’s start with self-deprecating humor—why is that funny?
[Watch "A Rational Defense of Sleeping Alone"]
Jim: I use self-deprecating humor in this video, and in a bunch of others, because I don’t want to be condescending. When you look straight into the camera and talk, you have to work so hard to not make people hate you. It feels like you’re saying, “Here is something you don’t know, you stupid idiot.” Especially as a white guy, trying to explain how our bodies work—it’s really important for me to highlight the fact that my personal experience is limited.
Caroline: What about pauses?
Jim: It’s about discontinuity and surprise. If the way I deliver something or the pace at which I deliver it is off from what you’d expect… it doesn’t even have to be a funny joke. Some of my favorite stand-up comedians will get up and say, “Hey how’s everybody doing?” Then they’ll pause, and… laughter. You understand that they’re in control. During a performance, a lot of people assume that they have to be super snappy—if there is a moment of pause, you’re saying, “I’m not in charge of the situation.” But you can be in charge by showing your lack of need to constantly be entertaining. It’s the same thing you see in relationships. If you show up at a date, and someone is like, “Here are some flowers, and I read in your Facebook profile that you like flowers, and we’re going to your favorite restaurant, and I hope that you like…”
Jim: Yeah, gross.
WHY THERE AREN’T MORE FEMALE COMEDIANS
Olga Khazan has written about gender and comedy, so I asked her to weigh in.
Once, I asked a boyfriend and a male friend if they would ever date a woman just because she was funny. The answer was a resounding no. And they're not really outliers on that front: The research shows men don't care as much if their girlfriends are funny as women do if their boyfriends are.
What's more, the majority of male standup comedians are male, and people often assume that men are the funnier gender. I wanted to find out more about this gender disparity in perceptions of humor, and also to get to the bottom of that age-old sexist crack that "women aren't funny." What I found was even stranger: Men are encouraged to be funnier, their humor is more valued, and they make more attempts at humor. The reason why might be rooted in human biology and social norms that have taken shape over time.
–Olga Khazan, staff writer at The Atlantic
Check out Olga’s article on this. Here’s an excerpt:
The way men and women laugh and joke has been so different for so long that it’s hardened into a stark, oppressive social norm. Norm violators get punished, and often, that means funny women are punished, too.
In another dating-style study in 1998, about 100 college students were shown photos of people of the opposite sex along with transcripts of interviews supposedly conducted with those individuals. In the interviews, the photo subjects came off as either funny or bland. For the women, a man’s use of humor in the interview increased his desirability. The women’s use of humor, meanwhile, didn’t make the men want to date them more—it actually made them slightly less alluring. That’s right: The men found the pretty, unfunny women more desirable than equally pretty ones who also happened to be funny.
THE WINNER OF LONGREADS MATCHMAKER: ROUND 1
Last week, we heard from member Matt W., a well-read electrical engineer with an interest in homelessness and housing. Now he’s back to present the winner from the three candidates.
1. Pamela's detailed recommendations—from the New York Times Magazine and New York Review of Books—were policy-focused, fascinating, and lengthy. They're both original reporting and—though not exactly on the topic I suggested (affordable housing, vice, homelessness)—they were perfect reads that have already changed how I think about housing policy and made me want to learn more.
- Matthew Desmond, “How Homeownership Became the Engine of American Inequality and Michael Greenberg, “Tenants Under Siege: Inside New York City’s Housing Crisis”
2. Marty's recommendation from the Guardian is an excerpt from a book, which made it less immediate than Pamela’s recommended original reporting. It is a terrifying article, but my climate-change terror centers are pretty saturated. I appreciate the effort to consider what I've been reading and take that in a different direction, but I tend to skim over climate change stuff because I don't need convincing.
- Peter Brannen, “This Is How Your World Could End”
3. I really liked Ed's attempt to integrate the whole package and figure out a recommendation that took details about me into account. However, particularly in the context of Marty's article, the subject of that story, Art Robinson, seems more like a super-villain than an iconoclast. I don't think you can make any broad inference from Robinson's arc in isolation, and any critiques you can draw from it about the scientific establishment would be better supported with other data. I like it when FiveThirtyEight does long-form reporting on off-beat topics, but biopic just ain't my thing.
- Daniel Engber, "The Grandfather Of Alt-Science"
If a winner must be chosen, it would be Pamela. But I want to thank all three recommenders. It was great to sit down in the evening after the kids were in bed this weekend with a personally curated list of recommended articles to read.
— Matt W.
Congratulations, Pamela! And stay tuned for next week, when we’ll be back with a new round of Longreads Matchmaker.
TODAY’S WRAP UP
- Question of the day: Who is the funniest person you know? What makes them funny?
- Your feedback: Take a few seconds and share your thoughts on this email.
- What’s coming: Next week, I’ll tackle a subject that has generated some powerful discussion on our Facebook group: mental illness.
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