International Society for Humor Studies Conference Post Mortem (Part 1)

Post Mortem Part I

With Joel Warner (Full post on Wired.com)

Do you shun social situations to avoid ridicule? Do you struggle to engage in natural, easygoing conversations? When you hear others laughing, do you tense up and flail about in awkward, stilted mannerisms, practically popping and locking like a break dancer?

If so, you might be suffering from gelotophobia, the fear of being laughed at.

If you’ve never heard of gelotophobia, that’s because the term is only a few years old. The concept and its counterparts — gelotophilia (the joy of being laughed at) and katagelasticism (the joy of laughing at others) — are just now being developed by some of the top minds associated with the International Society for Humor Studies, a global organization of humor scholars.

Many of those minds came together in Boston last week for the society’s annual International Humor Conference to probe the intricacies of gelotophobia and many other unusual subjects related to the cutting-edge science of funny.

To be clear, the conference, held in a drab five-story building at Boston University, was far from sidesplitting. No whoopee cushions going off midseminar, no banana cream pies sailing through the hallways. That’s exactly the point: In the eyes of the society, it’s high time for humor to be taken seriously.

“Humor has traditionally gotten a negative connotation throughout most of Western history,” says John Morrell, a religious studies professor at the College of William and Mary who helped found the society. “Philosophers and intellectuals have long looked down on humor.”

That’s why, since the mid-1970s, academics from disciplines ranging from philosophy to neuroscience to linguistics — many of whom were shunned by colleagues in their own fields — have come together annually in recognition of their shared fascination with humor.

The results last week were a colorful hodgepodge of humor scholarship. In one session, John Rucynski Jr., of Okayama University in Japan, detailed screening for his students “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo,” an episode of The Simpsons that has never been shown in Japan because of its coarse cultural stereotypes.

In another, Christian Hempelmann of Purdue University reported on how computers are being taught to understand size differences, in hopes that sooner or later they will get the joke, “How do you fit six elephants into a car?” (Answer: three in the front seat and three in the back.)

Then there was Gil Greengross, an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who is investigating the effect of ovulatory cycles on humor appreciation. Research is ongoing, but Greengross postulates that women are more sensitive to comedy during peak fertility. (See last week’s post for more info.)

Attendees also explored whether their humor theories could explain the peculiar world of viral comedy videos with the help of self-described “YouTube comedian” Kevin Nalty, a product director at Johnson & Johnson and the creative mind behind 1,000-plus YouTube videos seen, by his count, more than 200 million times. (According to Nalty, his opus is a clip of his son using a fart machine in a public library.)

True to form, Nalty posted a YouTube video of himself at the humor conference (below), wherein he dabbles in a bit of stalking and offers critical feedback on the presentation style of some of his fellow speakers.

See part II HERE.

(Full post on Wired.com)