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Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind Hardcover – March 4, 2011


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New Humor Book from Judd Apatow
From the writer and director of Knocked Up and the producer of Freaks and Geeks comes a collection of intimate, hilarious conversations with the biggest names in comedy from the past thirty years—including Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Roseanne Barr, Harold Ramis, Louis C.K., Chris Rock, and Lena Dunham. Learn more

Editorial Reviews

Review

Ever since Plato (who thought we laugh at vice), thinkers as serious as Kant and Freud have put forth theories of our giggles and guffaws. Hurley, Dennett, and Adams go at the problem with the ingenuity of first-rate scientists and the timing of first-rate comics. Not only do they have the riches of evolutionary psychology from which to draw, but they're even funnier than Hegel.

(Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction)

The deft use of humor can win a mate, persuade an audience, or make a tyrant quake in his jackboots. Yet no one really understands why the human brain should respond so forcefully to that cocktail of anomaly, indignity, and rhythmic vocalization we call a joke. Hurley, Dennett, and Adams offer a sophisticated analysis of this important phenomenon using high standards of evolutionary explanation -- and no, it is not a turgid academic disquisition, but written with clarity, good cheer, and, of course, wit.

(Steven Pinker, author of How The Mind Works)

[O]ne of the most complex and sophisticated humor theories ever presented.... The authors should be lauded for their thought-provoking and original work.

(Evolutionary Psychology)

The theory [the authors] elaborate is a detailed and sophisticated descendant of incongruity theories.... The learned and even-handed stance adopted by [them] regarding problem cases is... upbeat: they regard their theory as a provisional staging post, and a prompt to further empirical enquiry into these open-ended issues. On balance, that is probably the right attitude to take.

(The Times Literary Supplement)

Inside Jokes is the most persuasive theory of humor in the centuries that scientists have been trying to explain why we crack up. Extra bonus: unlike most such research, which is about as funny as a root canal, Hurley's analysis is -- and I don't think I'm going out on too much of a limb here -- the funniest thing the MIT Press... has ever published (in a good way).

(Sharon Begley The Daily Beast)

Science advances by asking new questions, and Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams raise a lot of them.... Some of these questions have been asked before, but no previous attempt succeeds in answering so many so well.

(Walter Sinnott-Armstrong Science)

Hurley and his crew cross the road to not just explain a joke, but explain all jokes. Before this book the only comedy that had been peer reviewed and replicated in double-blind experiments was the theory that there's nothing funnier than a smoking monkey. I'm so glad smart people outside of comedy are taking comedy seriously.

(Penn Jillette of "Penn & Teller")

MIT Press has come up with a page-turner, a book you can't put down. That is no joke! The authors have dissected the mental state of humor and, instead of dismissing it, instill awe about the beauty of the evolved human mind. Humor at its various levels cleans up our act and plays a magnificent role in making us who we are.

(Michael Gazzaniga, Director, Sage Center for the Study of Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara)

What's so funny about a robot with a sense of humor? In this highly original analysis, Hurley, Dennett, and Adams try to locate the holy grail, the essence of a joke, by using a variety of tools (from computer science, cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy, and even evolutionary psychology) to dissect why we laugh. This powerful team of authors goes a long way to explain why and when we laugh, and in doing so uncover insights about how the mind works. But like the proverbial millipede who, trying to analyze how he lifts each of his legs in the precise sequence, starts tripping over, readers should beware that getting inside a joke risks dehumorizing it!

(Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Director, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University)

About the Author

Matthew M. Hurley is currently researching teleology and agency at the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition at Indiana University.

Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. He is the author of Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness (MIT Press) and other books.

Reginald B. Adams, Jr., is Associate Professor of Psychology researching emotion and social perception at Penn State University.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 376 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; 1 edition (March 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 026201582X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262015820
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #850,219 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

53 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 30, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Anywhere in the world, if you are in a group of people chatting, you will find yourself or find someone else talking in a way to attempt to produce laughter in those listening. It seems to be hardwired behavior for us, because it happens in every society we know. Not only do amateur humorists aim to bring laughter to others, professionals can get paid to do so, and the payment comes from people who buy tickets because they so value the laughter experience. Why do we laugh, and why is it so important for us to do so? There have been lots of explanations for this interesting, enjoyable, and universal behavior over the millennia (of course Aristotle had a crack at it), and they are all reviewed in _Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind_ (The MIT Press) which grew out of a dissertation by Matthew M. Hurley, who is joined here by co-authors Daniel C. Dennett and Reginald B. Adams. The authors propose their new theory of humor, which encompasses what they say are the partial explanations that have gone before. It is a persuasive theory, and the book is successful for a number of reasons. It quite properly examines the evolutionary role of laughter; anything that universal must be promoting our fitness somehow. It is a serious work; the authors invite researchers to take it seriously and to start up the brain scans and other research to confirm or expand their theory. And though it is serious, and the writing is academic and not jocular, the topic is fun. The authors obviously enjoy jokes and enjoy them better for getting some understanding of how they operate. They quote E. B. White, who made a joke about examining jokes too closely: "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.Read more ›
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16 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Chris Edwards on January 6, 2012
Format: Hardcover
In the middle of 2011 a new theory of humor popped onto the science blogs - this was Peter McGraw's Benign Violation Theory of Humor. I mention it because it provides a helpful contrast to the subject of Inside Jokes. I was pretty interested in the Benign Violation Theory when I heard about it, and upon further investigation, it sounded pretty reasonable to me. Later hearing that the brilliant Daniel Dennett had endorsed a new and different theory of humor, I had to check it out. This theory of humor and its entire presentation redefined for me the standard of what a theory of humor needs to be.

Reading Inside Humor, I could see that the BVT was pretty weak in many areas. It may be true enough that it describes *what* humor is (see McGraw's TED talk called "What Makes Things Funny") however, it didn't seem to say anything about *why*. This omission only became obvious when Inside Jokes argued that "why" was really the interesting question and that they had answered it. I also think that the Benign Violation Theory has a danger of being somewhat circular - humor results from a "violation" but could a violation be defined as something that, when benign, was funny?

Again, I mention this competing theory to demonstrate how much more comprehensive the theory of Inside Jokes is. It is a functional theory that would inform someone who wanted to design a synthetic brain capable of humor. I felt this theory's attention to the big picture was far more complete than any other theory I'd heard. It made me feel like other theories of humor were merely "observations" of humor.

In classic philosopher style, Daniel Dennett keeps the theory on track by very explicitly avoiding circular thinking, incomplete theories, and other easy-to-make thought errors (which he enumerates).
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Gontar on February 4, 2015
Format: Paperback
There are only four or five theories of humor acknowledged as notable, and they're all wrong. This book at least has the virtue of recognizing this in the case of theories other than its own.

The superiority and release theories are the most obviously false and should be considered only historical anecdotes. It is easy to see that superiority could only be a condition or feeling that accompanies or is associated with the response to humor. It is a truth so obvious that no one could even appropriate it. If "release" means that humor enables the satisfaction of suppressed impulses, that is not a theory of what humor is. While Freud means that release in laughter signifies a wasted effort, this too is a false description of the phenomenon. As has been shown elsewhere Freud did not understand his own jokes.

In recent years there have been a few theories that try to explain humor in evolutionary terms--that of Ernest Garrett, for example, and Hugh Basil Hall. These views either say nothing about what humor itself is, or they make the false claim that humor can be identified with its evolutionary origins as do Garrett and Hall. For Garrett, what is funny about a dog elevated to a position of prestige, is that it evokes the discovery of weakness where power was expected. This already old trick just describes the surface of humor without explaining it. Another reason we know this theory is false is that the removal of the serious is an example of something that's funny--because worry can be a mistake--and is also the effect of humor, not the general form of what is funny. The approach contains no real work and is thus easily discredited, and of course it involves no extensive analysis of jokes.
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