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Posts tagged ‘Brains’

Brains, Comedy, and Steve Martin

In my last post I discussed the neuroscience of music. I concluded that renowned musicians share one thing in common: they understand the importance of patterns, expectations, prediction in music. I encourage you to read it if you have not already.

This post takes the ideas of the last – patterns, expectations, and prediction – and applies it to comedy. Comedy is made possible by creating and fulfilling expectations while considering the importance of delivery, context, and timing. Consider this joke, taken from a recent article from 

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing; his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency service. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says: “Take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says, “OK, now what?”

Why is this funny? It starts by establishing a familiar pattern; in this case, the pattern is the standard beginning-middle-punch line structure that many jokes are structured by. Then, it creates an expectation; implicit in the statement, “First, let’s make sure he’s dead” is the expectation that the hunter is going to do something reasonable to see if his friend is dead. Finally, the comedy is delivered when the answer deviates from the expectation – we expected x, but we got y, i.e., we never though the alive hunter would shoot his friend just to make sure he was dead. Most importantly, the entire joke still maintains the beginning-middle-punch line pattern.

The best jokes have the most unexpected punch lines but maintain the pattern. Neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran explains this in his 1998 book Phantoms in the Brain. 

Despite all their surface diversity, most jokes and funny incidents have the following logical structure: Typically you lead the listener along a garden path of expectation, slowly building up tension. At the very end, you introduce an unexpected twist that entails a complete reinterpretation of all the preceding data, and moreover, it’s critical that the new interpretation, though wholly unexpected, makes as much “sense” of the entire set of facts as did the originally “expected” interpretation (Ramachandran, p. 204).

From Richard Pryor to Chris Rock, comedians rely on what Ramachandran is describing. It is their ability to create and relieve tension, and deliver the unexpected while maintaining the pattern, that makes them so funny.

Steve Martin is one of my favorite comedians and is someone who understands this well. If you are familiar with Martin’s standup you will know his unique style. Like Pryor and the Rock, Martin did not change the medium per se; he simply altered the expectations that defined the medium. For example, here is an opening bit from one of Martin’s routines: “I’d like to open up with sort of a funny comedy bit. This has really been a big one for me… I’m sure most of you will recognize the title when I mention it; it’s the Nose on Microphone routine.” Martin would then lean in and placed his nose on the microphone for a few seconds, step back, take a few bows, and move on to his next joke. The “laugh came not then, but only after they realized I had already moved on to the next bit.”

Martin’s anticlimax style ended up defining his stand up. But it did not come to him in the blink of an eye, rather, it was the product of years of trial and error. He describes this in his autobiography Born Standing Up:

With conventional joke telling, there’s a moment when the comedian delivers the punch line, and the audience knows it’s the punch line, and their response ranges from polite to uproarious… These notions stayed with me for months, until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: what if there were no punch lines… What if I created tension and never realised it…  Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh… My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh (Martin, p. 111-113).

Note how similar Martin’s remarks are to Ramachandran’s. They are talking about the relationship between patterns and expectations, and understand that something which is funny denies the initial expectation and challenges the observer to understand the new pattern. Like a Pryor or Rock joke, Martin’s Microphone bit takes the observer down a familiar path to start, but leaves her at an unfamiliar destination. Yet, she is not entirely lost for she still exists in the context of the joke. In other words, she knows that she is supposed to laugh – and she does – but she doesn’t know why.

Below is a video that illustrates an extreme example of this. Here we seen Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal perform a bit at the 2008 Melbourne comedy festival. After a brief opening dialog, Braunohler and Schaal begin an impressive staging that seems to defy comedic logic. However, underneath all the repetition Braunohler and Schaal remain committed to the same principles that Martin and all successful jokes are committed to.

This is funny for the same reason the New Jersey joke is funny – it introduces a pattern, creates an expectation, and breaks an expectation while keeping to the pattern. But the genius of Braunohler and Schaal is that they break the expectation by not breaking the expectation. In other words, you don’t expect them to keep doing the “Kristin Schaal is a horse” dance, but they do, and that’s why its funny. Like Martin’s joke, the punch line is that there isn’t a punch line. Again, the audience is left in hysterics even though they couldn’t have reasonable said what is so funny. And this is one of the secrets of comedy – breaking an expectation in such an unexpected way that they audience can only respond by laughing.

Brains, Music, and The Bad Plus

A lot has been written about the neuroscience of music lately, including these two articles in the NYTimes, a blog post by Jonah Lehrer, books by Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin, and a paper in Nature Neuroscience. What are they all saying? To get a sense, meet The Bad Plus, a Minneapolis trio known for a unique brand of rock infused Avant-garde jazz music. The Bad Plus have been around for just over a decade and have made a name for themselves by covering famous hits from the 80s and 90s – everything from Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ to Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – as well as producing original material.

If you have ever listened to The Bad Plus you will know that their music can be a bit challenging. Instead of the standard verse-chorus, 4/4 time structure that most pop songs are constituted by, Bad Plus songs are much more chaotic. Often switching from one unusual time signature to the next (5/16 to 3/4 to 10/8 for example), speeding up and slowing down the tempo, and rarely repeating previous motifs, their songs could be classified as lawless. However, beneath all the disorder, The Bad Plus nonetheless maintain a deep and steady structure that binds all of their songs together – and this is what makes them successful musicians.

It is their ability to combine what we expect with what we don’t expect that separates them from most. Sometimes this is frustrating, and other times it is confusing, but it is ultimately enjoyable. Why? It all goes back to patterns, expectations, and predictions – three things that brains love. When it comes to music, brains are focused on identifying patterns, forming expectations, and then predicting where the song will go based off of the patterns and expectations it has identified and formed. Brains like it when they do this successfully and hate it when they don’t. This is one reason singers like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake are so popular –  their songs are structured by patterns and expectations that are very easy to predict. When we listen to ‘Baby One More Time’ or ‘Sexxyback’ we know exactly what we are going to get.

However, groundbreaking musicians like The Bad Plus know that it is ultimately more enjoyable to hear a song violate an expectation instead of fulfill an expectation – this is why many of their songs replace the expected with the unexpected. Unlike a pop song, a Bad Plus song challenges your brain to figure out the new pattern. Many times this is difficult, and this is probably why the average listener does not give The Bad Plus a chance. But if you give your brain enough time to figure out the new pattern it will reward you. It’s like doing a difficult math problem, at first it sucks, but it feels great to figure it out, especially if you worked hard to get it.

All of this is explained by neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin in his 2006 book This Is Your Brain On Music:

As music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one, and takes delight when a skillful musician violates that expectation in an interesting way – a sort of musical joke that we’re all in on. Music breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does, and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized (Levitin, p. 191).

One of my favorite Bad Plus songs, which exemplifies what Levitin is talking about, is a cover of the academy award-winning theme song, “Titles,” from the 1981 hit Chariots of Fire. Below is a video of The Bad Plus performing this song live, and there are three things that you should pay attention to. First, notice how the song begins with what you are familiar with – the Chariots of Fire theme. Second, listen at the 1:53 mark to how The Bad Plus deviate from what you are familiar with and notice that you do not find this particularly appealing. Finally, if you were patient enough to listen through the entire middle section where the band seems to get buried in its own sound, pay close attention to what happens at 5:39. Amidst a smattering of bass notes and drum crashes, pianist Ethan Iverson slowly brings back the familiar Chariots of Fire motif. The song climaxes at 6:22 when all three members strike the same chord and deliver “Titles,” as you know it.

If your brain is like most, it will love this moment. As Levitin explained, it is an instance where the brain rewards itself for being able to understand a pattern that had been previously violated – this is why Bad Plus songs are ultimately rewarding. They establish a pattern we know, they deviate from this pattern, and then they reward us by bringing the pattern back to its original state (for another good example of this listen to their cover of the Radiohead song “Karma Police”). I challenge you to listen to “Titles” several times – give your brain a chance to “get to know its patterns” so that it can successfully predict what comes next. Listened to enough times, I suspect that the 6:22 mark will eventually become extremely enjoyable.

How a musician understands and uses patterns, expectations, and prediction largely defines the quality of his or her music. Musicians who only deliver what is expected may be popular, but they certainly won’t go down in history as one of the best. It is people like Dylan, who took folk electric, or the Ramones, who introduced punk, or Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Girl Talk, who sampled other songs to create new songs, who will be remembered. Though it took audiences some time to get used to these artists, their music became celebrated once brains adapted to the new patterns e.g., electric, punk, or sampling.

I look forward to even more literature that addresses the relationship between brains and music. If the last few years are indicative, we should see many more insights.

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