David Misch
David Misch Credit: Courtesy of David Misch

The best way to kill a joke, of course, is to explain what makes it funny. This puts David Misch in a bit of a tight spot—his Funny: The Book purports to explain “everything you always wanted to know about comedy.” Misch delves into history, philosophy, psychology, and science, with a special focus on a few gifted practitioners (mostly American). He also dissects some jokes and invokes the names Aristotle, Freud, Hegel, and Schopenhauer—but the last only because it sounds funny.

Amazingly, the book lives up to its title. Partially it’s because a lot of the material Misch has compiled really is interesting, and he strikes the right breezy tone that doesn’t belabor any of his points, even the brilliant ones. Partially it’s because, as a former stand-up and comedy writer (he’s an alum of Mork & Mindy and the animated series Duckman), he actually knows what he’s talking about when he deconstructs a joke. He doesn’t tell you why it’s funny. He tells you how it got that way.

Some of the “rules” of comedy Misch cites are commonplace: Brevity is the soul of wit. Good jokes come in threes. Hard consonants are funnier than soft ones. Others are more conceptual: Humans are hardwired to look for patterns. Humor establishes patterns and then fucks with them. “The weird thing is,” Misch writes, “that the state of knowing we don’t know how the pattern will be altered isn’t frustrating or irritating but pleasurable—as we try to figure out what’ll happen, suspecting our guess will be wrong, our confusion itself feels good.”

This, by the way, is the explanation for the everlasting comic potential of the fart. (The oldest surviving joke, dating back to Sumeria 1900 BCE, is a fart joke.) We believe we’re better than animals because we have control over our bodies. Farts defy that expectation.

All this business about setting up patterns and then breaking them has another purpose besides pleasure: Comedy forces you to pay attention so you don’t miss the next joke. An afternoon of watching comedy DVDs can, in theory, make you smarter.

Misch has helpfully set up a website to go along with the book, loaded with YouTube clips of what he’s determined are some of the greatest comic bits of all time. (Sadly, especially if you love Steve Martin, due to the vagaries of copyright enforcement, not all of them are always available.) It’s quite possible that Misch’s whole project, book and website, really will make you smarter, at least about comedy.