CHICAGO — Studying humor is like dissecting a frog. You might learn a lot about it, but you end up with a dead frog. --Mark Twain
Clark McCauley cannot figure Gary Larson out. He thinks "The Far Side," Larson's nationally syndicated cartoon panel, is hilarious. But exactly why escapes him.
"If I could figure that out, I could be as rich as he is," McCauley said.
McCauley, a psychology professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, is not talking about the jokes. He gets the jokes. He seeks the guiding heuristic, or organizing principle, behind the jokes.
"I've thought about that a little," he said. "But every time I come up with a theory, I get out another one of his collections, and there are five or six cartoons in there that just blow the whole thing."
Such is the lot of the humor researcher. Just when you have figured out what is so funny, something else is.
Walter E. (Buzz) O'Connell of Bastrop, Tex., has been studying humor for more than 35 years, and he has even developed several tests to gauge the sense of humor. But he admits he cannot explain exactly what a sense of humor is.
"It's such an individual thing, yet there are some patterns," O'Connell said. "Women have traditionally liked puns more than men, and as a general rule, the more neurotic a person is the more they like the hostile jokes."
But O'Connell has no certainties about the sense of humor, except "it's good to have one."
There are perhaps dozens of theories of humor, dating at least to the 17th-Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed people told jokes to feel superior to people who were the butt of the joke.
"Of course, that doesn't explain self-deprecating humor very well," McCauley said. "But I suppose one could twist it around a little and say that people who tell jokes about themselves are somehow feeling superior to some shortcoming in themselves."
Most humor theories suffer from this exception problem. Those who label all humor as aggression--and Freud was not one of these, despite the popular conception--have trouble explaining puns or harmless rhymes. Those who say humor is the result of surprise are hard-pressed to explain why "some surprises aren't very funny at all," McCauley said.
But scientists continue to try, and recently they have gotten quite earnest about it. Since 1976, there have been seven international conferences devoted to the study of humor.
The 1988 conference will start April Fools' Day at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. The theme will be humor of the Midwest, and the conference will also feature the debut of HUMOR, the International Journal of Humor Research.
This is serious stuff.
"People assume these conferences are just a joke-talk kind of thing, which they are not," said Herb Cummings, a former economics professor who directs the Workshop Library on World Humor based in Washington.
Cummings estimates that a fourth of participants in the humor conferences are from academia, a fourth are professionals from science and medicine, and the rest are humor aficionados from various disciplines.
"I know people say our methods sometimes are a little loose," he said. "But then, science isn't all that tight in any other behavioral field."
McCauley has done some research on the subject. He showed cartoons from Boy's Life and the New Yorker to one group of students and asked them to rate how aggressive they were. He showed the same cartoons to another group and asked them to judge how funny they were. Not surprisingly, the more aggressive the cartoon, the funnier it was rated.
This, in a way, may help explain "The Far Side's" appeal.
"Gary Larson's world is a really dangerous place," McCauley said. "Bad things happen to people in it. They get eaten a lot."
It is a theory McCauley said he would like to test when he gets some new research materials. For Christmas, maybe.