Scientific Reasons Why “Edgy” Comedy Can Get Fu*ked

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

I love edgy comedy. To have your preconceptions challenged, cleverly, playfully, and publicly, by a master of the comedic arts, is a visceral thrill.

It can provide a laugh that goes both wider and deeper, when compared to laughs produced by safer subjects and observations. As well as the joke, there’s the recognition, the shock, the relief that others share these more questionable traits. It’s a heady cocktail for the typical brain.

Although with edgy comedy there’s always a line, after which you can go “too far”. It’s a risky approach, but the best comedians know where the line is and can stroll up to it confidently, maybe dance around on it, although not everyone agrees where this line is. So yes, edgy comedy is a tricky thing to master, and not without risks. But if you can do it, more power to you. It’s a bold, but often rewarding, path to take.

However, I can’t be doing with “edgy” comedy. “Edgy” comedy presents itself as genuine edgy comedy, but it’s not. It’s just deliberately offensive for the sake of it, and getting a laugh is, seemingly, a secondary concern. 

You know the sort of stuff I mean. ‘Hilarious’ Nazi salutes and imagery. Constant mentions of racism or sexual-assault or fat-shaming, anything that makes the lives of people (who already have it hard enough) even worse, in the name of ‘banter’.

People regularly describe this ‘edgy’ stuff as offensive, because it is. That’s the point. And those who create it invariably resort to accusing critics of being overly-sensitive “snowflakes”, or that they’re being “censored”, maybe for “speaking the truth”, as if they’re the last line of defence of real comedy, standing strong against the relentless, humourless, conformity-demanding politically correct horde that modern society has become.

Here are some scientific reasons why that’s almost certainly bollocks

It’s easier to be offensive than funny

I started doing stand-up comedy in 2004, but I am in no way an ‘expert’ comedian. You put me on a stage now, I might get a few laughs, but I wouldn’t guarantee it. Making people laugh, on command, is a skill. Some people have a natural knack, but even they have to work hard at it to create stuff that works for a mass audience.

Dean, standing up, doing comedy, at a Cosmic Shambles event. Pic by Natalie Shaw

The system for processing of humour in the human brain is eye-wateringly complicated. It’s tied up with the sensory, language, memory and emotion systems (because think of all the things that can make us laugh). Evidence suggests that, at the most fundamental level, it’s concerned with the detecting and resolving of incongruity. We’re presented with something that does not conform to our expectations, to our understanding of how the world works (be it words, images, the sight of someone doing or saying unusual things), and our brain recognises this as incongruous. This creates a sort of tension; it’s an unexpected, unfamiliar thing, and subconscious systems of our brains don’t like this.

Resolving this incongruity, in a safe, enjoyable way, provides relief, expanded understanding, and a burst of pleasure. Hence, we laugh. To provoke this reaction in people is the purpose of comedy.

It can be achieved via many routes, like pointing out that a familiar action or occurrence isn’t logical when you analyse it (i.e. “What’s the deal with…?”), which is amusing because it’s incongruous and familiar at the same time. Or surreal humour, like introducing bizarre concepts and ideas, then revealing their inherent logic or structure (i.e. Vic and Bob’s output). And so on.

But writing jokes that people will react positively to is always tricky, because everyone’s brain is wired differently, and the ideal balance of incongruity to pleasurable resolution varies from person to person, hence not everyone laughs at the same jokes.

However, societal taboos a fairly consistent. We all know what should and shouldn’t be said, regardless of whether we agree with this stance. It’s something we absorb from the society and culture around us. And, rather than come up with some inventive way of ticking the brain’s incongruity centre, it’s a lot easier to do or say things that most consider off-limits. This creates an inherent tension in the listener/observer (i.e. “You can’t say that!”), which can be resolved with the age-old claim “it’s just a joke!”

People are more likely to laugh to resolve the tension created by the deliberately unpleasant material, rather than due to appreciation for the stellar wit on display. Unfortunately, it all looks the same to an “edgy” comic.

Negative “edgy” humour is not healthy

There are multiple types of humour, as you’ll no doubt be aware. And humour (in humans) has multiple roles, from social bonding to mating to communication. And another important property of humour is emotional processing. It’s common to hear people say “it’s good that you can laugh about it” after something bad has happened. That’s the power of a lot of comedy; something scary and upsetting can be neutralised by using it for humour, which is why satire can be a potent tool.

This is a stock image of a stand up comedian so it’s difficult to tell if the material being used here is edgy or not.

However, some studies suggest that people can tell the difference between positive and negative humour, as in they know when humour is meant to entertain and amuse the recipient, and they know when it’s meant as a mean-spirited attack on someone.

The latter type is obviously very common; all manner of bullying and mockery takes the form of mean-spirited jokes, like insults and criticisms of someone’s features, ones they often can do nothing about. But some studies suggest that negative humour doesn’t allow the helpful emotional processing that jokes and humour often provide.

Being deliberately mean and offensive for its own sake, it may induce a laugh, but it’s a cheaper one, and could leave the recipient feeling worse, not better.

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“Edgy” comedy is a cheap status grab

One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that those older types (men) regularly decrying the modern day “snowflakes” for taking offence at anything, or moaning about how you “can’t say anything any more”, are often the same ones who were, very recently, lambasting younger comics for swearing too much, or being too rude, or bemoaning the loss of “good clean family fun”. It’s almost as if they don’t actually care about the humour, they just want an excuse to condemn the younger generation.

Marc Maron – ‘If you’re too intimidated to try to do comedy that is deep or provocative, or even a little controversial, without hurting people, then you’re not good at what you do’. Pic by Netflix

That’s another thing that humour is intricately wound in; status. Humans are incredibly social species, but we’re also very sensitive to our status within in any specific group, be it small and local (e.g. your workplace environment) or large and abstract (e.g. your status in society as a whole). But either way, we are constantly alert to it, it’s seemingly embedded in the structure of our brains, and being low-status can be very stressful.

One way to raise our status is to make other people laugh. You’ve induced an involuntary reaction in them, you’ve demonstrated your intellectual prowess and met with positive rewards. So many comedians claim to have developed humour as a “defence mechanism” against bullies, neglectful parents, a stressful childhood etc. This is perfectly consistent with that.

There’s a risk here, though. Many studies have shown that failed attempts at humour, trying to make someone laugh and not getting that reaction, prompts very aggressive negative reactions. Why? Well, many reasons. It could be that the act of telling a joke is itself a promise of a reward, and not delivering is annoying.

It could also be that by telling someone a joke, you’re effectively saying “I think this will appeal to you, and I am telling you this because I want to control, manipulate your emotions, to make myself superior”. And then you fail, so it’s a double insult to the recipient. Many comics have noted that incredibly hostile response they get to people who don’t find them funny, which is regularly more vitriolic than it would be for a band or type of music hey didn’t like. This may explain that. So, using humour to big yourself up is an inherently risky strategy.

But if you do “edgy” comedy, a lot of the risks are removed. There’s pretty much always a lower-status group targeted in your humour (“edgy” comedy almost always punches down), so you become higher-status just by default. And getting a negative reaction is effectively priced in, because you’re actively using subjects and terms that are designed to upset and offend. So, any hostile reaction can be perceived as the desired result, not a failure of a genuine effort to entertain. It’s basically the “You can’t fire me, I quit!” approach to humour.

“Edgy” comedy is rarely brave or challenging. It’s mostly just cowardly, or a cop-out.  

The justifications for “edgy” comedy are invariably bollocks

I’ve been to more stand-up gigs than I could begin to count, and I’ve seen countless strutting cocky young “edgy” comics deploy their grim material to largely uncaring or stern-faced audiences. That’s par for the course these days. But a particularly grating aspect is when such comics try to retroactively justify their toxic material by claiming supposedly noble, intellectual aims.

“I’m puncturing social conventions”. “I want to challenge people’s politically correct preconceptions”. “I’m saying what people want to hear”. “We should be allowed to say what we like!” And so on. I’ve seen all these justifications, and more, deployed in real life.

George Carlin. Edgy but not ‘edgy’.

Let’s be honest; all of this is shite. It’s blatantly just certain people wanting to keep doing or saying things that are blatantly selfish and harmful, but trying to repackage it in such a way as to claim they’re doing everyone a favour. It’s the open-mic equivalent of trickle-down economics, (which itself started as a joke).

None of them really stand up to scrutiny. What gives anyone the right or obligation to “challenge our politically correct preconceptions”? If someone entered my home with a sledgehammer and started smashing my walls in order to challenge my “architectural” preconceptions, I’d immediately call the police.

“We should be allowed to say what we want!” Well the law has various things to say about that, but even if you genuinely believe this, it means that those who find the things you say vile and repugnant have every right to say that too, and you must let them say it.

“I’m saying what everyone thinks”. That this is often said to people condemning them for their words, revealing that clearly not everyone thinks the same, is never mentioned. And even if everyone did think it, they clearly don’t go around saying it, because society agreed that this wasn’t the best move.

Sure, it’s easier to just voice your prejudices than bottle them up, but it’s easier to just soil yourself where you stand than use a toilet. Yet, we don’t do that. We’re more advanced. We’ve evolved beyond that. The human brain has developed sophisticated self-control systems so we don’t have to submit to every urge or animal whim that occurs to us.

And let’s not forget the hollowness of claiming you want to “challenge social norms and preconceptions” and stuff, but only ever doing so in a comedy context, the one place where people are expected to do and say extreme or far-fetched things and not be punished for doing so. Challenging social conventions while relying wholly on those conventions to do so. Ooh, what a brave social crusader! It’s like sticking it to ‘the man’ by graffitiing a wall that the council have specifically put aside for graffiti.

Basically, I’m in a bad mood today, and I have no patience left for the “edgy” guff bombarding my social media feeds from people who should, and deep down undoubtedly do, know better. But they persist, likely due to some combination of laziness, cowardice, delusion or just plain spite.

As Marc Maron, a genuine expert comedian, recently put it so eloquently;

‘If you’re too intimidated to try to do comedy that is deep or provocative, or even a little controversial, without hurting people, then you’re not good at what you do. Or maybe you’re just insensitive”.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, author and stand up comedian. He is the author of the international best -sellers The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for  the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education. His latest two books, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and Psycho-Logical are out now. He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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