Last weekend, my husband and I attended a milestone birthday celebration for his brother. No one in the room was younger than 50. The party was touted as a "roast," with my spouse as the master of ceremonies. Worried about my brother-in-law's sometimes sensitive nature, I implored my quick-witted hubby to "lightly sauté" his younger brother — and he obliged me.
Still, there were moments when the whole room was laughing and the guest of honor sat quietly. There were times when the oldest-old were laughing uproariously and the youngest-old not at all. One-liners about aging memory seemed to make everyone chortle, and anything involving Captain Sterling got a lot of rolling chuckles. Just who is Captain Sterling anyway?
The whole experience made me wonder what makes aging adults laugh?
I laughed unexpectedly looking at a cartoon in the New Yorker last week. It depicted two leashed dogs seeming to chat with each other while their owners bent to pick up piles of dog poo. The spotted dog appears to be telling the smaller dog, "I don't know about you, but it always makes me feel kind of special." (It's probably funnier in cartoon form.)
I had the magazine with me on our car trek and I showed the cartoon to my sister-in-law, who was riding with us to the birthday roast, and she laughed until little tears ran down her face. But then, she has a dog and knows the scoop.
It was a packed car, and one of the other passengers, who had already seen the cartoon and responded to it with a quick smile, laughed aloud in response to the teary ripples of jolly reaction coming from the person sitting beside him. In seconds, the car was full of contagious merriment. Note to self: laughter begets laughter.
I suspect you've heard that adults laugh only a few times a day, on average, and children laugh as often as 400 times each day according to some reports (especially at knock-knock jokes — kids love those).
During our car ride, I told the group I had the "world's best" knock-knock joke. And then I told it. "Why did the chicken cross the road?" In mid-telling my husband reminded me that "to get to the other side" did not qualify in the knock-knock category. I told him I thought it could be tailored to fit and I would be working on that. He did smile, just a little, at that response.
I've concluded men laugh at jokes about men. They also laugh at jokes about women. Women hardly ever laugh at jokes about other women — but women do often laugh at men "… make that "jokes about men."
All that said, there's actual research suggesting people of any age do not necessarily laugh at a joke. Laughter researcher Robert Provine spent hours recording conversations at shopping malls, in office settings and probably even family birthday roasts and found that people most often laughed at the end of a normal sentence.
As illustration, "So, how was the trip?" Maybe you had to be there.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.