Conference takes closer look at mechanics of comedy

Johnny Carson used to reject any serious study of comedy, saying, "Analyzing it would just be a waste of time."
Syndicated cartoonist Jerry Craft, shown with his "Mama's Boyz" characters, is slated to appear at a University comedy conference set for March 10. (Photo courtesy All Photos Knight-Wallace Fellows At Michigan)
U-M's Charles Eisendrath will moderate the conference "The Serious Stuff About Humor: What is it? Why is it?"

Charles Eisendrath — a chief organizer and moderator of the upcoming conference "The Serious Stuff about Humor: What is It? Why is It?" — laughs heartily at Carson's observation.

"Of course, that's exactly what does happen. Our idea is not to kill humor but to see what works," he says, making the distinction that U-M researchers aren't seeking to analyze comedy, but are learning how people respond to humor.

Two top comedy writers, Kevin Bleyer and Tim Carvell of the award-winning "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," will participate in the conference, set for March 10 at Michigan Theater.

Also slated to appear are "Mama's Boyz" cartoonist Jerry Craft and Philadelphia Daily News political cartoonist Signe Wilkinson. The New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff will lead a panel of experts and comedy practitioners including syndicated political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant, New Yorker cartoonist Matt Diffee and U-M researcher Richard Lewis. Additional panelists include John Morreall, College of William and Mary religion professor; Rod Martin, University of Western Ontario clinical psychologist; Paul Lewis, Boston College English professor and columnist; and Michael Apter, independent psychologist and humor researcher.

Organizers say the conference is unique among U.S. colleges and universities.
Paul Lewis

"We're trying to build a program at Michigan around research on humor," says Eisendrath, associate professor of communication studies and director of the Knight-Wallace Fellows in Journalism.

The conference is the latest step in pursuing that goal, initiated in 2004 through the continuing Humor at Michigan project. It involves researchers from a variety of fields including psychology, medicine, anthropology and history.

"Research can range from the study of evolutional functions of humor to manifestations of what happens to a human being — what humor does for people and how they physically respond to it." Eisendrath says.

Projects include eye-tracking studies conducted by Richard Lewis that use New Yorker cartoons. "Pupil dilation seems to track how funny people think the joke is after they read it," says Lewis, professor of psychology and linguistics. "It's a very, very fast response; the whole thing happens in under a second after their eyes hit the critical regions of the cartoon. The funnier it is the more their pupils dilate."

While such projects are ongoing, the conference represents a significant step as it brings people who practice humor together with those who research it.

"Everybody who's at the conference is at the top of the game in their particular aspect of comedy," Eisendrath says. "They'll talk about different things; the goal is getting as many different perspectives as possible. I'm just thrilled to be putting together practitioners and academics."

Eight of Oliphant's bronze sculptures of contemporary American political figures will be displayed during the conference in the Michigan Theater lobby. The Web site shows some of his works, including two that will be in the exhibit — President George Bush throwing a horseshoe and President Bill Clinton dressed as Billy the Kid.

The free conference is sponsored by the Knight-Wallace Fellows at Michigan in cooperation with The New Yorker Cartoon Bank, the Institute for the Humanities, Department of Psychology, Depression Center and the School of Art and Design.