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We’re only human, after all

Opinion

We’re only human, after all

Jane Stephens understands that there’s nothing artificial in a good, hearty laugh and finding the funny side of life.

Humour may well be the last bastion of our humanness. Artificial intelligence has been unleashed, infiltrating a stunning number of industries and acing a frightening number of human abilities.

But recent studies have found that while AI can generate jokes, it lacks the ability to understand what makes them funny. A 2023 study at Cornell University asked AI and humans to identify winning cartoon caption contest entries in The New Yorker and explain what made them funny.

The humans won be a country mile. Thank heavens for that. It is said that what separates us from other animals is our ability to think, learn, communicate, control our environment and exercise our sense of humour. It is a gift to be able to laugh, observe ourselves and find reason to giggle, and to find fun even in dark places.

Other peer-reviewed work has found that dark humour is linked to intelligence – that those who find a funny side in death, disease and deformity are more likely to have higher IQs, be slower to aggression and cope with negative feelings. Those easily offended have been repeatedly found to be moodier and more aggressive.

There is no surprise in that. We all know that person who is seemingly waiting to be slighted – often on behalf of someone else. The health benefits of laughter and smiling have been widely studied, and common-sense dictates that if you can’t greet a negative situation with a bit of a wry wink and a giggle, you will inevitably feel worse.

Smart people like a bit of mental gymnastics in the parsing of multiple layers of meaning. Linking relatable threads and turning situations on their head is dark humour’s specialty. It is the emotional manoeuvring that makes us laugh at the best of comedians, even as we squirm. This includes jokes such as: “My husband and I have reached the difficult decision that we do not want children. If you do, send your contact details and we’ll drop them off tomorrow” and “cremation is the only time in my life I will be smokin’ hot”.

Stepping out of the emotional comfort zone is why it feels so good to indulge in dark humour. It is a bit naughty, a smidgen wrong. It is said dark humour is like a particular food: not everyone likes it and sometimes it makes you sick. But laughing gives us something AI never will: a feeling of being wonderfully alive.

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Jane Stephens is a USC journalism lecturer, media commentator and writer.

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