The Power of Humor
The Comedic Power of Absurdity (Add a ton of fun!)
Marc Davis was an early Disney Imagineer. Marc, like many of them those days, came from Disney animation. The shorts that came out of that studio were loaded with sight gags. What surprised Marc was how little of that fun and humor made their way into Disneyland when it first opened.
A few years in Marc was tasked with fixing that oversight. He went to work redesigning what is today Disneyland’s most humor-focused attraction, The Jungle Cruise. The explorers climbing the pole, the overturned jeep and the wiggling hippo ears all owe their existence to Marc’s influence and design. The hilarious(ly terrible) puns that fill the ride narration came about shortly after.
The attraction remains popular over 60 years later as a result. (It has also led to the only item on my personal bucket list, lead a running of the Cruise as skipper.)
Humor has created a timeless attraction that serves as a perfect example of Mickey’s 9th Commandment of design: For Every Ounce of Treatment, Add a Ton of Fun!
This is a technique I don’t think we use nearly enough in our classrooms. Humor is free, abundant and surprisingly easy! It also has the added advantages of humanizing us and making our students feel more comfortable and welcome. The thing my students’ cite more than any other as the reason they love my class is how funny I am.
That’s not fair right? Why should I be rewarded for being born with a larger humerus than you?! Well, I wasn’t. Humor isn’t genetic, it’s learned. Here’s the secret to all humor - it subverts expectations. That’s all. You lead the audience in one direction then surprise them by going another. That’s the laugh. It really isn’t hard at all.
And the best part is, our audience is really, really easy to make laugh. Humor is harder with adults because they are more savvy at picking up the redirect but kids really aren’t. Have you ever watched the “stars” they find funny on Youtube? If not, don’t. Seriously. You’ll despite humanity just a little more when you do. Just take my word for it - they are not witty or clever. They just randomly yell and scream a lot. Why is that funny? Simple. It subverts expectations. Kids don’t expect it, it happens, they laugh and think Logan Paul is the funniest man alive.
So, start randomly screaming in your classroom. No, wait, don’t do that. Do it Disney!
On the Jungle Cruise as you approach the incredible Schweitzer Falls, which is named after the world famous explorer Dr. Falls (bam! subverted!) you are told that soon you will get a close up look at the 8th Wonder of the World. Of course, you assume that means the falls. However, as you approach, your skipper (or Dwayne the Rock Johnson in the latest Jungle Cruise trailer) announces, “here is the, the 8th wonder of the world!... the backside of water!” and your boat drives behind the falls. Such a simple joke but so much fun. You have an obvious set up, beautiful wonderful falls and the subversion - that’s not the wonder, the rarely seen backside of water is!
One of my favorite activities for this kind of redirection is my introduction to the Scientific Revolution. In it students agree or disagree with a series of scientific statements like “The sun moves around the Earth once a day. That’s why we see it rise in the morning and set at night.” By 7th grade they know the answer, well, they think they do at least. When we go over it I start with “Okay so obviously this one is easy, sun rise, blah blah blah, of course the answer is… agree.” At first they tilt their heads like confused puppies so I ask “Wait, how many of you said no?!” Most raise their hands. I act stunned. “Are you all nuts? Why would you think that?!” I get very animated with my hands and point out the sun rising, moving and setting. All the while the giggles are starting to fill the room. They expected a quick, simple, boring science survey and they are not getting that. They are getting me completely disagreeing with them and making them look foolish for believing it.
I get more absurd and out of character as I layer on the nonsense. “Okay, so, when I go on Space Mountain, which moves at only 35 miles per hour, I come off dizzy and nauseous. I’ve never woken up in the morning and been like ‘hey, hold on, I gotta go throw up all over the place because I’ve been moving at a thousand miles an hour all night!’” It’s funny because it’s absurd. It is definitely not in line with their expectations of a morning routine!
I stand on a piece of tape and say, “Okay, I’m going to jump straight up. If they Earth is spinning the tape should move and I should land somewhere else. In fact, come to think of it, that wall should SLAM into me so hard that I should explode. So, if I die right now then you’ll know you were right. Congratulations.” I take a deep breath, act very scared and jump. Not surprisingly I land in the same spot and I let out a very fake sigh of relief. The students bust up laughing. Things are not going as they expected!
This continues as we go through the remaining ideas. They laugh as I just get more and more incredulous at their responses. At the end I clarify that they were right all along. I wanted them to feel what it was like to be told something you know is right is wrong no matter how much you try to argue.
This leads into the second part of the activity where I show them a closed brown bag. I ask them to guess what is in it. I tell them what is in it and say “Ok, we scienced!” I set the bag down and move on. Immediately they ask “so, what’s in the bag?” “I JUST TOLD YOU!” They laugh again. We discuss how answering from authority was the only method of science there was. The scientific method had to be created. That’s the history of science we’re going to learn about.
I’ve hooked them, they’re in. It doesn’t matter how many of them said “Science?! Is this history?” at the beginning of the lesson (9 this year in case you were wondering…), they can’t wait to learn more. Humor does that. It makes any treatment go down more easily. So go be funny! Subvert expectations and see how hilarious you can be.
Here’s the lesson plan!
Purpose: Help students experience the difficulty faced by the first scientists as they challenged the church and established order.
-Download the Science! Presentation.
-Place an object in a brown paper bag and staple it shut. Write DO NOT TOUCH across the front of the bag. It can also be helpful to wrap the object in a paper a couple times in order to help mask the feel of it in the bag. Place the bag in the front of the classroom. Bonus points for putting a spotlight on it!
-Print copies of the Science! worksheet for each student.
Bellwork: What is science?
- Begin with a brief introduction explaining how we’ve seen how art changed in the Renaissance but other subjects did too. In the case of science, it hardly existed before the time and certainly not in the form we know it today.
- Discuss student definitions of science.
- Have students complete the first part of the Science! worksheet. Explain to them that evaluating these statements requires no actual scientific knowledge. They can all be answered based on human experience and logic. With lower ability classes I go through the ideas line by line with them as a class and discuss what they are saying.
- Begin reviewing student responses. Read the first one aloud and finish with “this is an easy one, obviously we see the sun rise in the morning and set in the evening so raise your hand if you marked yes for this one.” HOPEFULLY, only a few (or none) of your students will raise their hands. Look at them dumbfounded. Incredulously ask “What?! Then how many of you picked no?!” Most hands should go up. Act stunned, as if you can’t fathom how anyone could logically conclude that the Earth is moving. No matter their argument keep coming back to the question of why you can’t feel the Earth moving.
- This is really on you to sell it from here on out. I ask students to try to explain their position - how they could possibly think the Earth is moving. Invariably, someone will offer “it’s moving so slow you can’t feel it!” Point out that though we can argue about science and history we can’t argue about math. The Earth is over 26,000 miles around. For it to rotate once a day it would have to be moving at over 1,000 miles per hour. That’s not slow! Here’s some options to really sell it:
- Take the slowest step you possibly can. Appear shocked when you still feel your movement.
- Stand and announce you’re going to do an experiment. Explain that if they Earth is moving as fast as they say it must be then when you jump the wall should continue moving and smash into you causing you to explode. You’re willing to risk your life for science! Dramatically jump and then appear shocked when you don’t explode.
- Explain that you’ve ridden roller coasters at about 40 mph and have come off nauseous. If we’re moving 1,000 mph all the time we should just be constantly throwing up all over the place!
- Throughout the discussion remind them that you are a college educated adult and they are just kids. When they ask “Then why did my science teacher say…?” Respond with “Better question, why did you accept it? Why didn’t you ask why you can’t feel the Earth move?”
- Whenever you’re tired of arguing (or they are!) end the conversation with “Forget it. I’m right, you’re wrong, accept it! We’re moving on!”
- Go over the rest of the questions in less detail.
- When you reach the end, it's time to clarify the reasoning for the simulation. Tell students that you want to be very clear. You are well aware that the Earth is moving and the Sun is not. You wanted them to understand the position these early scientists were in. Explain that this difficulty in convincing others is what led to the development of modern science and specifically the scientific method.
- Show them the sealed brown bag and have them answer question 1 on the back of the worksheet. They wonder “What is in the bag?” That is step 1, pose a problem.
- They can then answer question 2 which is step 2, take a guess. This is NOT form a hypothesis. It is just an initial thought.
- Next, tell them what is in the bag. Don’t show them, just tell them. Then ask them to answer question 3. This simulates how pre-scientific revolution answers to mysteries just came from authority (the church) and were accepted on faith.
- Have a couple student volunteers hold the bag. They then report their findings back to the class. This simulates expert research.
- After a classwide discussion they take one more “guess” which is now their hypothesis - an informed idea.
- Now ask students to brainstorm ideas on how they could get more information about what’s in the bag without opening it. This is the experiment step.
Closing: Reveal, or don’t!, what is in the bag. It depends on the class for me. Sometimes I tell them, sometimes I make them wait until the next day. I always tell the truth though. Many are surprised I was telling the truth all along which just makes it all the more fun!