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This edition: Season 2, Episode 7: "Inside Out"

Episode Details

Original tape date: January 26, 2016.

First aired: April 29, 2016.

In episode #207 of Science Goes to the Movies, comedian, actor, and author Lewis Black joins the show to talk about Disney’s animated film Inside Out – in which he voices the role of “Anger” – and the science of comedy.

To start, Black talks about the preparation, or lack thereof, that went into playing the role. The emotional experience of sadness is contrasted with that of anger, and the effect of different environments on how we experience either is considered. The film’s use of colors to help communicate to children the sense of each emotion is discussed next, as well as how the film helps give young people a language to discuss emotions.

Next Dr. Berlin and Black talk about the connection between humor and sadness, and the phenomenon of laughter leading to tears. A rare condition called “Pathological Laughing and Crying Disorder,” caused by a brain lesion or problem with brain connectivity, is carefully described. The way in which emotion is often identified – after it has occurred – based on an interpretation of the environment or circumstance that brought about the emotion is explained. Therapy is contrasted with this common way of experiencing emotions as an opportunity to take control over what one is feeling.

Black then shares his insights on the importance of silence in comedy, and how it affects a comedian’s ability to time his or her punch line most effectively. Jack Benny’s work is discussed as an example of expert comedic timing. Black talks about his initial fear of silence, how he recognized the power and danger of it, and how he learned to get more comfortable with it.

Dr. Berlin talks about the application of the “Incongruity Theory” to comedy, wherein the brain recognizes a pattern that creates anticipation of something that the comedian then subverts, or delivers in a way that is different from what the pattern predicted. The dopamine rush of surprise is explained, and how the brain craves what is not expected. Black discusses the way in which, when the pattern is well enough created, the punch line itself becomes unnecessary and the laughter comes before it.

Studies of the neurochemistry of people as they enjoy comedy are discussed, as well as the various chemical phases that occur as they perceive the humor and then laugh. This process differs for men and women. Also explored is the effect this has on the neurochemistry of the comedian as he or she is performing.

Dr. Berlin and Black then tackle the question of whether comedy can help to break down deep-rooted biases within people. Black talks about having to put such priorities aside in order to do the work of being funny while Berlin offers a more hopeful view of how comedy can change people for the better by exposing them to a violation of the social norms in a palliative, enjoyable way. Black shares a personal story about his father’s connection with theater, and how it ultimately challenged, then altered, his view of people of a different race than his own.

Finally, the co-hosts and Black look at the way people’s sense of the obscene has changed over the years through comedy.


Written and Produced by Lisa Beth Kovetz.

Science Goes to the Movies is made possible by generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Guest List

Lewis Black Playwright/Comedian/Political Commentator