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Many comedians claim that you can't learn to be funny. 'Either you're born funny or you're not. No amount of practice or learning will change that.'

It goes against pretty much every other creative/artistic field. Artists are generally insulted if you suggest that they were born with talent, as it assumes that they didn't practice for hundreds of hours. Yet when it comes to comedy, experts claim that it's not something you can learn.

I understand that neurologically we aren't born the same, but is there any proof that humor is genetics and not something you can learn?

EDIT: And as OddThinking suggested below, how important is environmental factors?

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Before I start, I want to unpick some assumptions that appear in the question, that are common in nature-versus-nurture questions.

When you ask "is there any proof that humor is genetics and not something you can learn?" you are introducing two false dichotomies.

The firstly is that it suggests that an attribute is either 100% genetics or 0% genetics. That ignores the common option that genetics may account for some, but not all, of the variability.

Secondly, it ignores other effects - such environmental factors, and personal factors unrelated to training.

Epigenetics are another confusing factor that undermines the either-or nature.


A good way to evaluate whether an attribute has a strong genetic component is to use twin studies. If there is a strong genetic component, we would expect that identical twins would have a more similar expression of the attribute than fraternal twins.

Using twins means that most of the confounding factors, such as upbringing, education and socioeconomic factors are close to identical.

This study evaluated 127 pairs of female twins at their response to cartoons.

They found that sisters tended to have correlated responses, but identical twin sisters did not have higher correlations.

This pattern of correlations suggests that shared environment rather then genetic effects contributes to cartoon appreciation. Multivariate model-fitting confirmed that these data were best explained by a model that allowed for the contribution of the shared environment and random environmental factors, but not genetic effects.

Assuming that evaluation of cartoons has a reasonably strong correlation to the ability to produce comedy, it seems that there is not a strong genetic component.

However, shared environment has an effect. This does not prove or disprove that training in comedy can help. It only disproves that one is born funny genetically.

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  • Thanks for your answer! Very interesting. You're right about my question not addressing the other potentional cause: environmental factors. The study you've cited is really insightful. I'm curious now though, if a reaction to comedy effects the ability to deliver comedy yourself? Anyone know? Thanks again! Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 21:52
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    @glen-the-udderboat has pointed out: Because the experimenters explicitly limited the sample to females, this result doesn't include any genetic effects offered by the Y sex-chromosome.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 13:36
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    It's a good answer, but I think your second from the bottom paragraph basically makes this whole study useless to the OP. What does the response to consuming cartoons have to do with comedic talent?
    – user5341
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 17:03
  • @DVK: Interesting. I see it as an intrinsic/highly-correlated/necessary part to being funny, but I have to concede I left that as an assumption and haven't provided references to support it. Hoist by my own petard?
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 22:50
  • @Oddthinking - well, I would have commented on that independently of whether your answer stated it (actually that was my first comment, I didn't notice the paragraph before posting it)
    – user5341
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 23:49

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