Fiona McCade: Trouble with funny equals sexy formula

Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider are seen in a scene from the film The Last Tango In Paris. Picture: AP
Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider are seen in a scene from the film The Last Tango In Paris. Picture: AP
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IMAGINE if Laurel and Hardy had never existed, and instead we’d had Brando and Dean.

Think about it: Marlon, in his cool white vest, chewing on a matchstick, thumping his partner and saying: “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into, Jimmy!” Doesn’t quite work, does it?

However, according to new research from the University of Stirling, Brando and Dean should have had us rolling in the aisles, because the more beautiful a person is, the funnier we think they are.

I know, I know, this discovery flies in the face of everything we’ve always thought, and will destroy the reproductive hopes of many an ugly-but-witty guy, but first let me explain the experiment.

Psychologists from Stirling filmed some young male volunteers being spontaneously amusing. They also took still photos and made audio-only recordings of these appearances.

A panel of 11 “judges” then listened to the audio and rated each volunteer for comedic value. Then they looked at the photos and rated them for attractiveness. Finally, they watched the videos. The results showed that many volunteers who were considered only averagely funny when merely being heard, scored much more highly after their photograph was judged to be “attractive”. Technically, the volunteers couldn’t be funnier on video than they were on audio because it was the same soundtrack, but once the judges could see how cute they were, they suddenly became infinitely more hilarious.

Or did they? Although I hate to disagree with any Scottish-based science, I must point out that the methodology here is a tad flawed.

For a start, can anyone answer these two questions: 1) What is funny? and, 2) What is attractive? Until the world can reach a definitive consensus on both subjects, there’s no way of controlling the experiment. For instance, I’d say that Russell Brand is neither of those things, but there may be one or two people out there who might disagree – Brand and Brand’s mum, perhaps.

Even if I could decide for myself how good looking the men in this experiment were, I still couldn’t be sure. Did they seem funny because they were handsome, or did the fact that they were funny make them seem more handsome?

The only way to measure the true rib-tickling quotient of the volunteers would have been to make them all tell the same jokes. At least that way, there would have been a level-playing field in the humour department. Even so, if Johnny Depp told Frankie Boyle’s most unbroadcastable gags, would everyone indulge him just because he’s got nice cheekbones?

If handsome is as funny does, then famously gorgeous men should be able to make us howl with laughter at the twitch of an eyebrow, yet this seldom happens. There’s a reason they didn’t re-make the Three Stooges with Damon, Pitt and Clooney.

On the other hand, I know for sure that Bill Murray is an utterly brilliant comedian, because although I don’t fancy him at all, I could watch him for hours. Ergo, it’s his intellect and personality that enthrall me, unencumbered by distractions of the flesh. And yet, precisely because he is so brilliant, he has a certain something that makes me think impure thoughts. Ooh … now I’m confused.

Take Dylan Moran, for example – is he definitely handsome, or do I just think he is because he makes me laugh so much? Or is it that the funnier he is, the better looking he gets? Is that how it works?

When ordinary people imbue attractive people with qualities they don’t possess, simply because they are overwhelmed by their loveliness, we call it the halo effect, and this seems to have occurred during the experiment at Stirling. It’s a recognised phenomenon, but it’s not a good enough reason to say that handsome men are always going to win the war of wit.

Suggesting that being beautiful makes people funnier goes against all experience and logic. Would Woody Allen’s star have burned so bright if he’d been able to rely on his looks? In comedy double-acts, is the weird-looking one ever the straight man? And if you’re still not convinced, think of Frankie Howerd saying: “Ooh, no missus!”, and then imagine Sean Connery saying: “Titter ye not!”

Is that nearly as funny?

Actually, you know, it is.