Cover Story

When Howard Stern announced that he was leaving terrestrial radio for Sirius Satellite Radio in October 2004, the fledgling satellite radio provider had 600,000 subscribers. By April, four months after Stern made the switch, Sirius boasted more than 4 million subscribers.

On any given day a significant portion of those listeners tune in to hear Stern's take on politics, news and the entertainment world, laced with jokes about the size of producer Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate's teeth, co-host Artie Lang's excessive eating habits and Stern's ongoing legal battle with CBS Radio.

And each day, as Stern chaffs about flatulence and interviews porn stars, Sirius's number of subscribers continues to rise.

Why do so many pay $12.95 a month to tune in? The show provides listeners with a sense of belonging and makes them feel as though they are in on the joke, according to psychologist Gary Fine, PhD, of Northwestern University. Moreover, the more the jokes reference past gags and previous broadcasts, the more listeners feel clued in to the shared experience, he adds.

"Referential in-jokes are a way for a group to specify that they belong together and understand what is funny," he says, suggesting that the phenomenon of radio hosts like Stern and Rush Limbaugh is due to their ability to make listeners feel a part of a shared community.

Radio talk show hosts' ribbing on themselves and their colleagues is just one way that humor works as a social lubricant; it's capable of, among other things, breaking the ice with strangers and boosting office morale, Fine and other researchers are finding.

Feeling in the know

While in-jokes can help people feel a part of group, friends, co-workers and others can also use them to exert norms, Fine says. And when a person is unaware of those implicit rules, the situation can be anxiety-provoking, he adds. For instance, a spouse-to-be must learn to toe the line between what the in-laws consider funny versus taboo.

Groups can also use pranks and gags to gauge a new member's allegiance to the group's goals. In a 2005 article in Humor (Vol. 18, No. 1, pages 1-22), Fine observed the Minnesota Mycological Society, a group of mushroom hunters largely composed of men in their 30s and women in their 50s and 60s. When two new members joined the group, two men dyed a white Clitocybe mushroom with purple food coloring. When the new members found the dyed mushroom, the group stood around watching while they fruitlessly attempted to identify the species for half an hour before the pranksters finally admitted their gag. Years later, the group members continued to nostalgically recall the prank and show a photo of the purple mushroom in slide shows at club events.

Such pranks, Fine suggests, allow the society's members to assert the importance of trusting each others' judgments of mushroom species, but in a seemingly harmless manner.

"The prank examined whether the group could trust the new members to pick nonpoisonous mushrooms," he says. "But they did it in a way that shows that they were 'not serious' and only kidding around."

In the workplace, effective managers and their employees also can use humor as a tool to spark a desired effect, according to sociolinguistics researcher Janet Holmes, a professor at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.

In a 2000 article in Discourse Studies (Vol. 2, No. 2, pages 159-185), Holmes examined three years of tape-recorded workplace meetings and discussions in four New Zealand government agencies. She found that humor was often used to soften unpalatable news or information.

"An effective communicator can use a joke to get their serious message or direction across while maintaining good relations," she says.

She also found that employees who worked in workplaces and teams that featured humor were more likely to feel allegiance to their group. "They felt humor made them special and more engaged in their work," she says, adding that humor lightened the workplace mood. "It made working fun."

Humor is attractive

Along with the fun comes a sense of closeness, says psychologist Arthur Aron, PhD, of Stony Brook University of the State University of New York.

In a 2004 Personal Relationships (Vol. 11, No. 1, pages 61-78) article, Aron had 96 undergraduates pair off with a stranger to toss and catch a ball four times, and then bounce the ball on both sides of their partner.

The researchers told one group to take the task seriously, but instructed one participant in the other group to hold a straw between his or her teeth while blindfolded. Aron found that participants in the latter condition were far more likely to laugh about the task and, as a result, were more likely to report feeling close to their partner afterward.

"People naturally want to connect with others, but are often anxious," he says. "Humor breaks the ice and distracts from that discomfort."

In fact, for men humor may help attract the opposite sex, according to a 2006 Evolution and Human Behavior (Vol. 27, No. 1, pages 29-39) study by evolutionary psychologist Sigal Balshine, PhD, of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, and graduate student Eric Bressler.

In the study, 202 undergraduates viewed photographs of similarly attractive people of the opposite gender, who had seemingly authored funny or unfunny statements. The researchers found that women were far more likely to rate the photographs of men as a desirable relationship partner if their statements were funny. The researchers found no effect for men preferring funny women, which may suggest that although men cite their desire for a sense of humor in a mate, they are actually seeking someone who appreciates their humor, says Balshine.

Balshine suggests that evolution may be behind the effect (see "The anatomy of funny"), because humor may cue intelligence and compatibility--desirable characteristics in a mate.

Balshine hopes that the study shines some light on the puzzle of how people select mates, as well as friends and colleagues.

"We like people who can make us laugh," she says.

And that predilection for laughing with others seems to hold up as a reason that listeners tune in to Stern and Limbaugh.