A new body of evidence suggests that references to film, television, and internet media will take the place of the human capacity for wit over the next fifteen years.
Wit, defined as ‘that quality of speech or writing which consists in the apt association of thought and expression, calculated to surprise and delight by its unexpectedness’, is fast losing ground in human discourse, with allusions to popular TV shows and films often taking up the slack.
One study drawing on data culled from the massive American Conversation and Humorous Faculty Project, indicates a nearly thirty percent decline in witticisms since recording began in 1978.
‘What we’re seeing is really dramatic decreases in relevant, conversation-appropriate uses of comic misdirection, irony, deadpan, bon mots—right across the board,’ said team leader Dr. Bernard Jenkins of the University of Iowa.
Dr. Jenkins added that chiasmus, a technique for exchanging words in a sentence to humorous effect (as in ‘Life imitates art far more than art imitates life’), is particularly hard-hit, with incidences in the sample group declining from a peak of twenty-six in 1982 to a paltry three in 2007.
On this scale, and given the current growth pattern, they say, many of us could live to see the extinction of spontaneous humor, the kind not professionally written, performed, and mass-marketed.
When pressed to provide possible causes for the dramatic comedic downturn, the researchers were more hesitant.
‘Obviously, we don’t want to make any bold pronouncements as to the larger social causes of this phenomenon,’ said Dr. Maurice Trilling of the University of Pennsylvania, a partner in the study. ‘But it seems clear that the increasing propagation of media has played a decisive role in transforming the way we converse.’
‘The Simpsons alone can be directly credited with a five or six percent decline,’ added Dr. Trilling.
To collect the information, researchers observed and recorded the conversations of the sample group on a randomly generated basis.
‘In the early data…we had the occasional incidence of Monty Python mugging, some Woody Allen-style relationship chatter, even the occasional invocation of a George Carlin bit,’ observed Dr. Jenkins. ‘Nowadays it’s more or less vital that you know what is meant when someone talks about being ‘master of their domain’ or sings ‘It’s business time’.
Although some effort is made to associate the current, real-life situation with the line of dialogue from, say, popular eighties films like Back to the Future or Die Hard, in most cases the connection is at best tenuous.
‘What we’re finding is whole conversations replaced with quotations, back and forth, often with no clear relevance to each other,’ noted Dr. Trilling. ‘People act like it’s worth saying somehow, or that it actually applies to the situation.’
‘It seems likely that it’ll only get worse, and that at an exponential rate,’ Dr. Trilling added. ‘For the under-25 set, the phrase ‘And then it cuts back to Jon Stewart’ tends to occur at least once a week.’