This was the highlight of the internet for me in 2016.

Why? In the first place, because it’s funny to watch people fail. That’s why “fail videos” are a thing. And this is about a big a failure as you can get. But I think there is more to it that just that.

On July 4, 2016, the day before I saw this video, I was in a small town in the American Midwest celebrating Independence Day with my family. The main event for us was a small-time magician performing with his wife. We had a great time. He was great with kids; our kids got to participate; they got to see a dozen or so magic tricks. Needless to say, my brain was relatively unoccupied, and so I had a lot of opportunities to reflect upon the cognitive gymnastics that make a magic show possible. It’s a strange event at first glance, because we all know that the laws of physics are what they are, and that the most we can hope for is to be effectively tricked. The key is a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, which creates a kind of intermediate world where we can be entertained: believing and not believing at the same time.

At one point, with his wife in the box waiting to get cut in half, our magician apologized to the audience for having forgotten some important props, and and ran to his van to get them. Now, the size of the venue and the quality of the show to that point suggested to me that he had in fact forgotten his props. But later his wife popped out of the box wearing a different outfit, which made me wonder if it wasn’t some of kind of trick for buying time. I’m still not sure which is true, which makes it that much more enjoyable.

This applies all the more to danger. At one point, our magician did the trick where he chops a carrot in half with a small guillotine, and then puts a kid’s hand in the guillotine and… somehow it turns out okay. (Actually, when you put it like that, the importance of showmanship becomes clear: without showmanship, how could it be entertaining for nothing to happen?) Now, I could see the magician futzing with the various blades of the guillotine (which is of course the only way it can work), as he shouted about how dangerous the trick was. I also saw him mute his lapel mic and whisper to his young volunteer that there was no real danger, which was sweet.

This was my cognitive context when I saw the link to this video.

The video can still bring me to tears. But why is it funny? A few weeks ago, while attending an awards ceremony in a second language (which is only slightly more boring than attending an awards ceremony in one’s native language), I gave this some thought. Here is what I came up with.

I believe all of most humor involves a reversal of expectations. There’s a study that claims that the joke below is the funniest joke in the world.

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

It’s funny, but I’m not sure it’s actually the funniest joke in the world; I think it was judged to be so because they took the trouble to ask people from around the world, and all or most of them found it to be funny. (You can think a bit about what would make a joke successful cross-culturally. It doesn’t rely on verbal humor, etc.)

Now, you could argue that the joke is funny because it’s funny to laugh at the surviving hunter, who misunderstands the instruction. But I think the joke is actually on the hearer of the joke, who doesn’t realize that there’s more than one interpretation to “First, let’s make sure he’s dead” until the joke ends. Many jokes work this way, like the one-liner Groucho Marx used in a movie to address his troops, “Some of you might not make it, and the rest of you definitely won’t.” The default assumption is that survival is the norm, though of course this is not logically necessary. And one more example I saw on Facebook recently:

An old man was getting close to death. He asked his young wife, “When I die, will you re-marry?” “Yes,” she said. “Will you cook him mantu?” he asked. “No,” she said. “Why not?” he asked. “Because he doesn’t like mantu.”

The punchline of the joke causes a reversal of expectations: that the wife is considering not just the potential of remarriage, but actually has the replacement in mind already.

(Reversal of expectations is also the key element of dramatic irony, so this has ramifications into greater topics than humor.)

So then, as a first step to explaining the humor of the magician’s video, I’ll point out that enjoying a magic show that shows an ostensibly dangerous situation involves these three real-world beliefs or commitments:

  1. A magic show is a safe place.
  2. The magician is pretending that there is danger.
  3. I decide to consciously suspend my belief in (1), and play along with (2), in order to have fun.

These all follow from my experience of a silly small-town magic show.

When the idiot magician impales the host’s hand on a nail, all of the assumptions are reversed instantaneously. We learn that in fact:

  1. The magic show is a dangerous place.
  2. The magician was oblivious to the very real danger of the situation.
  3. My original make-believe was not make-believe at all; my make-believe came true.

The sudden reversal of expectation is, I believe, what makes it a funny video. There’s further nuance to explore. For instance, the magician is “pretending” that there is a dangerous situation, while simultaneously assuring the host that he is in control. In fact, the magician’s assurances show only a lack of self-awareness, and he’s not in control at all. It’s also worth considering what exactly counts as a reversal of expectation; it’s probably more complex than mere logical negation. But this nails it down to my own satisfaction, more or less.