​Play, Humor, and Joy in Great Apes​

  • TWCF Number:


  • Project Duration:

    September 1, 2018 - August 31, 2021

  • Core Funding Area:

    Big Questions

  • Priority:

    Diverse Intelligences

  • Region:

    North America

  • Amount Awarded:


Director: Erica A. Cartmill

Institution: The Regents of the University of California

One ape offers an item to another—then snatches it away at the last second. Does either ape find it funny, even joyful?

In her earlier work on orangutan gesture, Erica Cartmill noticed behavior that was part of a complex, multi-step game. In this project, Cartmill will investigate whether this game—and similar social play—should be considered a “proto-joke.”

Humor is a complex, elusive phenomenon. It involves understanding others’ mental states and recognizing violations of typical rules of interaction. Deviations from the ordinary are central to the human experience of humor. Do apes create and appreciate similar moments of incongruity? And do those moments represent a form of humor?

Cartmill will study the presence, perception, and effects of spontaneous joking games in orangutans and bonobos in three different contexts (zoo, sanctuary, and language-trained).

Apes are excellent candidates in the search for non-human humor: they laugh, play with objects together, and have relatively sophisticated understandings of the expectations and knowledge of others. The project will have three parts:
(1) identifying potential instances of humor in the spontaneous interactions of apes and developing rigorous coding criteria for these events;
(2) testing apes’ appreciation for these events by measuring their viewing preferences across video of different types of social interactions;
(3) exploring the role of potentially humorous interactions in social bonding.

While this work focuses on apes, it will generate coding criteria and experimental designs that can be applied to other social species. It will also produce a video corpus for study by the Diverse Intelligences community. Cartmill’s methods will help researchers recognize joking behavior and the experience of humor in the diverse intelligences that fill our planet.


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