How many philosophers does it take to explain a joke? Quite a few, as it turns out. And not only philosophers. Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have exerted themselves to explain exactly what makes people laugh. Although everybody understands intuitively what humor is, the concept of humor is still elusive, being difficult to define in a way that encompasses all of its facets.
Humor may evoke a sly grin or it may detonate explosive laughter. It might be conveyed through words or images or actions. We find it in in a vast array of situations, including photos, interpersonal encounters, articles, and skits. It takes on a wide range of forms, from knock-knock jokes to slapstick physical comedy to puns to double entendre.
There is humor in which the joker deprecates himself or herself, such as Oscar Levant’s quip, “Under this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character” or British politician Boris Johnson’s statement after having been demoted in Parliament: “My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”
Conversely, there is humor that deprecates other persons or social groupings. Consider Dorothy Parker’s wit directed against one of her contemporaries: “The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature.” Or, Roger Kimball’s wit directed against America’s scholarly class who consider themselves independent minds but are “huddled together in bovine complacency, mooing ankle-deep in its own effluvia, safe within its gated enclosure.”
In thus recognizing the considerable diversity on offer when it comes to humor, many intellectuals and comedians have drawn conclusions about the essence of humor. With that in mind, this post will explore seven of those theories, offering examples that confirm the theory and examples that call that theory in question. Finally, it will offer an alternative—theological—explanation of the essence of humor.
Here are seven of the most prominent theories about humor:
1. The Superiority Theory
Some theorists, including philosophers Plato, Thomas Hobbes, and Roger Scruton, believe the essence of humor is its ability to bring laughter to the masses but shame for whoever is the butt of the joke. Thus, according to this theory humor rides on its ability to make a portion of the audience feel superior to another person or group of people. For example: “If you were any dumber, you’d have to be watered twice a week.”
However, this theory doesn’t quite work because, just as we are able to win competitions without necessarily gaining a feeling of superiority, we are able to tell and hear jokes without necessarily feeling superior to the person who is the butt of the jokes. For example: “Police were called to a daycare, where a three-year-old was resisting a rest.”
2. The Incongruity-Resolution Theory
Some theorists, including philosophers Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Soren Kierkegaard, believed that the essence of humor is found in pointing out incongruities. Other philosophers have revised the theory to say that the essence of humor is the resolution of an incongruity. For example: “I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.” Or, Groucho Marx’s quip: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
Yet, not all reinterpreted incongruities are humorous; conversely there are good examples of humor that doesn’t involve the resolution of an incongruity. For example: “A man at the dinner table dipped his hands in the mayonnaise and then ran them through his hair. When his friend looked astonished, the man apologized: “I’m so sorry. I’m quite embarrassed. I thought it was spinach.’”
3. The Benign Violation Theory
Some recent theorists, such as Thomas Veatch, argue that the essence of humor is the non-threatening violation of some type of norm—moral law, social codes, linguistic norms, or similar. For example: As Demitri Martin once quipped: “I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Unless you’re at a funeral.”
And, while this theory accounts for a large percentage of jokes, it’s too broad and non-specific to be a good theory. There are plenty of benign violations—such as a person who smokes indoors—that aren’t funny at all; further, there are plenty of violations that are a bit malicious rather than being perfectly benign. For example: “Donald Trump said he was running for president as a Republican. That’s funny, because I thought he was running as a joke.” Or, “A man was walking in the woods and came to a cottage where the walls were covered with clocks. He asked the woman who owned the cottage what all the clocks were for. She replied that everyone in the world had a clock, and every time you told a lie your clock advanced a second. He saw a clock that was hardly moving, and when he remarked about that he was told that it was Mother Teresa’s. He then asked where Bill Clinton’s clock was. The woman replied, ‘It’s in the kitchen—we’re using it as a ceiling fan.’”
4. The Mechanical Theory
Some theorists, including philosopher Henri Bergson, argue that humor’s essence is found in the enduring and predictable personality traits of individuals or groupings of people. And it is true that much humor involves laughter at the personality traits of persons such as Dwight Schrute, Ron Swanson, or Cousin Eddie. For example, Dwight Schrute: “Whenever I’m about to do something, I think, ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if they would, I do not do that thing.” Or, Ron Swanson: ““There’s only one thing I hate more than lying: skim milk. Which is water that’s lying about being milk.” Finally, Cousin Eddie: “”Yep, that there is an Rrrr-Veee. I borrowed it off a buddy of mine. He took my house, I took the RV. It’s a good-looking vehicle, ain’t it?”
Yet, many of our ingrained habits are not funny; is it really humorous that a person drinks 3 Diet Cokes each day? Or that another person checks his email whenever he wakes up in the middle of the night? Conversely, some jokes do not involve enduring personality traits at all. For example: “Email is the happy medium between male and female.”
5. The Release Theory
Some theorists, including psychologist Sigmund Freud and philosopher Herbert Spencer, have argued that the essence of humor is its ability to produce a “release” that helps us with pent up sexual or aggressive tensions. For example, as Jim Gaffigan quipped: “The worst is when you ask someone on a date and they turn you down. ‘Cause what they’re really saying is, ‘you know what? I don’t even feel like eating a free meal around you.’”
Yet, many dramatic surprises are not humorous, and perhaps many people find that humor does nothing to help their sexual or aggressive tensions. For example, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.”
6. The Evolutionary Theory
Some theorists, including philosopher Daniel Dennett, argue that humor’s essence is its ability to help us evolve. Some evolutionary theorists argue that jokes help us to see how often we have interpreted the world wrongly based on false premises and forms of reasoning. For example: “I was wondering why the Frisbee was getting bigger, and then it hit me.”
Yet, some revelations of fallacious reasoning aren’t humorous; conversely some humorous jokes don’t reveal that we’ve interpreted the world wrongly. For example: “”Every time Catherine revved up the microwave, I’d p*** my pants and forget who I was for about half an hour or so.”
7. Defense Mechanism Theory
Some theorists, such as psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant and psychologist Samuel Janus, argue that humor is a defense mechanism. Under this view, there are certain ideas and feelings that are generally painful to think about or talk about, but jokes allow us to address such ideas and feelings in a way that brings a measure of pleasure. It allows us to explore the absurdity of an event or idea, to “call a spade a spade,” in ways that feel existentially and socially acceptable. For example, consider: a person sentenced to death, who after breakfast and on the way to the execution exclaims to the cook: “That’s a good way of starting a week!”
Yet, some jokes don’t alleviate pain. For example: “The past, present and future walk into a bar. It was tense.”
A Theological Explanation: The Redemption Theory
Legend has it that shortly after Adam was created, he complained: “‘O, Lord! You have given the lion fierce teeth and claws, and the elephant formidable tusks; you have given the deer swiftness of legs, and the turtle a protective shell; you have given the birds of flight wings, but you have left me altogether defenseless.’ And the Lord said unto Adam: ‘I shall give you an invisible weapon that will serve you and your children better than any weapons of fight or flight, a power that will save you even from yourself. I shall give you the sense of humor.’”
The redemption theory holds that humor’s essence is found in humanity’s amused perception of ambiguity and incongruence, but also in God’s provision of humor as something that helps us deal with disorder, ambiguity, and pain that exist in a fallen world. As sociologist Peter Berger writes, humanity itself ‘is in a state of comic discrepancy with respect to the order of the universe’ (33). We perceive that things are not as we wish them to be, nor even as they should be, and can find humor in the disjuncture.
The Bible’s narrative opens by declaring that God created the world good but quite quickly the narrative takes a dark turn as we learn that human sin and idolatry have twisted his world toward bad ends. Thus, whereas, the world in its original condition was marked by order and human flourishing, the world in its fallen condition is marked by disorder and human suffering. And, while that disorderedness, or incongruity, is not funny on the large scale, moments of laughter can be found on the micro-scale.
Consider the Wisdom writer’s declaration that, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit withers the bones” (17:22). Or, Robert Frost’s aversion that, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” Yet again, Mahatma Gandhi’s sober realization, “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”
Thus, the capacity for humor is both a gift from God and a unique characteristic of humanity. It is universally human. It can salve wounds by reminding us that there is relief from temporary suffering. It can signal transcendence. And it can serve as a preview of the future, reminding us that one day there will be permanent relief from the realities of living in a fallen world. As Tolkien reminded his readers, there is a day when everything sad will come untrue.
Well. This article is too long already. Perhaps you’ve already fallen asleep amidst this onslaught of sentences, like a hamster swimming in a bucket of Thorazine. But if you haven’t yet dozed off, and you wish to explore the matter of humor in more depth, stay tuned for the next installments, which will further explore the phenomenon of humor and its redemptive significance.
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Several groans and chuckles. I am looking forward to the next installment.