What Is Humor?
We know from research that laughing at jokes is good for us.
We know that most people have a sense of humor. Most of us can
even agree (to some extent) about what is funny and what isn't.
But what is humor?
It fails to fit neatly into any one explanation or definition.
In fact, one dictionary defines humor as "something that
is or is designed to be comical," and then defines comical
as "causing laughter especially because of a startlingly
or unexpectedly humorous impact ." When we get that circular
in our explanations it is as though we are simply saying "we
know it when we see it."
The superiority theory of humor says that a person laughs
about misfortunes of others to assert the person's superiority.
This idea goes all the way back to Aristotle. The obvious problem
here is that not all humor is at other people's expense (think
of puns, for example).
The Ontic-Epistemic Theory of Humor sees laughter is a reaction
to a cognitive impasse, a momentary epistemological difficulty.
Though there is much more to the theory, it still doesnt
seem sufficient because much of what we would call "low
brow" humor does not involve epistemological difficulty
or cognitive impasses.
Geoffrey Miller, and evolutionary psychologist, thinks that
since humor would have had no direct survival value to early
humans, it may have evolved by sexual selection. He suggests
that humor could have been an indicator of other traits that
were of survival value, such as intelligence. The low-intelligence
requirement of some humor (for creating or understanding it)
leaves at least that part of this theory lacking.
Researchers A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren developed the
benign violation theory (BVT), about what makes something funny.
According to this theory humor occurs when three conditions are
met: 1) ones sense of how things "ought to be"
is threatened 2) the situation that threatens is benign, and
3) the person sees both interpretations simultaneously. This
makes sense when we think of tickling or teasing or otherwise
playfully "attacking" a person. But the theory clearly
only addresses certain types of humor, like slapstick.
Finally, the incongruity theory of humor says that the realization
and resolution of incongruity between concepts is what makes
us laugh. This one goes back to Immanuel Kant at least, and seems
to make the most sense. Jokes in the form of stories that disobey
conventional expectations are an obvious example. A funny face
is humorous because we dont expect a face to look like
that. A pun is using a word in an incongruous way. Virtually
all humor has an element on incongruity.
The incongruity theory really only explains what it takes
to create humor. It does not explain why it should make us laugh
to see or hear incongruous things. In that sense it does not
answer the question of what is humor - although it might lead
to formulas for creating humor.
Finally, there is another question here that is not usually
addressed. Is laughter inherently connected to humor? It doesnt
seem to be. We laugh out of sheer joy at times, or from tickling.
Other animals, such as gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans
also laugh. These animals, like us, laugh due to tickling and
play-fighting. Unlike us, they do not have the language necessary
to make jokes. They do sometimes seem to be practical jokers,
which is verging on a humor that is closer to our own. In any
case, it seems that laughter predates what we would call humor,
and though it is a common response to funny things, it also serves
So what is humor? We still dont have an answer. But
the following page: How to be
Funny can help you create humor as a mental exercise - as
long as you can tolerate the lame jokes that resulted as I wrote