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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 doesn’t 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) one’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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 other functions.

So what is humor? We still don’t 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 the piece.


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