Archive for July, 2013


On Humor Theory


The past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes us laugh. We can describe specific jokes or hijinks that are funny, but it is often difficult to explain why they are funny. I’ve heard one person say, “Humor is surprise. It contradicts our expectations.” But that doesn’t explain why tragedy isn’t funny. I guess you could add an addendum to the explanation – “humor is pleasant surprise.” But I still consider the definition to be ambiguous.

We all know what isn’t funny. But it seems humanity is in disagreement as to what is funny. Much of that can be chalked up to cultural differences, and after all, culture is simply an extension of language (a system of shared signs and symbols) so that is a logical distinction. But I still think there must be an explanation for laughter. It isn’t accidental, and it isn’t overtly specific.

Another definition I’ve heard used to explain humor is “Tragedy + Time = A Good Laugh.” Again, I think this fails in scope. Real tragedies never get funny. There has to be something else. To really define humor, I’m going to step to the left of the main body of this text and talk a little about time.

Philosophically speaking, I’m very interested in time. Time is the key invention of God’s that has the most direct impact on how we experience the universe. For newbies, this is how it works: time is the Fourth Dimension upon which our consciousness runs. It has a direct association with gravity in that the closer you are to a gravity source the faster time moves. This is such a concern that Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) are programmed with internal clocks that run a few milliseconds faster than their equivalent clocks on earth. Thus, when the satellites go into orbit, their clocks will slow down to a speed that corresponds to the clocks on the earth’s surface.

Time is the very thing that makes all process possible. So we must now ask ourselves, what requires process? Let’s get some obvious ones out of the way: life, music, seasons, story.  Some less obvious ones might be: chemical reactions, movement, choice, learning, seeing/hearing, language, burning, and slipping on a banana peel.  Which reminds me of the Mel Brooks quote, “drama is when I cut myself shaving, humor is when someone falls down a manhole and dies.”  By his definition, both drama and humor would require time.

Most people who study humor know that a key element is the subversion of expectations.  Hence the traditional emphasis on surprise.  You can probably see where I’m going with this.

If humor requires expectations, then it also requires a relationship.  Someone must have a given anticipation of reality in order for their anticipation to be turned on its head.  This is where the relationship between time and story seems to naturally result in humor.  As established, story requires, process, therefore story requires time.  Time requires gravity, too, so later you can thank the earth’s mass for your ability to laugh.

There’s something else to the nature of surprise that people don’t seem to have picked up on.  I’m talking about discovery.  Discovery is our inherent response to surprise.  Its the next step we take after realizing something new.  Think of the first time you tried an amazing dessert.  As you discovered its taste and texture, and you suddenly knew something about the world that you didn’t know before.  Remember the last time a piece of music stopped you in your tracks.  Wasn’t there just something about the rhythm and melody that spoke a truth you felt you always knew?  I think that’s another big lesson here: truth feels familiar.

I’ve often thought of life’s choices as being a series of counter-navigations toward some sense of stability.  The beginnings of life are so terrifying and disorienting, that I think nearly all life can be seen as a grasp for stability and security.  I think that discovery of the world around us through the Arts, Faith, and Sciences, is what keeps us re-orienting ourselves toward the cosmic reality we call “Truth.”

And that seems to be where humor fits in.  The process of surprise and discovery can be a painful one.  But with any new life experience there is a sense of growth.  I believe that humor represents our ability to take joy in our own growth.  Any joke requires a respondent (the relationship mentioned above) and the respondent must be invested in the world of the joke in order to have expectations concerning it.  Rhythm creates expectation, and through rhythm you can subvert expectation.  That subversion leads to surprise, which leads to discovery, which if pleasant enough, leads to joy.

I think this also betrays to us why some things don’t strike us as funny.  Suppose the audience for a joke doesn’t share the same language as that which the joke was written in.  That’s a relationship quality that undercuts the ability to communicate truth.  At the very least, the premise of the joke must exist within a world that shares symbols and meanings with the world of the audience.  It is only when new ideas are introduced into the world that our sense of discovery really kicks in.  Think of this line from the Woody Allen film Manhattan, “I think people should mate for life – like pigeons or Catholics.”  Now think about your thought process as you put that sentence together in your head.  The gag is very simple.  Two things are associated based on their sexual activity.  But by any other association, they are significantly dissimilar.  This single sentence expands the audience’s definitions of “pigeon” and “Catholic” by associating the two together.  We hear the line, we confirm in our heads the logic that got him there, and we declare “Eureka!  Truth hath presented itself before me!”

I believe that humor is related to truth, but not always to facts.  Remember that the difference between the two is that truth is independent of the knower.  Good humor takes something that is true about ourselves, and exaggerates it just enough that we can see how ridiculous we really are.  Laughter is the byproduct of discovering joy.