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Humour & its Theories

Updated: May 4, 2021




Something that is or is designed to be comical or amusing.

“Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”

~ E B White and Katharine S White

There are many theories of humour which attempt to explain what humour is, what social functions it serves, and what would be considered humorous.

1. Superiority Theory

The general idea is that humour arises from a feeling a superiority over someone/community. According to Aristotle, we laugh at inferior or ugly individuals, because we feel a joy at feeling superior to them and it’s based either on the inadequacies of group, or a deviation from the norm within society.

Immanuel Kant, the german philosopher thinks that there is a place for harmless teasing. In addition, philosopher of humour Noël Carroll observes that in the act of narrating a joke, the person making the joke (momentarily and harmlessly) feels superior to his audience.

2. Relief Theory

Relief theory maintains that laughter is a biologically balancing mechanism by which psychological tension is reduced. Humour may thus, for example, serve to facilitate relief of the tension caused by one's fears. Humour, according to relief theory, is used mainly to overcome sociocultural inhibitions and reveal suppressed desires.

3. Benign Violation Theory

It claims that humour occurs when three conditions are satisfied:

1) something threatens one's sense of how the world "ought to be",

2) the threatening situation seems benign, and

3) a person sees both interpretations at the same time.

As humans evolved, the situations that elicit humour likely expanded from physical threats to other violations, including violations of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, teasing), linguistic norms (e.g., puns, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., strange behaviours, risqué jokes), and even moral norms (e.g., disrespectful behaviours).

4. Incongruity Theory

It states that humour is perceived at the moment of realisation of incongruity (lack of harmony) between a concept and the real objects in a given situation.

Since the main point of the theory is not the incongruity per se, but its realisation and resolution it is often called the incongruity-resolution theory.

Søren Kierkegaard, a danish philosopher and often called the founder of existentialism, saw humour as based on incongruity and as philosophically significant. In his discussion of the “three spheres of existence,” (the three existential stages of life—the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious), he discusses humor and its close relative, irony. Irony marks the boundary between the aesthetic and the ethical spheres, while humor marks the boundary between the ethical and religious spheres. “Humor is the last stage of existential awareness before faith”.

5. Henri Bergson's Theory on Laughter

Bergson arrived at three general observations for the conditions under which laughter is most likely to appear and thrive:

- The comic does not exist outside the pale (boundaries) of what is strictly human

- Laughter has no greater foe than emotion (certain emotional states like pity, melancholy, rage, fear etc make it difficult to find humour)

- Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo (social bonding)

Bergson arrived at a ‘leitmotiv’, a common thread uniting various forms of comedy: in general, we laugh at ‘something mechanical encrusted on the living’. Living is something flexible and dynamic, and mechanical is something rigid. This is true for animal/human bodies and bodies of languages wherein puns and witticisms expose its material limits and the mechanical rigidity.

6. Detection of Mistaken Reasoning

Humour evolved because it strengthens the ability of the brain to find mistakes in active belief structures, that is, to detect mistaken reasoning. This is somewhat consistent with the sexual selection theory, because, as stated above, humour would be a reliable indicator of an important survival trait: the ability to detect mistaken reasoning.

7. Sexual Selection Theory

It proposes that human characteristics like humour evolved by sexual selection. It argues that humour emerged as an indicator of other traits that were of survival value, such as human intelligence. Pick up lines are a latest example of this theory.

8. Ontic-Epistemic Theory

Normal human cognition is subjective and anthropomorphic, which is to say people are all but incapable of seeing external reality without re-interpreting it according to their values, beliefs and judgements.

The comic then, that which causes laughter, according to this theory, is the perception of an ‘unravelling of the seams’ between external facts, intuitive notions and cultural concepts, all of which are normally levelled and rendered equivalent in anthropomorphic perception.

Social being and material fact have different criteria for truth and falsehood, and this is what is revealed by the comic.

Laughter, then, is an instinctive reaction to an epistemological checkmate, in particular an event which shatters and fragments perceptions into the different ontic classes of objects that normally comprise them.

9. Defense Mechanism Theory

Humour is a defense mechanism that deals with overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) that gives pleasure to others. Humour, which explores the absurdity inherent in any event, enables someone to call a spade a spade.

10. General Theory of Verbal Humour

6 levels of independent Knowledge Resources could be used to model individual verbal jokes as well as analyze the degree of similarity or difference between them. The Knowledge Resources proposed in this theory are:

1. Script opposition (SO) includes, among others, themes such as real (unreal), actual (non-actual), normal (abnormal), possible (impossible).

2. Logical mechanism (LM) refers to the mechanism which connects the different scripts in the joke.

3. Situation (SI) can include objects, activities, instruments, props needed to tell the story.

4. Target (TA) identifies the actor(s) who become the "butt" of the joke.

5. Narrative strategy (NS)

6. Language (LA)

"Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwich around your body." - George Carlin


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