Thursday, May 29, 2003
What makes things funny?
It seems like such a simple question that it must have a simple answer. But, I don’t think that there is one simple answer. I’ve always been considered funny. I’ve been good at coming up with a funny quip, telling jokes, predicting the punch lines of new jokes. I have a good internal sense of what I find funny, and what others will find funny; but I’ve never been satisfied with any explicit theory about what makes things funny.
Here are some tentative thoughts.
First of all, I’d like to distinguish between things that are funny and reasons we laugh. I think we laugh for other reasons in addition to finding things funny. We often laugh to communicate things to people; that we share values, that we’re not threatening (or that we are), etc. I’m sure there are lots of evolutionary sociological reasons that explain laughter. I’m not very interested in these.
But, what makes something funny?
The only thing that I can say that all funny things have in common is that they “tickle” our minds in an interesting way that pleases us.
I’ve heard it said that all humor is happiness at the misfortune of others. That’s not quite true, but it does seem to be the case that a lot of humor removes the dignity of somebody. Sometimes we're being cruel to some group that's out of favor in our local culture; but this might be more about the social aspect, like laughing, than about the pure humor. Also, we seem to like bursting the bubble of people who have a level of undeserved dignity, or superiority. That’s why bosses, teachers, politicians, priests, prudes, etc. are often the target of jokes. We are amused when they are shown to have human frailty and there’s nothing they can do to us about it. Also, slapstick seems to involve a quick transition from a noble, thinking, human to a lump of matter subjected to uncaring natural forces. We're also amused by things that violate taboos because it’s fun to bring down those who think that some things should be off-limits to jokes. We don’t feel really threatened because humor keeps us safe from serious social attack; we were only joking, we’re not serious, etc. But being able to play with forbidden ideas is serious, and we like it.
But not all humor is like that. Some humor is just a clever turn of phrase, or double meaning, or surprise, or outrageous idea. While you might be able to find some imagined person whose dignity was diminished by the joke, I don’t think that’s what makes it funny.
I think we like to have our minds stimulated in interesting ways. We like to have to make or recognize a clever association. We like to be surprised; to have to switch contexts to see things in a new way. I think this is partially because this “cleverness” triggers a positive response. We like cleverness. We solved problems as children by changing our perspective, making new associations, etc. And we drew squeals of joy and other indications of approval from our mothers and other adults when we performed these feats. It makes sense that they would stay pleasing to us.
By the way, I realize that most funny things comprise both elements: context switch AND dignity reduction. I just wanted to make it clear that the dignity reduction wasn't an essential part of all humor.
Anyway, these are my tentative thoughts. Criticisms are welcome.
Especially funny ones.
UPDATE 3: The book described in this post, now represents my best theory of humor.
UPDATE 2: This post is relevant.
UPDATE 1: I just heard that it's Bob Hope's 100th birthday today. Seems appropriate. Happy Birthday, Bob!