Alleen Pace Nilsen & Don L F Nilsen. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Humor is such an integral part of the human psyche that philosophers and other intellectuals have long been fascinated with its origins in and its effects on the human brain. Several early theorists have provided subject matter for continuing observation and debate. The Greek word chumoi means “juices,” and the ancient Greeks used the word, from which we get the English humor (as well as humid), to refer to the bodily fluids of blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The amount of these fluids and how they happened to be mixed in a person’s body was assumed to determine that person’s disposition or temperament. When authors, playwrights, and comedy performers create eccentric characters, they are going back to this old idea of some people being extremely bilious, phlegmatic, sanguine, or jaundiced.

Related to this idea of bodily fluids is a belief that humor is good for one’s health as reflected in the Book of Proverbs: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones” (17:22). In 1979 Norman Cousins, a talented writer and former editor of the Saturday Review, popularized the wish-fulfilling idea that laughter could reduce pain and release healing chemicals into people’s bodies. While the idea caught the fancy of the general public on a worldwide scale, the twenty-first century’s thoughtful researchers are asking questions about possible confusions between causes and effects. For example, even if well-documented evidence could be collected to show that people with a sense of humor live longer, it might be that they have a sense of humor because they are healthy and things are going well. Along the same lines, it might be that hospital patients who are pleasant and find things to laugh about will get well faster than grumpy patients because their pleasant personalities attract a broader support group and make doctors and nurses more willing to spend time with them.

Release or Relief Theory

The subjects that people joke about are likely to be things that make them feel unsure or uncomfortable, as with questions about religion, politics, sex, and ethnic differences. People joke about these subjects as a way of releasing feelings of tension and also as a way of sending up trial balloons. If they say something that does not go over well, they can backtrack and hide behind the cliché, “I was only kidding.”

At a 1984 humor conference held at Arizona State University, Robert Priest, a psychologist at West Point, reported on his Moderate Intergroup Conflict Humor (MICH) theory. He agreed that for people to be inspired to create a joke they must feel some tension, but he argued that joking will relieve only moderate levels of tension. If groups or individuals are feeling strong—rather than moderate—levels of tension, they will feel frustrated rather than satisfied by jokes. He illustrated his point by showing how history is filled with jokes about the so-called battle of the sexes, but in the late 1970s and the 1980s, as the feminist movement developed and hostilities between men and women increased, sexist joking was no longer viewed as humor. Instead, it was viewed as aggression, and those who told sexist jokes were taken to court and punished for creating hostile workplaces.

A related way of explaining this idea that people need some distance from a problem before they can find humor in it is the statement that “tragedy plus time equals humor.” James Thurber has been credited with this observation, but many people, including Steve Allen and Bob Hope, have commented on the idea. After the September 11, 2001, tragedy, it was a topic of general public discussion when comedy clubs and late-night comedians took time off.

Superiority Theory

Conflicts over the censorship of humor go back at least to the fifth century B.C.E., when Plato expressed the idea in his Republic that jokes and humorous incidents should be removed from stories about the gods before they are presented to young people. Plato’s idea was that if children were amused by the gods, they would feel themselves superior and hence would lose respect.

Several centuries later the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes spelled out more clearly the idea that humor is an expression of superiority. In his 1651 Leviathan, he defined humor as “the sudden glory arising from the sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.” In the seventeenth century Blaise Pascal, a French scientist and philosopher, proposed, “Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees.” In 1750 the Scottish philosopher Frances Hutcheson further developed what has come to be known as the incongruity theory. In his Reflections upon Laughter, Hutcheson pointed out that people do not go to asylums to laugh at the “inferior” beings, nor do they laugh at animals except when they resemble human beings. Even when someone slips on a banana peel, observers laugh not because they feel superior but because of the incongruity between expectations and reality.

Incongruity Theory

In 1790 the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in The Critique of Judgment focused on the requirement of surprise when he claimed that laughter is an emotion that arises from a strained expectation suddenly reduced to nothing. William Hazlitt, in his 1819 Lectures on the Comic Writers, credited laughter as coming from the incongruity that results when one idea disconnects or is bumped up against another feeling. Arthur Schopenhauer agreed in 1844, when he explained in The World as Will and Idea that laughter is a way of acknowledging an incongruity between the conceptions that listeners or viewers hold in their minds and what happens to upset their expectations.

The incongruity theory is especially powerful in explaining humor across different genres, including accidental humor and humor in nature. Some of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, including Marcel Duchamp with his 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, surprised and amused (and sometimes offended) the public by breaking with the expectation that an artist’s job was to faithfully re-create items as seen by the human eye. Playful dance companies and playful musicians startle audiences by suddenly changing their patterns, as did Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) in his Symphony no. 94, also known as the Surprise Symphony. Haydn interspersed fortissimo chords into soft repetitive sequences to wake up slumbering audiences. Designers of theme-park hotels and of much of the community art that decorates modern American cities play with surprise and incongruity. Even comedians who tell stories in sets of three (two to establish a pattern and one to break it) are relying on surprise and incongruity.

Scatological humor is incongruous in that it “unmasks” people as it reminds them of their animal nature. This was one of the ideas expressed by Sigmund Freud in his 1905 Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Freud viewed the jokes that people told as a window to their minds. He thought that jokes were more likely to come from the id or subconscious, while people’s other communications come from the superego, where they are refined by a public consciousness. Freud’s work with jokes and his belief that humor is basically tendentious and hostile is not as respected as is his other work because modern critics, especially feminists, point out that the source of his jokes (his patients) were far from being a typical sample. Other critics reject the idea that jokes are formed in the subconscious in the same way that dreams are.

The one concept that the general public recognizes from Freud’s work is that of the Freudian slip. These are verbal mistakes that people make, which Freud said revealed what they really wanted. In actual conversations, Freudian slips may or may not reveal inner desires. Sometimes they are simply pronunciation or spelling errors, as with the examples that Richard Lederer collected for his popular Anguished English (1987). On the other hand, when creative writers put Freudian slips into the mouths of their characters, their intention is to communicate something about the speaker’s personality. Norman Lear was a master at this when in the popular television show All in the Family (1971-1979) he had Archie Bunker reveal his lack of education and his xenophobic tendencies with such phrases as “Blackberry Finn,” “pushy imported ricans,” “wel-fare incipients,” and “the immaculate connection.”

Wit, or Derisive Humor

The French philosopher Henri Bergson in his Le rire (Laughter, 1911) made the point that wit or derisive humor is a universal corrective for deviancy in the social order. He softened the idea of overt hostility by saying that the creators of wit undergo “a momentary anesthesia of the heart” as they poke fun at the actions of someone. According to Bergson’s point of view, wit is a tool of satire in that its purpose is to bring about change. Such thinkers and writers as Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Will Rogers, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Oscar Wilde used their wit to focus attention on the kinds of behavior they thought inappropriate or damaging to society as a whole. Most of the twenty-first century’s editorial cartoonists and late-night comedians use wit for similar purposes as they criticize changing social, sexual, religious, and political mores.

John Simon in Paradigms Lost describes wit as “aggressive, often destructive (though one hopes, in a good cause), and almost always directed at others.” He compares it to humor, which he describes as “basically good natured and often directed toward oneself, if only by subsumption under the heading ‘general human foolishness'” (p. 72).

Simon’s description of self-deprecating humor as being “basically good natured” is important in understanding why members of ethnic groups can tell jokes about themselves but get offended when someone from outside the group tells the same joke. When a person is inside a group and clearly identifies with that group, then the telling of a joke about the group usually falls under the category of good-natured encouragement for group members to think about changing their ways. Henry Spalding in his Joys of Jewish Humor (1985) says that many Jewish jokes come in the form of “honey-coated barbs” at the people and things loved most by Jews. While they verbally attack their family and friends as well as their own religion, they do it with a great sense of affection. A joke teller from outside of a group has little or no influence on group beliefs and actions and so by telling such jokes is cementing negative stereotypes rather than bringing about changes.

Christie Davies, who has collected and studied jokes across different cultures, as has the cultural anthropologist Alan Dundes, explains that there is great satisfaction in assigning a negative trait to someone outside of one’s own group. Placing negative traits far away from oneself is satisfying because it frees the joke tellers from having to think about whether these characteristics are pertinent to their personalities. The comedy writer Max Shulman, in a 1982 talk at Arizona State University, said something similar when he explained that if one of his stories makes a reader say, “I know someone like that,” the reader is amused and laughs. But if the story is so on target that the reader says, “Oh, no, that’s me!” the reader is not amused.

Other Views

While scholars still believe in theories of superiority and hostility and of surprise and incongruity, the twenty-first century’s mass media provides the world with so many different kinds of humor that few scholars try to make observations about all humor. Instead, they study humor to gain insights into their particular areas of expertise. For example, in They Used to Call Me Snow White … but I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor (1991), the feminist scholar Regina Barreca uses examples of women’s humor to illustrate how a group’s humor is shaped as well as evaluated according to the roles that the members play in society. Henry Louis Gates did something similar in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988) by showing how African-American slaves developed double entendre trickster signifiers because they were denied the use of normal and private communication.

For obvious reasons, performers, comedians, public speakers, and advertisers are interested in the features or the characteristics of humor. They want to know what makes people laugh so that they can create and re-create such situations. Rhetoricians and teachers of writing are also interested. Mary Ann Rishel, a professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, teaches a class in comedy writing and has authored a book on the subject. Her idea is not to prepare students to move to Hollywood or New York to join comedy writing teams. Instead, she wants to use the pleasures of humor to help students develop the skills needed for most kinds of writing: originality of vision, a keen eye for observation, the inclusion of telling details, and most importantly, succinctness.

The historian Joseph Boskin collects joke cycles, what he calls comic zeitgeists, and uses their popularity as data for revealing Americans’ preoccupations and attitudes. He concludes his book Rebellious Laughter (1997) with “Tattered Dreams,” a chapter about how “the roseate years of expansion” (p. 180) that followed World War II collided with such technological failures as the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, the radioactive explosion at Chernobyl, the loss of the Challenger space shuttle, and such oil spills as that of the Exxon Valdez. These catastrophes “overwhelmed sensibilities from the late 1970s into the 1990s,” and the jokes were as extreme as the events (Boskin, p. 181). They offered “the specter of a totally irrational universe,” where the only defense was to engage in what has been labeled “a hellish laughter” (Boskin, p. 190).

Modern literary critics often focus on this kind of humor as they work with deconstructionism, postmodernism, and magical realism. They have long defined satire (which often includes elements of irony and wit) as humor designed for the specific purpose of convincing readers and viewers of the need for some kind of action or a change in attitude and beliefs. On the other hand, black humor or dark humor (also referred to as gallows humor, absurd humor, existentialism, and film noir) illustrates the futility of looking for easy and neat answers to the tragedies of life. In such humor, the lines between fantasy and reality and between tragedy and comedy keep shifting. People laugh because they do not know what else to do. The laughter is itself a testament to the strength of the human spirit in showing that people can laugh in spite of bewilderment, death, and chaos.

Linguists, especially computer programmers working with artificial intelligence and translation, study jokes because their abbreviated scripts leave listeners to fill in the mundane details that “go without saying.” Many jokes provide an even greater challenge for computers because they are designed to lead listeners to interpret the story along mundane lines, but then comes the climax or the punch line, which makes listeners laugh in surprise as they realize they have been led “down the garden path.” The linguist Victor Raskin at Purdue University is working to program computers with the ability to bring in a myriad of cultural references while simultaneously testing possible interpretations so as to arrive at the one that is “funny.” In his book Semantic Mechanisms of Humor (1985) Raskin distinguishes between what he calls bona fide scripts and joke scripts. Joke scripts differ from stereotypes in that a stereotype is an idea that many people seriously believe in and act on, while joke or comic scripts are more literary than sociological or political. They are amusing ideas that serve as the nucleus for folklore. New Englanders do not really believe that French-speaking Canadians are stupid, nor do the British think that the Irish are dirty, nor does the world at large think that Italians are cowards, yet extensive joke scripts circle around these and many other groups. The fact that joke scripts develop rather haphazardly out of the history of particular countries helps to explain why people from different cultures have a hard time catching on to each other’s jokes, many of which are variations on old themes or examples of one’s expectations being suddenly violated.

The idea of looking at the creation and reception of humor to trace the intellectual (as opposed to the emotional) paths that humor takes through the brain is fairly new. Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation (1964) claims that for people to think in new and creative ways, they must engage in bisociative thinking so as to bring concepts together in original ways. The “Ah!” kind occurs when people have an emotional reaction as they create or recognize artistic originality. The “Aha!” kind occurs when they bring divergent concepts together into scientific discoveries, while the “Ha Ha!” kind occurs with the comic recognition of ridiculous situations.

As indicated by these examples, the humor research of the future is likely to focus on particular kinds of humor as created and received by individuals in particular situations. And as the world grows smaller and people are forced to communicate with and adapt to people with different customs and beliefs, there will probably be increased interest in understanding both the bonding and the out-bonding as well as the release of frustration that comes when people laugh together.