Wait for It
This paper provides a wide overview of humor and what makes something funny. It breaks down humor into three distinct parts: the etymology of the word, different ways of looking at humor in a linguistic and semantic sense, and finally what laughter is physiologically. Two different dictionaries provide the etymological background to the word “humor”. A movie and several other examples of humor in popular culture and wordplay provide a broad understanding of the mechanisms that produce humor and laughter. Lastly, different physiological reasons for laughter are presented. The conclusion is that humor cannot be apprehended except through these surrounding constructs.
Wait for It
Humor and laughter have been around for thousands upon thousands of years (Trivers, 2011). The “why” of humor has been dissected since Aristotle, with major philosophers helping to refine just what it is that makes people laugh (Morreall, 2014). The broadly accepted theory of humor is called Incongruity Theory (Davies, 2014). It explains the scaffolding around a humorous exchange as what this writer might term “bait and switch”. Simplistically explained, a humorous setup includes a common situation and then introduces an element of absurdity or incongruity¹ to the implicit or explicit setup. The result is humor which in turn begets laughter.
The broad concept of “humor” can be broken down into three main components. First there is the word itself. Secondly, there are the various types of humor in conversation and entertainment. Thirdly, there is the physiological response to humor, called “laughing”, that completes the study of the topic. The purpose of this paper is to research the different components to humor and explore some of the mechanisms that comprise a humorous exchange between an individual or individuals and an audience.
Regarding the word “humor” the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “A particular disposition, inclination, or liking, esp. one having no apparent ground or reason; mere fancy, whim, caprice, freak, vagary (Humor, 1989).” This definition implies that humor is inconsistent with a concrete look at the world and reality.
Regarding “reason” as the opposite of humor, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “reason” as “A statement of some fact (real or alleged) employed as an argument to justify or condemn some act, prove or disprove some assertion, idea, or belief (Reason, 1989).” In other words, “reason” is what is implied, either in an act of conversation or within defined parameters to wherever an individual may find themselves. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) then says that “humor [is a disposition that has] no apparent…reason”. Following these defining statements, humor can be seen—in a semantic sense—as that which runs counter to a statement of fact².
Going back further etymologically, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo European Roots says that “humor” comes from the root word “wegh”. The root “wegh” means “wet” (Wegʰ, 2000). The root itself also gives rise to the word “wake”. This implies that the idea behind the English word “humor” is the same as “that which follows after” (i.e. the wake of a boat in the water). The inherent humor of a thing, be it a situation, a joke, or a disposition, is apprehended after the fact. This is true to life in that it takes time to “get” a joke and its punchline.
The best example this writer can give of humor is that of having personally watched the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski and not understanding the humor throughout the movie. It took many months to “get” the humor in the movie as it is subtle and nothing is done to draw attention to it. The movie is about a man named Jeffrey Lebowski whose purpose in life consists of bowling and of drinking white russians (an alcoholic beverage consisting of one part coffee liqueur to two parts vodka, and cream, Sennet, 2009). Through a series of comedic mishaps involving a threadbare rug, mistaken identity, uxorial absence, and inept companionship, humor ensues. The humor in the movie is consistent with the definition in the OED insofar as much of what Lebowski (also known as “The Dude”) goes through has “no apparent ground or reason” (Coen, 1997). For this writer, it is also congruous with the Indo-European definition of the word “humor” in that the inherent humor was not immediately apprehended. The humor found in this film is consistent with the definition of “humor” from the Indo-European Dictionary.
There is a scene in the film where The Dude has just been dropped off by a chauffeur when he is accosted by a second chauffeur prior to walking across the street to his apartment. The second chauffeur proceeds to strong-arm him into a second limousine in which a different man, also named Jeffrey Lebowski, awaits. This other Lebowski (known as “The Big Lebowski”) is sitting in his limousine expecting an explanation as to what happened with the other Lebowski the night before. The exchange that follows between the two Lebowskis brilliantly marks the interplay between reason and humor as incongruous with one another, as defined in the OED.
There are many types of humorous exchange. A rudimentary humorous exchange need not be any more complicated than a double-entendre (Crystal, 1995). Consider the base example of the internet meme (Fitness, n.d.). For instance, the word “fitness” gives rise to an array of mental imagery consistent with the maintenance of good health. From impressions of the gym with its gleaming barbells and mirrors, to scantily clad male and female models whose body-type is suggestive of nutrition, activity, and exercise. Say the word “fitness” and the listener will probably think of these things. But if one says the word “fitness” pronounced with epenthesis (Akmajian, 1995) followed with “whole pizza in your mouth”, the result is humorous. The pronunciation of the word “fitness” must acquire a third syllable to where it sounds like “fitting this”, turning the word into a double-entendre. Furthermore, the toned and possibly sweating individuals that represent an internal imagery surrounding the word “fitness” coupled with the idea of eating a whole pizza in one sitting “has no apparent ground or reason”. The two imageries are inconsistent with one another and therefore humorous.
The knock-knock joke is another type of simple wordplay as an example of humorous exchange (Crystal, 1995). The writer will at times introduce his favorite into polite conversation: “Knock knock?”; “Who’s there?”; “Arfur.”; “Arfur who?”; “Arfur Gott!” (I forgot). This is an example of oronymy, which is polysemy (homophony), and therefore a double-entendre applied to a phrase. This writer is well aware of the outmoded nature of the knock-knock joke in adult and mature humorous exchange and finds the humor not so much in the joke itself but in the act of telling this type of joke at this point in his adult life.
Sigmund Freud said that “it is quite impractical to deal with jokes otherwise than in connection with the comic.” (Freud, 1905, 1963) This implies that the impulse to humor is found within the psychological makeup of the individual telling the joke, therefore making the definition of humor something unique to an individual. It implies that a joke or humorous utterance is expressed by the comic with the desire to draw laughter out of the listener or audience.
Consider Reggie Watts’ TED talk as an example of using one’s personality and character to draw humor out of a listening audience. Upon watching the video titled “Beats that Defy Boxes”, it is not readily apparent what he will be discussing. As the acronym “TED” stands for “Technology, Education, Design” the implication is that Watts is there to give a talk around one of those three things. Certain venues require a certain mindset or participation on the part of the audience (Nesteroff, 2015). In contrast to the atmosphere of the TED venue, Watts proceeds to speak in a British accent about intelligent-sounding topics without actually saying anything. He touches on existence and life and yet somehow manages to say nothing of any import or profundity. A minute-and-a-half into his talk he says this (commas added for intonation effect):
“The future state, that there is no time, other than the collapsation, of that sensation, of the mirror of the memories in which we are living.”
The audience roars in laughter in response to Watts’ sentence. This type of humor is even subtler than The Big Lebowski. Watts’ stage presence, personality, and delivery as balanced against the serious implications of the venue are what cause this exchange to be humorous. The incongruity lies in the assumptions that the audience brings to the venue only to have those assumptions supplanted with gibberish and nonsense. The result is humor.
After saying that, he declaims: “Common knowledge, but important nonetheless.” This statement draws laughter out of the audience as well. To say that something is “common knowledge” and then to reify the same idea by saying that it is “important” is a very subtle insult. If something is “common knowledge”, it may or may not be “important”. His qualifying caveat of “nonetheless” implies that it is both “common” and “important” and therefore should be ubiquitously known. However, the sentence to which the “common knowledge” statement refers is nonsense. It should therefore not be common nor important. These qualifiers regarding his syntagmatically incongruous statement produce humor and therefore laughter at a very subtle, deep level.
However, in relation to Watts’ TED talk, a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip utilizes the same ingredients in humorous exchange but changes them up. In an effort to stop Calvin from playing copycat and repeating everything he says, Hobbes utters a line from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. While what Watts said during his talk sounded smart but held no logic, Kant’s line (as quoted by Hobbes) is the picture of mental reason and deep thought process. Hobbes says (quoting Kant):
“We can a priori and prior to all given objects have a knowledge of those conditions on which alone experience of them is possible, but never of the laws to which things may in themselves be subject without reference to possible experience.”
Calvin cannot repeat that from memory and so quits his attempt at annoying Hobbes. In analyzing both Watts and Hobbes, both say something that sounds intelligent. The result is laughter. However, what Hobbes said was actually intelligent, both linguistically and semantically. Watts’ expression was merely a bunch of intelligent-sounding words strung together. This serves to indicate that “humor” is something independent of jokes, setups, venues, and even personality.
With reference to laughter, the physiological response to humor, Roxanda Radomsky, a registered nurse, says that “There is a wonderful relationship between humor and pathology.” An “all body response”, she says (Radomsky, 2016). This is further corroborated by Herbert Spencer in his 1861 essay On the Physiology of Laughter. Spencer details many of the ways that science and medicine understood the humorous response during the late 19th century (Spencer, 1861). Much of what he wrote doesn’t hold up to what science has since discovered regarding the physiological response to humor, however. What he says is consistent with an outmoded theory of humor called Relief Theory. Relief Theory was made popular by Freud but has since been debunked by neuroscience (Morreall, 2014).
The study of laughter is called gelotology. However, with reference to humor, correlation does not necessarily equal causation: there are many reasons why people laugh. These reasons can range from a brain tumor (Famularo, 2007) to the temporary relief of spasmodic dysphonia (Spasmodic Dysphonia, n.d.), to any of several other serious, pathological causes (McGraw, 2014). These examples show that laughter can happen without humor; they are no laughing matter. It is simply the body reacting to neurological stimuli that is not related to humor.
Laughing causes an involuntary release of dopamine in the brain and the reduction of stress-hormones (Provine, 2000). Humor-induced laughter can also cause a voluntary slapping of the knee. Furthermore, our sides end up aching if we laugh too much or are tickled in just the right spot, as well (Martin, 1996). The circular statement of “Why do we laugh? We just do.” doesn’t fully explain the reaction our bodies have to what our minds find humorous. However, the fact that dopamine causes smiling which in turn releases more dopamine (McLean, 2011) proves that humor-induced laughter is cyclical (Provine, 2000).
The conclusion is that humor is ancient, intricate and essential for the human race. It’s also something that is hard to define except through the channels by which it emerges into human interaction. What each person finds funny varies widely but there is a reason for laughter and humor. Often, that reason runs counter to “reason” as defined in the OED. There is great intelligence behind the understanding of humor and in conveying it. There is also something very mysterious about it. If the common joke is similar to an “if/then” statement (syllogism), or question and answer session, then how come we don’t laugh when doing arithmetic or in answering simple questions? Incongruity Theory helps to explain this but some mystery still remains. Paul Cezanne said that “Light cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else—by color.” Humor must be “reproduced” or, produced by words and mechanisms in much the same way that light is “represented” by color and cannot be seen except through chroma, aura or hue.
Akmajian, A., Demers, R. A., Farmer, A. K., & Harnish, R. M. (1995). Linguistics an introduction to language and communication (4th ed., pp. 111-112). N.p.: The MIT Press.
Coen, J., & Coen, E. (Director). (1997). The big lebowski [Motion picture].
Crystal, D. (1995). The cambridge encyclopedia of the english language (pp. 405-411). N.p.: Cambridge University Press.
The six-page section gives a broad understanding of the types of humorous exchange to be found in the English language.
Davies, Jim. Riveted the science of why jokes make us laugh, movies make us cry, and religion makes us feel one with the universe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014. 109-44. Print.
Chapter 4 entitled “Incongruity, Mystery, and Puzzle” talks from the bottom up about incongruity in everything from art to religion to music up to and including humor. He says “When people see incongruity, they try to figure things out.” (p. 123) He ends the chapter with “there are still things in the world that are misunderstood.”
Famularo, G., Corsi, F. M., Minisola, G., De Simone, C., & Nicotra, G. C. (2007). Cerebellar tumour presenting with pathological laughter and gelastic syncope. European Journal of Neurology, 14, 940-943. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Fitness Meme. hahafunnyjokes.com. Web. 9 Feb. 2016. <http://www.hahafunnyjokes.com/meme/fitness-whole-pizza-in-my-mouth>.
The dog looks utmost confident he can eat a the entire pepperoni pizza right now.
Freud, S., & Strachey, J. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious (p. 5). N.p.: W. W. Norton and Company. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
"Humor." Def. 2.6. The oxford english dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. 485-86. Print.
McGraw, Peter, and Joel Warner. The humor code. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. 67-92. Print.
McLean, K. (2011, May 12). Can laughter be therapeutic?. In Yale Scientific. Retrieved from http://www.yalescientific.org/2011/05/can-laughter-be-therapeutic/
Martin, T. (1996). Why do we laugh? questions children ask about the human body (pp. 1-2). London: Dorling Kindersley.
It really isn’t any more complicated then this, when one thinks about it, or, stops thinking about it.
Nesteroff, K. (2015). The comedians. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Nesteroff talks about “Club 18” (57), a comedy establishment that catered only to insults. If one found themselves in the audience, it was because they were there knowing they’d likely be insulted by whomever was on stage. This correlates to Watts’ usage of the TED venue in order to build the humor of his talk by letting the intelligence-precedent of TED be the “bait” for his “switch” of not saying anything smart at all. His comedy was all in the telling (or singing).
Radomsky, Roxanna. Personal interview. 6 Feb. 2016.
"Reason." 1.1. The oxford english dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. 288. Print.
Spasmodic Dysphonia. (n.d.). In American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Retrieved from http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/SpasmodicDysphonia/
Trivers, R. (2011). The folly of fools (pp. 172-173). New York, NY: Basic Books.
The two pages referenced are the subsection “Humor, Laughter, and Self-Deception” from chapter 8. It mentions how chimps and rats both laugh and that “Laughter is an ancient mammalian trait.”
Watterson, B. (1995, 2012). The complete Calvin and Hobbes (p. 185). Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel.
Watts, R. (2012). Beats that defy boxes. In TED. Retrieved 2012, from http://www.ted.com/talks/reggie_watts_disorients_you_in_the_most_entertaining_way
"Wegʰ." The american heritage dictionary of indo-european roots. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 96. Print.
¹ Consider the example of incongruity from The Police’s 1979 song “Message in a Bottle” where the protagonist has sent off “a note” as a castaway on a desert island. A year passes and he walks out to the shoreline where “a hundred billion bottles” have washed ashore in response to his message. This is incongruous in that never at any point in the history of humanity have there been 100,000,000,000 people on earth at one time. Not even McDonald’s can lay claim to serving that many individuals. But is Sting’s statement of incongruity humorous? Not necessarily.
² Groucho Marx said “Humor is reason gone mad.” Blaise Pascal is quoted as saying “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”