The theory of humour: No laughing matter

What is brown and sticky?

A stick.

From terrible Christmas cracker one-liners to carefully polished stand-up routines or silly slapstick moments, philosophers, scientists and psychologists have spent thousands of years reflecting on what makes a joke actually funny.

Here are four of the biggest theories.

Superiority theory

One of the earliest theories of humour is the “Superiority Theory”, which was first developed by Plato and then expanded on by Aristotle and, later, Thomas Hobbes.

According to this theory, our laughter expresses our feeling of superiority over the unfortunate person (or the version of our past self) that we laugh at.

LaughLab offers this example of a “superiority” joke:

A woman goes into a cafe with a duck. She puts the duck on a stool and sits next to it. The waiter comes over and says: “Hey! That's the ugliest pig that I have ever seen.” The woman says: “It’s a duck, not a pig.” And the Waiter says: “I was talking to the duck.”

Relief Theory

Sigmund Freud subscribed to the idea that humour provides a release from a build up of tension – problems in our lives, or issues that we are too embarrassed or reluctant to confront.

These jokes are usually ones that revolve around sex, bodily functions, etc – ones that provide psychological tension, and then release.

LaughLab offers this example:

A woman told her friend: “For eighteen years my husband and I were the happiest people in the world! Then we met.”

Incongruity theory

One of the most popular theories, however, is that we find jokes funny because of the surprise or shock factor – there is an inconsistency between what we expect to happen, and what actually does. These sudden shifts in our perspective and set-ups that run against our expectations are the “heart” of many jokes – from talking animals to punchlines that pull the rug out from under you.

LaughLab provides this example:

Did you hear about the man who drowned in a bowl of muesli? He was pulled under by a strong currant!

Benign violation theory

This, more modern theory, expands on the idea that for something to be funny, there needs to be something wrong or unsettling – something that threatens one’s beliefs about how the world should be, or challenges what one feels is appropriate.

Of course, this by itself is not funny – these events must be set in a place or time frame that makes them seem more benign in order to trigger a positive emotion.

This theory was established as an attempt at a universal theory by Professor Peter McGraw of the Humour Research Lab – or HuRL.

No matter the theory, we can all agree – South Africa has produced some stellar comedians, including the brilliant and outspoken John Vlismas, whose stand-up The Good Racist is currently running at Montecasino. Johannesburg audiences will come face to face with some of the uncomfortable truths of our society as the award-winning comic pulls no punches – the way only Vlismas can. Book your tickets here.


Recommended

by NEWSROOM AI
Read More
'Hospitable' Nigeria ready to make investors feel at home

'Hospitable' Nigeria ready to make investors feel at home

While in Port Harcourt, Africa Connected's Lee Kasumba met with Professor Steve Azaiki, coordinator of National Think Tank Nigeria.

Solutionist Thinking: In Conversation with Tshepo Moloi

Solutionist Thinking: In Conversation with Tshepo Moloi

This week's Solutionist Thinker is bringing the 200-year-old tradition of stokvels into the 21st century. Meet StokFella founder Tshepo Moloi.

Solutionist Thinking: In Conversation with Stacey Brewer

Solutionist Thinking: In Conversation with Stacey Brewer

A school with individual learning paths for each child, and no need for textbooks? SPARK Schools CEO Stacey Brewer joins Bruce Whitfield.

Solutionist Thinking: In Conversation with Arlene Mulder

Solutionist Thinking: In Conversation with Arlene Mulder

In the next episode of Solutionist Thinking with RMB, Bruce Whitfield speaks with We Think Code founder Arlene Mulder.

Solutionist Thinking: In Conversation with Reuel Khoza

Solutionist Thinking: In Conversation with Reuel Khoza

In the first episode of Solutionist Thinking with RMB, Bruce Whitfield speaks with author, businessman and trailblazer Reuel Khoza.

African Pride: Nigeria's history makers

African Pride: Nigeria's history makers

In the final episode of African Pride, Christophe Bongo reflects on the FIFA World Cup history of the Nigerian Super Eagles.

Popular articles
Idols judge Unathi Nkayi gets intimate - opens up about money, beliefs about it

Idols judge Unathi Nkayi gets intimate - opens up about money, beliefs about it

The Money Show’s Bruce Whitfield interviews Nkayi about her attitude to money (hopes and fears, successes and failures, etc.).

VBS gave Zuma R8.5m before any security was provided for loan - News 24 journo

VBS gave Zuma R8.5m before any security was provided for loan - News 24 journo

News 24 investigative journalist Kyle Cowan reports that Zuma was granted the loan despite the fact that he could not afford it.

'The VhaVenda King is very pained by what happened to VBS and people's money'

'The VhaVenda King is very pained by what happened to VBS and people's money'

The VhaVenda King's spokesperson Mathivha Makonde says the King is calling on authorities to help him correct the wrong.

Journos provide fresh insights into the latest on state capture inquiry

Journos provide fresh insights into the latest on state capture inquiry

Journalists Karyn Maughan and Erin Bates provide insights into the state capture inquiry.

It seems that the media is pushing a certain agenda with VBS  - caller

It seems that the media is pushing a certain agenda with VBS - caller

Callers continue to share their thoughts on the VBS Bank Heist with host Sizwe Mpofu- Walsh.

C-section births have nearly double since 2000 - study

C-section births have nearly double since 2000 - study

Professor Justus Hofmeyr says there are a number of reasons why the number of c-sections has doubled.