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.


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