How Do I Know if Something is Funny?

My Search for the Heart of Humor

Once, when I was a little boy, I made some adults laugh. I don’t know how. All I remember is how exhilarating it was. “What great power I have,” I must’ve thought.

As I got older I studied newspaper comics and, while mom was working double shifts or out-on-the-town learning about life, I would sit in front of the television studying the stand-up greats (George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, etc). I laughed and laughed, and pondered: How do they do it? How do they know we will laugh? I wanted to understand the secret formula. To see behind the curtain. If I could understand the nature of humor, I assumed, then I would understand the magic — and be able to wield it at will.

Humor turns out to be difficult to research and, as it happens, not very funny. In fact, the only funny thing about my own humor research, which I did in college, is that I tried to pass it off as epistemology research. Epistemology is the formal study of knowledge. It answers questions like: How do we know things? What is the difference between belief and knowledge? Is it possible to have certainty in anything?

(Epistemology is not very funny, either).

At some point in my senior year I had a big epistemology paper due. I stubbornly convinced my professor (the great Paul Reasoner) to let me write my paper on humor — I mean, professor Reasoner, “How Do We Know If Something is Funny?”

And what did I learn about humor? Well, it’s good. (duh!) We don’t really even need to be convinced of this. We don’t need to hear about all of it’s practical benefits, though there are many (like that it reduces anxiety and tension [source 1]. It improves communication quality [source 2]. It helps memory recall [source 3]. It is cherished everywhere in the world, and universally praised [source 4]. And on and on…).

We already know we like it. We know this because of how it bubbles up from deep within us, shaking us loose from our dark thoughts, pushing oxygen into places we didn’t even know were suffocating, and inducing a euphoria that we can not get anywhere else — try as we might.

But what is it? What is that deep feeling that causes laughter?

The Cognitive Angle: Flickering Causes Humor

The first hypothesis about the nature of humor I found was the cognitive hypothesis.

Cognitive humor is that world of humor made up of clever word plays and elbow-jabbing puns. Such humor can elicit chuckles, and sometimes laughs, but rarely endures. Our bumbling Uncle Elmer tells us “Do you know why your bike keeps falling over? Because it’s two-tired.” We give a little chuckle, or maybe even offer a courtesy laugh. The second time Uncle Elmer presents the pun the humor is gone, eliciting an eye-roll at best.

It’s called cognitive humor because it plays on purely cognitive variables. All you really need to participate in cognitive humor is a brain that is able to (1) store definitions and (2) to form beliefs. The definitions are the content of the belief, and the belief is important because it is the foundation of the expectations we form. Humor is triggered when the expectation is somehow offended — often when the definition of a concept is misappropriated.

Consider Uncle Elmer’s joke: A person falls over when they are too tired, and a bike also falls over when it has two tires (Uncle Roger doesn’t care that the words “too” and “two” are different, and neither do we — we are always willing to sacrifice grammatical precision for a good laugh).

Humor is created, then, when we “flicker” the misappropriated definition back-and-forth in our mind with the authentic one [5]. Here’s another example:

If your chemistry teacher throws sodium chloride at you, call the police.
That’s a salt!

Or consider this one by yours truly, which I know Uncle Elmer would be proud of:

Even as a boy, though, I knew that this type of humor was minor league. It’s fun, but it is not the deep sort of humor I was hoping to master. Cognitive humor is the sort of humor that can charm on a first date, but can ruin a third. I was looking for something more potent.

The Emotional Angle: Humor + Emotion

There had to be humor that offered more than silly brain tricks. I continued my quest.

The next level of humor I found had… emotion!

Consider the tongue-in-cheek artistry of Bridger Winegar:

Winegar’s ongoing mock-situation with his volleyball team (Oh the drama! Oh the conflict!) involves little “flickering,” but is very funny. But why? It works with positive emotions, too:

Hartz and Hunt propose that humor is, ultimately, emotion. Or rather, an emotional episode [source 6]. Consider that humor shares 3 common features of an emotion: 1) it has biological symptoms, 2) it is involuntary, and 3) it involves intense feelings. Humor occurs when a person experiences something that gives them a burst of a particular feeling, says Hunt & Hartz.

Hartz and Hunt are very smart, and I’m sure their mothers are very proud of them. But something in their theory seems… lacking. We must ask: what is the feeling? The emotion?

They might respond: “It is a humorous feeling, duh!”

Right, but what is that humorous feeling?

“A special emotion.”

Right, but which emotion?

“Humor.”

You see the problem? The circular model Hunt & Hartz proposes doesn’t get us much farther than: humor feels good. But a caveman could’ve told us that.

Hunt and Hartz are not the only researchers who have struggled to understand humor. Dr. Miles concluded: “Clearly there is some relationship between humour and emotion… but the exact nature of this relationship seems difficult to establish” (see: here).

Exactly.

There has to be more to it than emotion, right? Humor certainly involves emotion, but the emotion is not the end in itself, is it? Doesn’t there seem to be something deeper going on? At least in the really funny humor?

But what is it?

The Psychosocial Angle: Humor is Relief

Beyond the cheap thrills of cognitive humor and emotional humor, I think that there is something deeper. Let me just come out and tell you what I think it is:

Relief.

At its core, humor is relief. Note: I am not saying that humor is a relief (or that humor causes relief). I am saying that humor, the purest kind, actually is relief. The deepest type of humor is that which brings relief to our deepest discomforts — our deepest anxieties, fears, and shames. Humor is the feeling of deep relief when it bubbles up from inside of us.

The more relief comedy generates the more humorous it is. Laughter is like the gas released when harsh anxiety is mollified, when the choke of fear is loosened, or when deeply entrenched shames are even slightly diminished. This is why humor is so idiosyncratic: what might cause relief to me might not cause relief to you.

This hypothesis, that humor is relief, may not seem compelling at first, but think about it:

Have you ever been in a financial crisis, and then stumbled upon some money that resolved the crisis? I bet you laughed, or at least had the urge to laugh.

Or when you asked her on a date and she said “yes,” and maybe even seemed genuinely excited about it, I bet you hung up the phone and laughed out loud while running around the house like a manic rodeo clown. The fear of rejection which tormented you, plus the anxiety of how you were going to ask her out, were suddenly quelled and you instantly felt like you could fly.

That humor, of this deeper sort, is relief also explains why making fun of things that are otherwise embarrassing to us is so funny. And it explains why truly painful experiences become funny to us (after the relief of passed time). It is also why fart jokes never get old (since the embarrassment persists, so does the potential for relief from that embarrassment). And why sex will always be a staple in stand-up comedy (nothing is more intimate, and therefore potentially shame-inducing, than our sexuality). It is why comedians will always focus on their flaws, and the flaws of others.

We are each a unique, chaotic cluster of anxiety, fear, and shame. Good comedy either distances us from these things, or helps us feel accepted despite them.


For more zaniness, please follow me on Twitter: @thatdankent

— — — — — works cited — — — — —

[1] G.C. Leak, (1974), “Effects of hostility arousal and aggressive humor on catharsis and humor preference,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31,736–740.

[2] R.J. Wolosin, (1975), “Cognitive similarity in group laughter”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 505–509.

[3] D. Zillman, (1980), “Disparagement Humor,” In P.E. Mcghee (ed.) Handbook of Humor Research. New York:Springer-Verlag.

[4] H. LaFollette and N. Shanks, (1993), “Belief and the basis for humor,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 30 (4), p.329.

[5] LaFollette and Shanks, p.330.

[6] G.A. Hartz and R. Hunt, (1991) “Humor: the beauty and the beast,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 28(4).