Sunday, January 6, 2013

On Not Taking Humor Lightly

In view of my longstanding interest in humor, I was intrigued to see that today’s NY Times referenced “the first-ever United States symposium on the artificial intelligence of humor” organized by computer scientist Julia M. Taylor et al.  Well, I say it’s about damn time.  Humor, after all, is no mere laughing matter.

I want to acknowledge up front that not everyone shares the same sense of humor.  For example, at a conference last fall, I managed to crack up the group at my table with this bit of hilarity: A colleague named Murray was complaining at some length about spending time at a hotel where a Chinese family, the Wongs, were having a major event.  “Well,” said the exasperated Murray, “wherever we went, we were told, ‘The Wongs have reserved this room -- these hors d’oeuvres are for the Wongs -- the Wongs will be using this area, etc.’”  To which I responded, “Jeez, Murray, you were at the Wong place at the Wong time.” At this, the entire table burst into laughter.

But, when I related this hilarious incident to a spouse and daughter (who shall remain nameless), the former responded with a combination head-shake and eye-roll, and the latter by saying flatly, “Were these Dads at your table?  That sounds like a Dad joke.” 

Rodney Dangerfield, now I understand you.

Anyway, my research into the functions and bases of humor recently included the reading of a fascinating book by Hurley, Dennett and Adams called Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind.  But this book, interesting and thought-provoking though it is, does not quite hit the nail on the head in my opinion.  One point I did get from it is that the actors involved in humor always include humans or anthropomorphized entities.  I had never thought of this before, but I am convinced that it is not only true, but very significant.  It emphasizes that humor is above all a social construct with a social kick.

These authors review some of the major theories of humor including the release of tension theory, the incongruity theory, and the superiority theory.  Of the factors these theories highlight, the most crucial, I believe, are incongruity and superiority.  Other points, like the release of tension, may sometimes be relevant, but, it seems to me, that virtually every humorous situation includes either something incongruous or an occasion to feel in some way superior to a victimized individual.

My favorite joke from the entire book can illustrate this.  Here’s a version of it:

Eight-year-old Johnny and six-year-old Jimmy were about to go downstairs for breakfast when Johnny says to his little brother, “Say Jimmy, I think it’s about time we started cussing.  So at the table this morning, I’ll say hell and you say ass, OK?”

Jimmy happily assented to his brother’s plan.

So, when they sat down at the table, their mother asked, “What will you guys have for breakfast?”

“Sure as hell, Mom, I’ll have some Cheerios!” says Johnny.

At this, his mother grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, threw him over her knee and walloped him five or six times.  Then, dragging him upstairs, she threw him into his bedroom and slammed the door.  Finally, she stomped downstairs, sat back down at the table and said, “So, what will you have, Jimmy?”

“I don’t know, Mom,” said Jimmy, “but you can bet your ass it won’t be Cheerios.”

OK, so here we have it.  There are incongruities between Jimmy’s innocence and his rough language, between his focus on the issue of Cheerios rather than cussing as the source of Mom's anger, and, finally, between the expectation of self-preserving compliance vs. blatant defiance in his response.  We also have the victimization of poor little Johnny and, perhaps, of Jimmy as well.

The authors of Inside Jokes emphasize the incongruity feature of humor at the expense of the victimization or “superiority theory.”  And, though I agree that incongruity may be the single most important factor in humor, I’m not willing to discount the superiority aspect as these authors do.  I can’t imagine how people find America’s Funniest Home Videos amusing without acknowledging the importance of superiority/victimization.  I mean, we all see the idiot attempting to jump his bicycle over the muddy ditch, we know what’s coming, yet all too often we laugh at his disastrous splat when it comes anyway.  And how do groin shots manage to evoke laughter year after year?  I’m expecting that an archaeologist will someday find a cave painting depicting a Megaloceros butting a Neanderthal in the groin while a gang of Cro-Magnons stand around laughing.

My main problem with the theory of Hurley et al. is that it gives too much weight to the cognitive payoff of having an incongruity resolved as the main driving force behind humor -- and even as the main explanation for the very existence of humor.  With apologies for oversimplifying their position, I suggest that they make a mistake by not recognizing the importance of humor’s social function.

If we are going to explain the universal existence of humor in human societies, it seems to me the best way to do so is by noticing the way in which humor functions to define social relationships, either by cementing them, as when individuals share a laugh, or by specifying or denigrating outsiders as in the case of satire and mocking humor.  A theory encompassing these functions has room to accommodate both the importance of incongruity (as when two people share a perspective on an issue, sometimes by resolving an incongruity that reveals a heretofore unspoken truth) and superiority, when the butt of a joke takes it on the chin or some other anatomical area.

Related to humor is another human phenomenon, slang, which not only often incorporates humor, but which, like humor, is very often employed either to strengthen a social bond or to distinguish in-group members from outsiders. 

I have to stop here, given time's winged chariot, etc., but allow me to offer a couple of pictures for your consideration as I go:

This tree is not at all funny, but I took a picture of it during my morning walk because I  thought it looked very cool. 

This tree, however, is hilarious - it has a palm frond stuck in its branches.  Ha, ha, ha!  What a stupid tree!


  1. I must be more like a dad than a mom; I loved your "Wong place, Wong time" joke.... Great insights, as usual, in this piece. Humor is a wonderful way to think about culture and society. Sometimes I look at New Yorker cartoons and wonder what they mean, so for those, I'm not smart enough? ...not in that social or geographic milieu? Good stuff.

  2. Where do puns fit into the three theories? The closest I can come up with is the incongruity, as to the language itself, but that seems a reach.