Why We Laugh Theories of Comedy

Despite The Fact That Humor Plays An Important Part in our lives, there isn't a lot of literature on the psychology of comedy. Over the centuries, philosophers have devoted only a small portion of their logic to understanding what laughter means, why we tell jokes, and why we do or don't appreciate other people's humor.

Circa 500 B.C., Aristotle studied it and Socrates debated it. In the 1800s Darwin, Hobbs, and Bergson wrote papers on their humor theories. In the twentieth century, Freud, Eastman, Koestler, and even Woody Allen have tried to formulate clear explanations of the purpose of humor. There's been more research on humor in the last twenty-five years than in all previous centuries combined.

Yet, considering the time span and the prowess of the minds that have considered the subject, answers are far from definitive. Like the eternal debate of rabbis over the meaning of the Talmud, every scholar of comedy interprets its subjective phenomenon in terms of his own discipline. Today, there is more diversity of opinion than ever.

So much remains to be done that the student of humor has a real opportunity to make a significant contribution to the field. —Jeffrey Goldstein and Paul McGhee

The only common denominator is that humor seems to be so subjective that no one theory can possibly fit all influences.

For those interested in creating humor this is good news and bad news. The good news is that if humor has so many tangents, it may have an unlimited variety of benefits. Most of them have yet to be discovered. The bad news is that those who create comedy are not sure they know exactly what they're doing. "I work strictly on instinct," Woody Allen admits.

There are few artists more insecure than humorists. They are traditionally suspicious of any attempt to analyze their creative techniques. In truth, that's because they develop their formulas through trial and error. They discover comedy batting averages; some techniques work more often than others.

After being an established writer for fifteen years, I remember staring at the typewriter every morning with a desperate, random groping for something funny, that familiar fear that I couldn't do it, that I had been getting away with it all this time and I would at last be found out. [It was] a painful blundering most of us went through. —Sol Saks

If It Gets a Laugh, Leave It In

But few contemporary humor craftsmen agree on any device, except that "if it gets a laugh, it's funny, so leave it in." Many respected professionals believe the art of comedy writing can never be effectively structured or taught. It's their serious opinion that the skills, let alone the sense, of humor are mystically inherited or molded by such factors as ethnic characteristics, early childhood maternal influence, and insecurity.

Humor is one of the things in life which defies analysis—either you have it or you don't, either you enjoy it or you don't.

—Ross MacKenzie

Nobody can teach you humor writing. The secret is passed on from one generation to another and I will not tell mine, except to my son. —Art Buchwald

This negativeness, which may be tongue-in-cheek on Buchwald's part, is self-indulgent and more likely self-protective. The current economic growth of comedy is such a major trend that its methodology cannot be left to chance or voodooism. Humor may be a mystery, but it's possible to demystify it.


Humor is an emotional response, extremely subjective, to the vicissitudes of life. Psychologist Patricia Keith-Spiegel has identified the following eight major theories on "Why we laugh."

1. Surprise

2. Superiority

3. Biological

4. Incongruity

5. Ambivalence

6. Release

7. Configurational

8. Psychoanalytical

I maintain that the first two, superiority and surprise, are paramount considerations when your specific purpose is to write commercially acceptable humor.


We laugh most often to cover our feelings of embarrassment. We really do! This can be a result of either (1) having unintentionally done or said something foolish, or (2) having been tricked. Surprise is one of the most universally accepted formulas for humor technique. A joke is a story, and a surprise ending is almost always its finale. You'll notice that appreciation of any piece of humor decreases rapidly through repeated exposure, or when the ending is predictable.

Clever word play engenders grudging appreciation from your peers, but surprise word play gives birth to laughter. We smile at wit. We laugh at jokes. The techniques that most often trigger surprise are misdirection, when you trap the audience, and incongruity, which is most effective when the audience is fully aware of all the facts.


There appears to be a strong and constant need for us to feel superior. "We're number one!" and its accompanying rebel yell vocalizes that dubious achievement.

"Humor is a reaction to tragedy. The joke is at someone else's expense," wrote Alan Dundes. We even laugh when the baby falls down and goes boom. We defend this sadistic release by saying, "It's cute." It's not cute, especially for the baby. What we're often doing with humor is comparing ourselves with others we consider inferior by ridiculing their intelli gence, their social standing, and their physical infirmities.

To those we consider superior, because they are in positions of authority or are more famous, richer, more intelligent, physically stronger, or socially admired, we delight in publicizing their every shortcoming, perceived or real. The greater the prestige of the victim, the greater our desire to equalize. The largest category of contemporary humor and witticisms is insult humor.

"The President said in Moscow that he does not wish to get involved in the domestic problems of any country... and that includes the United States."

"Oh, Shirley, what a beautiful coat."

"Yes, Bernie gave it to me for my thirty-ninth birthday."

"Really. Well, it certainly doesn't show it."

Humor is social criticism. The object is to deflate. American humor has been an emotional catharsis for every ethnic minority: Irish, German, Polish, Jew, black, and Hispanic. There are few joke books on WASPs.

Humor reassures the insecure. Even if we believe ourselves to be the "haves" (power, money, knowledge, prestige) there is tremendous insecurity about how we got it and how long we're going to keep it. Americans have a tremendous sense of inferiority.

There are two ways to feel superior. The first is to accomplish exemplary work that achieves public acclaim. The second is to publicly criticize the accomplishments of others. This deflates their prestige and focuses attention on ourselves. Regardless of how much the second method might be deplored on ethical grounds, the amount of time and effort exerted to belittle the work of competitors is usually far greater than the amount of time and energy expended to improve our own abilities.

"Humor is the weapon of the underdog," wrote Harvey Mindess. "We must look for avenues through which we can disgorge our feelings of inferiority by discovering the blemishes of our superiors." Our spark of laughter is always ignited by the misfortunes of those we fear. We feel superior because their image has been tarnished and because we aren't in the same predicament.

As individuals (regardless of our status), our humor is generally directed upward against more authoritative figures. In a group setting, our humor is directed downward toward groups that don't conform to our social, religious, national, or sexual mores.

Freud's explanation is that "A good bit of humor is oriented to main taining the status quo by ridiculing deviant social behavior and reassuring the majority that their way of life is proper It is used as a weapon of the 'ins' against the 'outs.' "

The comic is no El Cid on horseback. If anything, comics are guerrilla fighters—hitting and running, bobbing and weaving, frightened that, with this kind of an act, they've got to keep moving.

The professional humorist, therefore, must always be aware that the audience is happiest when subject matter, technique, and result encourage its members to feel superior. The target of a roast smiles only because he knows everyone is watching for his approval. Otherwise, despite being the "guest of honor," he would rather have stayed home with his wife—where he'd also be insulted, but could have saved a clean, white shirt.

For the record, let's look at all of the other theories one by one. There are important and frequent overlaps, but we'll be looking at how they support the superiority theory.


This theory emphasizes that laughter is a born and bred instinct. It appears to be a function of the nervous system to stimulate, relax and restore a feeling of well-being.

Primates, with little verbal communicative ability, show friendship with a closemouthed smile. They show anger and hostility with an open mouth, exposing all their teeth, despite the fact they could all use orthodontia.

Laughter is a substitute for assault. If our biological instincts are compulsive, we laugh and joke when we need to "reach out and crush someone." It's an attempt to vent our hostility when physical aggression is not practical—and that's superiority.

For example, triumph is often coupled with an openmouthed smile, followed immediately by a roar of laughter and a foot-pounding tribal dance. Watch a pro football player after he scores a touchdown.

Therefore, if laughter is really biologically instinctive, the old adage of never trusting someone who laughs too loudly should be amended to include those who laugh with their mouths open. They may be more influenced by your humor than you'd like.


Why should we put ourselves out for posterity? After all, what has posterity done for us? —Sir Boyle Roche

There seems to be more than a semantic root shared by the words ridiculous and ridicule. According to Henri Bergson, a person laughs at incongruity when there is an unconventional pairing of actions or thoughts.

Conrad Hilton, the hotel magnate, was asked to broadcast his New Year's wish. "I wish everyone would make a New Year's resolution to please put the shower curtain inside the tub."

Whenever someone behaves in a rigid manner which is suddenly ill-suited to the logic of the occasion, these incongruous antics result in a ridiculous scenario.

The comic effect arises from incongruity of speech, action or character revelation.

Some of the best illustrations are the actions of innocent victims to incongruous situations on "Candid Camera." This program, by design, encourages us to laugh at people trying to maintain dignity in bizarre circumstances. The audience laughs hardest when it knows all the conflicting facts, thereby feeling superior to the perplexed victim.

Allen Funt claims that the "talking mailbox" was the show's top laugh-getter. A man is mailing a letter when suddenly the mailbox starts to talk to him. That part's a practical joke. The apex of laughter comes when the man calls over his friend and asks him to listen to the amazing conversation. He starts talking to the mailbox. At this point, the mailbox doesn't say a word. As the victim gets more and more exasperated and starts shouting at the mailbox, the camera cuts to close-ups of the friend's face, as he is plainly questioning his buddy's sanity.

Incongruity may be a comic plot rather than a basic humor concept. The most frequent plot in TV sitcoms is when one character in the story hides in the closet moments before someone in authority (spouse, boss, police officer) unexpectedly enters the room. It's popular because audiences know ail the facts, and that's superiority.


Whatever happened to the good ol' days, when children worked in factories? — Emo Philips

This theory is similar to incongruity in its dependence on incompatible experiences. Nervous laughter covers our recognition of rigid conventions that make us appear foolish when held up to a humorist's strobe light. In a dishonest world, even honesty is amusing.

Greeting card copy: A year ago I bought you a birthday card. Now, here it is a year later. . . and you're getting too damn expensive.

Whereas incongruity tends to stress clashing ideas or perceptions, ambivalence stresses conflicting emotions, such as the love/hate relationships in families. Holding our ambivalent feelings up for comedic inspection is the powerful shtick of humorists like Bill Cosby. A typically funny situation of his is providing an antagonistic response which parents often feel.

Bill Cosby to troublesome son: "Listen to what I'm telling you, damn it, 'cause I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it."

Ambivalence is one of the most common themes for Jewish humor, such as the son/mother relationship (which makes analysts wealthy).

Mother to bratty son: "I look forward to the day I'll see your picture on a milk carton."

Ambivalent humor covers up our guilt feelings or our foolish errors; it's an attempt to maintain dignity. Self-deprecating humor is just a device to set the audience at ease, so you can be in control—and that's superiority.


We laugh in embarrassment when we drop a glass in public or an innocent error of ours has been discovered. The release theory emphasizes that laughter is a planned event, a voluntary reduction of stress triggered by a conscious effort to unlock life's tensions and inhibitions. We attend a Neil Simon play or a Bill Cosby concert because we want humor to help us laugh away our anxieties.

Instead of working for the survival of the fittest, we should be working for the survival of the wittiest, then we can all die laughing. —Lily Tomlin

This release is fortified by group approval. Comedy works best when an audience is not only prepared to laugh but anxious to participate in a shared social experience. So the audience must be encouraged. They must be clued to every plot from the beginning. If the audience and the actor don't know what's behind the door, that's mystery. If the audience knows, but one of the actors doesn't, that's comedy.

When the musical A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum was in out-of-town tryouts, all the audience knew in advance was that the show was a take-off of Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona. Each evening, it got off to a slow start and ended with poor reviews. Then the writers added an opening number, "Comedy Tonight." The audience got the burlesque message immediately and the show became a big hit.

Sigmund Freud wrote, "The most favorable condition for comic pleasure is a generally happy disposition in which one is in the mood for laughter. In happy toxic states almost everything seems comic. We laugh at the expectation of laughing, at the appearance of one who is presenting the comic material (sometimes even before he attempts to make us laugh), and finally, we laugh at the recollection of having laughed."

If we feel the need to laugh, as release theorists claim, it's because we've been whipped by the day's battles and we'd like to see a few others get smacked around. Misery loves company only if it can laugh at them. We'll even laugh wildly watching a catcher chase a foul ball and wipe out seven guys in wheel chairs. That's sadism—and that's also superiority.


The configurational theorists claim that one factor which makes us laugh occurs when disjointedness falls into place: "Oh, so that's the way it works."

I learned about sex the hard way—from books! —Emo Philips

We smile, frequently even laugh aloud, when we experience that sudden insight of having solved a mystery or finally conquered a difficult assignment. For example, in humor, we laugh when the material encourages us to instantaneously complete some missing information. If we're successful, and generally the material is so carefully laid out that we can hardly fail, we congratulate ourselves by laughing out loud. We want the world to know we're very smart—and that's superiority.


Freud's theory of humor contended that the ludicrous always represents a "saving in the expenditure of psychic energy." Like sleep, it is therapeutic. But even more important, he argued, wit can express inhibited tendencies like the desire to act out regressive infantile sexual or aggressive behavior. A lack of humor can be a sign of mental illness.

"We laugh in order to socially accomplish childish regression without feeling foolish," wrote Flugel. "We adopt a playful mood, excusable as relaxation." This may account for the popularity of comic strips among adult groups. Regardless of one's nationality and culture, they are the most universally accepted format for humor. Therefore, it can be argued, people who write or perform humor are people who, in some way, have never enjoyed growing up.

We're young only once, but with humor, we can be immature forever. —Art Gliner

Analysts learn a great deal about patients by listening to their humor. And you can learn a great deal about your own psychological makeup by constantly asking yourself, and answering truthfully, "Why did I laugh at this joke and not at others?"

Our regression into an infantile state of mind through humor, as suggested by the psychoanalysts, is most often practiced in group settings. For group approval, we subjugate our humor appreciation. If the group leaders approve of the humor, we laugh. If the group leaders disapprove, we groan. We rarely enjoy humor if we feel we're laughing counter to the crowd. If we are the first to laugh, we will stifle a hearty ha-ha in mid-ha if no one joins us. Even when acting childish, our desire is to maintain social approval.

One of the most difficult humor audiences is a room of executives from one corporation when the big boss is in the audience. Every time the speaker tells a joke, everyone in the room first checks the CEO. If the CEO doesn't laugh, their laughter gets choked off in mid-throat. If the CEO has a good sense of humor and laughs easily, business associates then have "the permission to laugh." It can throw a comedian's timing way off.

Let's not camouflage our true intentions. We don't use humor just to entertain the world. The value of humor in attack is incomparable, because humor is a socially acceptable form of criticism, a catharsis that combines memorability with respectability.

But the only way you'll survive as a humorist/critic is if your target is equally disfavored by the audience. Understanding what motivates audience appreciation is one of the secrets of writing humor.


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  • zewdi
    Why is comedy relating to other social groups funny?
    8 years ago

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