Towards a theory of humour

What is humour? What makes something funny? Why do we laugh at jokes?

Of course these are almost impossible questions to answer because there are so many different types of humour, from slapstick and physical comedy to one-liners and wordplay and (many people’s favourite, including my own) the comedy of character. Perhaps as a result, there have been many different theories of comedy, from Henri Bergson’s idea that we laugh when we see people behaving like machines to Freud’s belief that we laugh at the expression of forbidden thoughts and feelings that are normally repressed. None of these theories is, to my mind, entirely satisfactory, though they all have valuable insights to offer. What I want to do here is say a few words about a broad general principle that is, I think, involved in a variety of comedic modes but pre-eminently perhaps in the conventional gag or joke.

My own favourite one-liner of this type is a Bob Monkhouse joke: ‘When I die I want to go the way my old dad went, peacefully in his sleep, and not screaming like his passengers.’

For me the beauty of this joke is twofold. It lies partly in the joke’s economy: a single sentence. But it also does what all good jokes do, which is to delay the punchline till the last possible moment. Here, for example, there’s nothing remotely funny in the line till we reach the word ‘passengers’. Then the gag detonates and suddenly the image in our head of an old man dying peacefully in his own bed – beautifully set up by the opening – is replaced by the image of a taxi driver or bus driver falling asleep at the wheel and driving his vehicle full of passengers over the edge of a cliff.

The point I wish to make is that jokes such as this require that the listener participate in the creative process and it is this very sense of our own creativity that we find pleasurable. The listener must supply the missing link in the joke, they must replace the set-up image with the punchline image – the joke isn’t doing it for them – and thus complete the comedic circuit.

Another example, the school teacher’s complaint that he keep being interrupted when giving his lesson: ‘Every time I open my mouth some idiot speaks’. The joke doesn’t make it clear that the ‘I’ and the ‘idiot’ can be interpreted as referring to one and the same person. This is a conceptual leap we have to make for ourselves.

Or an even simpler example: Buzz Lightyear’s slogan in Toy Story, ‘To infinity and beyond!’ Imagine that you have a particularly obtuse companion who doesn’t get the joke and you have to explain to them that you can’t go beyond infinity because infinity means without end. Is it likely that your companion would then laugh? Or is it more likely that they would utter a dismissive or derisory groan? In fact this is the very reason why a joke is never funny when it has to be explained, because the listener isn’t supplying the creative connection for themselves, isn’t an essential link in the comedic chain. Equally, a joke is rarely funny if we anticipate the punchline – it then seems too obvious, our creative contribution too slight, the laughter unearned. In effect, what we’re laughing at when we laugh at a joke, what we find pleasurable, is our own cleverness. Or, to put it in a less immodest way, what we find pleasurable is our own vicarious participation in the creative act.

(Incidentally, this same principle also operates in the reading of straight fiction: a plot twist isn’t satisfying if it leaves us feeling puzzled, nor if we anticipate it. Punchlines and plot twists have a lot in common.)

Clearly, ‘getting’ a joke isn’t enough on its own to make the joke funny – otherwise just about every joke that didn’t need to be spelled out would make us laugh – but one might say it’s a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition. The degree of creativity required from the listener (in other words the extent of our own perceived cleverness) would also seem to be important, along perhaps with factors such as the incongruity or absurdity of the creative link supplied by the listener. In the Bob Monkhouse joke it’s the conceptual distance between the two scenarios mentioned – dying at home in bed and plunging to one’s death over the edge of a cliff – that makes the joke so successful.

Another factor that seems to be involved in many jokes – as in the teacher joke and the Buzz Lightyear slogan – is the speaker’s failure to understand the full import of what they are saying, in other words a kind of dramatic irony. But this in itself is just another variation on the ‘superiority’ argument outlined above: we laugh because we understand something that the speaker of the joke fails to understand. And this in turn leads on to the comedy of character, where the humour derives from our appreciation of something that the character in question is unable to see. Think of Basil Fawlty’s blindness to his own neurotic behaviour in Fawlty Towers or Captain Mainwaring’s blindness to his own pomposity in Dad’s Army. The same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for David Brent in The Office or Adrian Mole in his diaries. Once again a contribution from the viewer or reader is required in order for the character’s behaviour to be perceived as funny. Without such a contribution the humour falls flat.

I have some further thoughts on these matters but this post is getting very long, so they will have to wait for another time.