Why Are Jokes Funny?

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

Of course these are questions to which it’s almost impossible to provide a simple answer because there are so many different types of humour, from slapstick and physical comedy to one-liners, wordplay and 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 to say a few words about a broad general principle that is, I think, involved in a variety of comedic modes but pre-eminently in the classic gag or one-liner. As part of my argument I will invoke Wittgenstein’s concepts of ‘language-games’ and ‘aspect-blindness’, neither of which sounds a bundle of laughs but which are nonetheless useful explanatory tools.

Why is it that, if someone fails to ‘get’ a joke and needs to have it explained to them, they never find it funny? In fact the typical reaction in such a circumstance is not a smile or a laugh but a dismissive groan?

The answer to this question becomes clear when one understands that a successful joke of the kind envisaged above is a verbal construct – one might call it a linguistic circuit – containing a deliberate gap which the listener must fill in for themselves, thereby producing the impression that they are participating vicariously in the creation or execution of the joke. It is the sense of our own creativity, our own imaginative reach, that gives us pleasure in such circumstances and is expressed in the form of laughter. What we are laughing at, in effect, is our own cleverness in penetrating the surface structure of the joke and completing the comedic circuit.

This also explains why, if we hear a joke in the company of another person who fails to get the joke, we typically experience a certain smugness and sense of intellectual superiority over our less creative or imaginative companion. And why, if we ourselves are the ones who fail to get the joke, we are likely to regard it as too strained or recondite (‘too clever by half’) and therefore not funny. And this in turn is the reason why everyone regards their own sense of humour as the best, since everyone effectively defines ‘funny’ to mean ‘something that makes me laugh’. I only laugh at things that are funny whereas you sometimes laugh at things that aren’t funny, therefore my sense of humour is better than yours.

A paradigmatic example may help. Bob Monkhouse was fond of telling the following joke: When I die I want to go the way my old dad did, peacefully in his sleep, and not screaming like his passengers.

The joke begins by positing a particular scenario: an old man dying peacefully in his own bed while asleep. It’s not until the joke’s final word – we might call it the joke’s detonator – that an alternative scenario is posited, or rather implied: the man is in fact not in bed at home but rather falls asleep at the wheel of the bus or taxi he’s driving with the result that he plunges to his death off the edge of a cliff, taking his passengers with him. But none of this is stated explicitly, it is up to the listener to connect the two scenarios and appreciate the experiential distance between them. In the absence of such a connection, supplied by the listener, the joke isn’t simply unfunny, it’s meaningless.

Imagine if all this was spelled out in the joke itself, something along the lines of: When I die I want to go the way my old dad did, peacefully in his sleep, and not screaming like his passengers, because actually he wasn’t in bed at home when he died but driving a bus full of passengers, which careered off the side of a cliff when he fell asleep at the wheel. Not only is this not funny, it doesn’t even count as a joke any more because it leaves no room for the creative participation of the listener.

A couple of further examples, just to drive the point home. 1) the school teacher who complains that he keeps being interrupted by his pupils: ‘Every time I open my mouth some idiot speaks’; 2) Buzz Lightyear’s slogan in Toy Story, ‘To infinity and beyond!’. In both cases the listener is required to supply the missing comic link, which the speakers themselves fail to see – in the first case that ‘I’ and ‘some idiot’ can be understood as referring to the same person, namely the speaker, and in the second that the concept of infinity entails that there can be no ‘beyond’. If we fail to supply the link, then – like the teacher and Buzz Lightyear themselves – we fail to see anything funny in the remarks.

It may be instructive here to mention Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘aspect-seeing’, which forms such an important part of his later philosophy. Wittgenstein cites the well-known visual illusion consisting of a simple line drawing that can be seen alternatively as a duck or a rabbit: some people see it as a duck, others as a rabbit, and the same person may be able to switch from seeing it one moment as a duck and the next as a rabbit. The person who fails to get a joke is like the person who can see only a rabbit in the drawing or only a duck. He is unable to hold both aspects in his mind at once and switch from one to the other. Conversely the person who appreciates the joke is able to move freely between the two aspects.

A similar mechanism is at work in irony – that is, saying something that is different to, or opposite to, what one means – along with its more disdainful cousin, sarcasm. Imagine you are in the company of a person from another culture where irony is unknown. And imagine further that the pair of you are caught outdoors in a thunderstorm and you make an ironic comment to the effect that you love being soaked to the skin and in danger of being struck by lightning. Your companion, deaf to the irony of your remark, is left feeling simply confused: ‘You say you love being caught in a thunderstorm but your behaviour – the way you ran to the shelter of the cafe – clearly shows that you don’t love it. So which is it?’ Again using Wittgenstein’s terminology, one might say that there is no ‘rule’ for irony in your companion’s ‘language-game’, therefore he is unable to switch aspects from one meaning (‘I love thunderstorms’) to its implied opposite (‘I hate thunderstorms’).

In Culture and Value Wittgenstein offers the following analogy with regard to ‘aspect-blindness’, which neatly illustrates the point about irony: ‘What is it like for people not to have the same sense of humour? They do not react properly to each other. It’s as though there were a custom amongst certain people for one person to throw another a ball which he is supposed to catch and throw back; but some people, instead of throwing it back, put it in their pocket.’

The pun and the double entendre are other types of joke, understood in a broad sense, that rely on a kind of obvious aspect-switching on the part of the listener. The humour, when successful, derives from the connection made by the listener between the literal sense of the words and their implied but unstated secondary sense. If the listener fails to make the necessary connection, we say he fails to see the joke. And, as with all jokes, if the listener regards the connection as too obvious, too easy or unearned, and especially if the listener anticipates the punchline, then the joke is likely to be considered unsuccessful or inferior. It’s the equivalent in comedic terms of being talked down to. And, as with other unsuccessful jokes, the typical reaction is a groan rather than a laugh.

Not all verbal humour is of the above kind of course, In novels and sitcoms and movies the humour is most likely to be character-based. Here a character in possession of certain usually exaggerated personality traits (irascible, officious, aspirational) is placed in an imaginary situation (hotelier, captain in the Home Guard, rag-and-bone man) in a way that elicits those traits and results in a variety of amusing (that is, ridiculous, humiliating, socially awkward etc) dramatic outcomes.

But here too such humour can be seen as a kind of extended dramatic irony, requiring as it does that the character in question be blind to their own shortcomings while the listener/viewer/reader, along with one or more of the other characters, is not. One might even say that such humour relies on a kind of Wittgensteinian aspect-switching whereby the listener/viewer/reader alternates between perceiving the drama from the point of view of a disinterested observer and perceiving it from the hapless character’s own point of view. Whether it’s Basil Fawlty, Captain Mainwaring or Harold Steptoe – or, more recently, Delboy Trotter, David Brent or Alan Partridge – we watch these characters with a reassuring sense of our own moral superiority and this confirmation of our self-worth is pleasurable and is signalled by laughter.

Sadly, exactly the same principle operates when it comes to racist, sexist and homophobic jokes, which are designed both to denigrate the target of the joke (along with their real-world counterparts) and elevate the listener. It’s easy to forget how relatively recent are the cultural taboos imposed by political correctness. When I was growing up back in the 1960s and 1970s Irish jokes were the order of the day. Maybe in the future it will no longer be considered acceptable to laugh at characters like Mr Bean, who after all is effectively mute and dysfunctional and would be regarded by most people as disabled. Culture is everything, as Wittgenstein was again keen to point out.

Finally in this brief survey of verbal humour it would be remiss not to mention absurdist or anarchic or surreal humour of the Monty Python or Goon Show variety, which attempts to undermine and subvert all of the traditional comedic schemata mentioned above. Here the intention is not to provoke the listener/viewer/reader into supplying a particular unstated connection or switching between different aspects of the scenario but rather to short-circuit the entire process so that the lack of a connection, indeed the very notion of a connection being necessary, becomes the point of the joke. There’s no internal logic or satirical intent dictating why John Cleese should be dressed as an usherette in a cinema, selling seabird-flavoured ice creams (‘Albatross!… Albatross!… Stormy Petrel on a Stick!’). Its daftness, its lack of logic, is the point.

So where does that leave us in our search for an answer to our opening question, ‘What is humour’? Should we abandon our quest for a single unifying theory that can account for all the varying shades of humour from slapstick and puns to satire and stand-up? Do these apparently disparate modes of humour really share a commonality? Wittgenstein, were he not so tight-lipped on this as on so much else, would doubtless have pointed to his concept of ‘family resemblances’, according to which two activities such as football and solitaire, despite having nothing in common beyond both being leisure pursuits, can nonetheless both be described as games. Similarly, slapstick and wordplay, for example, may have no characteristics in common yet both qualify as forms of humour by virtue of their overlapping similarities with other members of the class of humorous things. Thus:


                                 abc                      bcd                          cde                     def

                            slapstick        situation comedy     stand-up comedy      wordplay

Slapstick overlaps with sitcoms: e.g. Michael Crawford’s stunts in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.

Sitcoms overlap with stand-up: the sort of observational humour popular in stand-up is often dramatised in sitcoms, e.g. Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Stand-up overlaps with wordplay: e.g. Dave Allen teaching his son how to tell the time (‘The third hand is the second hand’).

But slapstick and wordplay do not overlap.