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Can Humor Be Defined?

What's so funny?

What's so funny?

In one of my introductory newsletters I talk about humor.  If you haven’t read it, here’s the context: I believe that once you know what makes someone laugh, you know a lot about that person.  The problem is that some words are very hard to define, and humor, in my opinion,  might be the hardest of them all.

Not too long ago I looked at an alternative definition of sarcasm. Sarcasm is easy to spot, easy to define, but there are still many different perspectives on it.  Some people think sarcasm is a form of humor.  Some think it’s a form of sociopathy. 

So what might humor be?

The pendulum swings wide, my friends. How shall we count the ways?  How shall we fill in the gaps from…

  • The Marx Brothers to the Wayans Brothers.
  • Satire to sitcoms
  • Oscar Wilde to that Gallagher guy who smashes watermelons with a big hammer
  • Standup comedians to slapstick
  • Lowest common denominator puns to highbrow British wit
  • Crass limericks and dirty jokes to just about anything else

Do you see the challenge? What in the world makes something funny to one person and repellent to another?  Why do some people (like myself), laugh whenever South Park is on, but you couldn’t pay others to sit through 15 seconds of it?

Why do some people (like myself) find that few things are less funny these days than films that are billed as comedies and sit-coms that can feel like torture?

Why do some people only love a laugh at someone else’s expense and some people find that a trait of cruelty?

I do not know.  Maybe you do.  Here’s your assignment:

Think about things that make you laugh.  Now try to explain why they are funny. Use those examples to define humor, if you can.

I’ll try too.  Let’s talk in the comments section.

Josh

Photo by Pdam2

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  • HP August 11, 2009, 7:28 am

    I enjoy sarcasm. I used to joke that sarcasm was my love language.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 11, 2009, 7:34 am

      HP, Oh man, I enjoy it too, for all my high-ground yammering. I wish I didn’t, but I do.

  • IthacaJake August 11, 2009, 7:59 am

    IMHO, there are fewer ways to make something “unfunny” than to try to explain it. Usually it’s contextual and there are few things that are “universally” funny.

    For example, I’ve been following Jessica Hagy’s pseudo-blog “Indexed” for a couple of years now: http://thisisindexed.com/ Sometimes witty, sometimes insightful. Usually on the nose.

    Another example is the ubiquitous xkcd (http://xkcd.com), which occasionally requires advanced mathematics to make sense…but is always a joy to read even if you don’t understand the joke.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 11, 2009, 8:38 am

      IthacaJake, you make a great point. My own attempts to explain why things are funny to me are pitiful failures. As someone who once took an indexing class and who also lacks the ability to divide fractions, I will check out “Indexed” but probably not xkcd. Who am I kidding? I’m going right now.

  • nic August 11, 2009, 8:18 am

    The thing about humour is that it is so personal and rarely crosses national boundaries.

    I run workshops for the European Commission which encompasses 27 countries. It became apparent to me early on that the only safe use of humour is at my own expense, otherwise what is funny in one country may be insulting or just not funny in another!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 11, 2009, 8:40 am

      Nic, are there any stories about humor and national gaps that you could share, or is it all top-secret and classified? Either way, I do know what you mean. I spent a lot of time with a man from Honduras in the mid 90s. He would tell the most confusing, seemingly unfunny jokes you’ve ever heard, but he would laugh himself into hysterics. So would anyone else from Honduras. The longer this went on, I started to feel like there was a party I hadn’t been invited to, in Honduras.

  • Kira August 11, 2009, 8:58 am

    Have you read any ‘evolutionary psychology’ explanations of humor … From memory, there are quite a few. I’m not saying I agreed with much of what I read at the time, but I’d recommend having a look into the ‘genre’. I can’t remember anyone to recommend, but then again, you’re the librarian 😉

    The most convincing explanation I remember suggested that humor evolved from our animal ancestors that lived in groups. Eg. laughing evolved from situations like this … a group member releases ‘a noise’ after realizing the predator he thought he saw in the bushes was actually just the shadows playing tricks on a tree trunk. The process … 1. assumption (Holy crap! A lion) 2. response to assumption (freeze response) 3. perception of reality (Phew! It’s just a tree trunk) 4. Response to perception of reality (Laugh, consequently signaling to the rest of the group that everything is okay).

    If there’s any degree of truth to this explanation, it does lead to some interesting ways of understanding what we conceive as humor today … well, I think it does, anyway 🙂

    Cheers!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 11, 2009, 9:34 am

      Hey Kira, welcome to the party. I can’t believe you didn’t say something about dark chocolate in there:) I haven’t read nay evolutionary psychology on laugher and humor. Dig some articles up and stick them over on STTB. I also check out the articles you post there. Everything you’re saying makes sense, though. The evolutionary responses do seem plausible.

      Congrats on your last fight, by the way!

  • Dermanus August 11, 2009, 9:22 am

    In ‘Ringworld’ one of Larry Niven’s characters describes humour as a human self-defence mechanism to absurdity.
    Heinlein talked about how every good joke is at somebodies expense. General message: humour is our way of coping with the nasty things in life without going crazy.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 11, 2009, 9:32 am

      Dermanus, now that’s what I like to see! Someone who can reference Niven and Heinlein off the top of their head. Vonnegut also used the self-defence mechanism. Basically, that’s what everyone of his books was: laughing in self-defense. Awesome comment, thankee!

  • Larissa August 11, 2009, 10:06 am

    I really agree with what Dermanus posted. In the most stressful circumstances, I am usually laughing my head off at something. Here’s a horrible example: a very good friend of mine had a little boy who was dying from brain cancer. Another friend came by to see him and asked how he was doing. I busted up laughing. I know, I said it was horrible.
    But using the explaination that Dermanus quoted, it makes perfect sense. Death is absurd. . . . that situation was absurd, and that’s how my brain chose to deal with it.
    Laughing and “humor” can just be a tool to socialize too. I have seen or heard something funny in a store, met the eyes of a stranger in line next to me, and then laughed with that person. Kind of neat when you think about it. . .

  • Blaine Moore August 11, 2009, 11:24 am

    Yeah – I was just coming on to reference Heinlein’s viewpoint (haven’t read much of Niven since I was aged in single digits.)

    Best reference is Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, where learning what humor is how it makes us human is one of the main themes throughout the book. “We laugh because it hurts,” or something along those lines. Everything we laugh about is because somebody is getting hurt and it is how we cope with the pain.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 11, 2009, 1:27 pm

      @Blaine. All right, that’s another Heinlein reference. I’ll have to get those books back out. It’s been years since I read any Heinlein, and the last one I read was Starship Troopers.

  • Chris Rodgers August 11, 2009, 1:13 pm

    Edward de Bono, the inventor of lateral thinking, describes humour as “by far the most significant activity of the human brain”. This is because, like lateral thinking, it is a pattern-breaking process. Humour works by causing what de Bono would call an “insight switchover” from a familiar pattern to a new, unexpected one. It is this moment of surprise and realization that triggers the ‘Ha! Ha!’ response.

    There are several ways of bringing this effect about, of course, but the easiest one to explain is the format of the conventional joke. Regardless of the subject-matter of the joke, the ‘set-up’ leads the audience down a familiar, ‘reasonable’ pathway. When this pattern has been established (whether as part of a “one-liner” or a longer, “shaggy dog” story) the punch line suddenly shifts their attention ‘laterally’ into a different, hitherto unseen track.

    Although it is a little dated now, an example used by de Bono in one of his early books makes the point well. It goes something like this:

    “Bob Hope said that he was very disappointed with his Christmas present this year. All he got was three golf clubs … and only two of those had swimming pools!”

    The ‘mind pattern’ that is initially triggered by the mention of golf clubs in the context of a Christmas present is one that includes woods, irons and putters. When swimming pools are mentioned, the expectancy established by this pattern is suddenly broken and a completely unexpected track opened up. Paradoxically, this new meaning makes sense retrospectively (at least in the context of a wealthy individual like Bob Hope!), otherwise it wouldn’t have been funny. I guess that other things that people find funny (or not) – such as ‘non-PC’ humour – is, again, because this unexpectedly causes listeners to ‘switch tracks’ from the politically correct norm to a more risqué position. An alternative response to ‘Ha! Ha!’ here might be embarrassment, of course. But this would still signal a pattern shift.

    De Bono argues that this ‘switchover’ process occurs naturally through such things as mistakes and misunderstanding as well as through humour. But waiting for such natural events to occur as the source of new insights is inefficient in relation to specific areas of focus. And it is for that reason that he invented the principles and practice of lateral thinking. This sets out to counter the natural (and essential) pattern-forming nature of the brain, by looking to trigger new patterns that otherwise would not have emerged.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 11, 2009, 1:28 pm

      Chris, that is fascinating. I’ve been reading some different bios of De Bono this morning since your comment. I’d never heard of him, but wow, it looks like he’s got a big brain. This is a much more thorough exploration than I expected this morning, thanks for the heads up.

  • Chris Rodgers August 11, 2009, 1:44 pm

    Hi Josh, glad the comment helped the discussion. All the best, Chris.

  • Casey August 11, 2009, 2:53 pm

    I think all of us love some really sharp cutting sarcasm, but everytime I laugh I remember this quote, I think it was Oscar Wilde that said:
    “Sarcasm is the lowest form of humour but the highest form of wit”

    And I ask myself what that says about me.

    I like Kira’s view point of it being a “Oh crap!” release mechanism… Might be why we find slapstick and other forms of painful humor so funny. We are intially shocked by what we see and in order to handle it our minds decide to consider it funny?

  • Daisy August 11, 2009, 4:06 pm

    A close friend (oldest of 10 children) uses sarcasm as a matter of course because it was a survival tactic in her home. Her husband (an only child) points her to a dictionary definition of sarcasm, which is “the tearing of flesh.”
    They have 4 kids, the eldest of whom are in college now. I wonder if the kids have developed a sarcastic streak?

    • Josh Hanagarne August 11, 2009, 5:05 pm

      Daisy, I’ve never heard the “tearing of flesh” definition. How interesting and indicting…My main problem with sarcasm–hypocrite here, admittedly–is that it drains me if I’m around too much of it. It also gets easier to participate the more I expose myself to it.

  • Jessica Marie August 11, 2009, 4:53 pm

    I’ve always considered humor a defensive mechanism. While most people use fight or flight, a select few use humor. When we are emotionally hurt or threatened, we can diffuse it with humor. We can laugh our way out of social awkwardness. When we are physically hurt, we can lessen the pain or divert attention by using humor.

    I must admit that what someone laughs at says a lot about them. I used to date a guy who only laughed when other people were injured or insulted. The more I got to know him the more I realized that he was kind of sadistic and he lacked empathy.

    The funniest things I hear these days come from my nieces and nephews who range from age 1-9 years. Most sitcoms and movies that are supposed to be comedies generally don’t make me laugh anymore.

  • We Fly Spitfires August 12, 2009, 8:47 am

    I once heard someone say that comedians are very intelligent because good humor involves being able to read your surroundings/social situations and make observations based on them. If you’re not intelligent, you can’t be funny.

    Harsh, perhaps, but an interesting thought.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 12, 2009, 10:10 am

      We Fly Spitfires, I heard something similar once: “You have to be smart to be a smart ass”

  • Blaine Moore August 12, 2009, 9:44 am

    Josh – Starship Troopers really wasn’t a very good book (at least in my opinion.) Stranger in a Strange Land is definitely worth a read, though. I recommend the “uncut” version that got released in the early 90s – it’s about a third longer, but includes quite a few concepts and ideas that the publishers weren’t willing to risk putting in print back in the 60s.

    Also, have you read the Isaac Asimov short story about the origin of Jokes? (I think it was called Jokester or something like that, not 100% sure though, it’s been at least 15 years since I read it.) The basic premise is that humans are part of an alien experiment and that we are incapable of making up new jokes, we only repeat jokes given to us by the aliens to observe our reactions. Once we figure that out, every person simultaneously loses their sense of humor since the experiment is no longer valid, or something along those lines. (Admittedly, not one of Asimov’s better stories.)

    • Josh Hanagarne August 12, 2009, 10:11 am

      Blaine, I definitely didn’t love Starship Troopers. Of course, I’d seen the movie first and you can probably guess how the book doesn’t exactly match up with the big insect bloodbath movie. I’ll look up that Asimov. I’m a fair-weather fan but it’s been a while since I’ve checked him out at all. Stranger is now on request for me at the library: the uncut version.

  • nic August 12, 2009, 11:52 am

    Ooooh, Heinlen!

    I paritularly enjoyed

    Stranger in a Strange Land
    Time Enough for Love
    I will fear no Evil
    Friday

    • Josh Hanagarne August 12, 2009, 12:36 pm

      Nic, it sounds like everyone here knows more about Heinlein than I do. You’ve lit a fire under me. I can’t stand not being the smartest guy in the room:)

  • Laura Cococcia August 12, 2009, 12:58 pm

    Aah, what a good topic to discuss. Sometimes, I feel my humor is dying, other times it’s on fire. I actually stopped watching all sitcoms in the past two years because I didn’t find them funny anymore. I think I have to stick to dry, sarcastic humor – but I’ve moved beyond liking the “making fun of people” humor (that might just come with age, who knows?) Great topic to think about Josh – I wonder if I’ll be funny today? Maybe someone else will and I’ll re-comment and let you know how it goes 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne August 12, 2009, 2:03 pm

      Laura, age has definitely played a part in my changing sense of what’s funny,but that certainly doesn’t happen to everyone. I know people who have been laughing at (and telling) the same jokes for decades and aren’t about to quit. I’d love to see what your humor looks like when it’s “on fire.” 🙂

  • the crazy suburban mom August 15, 2009, 3:47 am

    Oy. The what is comedy thing is as big as the what is art thing. And both change with the audience, the times… the person.. and the amount of money said person is paid for doing the art/comedy. Although I admit no matter how old I was or where I was or who I was with…that smashing watermelons thing? Never got it.

    Anyway. As to humor vs. sarcasm. Well, that I’ve watched people do extensively. And that looks more like passive-aggression than humor.

    But.

    It seems to me when evaluating the difference between humorous statements and sarcastic statements that look like humorous statements you can tell the difference this way… If you can mentally add ‘comma you a******’ to the end of a statement and it works? It’s sarcasm.

    Tracy

  • Blaine Moore August 15, 2009, 12:36 pm

    Josh –

    I hope that those jokes you’ve been hearing from those people for decades is better than the jokes my mother has been telling for decades…or should I say, the one joke: “What did one hot dog say to the other? Hi Frank!”

    It has been a couple years, though…next month when I go visit her I’ll have to see if I can’t get her to tell it to my 5 year old cousin…

    • Josh Hanagarne August 15, 2009, 6:26 pm

      Blaine, this is one of my dad’s favorite jokes: “A Mexican woman had twins. She named them Jose and Hose-B” (argh)