Elements of Humor
[This essay was posted on the website of the Philosophy Club, which meets regularly in Santa Monica, CA.
It was an amplification of remarks I made during the previous meeting, which was about the philosophy of
The problem with all the philosophical theories of humor that I have read is that they
are one dimensional: They tend to be either Superiority Theories, or Incongruity
Theories, or some other single thing.
My contention is that laughter is a very complex physiological reaction, and in order
to elicit it, many different factors must be present simultaneously: There must be
Structure, Content, and Context. And each of those categories is itself complex.
Under Structure, the event must have at least one of the following three elements:
(1) Incongruity, (2) Surprise, and (3) Recognition.
(1) By incongruity I mean that something must be out of place, or inappropriate for a
If a dignified man were making a thank-you speech at an Academy Award ceremony
and suddenly his pants fell down, that would be incongruous. On the other hand, if a
clown at a circus takes a bow and his pants fall down, that would not be particularly
incongruous, because that is a traditional part of a clown act.
If a politician is making a serious speech and someone runs on stage and hits him
in the face with a pie, that would be incongruous. But if it were a sketch on Saturday
Night Live, it would not be out of place at all.
When George W. Bush mispronounces a word, that is incongruous, because the
president of the United States is expected to be an educated person. But if a child
were to mispronounce the same word, it would not be particularly out of place,
because we know a child is still struggling to learn the language.
So incongruity, in itself, may or may not elicit a laugh; it depends on other factors.
(2) By surprise I mean that something happens unexpectedly. One of the funniest
events in TV history happened at an Academy Award ceremony, when a man
suddenly streaked across the stage in the nude. Because it was such a surprising
and inappropriate action, the streaking itself created a huge laugh. But to make the
scene even funnier, David Niven, the master of ceremonies, topped it by saying,
“That man may be the only person in the world who was proud to show off his
shortcomings.” That he was able to think of such a witty response so quickly was
even more surprising. And the word “shortcomings” was also a double-entente –
which was still more surprising.
Misdirection is another type of surprise. A comedian starts a joke by leading the
audience to think he is talking about one thing, but by ending the joke with an
unexpected word, we see that he was really talking about something else. Puns and
malapropisms are all examples of words being used in inappropriate and surprising
If you see a funny movie, you will usually not want to see it again, because the gags
will no longer be surprising. If you have heard a joke before, then you won’t laugh at it
when someone tells it again – except perhaps to be polite.
If you are broadsided by a drunk driver, that is a surprise. But it probably won’t make
So surprise, in itself, may or may not elicit laughter. It depends on other factors.
(3) By recognition, I mean that the audience must understand the joke. When Jay
Leno makes a joke about some famous person, we must first recognize the name
and secondly remember why they have recently been in the news; otherwise we won’t
“get” the joke. All “topical” humor requires an audience which reads newspapers and
knows what is going on in the world.
When Rich Little, Dana Carvey, or Darrell Hammond do an impression of some
famous person, we must be able to recognize who they are impersonating or we won’t
think it is funny. This requires first that the audience be familiar with the person being
imitated, and secondly that the actor be skilled enough to create an accurate
imitation of their most recognizable characteristics. The fact that a skilled
impressionist is able to transform themselves into some other easily recognizable
person is, in itself, both incongruous and surprising.
If you were standing in a theater line and suddenly turn around and find yourself
facing your next door neighbor, you are both almost certain to laugh. Because you
(1) instantly recognize each other, (2) recognize that you are both in an unfamiliar
setting, and (3) such a meeting was totally surprising.
Another element of recognition that is frequently overlooked is recognition of a high
degree of probability. In other words, a gag must be plausible. In the genre of
slapstick farce, such as The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, Keystone Kops,
Abbot and Costello, etc., there is plenty of incongruity, the incongruities are
frequently unexpected, and we understand why we are supposed to laugh. But
sophisticated adults usually don’t laugh – because the situations depicted are so
exaggerated as to be implausible. We recognize that such a thing would not really
happen. Children, on the other hand, find farce much funnier than their parents do
because virtually everything in life is surprising to them. Adults don’t laugh as much
as they did when they were children because they have “been there, done that, and
heard that.” Nothing surprises them anymore. Adults appreciate more sophisticated
humor, such as word play regarding arcane subjects that they haven’t heard before,
and that children and uneducated adults probably would not understand.
Part of the popularity of “Reality” television shows is this element of veracity. When
something happens that we think is unscripted, it is much funnier than it would be on
a Situation Comedy, which we know has been written, acted, and edited. But even
with unscripted TV shows, we know that the program has at least been edited in order
to show us only the funniest moments. So when something incongruous and
unexpected happens in real life, that will strike us as the funniest of all.
I think the longest and most raucous laugh I ever heard happened one time during a
speech contest for Atheists United. There was a banner for Atheists United mounted
on the wall behind the lectern. Just as one of the orators reached the climax of his
speech, militantly proclaiming that “There is no God!” suddenly the banner came
crashing to the floor – as though God were sending a message to us evil atheists. If
this event were presented as a skit on Saturday Night Live, the audience would
probably laugh, but not as hard – because everyone would recognize that even
though it could happen, it was only something that someone planned as a joke.
As far as Structure is concerned, at least one of the preceding elements must be
present in order for something to strike us as funny. But the more elements it has,
the funnier it will be. The example of the speech contest was the funniest of all,
because for the banner to fall at any time during the program would have been
incongruous. But for it to fall perfectly on cue was certainly surprising. And we all
knew that it happened completely by accident. So, all three elements were present in
Finally, the recognition element must happen very suddenly. The realization of what
the joke is about must strike the viewer or listener as suddenly as a Karate chop.
That’s why comedians say “It’s all in the timing.” If Jay Leno fluffs a word during a
joke, then it blunts the impact of the point. This suddenness is part of the surprise.
Under the heading of Content, I mean that the gag (whether acted or spoken) must
be about some subject. Some subjects are inherently ripe for ridicule; some are not.
Those that create a certain level of anxiety in the audience are the most fruitful.
These are the ones which are surrounded by taboos. They are not fit for “polite”
conversation. They are not “politically correct.” Traditionally, they include sex,
religion, aggression, politics, and crime or tragedy. These are things you are not
supposed to joke about. Breaking these taboos can be out of place (incongruous),
unexpected (surprising), and if the audience knows exactly what the comedian is
referring to (recognizable).
Under the heading of Context, I am referring to the time and place of an event, the
people involved in the event (actors, or other subjects), the composition of the
audience and their expectations.
When breaking a taboo, the comic must correctly analyze the total context of the
situation in order to make a gag “work.” He is always walking on thin ice. A joke must
be close enough to the cutting edge of what is acceptable, but without stepping over
the line. A joke about religion might work very well in a comedy club, but totally bomb
at a church social. On the other hand, it might work very well at a Unitarian church,
but not a Baptist one.
Let’s say our atheist speaker had been delivering his speech at the invitation of a
church which had agreed to hear representatives from various religious points of
view. When the banner fell at the climax of his speech, an audience of
fundamentalists might well have gasped in awe at the miracle they had just
witnessed – which demonstrated God’s displeasure at the speech. But it was
hilarious to an atheist audience, which perceived the event as a pure coincidence.
Recently, Jay Leno tried to make a joke about 9/11. It bombed. He said, “Oops... too
soon.” The subject is still too raw to make jokes about it. In a few more months
perhaps the wounds will have healed enough to laugh. And the laughter will help us
To joke about a person is to attack that person. So a comedian must assess whether
it is safe to attack a certain famous person in front of a particular audience. If the
person attacked is perceived as an enemy of the audience, they will laugh
uproariously; but if it is one of their current heroes, the joke will bomb.
I should also add that there is a difference between a hostile laugh and a
sympathetic one. What I have been analyzing refers to hostile laughter – which is by
far the most satisfying type. A sympathetic laugh is usually one which is produced in
order to be agreeable in a social situation. But sympathetic humor, such as America’
s Funniest Home Videos, or some kind of Animal Antics, is likely to produce more
smiles than belly laughs.
I could go on. But for an analysis of different types of comedic plays and films, go to
my website: www.miltontimmons.com and read the excerpts from my textbook,
Orientation to Cinema. There you will find the differences in writing and production
between High Comedy, Low Comedy, Parody, Satire, High Camp, and Low