What does funny mean?

Different senses of humour cartoon

In the wider sense humour applies to all literature, speech or writing in which the object is to amuse, or rouse laughter in, the reader or hearer. In its narrower sense, humour is distinguished from wit, satire, and farce. It is less intellectual and more imaginative than wit, being concerned more with character and situation than with plays upon words or upon ideas; more sympathetic and less cruel than satire; more subtle than farce. On the other side, it shades into fancy and imagination, since it is concerned, as they are, with exploring the possibilities of unlikely situations or combinations of ideas, but it differs from them in being concerned only with the laughable aspects of these imagined situations.

But what exactly is it about a situation that makes it laughable? We all know that some things do make us laugh; but it is very hard to say just what it is that these laughable things have in common. Theories of humour are attempts to answer this question. There are basically three main categories of theory: superiority theories, incongruity theories and relief theories. There is also a fourth type, which takes the central feature of humour to be ambivalence, a mingling of attraction and repulsion.

Superiority Theories

Very often we laugh at people because they have some failing or defect, or because they find themselves at a disadvantage in some way or suffer some small misfortune. The miser, the glutton, the drunkard are all stock figures of comedy; so is the henpecked husband or the man who gets hit with a custard pie. We laugh, too, at mistakes: schoolboy howlers, faulty pronunciation, bad grammar. These are all fairly crude examples, but it may be that even the most subtle humour is merely a development of this, and that the pleasure we take in humour derives from our feeling of superiority over those we laugh at. According to this view, all humour is derisive.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is probably the originator of this theory. "Laughter," he says, "is a kind of sudden glory"; and he is using "glory" in the sense of "vainglory," or "self-esteem." He adds that we laugh at the misfortunes or infirmities of others, at our own past follies, provided that we are conscious of having now surmounted them, and also at unexpected successes of our own.

The obvious criticism of Hobbes is that his formula is too narrow to cover every type of humour. It does not seem to apply to word play, or to nonsense of the type written by Edward Lear (1812-1888) or Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). Nor does it apply to all comic characters. No doubt we feel superior to Malvolio and affectionately condescending towards Don Quixote or Mr. Pickwick, but our attitude to Falstaff is one of sneaking admiration and envy. The laughter roused by comic vice, and particularly debauchery and lust (as in Restoration comedy) often causes the laughter rather being the object of it.

Moreover, superiority theories seem to leave out of account one very important element in humour: incongruity. Consider the child's misinterpretation of a well-known hymn:

Shall a mother's tender care
"Fail towards the child she-bear?
[A pun on 'bearing' a child]

We do not laugh at this simply because it is a mistake. We laugh because of the contrast between "the child she bare"—a phrase heavy with emotional associations—and the very different attitude evoked by she-bears. Motherhood is kept in one compartment of our minds and bears in quite another; it is the sudden mixing of these contrasting attitudes that causes laughter.

Followers of Hobbes have tried to meet these criticisms. They have pointed out that, even when we laugh with comic vice, we are laughing at, and perhaps feeling superior to, the conventional morality which is being flouted. This would apply also to indecent jokes, and perhaps even to nonsense, since here even the conventional requirement that we should talk sense—"this strict, untiring, troublesome governess, the reason" (Schopenhauer)—is being flouted. As for incongruity, if the example given above is typical, it is clear that the contrast is between something high and something low, and that the emotional transition is from a reverent to an irreverent attitude. It seems plausible to say that it is the first attitude that is being derided.

Arguing on these lines, Alexander Bain (1818-1903) maintains that all humour involves the degradation of something. Bain expands Hobbes in two main directions. He says that we need not be directly conscious of our own superiority; we may, for example, laugh sympathetically with another who scores off his adversary. Secondly, it need not be a person that is derided: it may be an idea, a political institution, or, indeed, anything at all that makes a claim to dignity or respect. Even a sunrise may be degraded, as when Samuel Butler compares it, in his poem 'Hudibras', to "a lobster boiled."

According to any superiority theory of humour, the laugher always looks down on whatever he laughs at, and so judges it inferior by some standard. Obviously many varieties of superiority theory are possible, according to the particular standard adopted. Henri Bergson (1859-1941) gives us both the clearest and most famous instance of a particular application of the superiority theory. Bergson's ideal is elasticity, adaptability, the elan vital. Hence the laughable is for him "something mechanical encrusted upon the living." The typical comic character, he says, is a man with an obsession, or idée fixe, like Don Quixote, or Moliere's miser. He is not flexible enough to adapt himself to the complex and changing demands of reality. As a typical example of comic rigidity, Bergson cites the story of the customs officers who went bravely to the rescue of the crew of a wrecked ship. The first thing the customs men said when they finally got the sailors ashore was: "Have you anything to declare?" Here, Bergson says, we have the blind, automatic persistence of a professional habit of mind, quite regardless of altered circumstances.

Laughter is, Bergson thinks, society's defense against the eccentric who refuses to adjust himself to its requirements. He does not seem to consider the possibility that humour may sometimes (as in Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal or George Bernard Shaw in his play Getting Married) to be directed at the social code itself; though this omission need not affect his theory, since it would then be the code that would be regarded as unduly rigid and out of touch with reality.

Incongruity Theories

Many writers on humour have refused to accept the view that humourous incongruity consists in degrading something exalted by bringing it into contact with something trivial or disreputable. They not only hold that incongruity is quite distinct from degradation, but also insist that incongruity, and not degradation, is the central feature of all humour.

Incongruity is often identified with "frustrated expectation", a concept we owe to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who says that humour arises "from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing." More is implied here than merely surprise: the suggestion is that humour consists in the violent dissolution of an emotional attitude. This is done by the abrupt intrusion into the attitude of something that is felt not to belong there, of some element that has strayed, as it were, from another compartment of our minds.

On this view, what is essential to humour is the mingling of two ideas which are felt to be utterly disparate. One or the other may be "degraded" in the process; but this is incidental. The neatness of the joke will depend on two things: the degree of contrast between the two elements, and the completeness with which they are made to fuse. A pun is "the weakest form of wit," because here the connection between the two elements is purely verbal. Humour is more penetrating when it brings to light a real connection between two things normally regarded with quite different attitudes, or when it forces on us a complete reversal of values. Oscar Wilde's witticism, "work is the curse of the drinking classes," is funny, not merely because of its close resemblance to the wording of the conventional remark which it replaces ["drink is the curse of the working classes"], but because it presents us with a quite different, but perhaps equally appropriate, evaluation of the social fact referred to.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) puts this by saying that all humour can be "traced to a syllogism in the first figure with an undisputed major and an unexpected minor, which to a certain extent is only sophistically valid." Sophistically here meaning: "a seemingly reasonably argument that is actually invalid".

This intimidating, and completely humourless formula, may be illustrated by a piece of dialogue from Shaw's play Getting Married, in which a bishop is made to say that he "cannot, as a British bishop, speak disrespectfully of polygamy," because the great majority of the subjects of the British Empire are polygamists. This might be represented as the following syllogism:

All British institutions are to be respected (major premise).
Polygamy is a British institution (minor premise).
Therefore polygamy is to be respected (conclusion).

Here the major "undisputed" premise is, for Shaw's audience in 1908 (back when the sun never set on the British Empire), that there were a number of colonies which practiced polygamy. The minor premise is, equally certainly, both "unexpected and "only sophistically valid".

Schopenhauer seems to take account only of the intellectual element in humour. For him humour depends on the pleasure of finding unexpected connections between ideas. It differs from serious intellectual effort only because the connection, being merely "sophistically valid," cannot be taken seriously. This ignores the emotional element in humour: the extent to which its force depends on the dissolution of an attitude or reversal of values. The passage quoted from Shaw, for example, can have its full impact only on an audience thoroughly imbued with the popular attitude to imperialism that was current in Britain at the time Shaw was writing.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) thinks that all humour can be explained as "descending incongruity". The adjective "descending" implies a judgment of value. Spencer agrees with Bain that incongruity always involves a contrast between something exalted, or dignified, and something trivial or disreputable; but he thinks that it is the incongruity, and not the descent or "degradation," that is the important feature (so it's not just another version of Superiority Theory).

Spencer sets out to answer a question that had been largely overlooked. Why, he asks, should the perception of incongruity lead to the peculiar bodily manifestations we call laughter? His answer is that laughter is an overflow of nervous energy, and that the abrupt transition from a solemn thought to a trivial or disreputable one leaves us with a fund of nervous energy which needs to be expended in laughter. This explanation, however, would seem to rest on a confusion, since a disreputable topic may well rouse more emotional energy than a respectable one.

Humour, according to incongruity theories, may be said to consist in the finding of "the inappropriate within the appropriate." It is not merely that unexpected connections are found between apparently dissimilar things: our notions of propriety are also involved. In any community certain attitudes are felt to be appropriate to some things but not to others; and there develop "stereotypes" of such figures as the typical politician, or poet, or maiden aunt, "the hundred per cent American," and so on. The humourist drags into light the inconvenient facts which shatter these attitudes and puncture these stereotypes. Fielding, for example, in his novel Jonathan Wild, portrays the exploits of a highwayman in the terms usually reserved for military heroes. He demonstrates that descriptions appropriate to the one can also be appropriate to the other. Here the effect is to cast doubt on the conventional system of values; but sometimes, as Bergson pointed out, the humour may be at the expense of the person who is unable to live up to the conventional requirements. Consequently humour is sometimes radical and sometimes conservative in its implications. Sometimes it is not clear which effect is intended. For example, Wilde's witticism, quoted above, may be taken either as a gibe at the working classes or as a questioning of the conventional Victorian attitudes to work and to drink.

Relief Theories

Since humour often calls conventional social requirements into question, it may be regarded as affording us relief from the restraint of conforming to those requirements. The relief may be only temporary: a dirty joke, for example, is not usually a serious challenge to conventional morality; but it does enable us to air the sexual impulses which society makes us repress. Moreover, people who have been undergoing a strain will sometimes burst into laughter if the strain is suddenly removed. It may be, then, that the central element in humour is neither a feeling of superiority nor the awareness of incongruity, but the feeling of relief that comes from the removal of restraint.

This theory has been reinforced and brought into prominence by the psychological discoveries of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud himself regards humour as a means of outwitting the "censor," his name for the internal inhibitions which prevent us from giving rein to many of our natural impulses. It is not only our sexual impulses that are repressed by the censor, but also our malicious ones. In this way Freud is able to account, not only for dirty jokes and for the appeal of comic characters like Falstaff who ignore conventional moral restraints, but also for the malicious element in humour to which superiority theories call attention.

According to Freud, the censor will allow us to indulge in these forbidden thoughts only if it is first beguiled or disarmed in some way. The beguiling is done, he thinks, by means of the techniques of humour: such devices as punning, "representation by the opposite," and so on. An insult, for example, is funny if it appears at first sight to be a compliment. To take another example, the witticism from Wilde must be regarded, on this view, as allowing us to give vent to suppressed wishes about work and drink (or, alternatively, to suppressed malice against the working classes); the censor is first taken by surprise because we appear to be merely repeating a conventional remark, and is then diverted by the discovery that a very slight rewording of this remark enables us to express quite different sentiments. Freud finds many similarities between the techniques of humour and the ways in which our waking thoughts are distorted in dreams. This enables him to link his theory of humour with his theory of dream interpretation: dreams are also a means of eluding the censor.

The intellectual pleasure of playing with words and ideas, and of finding unexpected connections, regarded by the incongruity theories as the essential element in humour, thus finds a place in Freud's theory as a means of tricking the censor. Since the censor is beguiled and not merely deceived, it is presupposed that such devices are a source of pleasure in themselves. Freud explains this by adopting Spencer's physiological explanation of laughter. The pleasure results, he thinks, from the economizing of nervous energy. Nevertheless, he does not regard the intrinsic appeal of these comic devices as sufficient to explain humour: they would be pointless if we were not able, under their cover, to give vent to repressed desires.


Each of these theories of humour is able to explain some types of humour, but it may be doubted if any of them can satisfactorily explain every type of humour. Superiority theories account very well for our laughter at small misfortunes and for the appeal of satire, but are less happy in dealing with word play, incongruity, nonsense, and indecency. Incongruity theories, on the other hand, are strong where superiority theories are weakest, and weak where they are strongest. Relief theories account admirably for laughter at indecency, malice, and nonsense (regarded as relief from "the governess, reason" (Shopenhauer)) but are forced to concede that there is an intrinsic appeal in incongruity and word play that is quite independent of relief from restraint. Each type of theory does, however, illuminate some aspect of humour.

[edited extract from an article in Collier's Encyclopedia

Serious resources on humour

Very serious encyclopedia articles

Serious theories of humour

The three leading theories of humour: Superiority, Relief and Incongruity

Arthur Koestler's theory of humour

Evolutionary theory of humour




Yes, it's no joke, there really is museum of comedy! Presumably it's full of old jokes, cliches, shaggy-dog stories and bad puns. It's located in central London (address: The Undercroft, St Georges Church, Bloomsbury Way, London, WC1A 2SR).

It describes itself as: The brainchild of Leicester Square Theatre director Martin Witts...a brand new, interactive, immersive museum for all the family, featuring iconic props and artefacts from our rich comedic history and housing one of the most comprehensive collections of Comedy memorabilia ever to be amassed in one place.