Have you ever been to a stand-up comedy show and wondered how someone is able to make other people laugh? Or perhaps you were awestruck by how the writer of your favorite comedy show/movie was able to identify exactly what a whole bunch of strangers will find funny? This blog may be able to quench some of that curiosity.
Humor is a human experience that is very effective in elevating one’s mood, building friendships, and easing stress/anxiety. However, humor is also a subjective and complex phenomenon. What one finds funny differs across people, and it is complex because it is hard to point out why something was funny – was it the topic, was it because everyone else was laughing, was it the sentence structure, or was it the body language of the presenter? Despite humor’s subjectivity and complexity, researchers would love to understand it better in order to unlock some of its benefits. Thus, philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists have taken up the challenge of attempting to pinpoint the most fundamental ingredients of a funny joke.
Ancient thoughts on humor
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato viewed humor as a way of mocking others or expressing aggression and ridicule toward others. For example, in Plato’s Philebus (347 BC), Socrates says to Protarchus that laughter is a “malice that produced pleasure at the shortcomings of our friends”, a view that was further echoed by 17th-century British philosopher Charles Hobbes. Hobbes, in Human Nature (1650), said that “the passion of laughter is a sudden glory” arising from feeling superior to infirmity of others.
Ancient thought on humor also exists in form of the rasa theory in Natya Shastra, the work of ancient Indian sage Bharat Muni (Anywhere between 500 to 200 BC), and from the works of 11th-century Indian thinker and philosopher, Abhinavagupta, and his views on hasya (humor). In these works, humor was viewed positively, as an integral part of art and literature. Rasa theory discussed how different rasas (emotional experiences, including humor) can be induced in the spectators through the use of vibhava (determinants/stimuli), anubhava (involuntary reaction of the performers), and vyabhichari-bhava (temporary psychological states displayed by the performers through a voluntary reaction) in drama or dance/music performances. These works continue to influence the field of performing arts in and around the Indian subcontinent. Yet, present-day research on humor seems to be largely unaware of this ancient work.
It is important to study ancient thoughts and theories of humor because new theories are often inspired from and/or constrained by older theories, so that they can lead to new perspectives in either case. These theories, along with the new ones, also provide an account of the evolution of thought on humor which can be quite interesting, as you will see.
Classical theories of humor
Borrowing from Hobbes’ views on humor, 20th-century researchers formulated one of the classic theories of humor called the superiority theory or the disparagement theory. Superiority theory posits that amusement from a joke results from the instillation of a sense of superiority in the audience. According to this theory, the intrapersonal motivation of self-enhancement drives one to find humor in a joke that allows one to feel superior. This theory predicts that the more aggression/ridicule in a joke the more humor induced by it. A related theory, called disposition theory, was given by Zillman and Cantor in 1976 and has garnered more empirical validation. It says that the joke will be amusing only when its derisive content towards someone is aligned with the already existing attitude of the audience towards that someone. This was validated by Zillmann and Cantor using their 1972 behavioral experiment in which they asked some students and some professionals to rate the funniness of two jokes, each accompanied by a cartoon, as shown in the image below. The content of both jokes read as follows (verbatim) –
Joke 1: A student was delivering a long and complex report when the professor arose and asked the student for documentary evidence in support of the various statements he was making.
The student explained that there was an abundance of evidence which he could easily enough produce, but that of course he did not have with him.
“Well, sir,” said the professor, “until you produce the documentary evidence, do you mind if for the time being I call you a liar?”
Amid the stunned silence, the student asked the professor for his parents’ marriage certificate. The professor of course was unable to produce it.
“Well, sir,” said the student coldly, “until you can produce documentary evidence, would you mind if I called you an obnoxious bastard?”
In Joke 2, the roles of the student and professor were reversed.
What joke do you think the students and professionals rated as the funniest? I guess you guessed right; Students rated joke 1 (where the professor was the antagonist) as funnier than joke 2, while the professionals rated joke 2 (where the student was the antagonist) as funnier than joke 1. This could have happened either due to a more positive attitude towards one group or a more negative attitude towards the other or both.
At around the same time, Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud independently developed similar views of humor as an outlet for the release of tension, pent-up energy, or forbidden libidinal (that is, sexual) impulses. This is known as the relief theory of humor. It views humor as cathartic and in a less disdainful way than the superiority theory. This theory predicts that if, for example, one has pent-up aggression, then that person would find a joke with aggressive content funnier than a neutral joke. Some empirical studies have validated while some have failed to validate this theory.
These theories are interesting to study because they reflect how people thought about humor and how they thought about other people who enjoyed humor! It would be interesting to consider how well these theories were known by the general public in their respective time periods, as this could have affected perception towards humor/laughter.
Finally, let me also briefly discuss the rasa theory. The rasa theory specifies various (visual) stimuli for inducing the experience of humor in the audience in performing arts, such as vikrtvesha (unseemly dress), vikrtalankara (misplaced ornaments), dharshtya (impudence), doshoda harana (pointing out the faults in others), asatpracapa (near-obscene utterance), etc. Both superiority and relief theories seem to be in line with the rasa theory, because these also involve humor stimuli that comprise finding faults in others and the display of aggression and sexual impulses, respectively.
Can you think of how these theories apply to the comedy content you may be consuming in your everyday life? Relief theory may explain the significant part of the comedic element in the shows like ‘The Office’, ‘Nathan for you’, ‘Curb your enthusiasm’, or ‘Mr. Bean’. We often experience embarrassment in our day-to-day lives and laughing at Michael from The Office making a fool of himself may provide an outlet for said pent-up feelings of humiliation/embarrassment. It might alternatively be explained by the superiority theory, by the way of making one feel better than the characters. If you follow the comedy scene, you may have observed that certain comedians purely rely on sexual innuendos for their routines and still become quite popular. They too may be making use of relief theory because they talk about things that people don’t get many opportunities to express otherwise.
Relief theory might explain why ‘relatability’ is an important factor in comedy, if we assume the content we find relatable adequately represents our thoughts and emotions. Some famous comedians, like Biswa Kalyan Rath, Anubhav Singh Bassi, and Zakir Khan, do this very well. The themes of their material and the minute observations from common everyday events account for the relatability which is often seen as their main selling point.
Further, both of these theories may explain why we find humor in a diss track or a rant, whether it be Ryan George’s roast of movies in his ‘Pitch Meetings’ or Kartik Aryan’s rant about his toxic girlfriend in the movie ‘Pyaar ka Punchnama’.
As you will see in part 2, most of the above examples can actually be accounted for by a better contemporary theory of humor.
Superiority and relief theories are not complete. They explain why the funny content that possesses the ability to provide a sense of superiority or relief is funny, but they do not explain why not all content that possesses these abilities is funny or why content that does not possess these abilities is funny. Further, these theories also lack a consideration of the structure of the joke. In other words, these theories rely on the effect (of superiority or relief) that the content has on the audience to explain its funniness. They do not provide any specification about the content itself that is necessary for humor, like the sentence structure, the vocabulary used, or how the content is narrated.
It is hard to make any comments about rasa theory yet. This theory, in the case of humor, includes the stimuli that reflect something vikrt (i.e., violates a norm) – like dressing or wearing ornaments in an unlikely way. The contemporary theories of humor, which I will discuss in the next blog, also share with rasa theory the view of norm violation as a humor technique. Therefore, the theory seems to hold promise for informing our understanding of humor or our emotions but a critical analysis and empirical investigation of the rasa theory to determine its scope currently seems to be an underexplored avenue in humor research (but see Budhathoki’s analysis of the humor in Shakespeare’s poems using the framework of rasa theory).
In part 2, I will talk about the modern theories that better account for different types of verbal humor than the superiority and relief theories and focus on the structure of the joke. See you in the second and last part of my blog series on humor!
Budhathoki, M. K. (2020). The Application of Hasya Rasa in Shakespeare’s “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” and Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. The Outlook: Journal of English Studies, 11, 67-76.
Edited by Jonah Wirt and Joe Vuletich