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What's funny? A definition of humor and humor theories

von Irina Wamsler (Autor)

Akademische Arbeit 2007 38 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Linguistik




1. That’s funny

2. Historical development - an outline

3. Conditions for humor – the context

4. Laughter

5. Jokes

6. Conversational joking
6.1. Bonding
6.2. Self-denigration as a case of individual identity
6.3. Gender

7. Theories of humor
7.1. Conventional theories
7.1.1. Superiority Theory
7.1.2. Incongruity Theory
7.1.3. Relief Theory
7.2. Humor research in the linguistic field
7.2.1. Semantic script-based theory of humor (SSTH)
7.2.2. General Theory of Verbal Humor (GTVH)

8. References (including additional literature)

“But you have to promise that you will not be all controlly and bossy and all Monica about it.”

(Phoebe in “The One With Ross’s New Girlfriend”/ 13min)


The broad scope of humor research makes it impossible to draw attention to all current issues. But some research and information which is related to the theories of humor are introduced in the following passages.

1. That’s funny

Laughter is a respond to a specific stimulus. This implies that some conditions have to be fulfilled in order to say something is funny, like for instance an unlike situation, an absurd comment, or an ironical situation. Referring to Raskin, humor means that a person “finds the audial or visual stimulus funny” (1985: 1). Ross says that humor is “something that makes a person laugh or smile” (1998: 1).

For joke tellers or producers of sitcoms, laughter is the desired response to a certain situation or conversation. Sometimes, though, other reactions occur as well.

Goldstein specifies the definition of humor by saying that “[s]peaking a language is an activity governed by rules and conventions. Many of these are such that they may be violated to a certain degree, often with amusing results” (1990: 37). This can be an inappropriateness, unexpected changes of a story, or a strange looking person.

However, it varies a lot, what exactly makes people laugh and what they find amusing. It is a phenomenon which does not make it easy to find a consensus relating to its definition. Humor is intangible and, as Mc Ghee claims, it is neither an emotion nor a certain kind of behavior or an attribute for a specific event (1979: 6). Many linguists, sociologists, and psychologists have dealt with the field of humor but it is still controversial how to classify it. Nevertheless, some characteristics have the potential to make people laugh.

During lifetime, all human beings build up a so called “sense of humor”. This term was firstly formulated in the mid-nineteenth century in the Anglo-American world (Wickeberg 1998: 13). Even though, everybody has a sense of humor, it depends on the region people grow up, on the maturity, circumstances, or age, for example, what people consider to be funny and what not. Sometimes, we think others lack a sense of humor, but sometimes it also varies a lot how it is expressed. “[t]he ability to appreciate and enjoy humor is universal and shared by all people, even if the kinds of humor they favor differ widely” (Raskin 1985: 2). In short, the world is different and so is humor. Raskin claims that seven factors supply the humor act (1985: 3ff.):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

First of all, a humorous performance always involves participants. The participants of a humorous act are called the hearer and the speaker (Raskin 1985: 4). The speaker can be the joke teller, but also the writer, or institutions such as the radio, or television, where humor is verbalized. The same applies to the hearer. The audience who responds to a joke can be the reader, the hearer of a radio program etc. Often “[…] attempts at humor involve an initiator (the Wit) and a target (the Butt) […]” (Pollio/Edgerly 1976: 240). It can be said that humor arises in communication and therefore interaction is required for a humorous performance.

Moreover, something is supposed to happen in order to be labeled funny. Humor arises when something unexpected, incongruous, or strange happens. This may involve tragedy, confusion, or mischief (Raskin 1985: 15). The stimulus is the motivation or the trigger for this amusement.

Experience is, as the name indicates, the familiarity and awareness of humor the participants have. It describes the different circumstances a person experienced during his life. People know or learn that humor is a “special mode of communication” and so they are able to appreciate humorous comments, because they know that they are supposed to be funny (Raskin 1985: 15). “[…] the “degree of the individual’s predisposition to humor in a given situation” is called psychology. It refers to the individual’s tendency to humor. It is impossible, though, to determine everyone’s mental state and the differences among all people. and thus, this paper will deal “with an idealized community of speakers and hearers of humor” (Raskin 1985: 16). The context in which an event takes place is called situation. Jokes, for example, can be spontaneous, planned, or intended, for instance. Moreover, the location and circumstances in which a joke is told belong to this category. The last factor is sociology. Sharing social backgrounds leads to common shared humor. Often, humor is shared by people who belong to the same group, or the same country (Raskin 1985: 4f.). Therefore, according to the culture people are living in and other influences like family, friends, education, or social class; the sense of humor differs. Children, for instance are not able to appreciate humor until the age of six (Raskin 1985: 21). Hence, there is the development of humor within each person and the development of humor within different cultures as well. Darwin states that “the evolution of individual humor of a given child has been often compared, more often implicitly than explicitly, with the evolution of humor of mankind” (quoted in Raskin 1985: 21).

In addition, Mintz (1999) says that humor is an important tool in order to cope with present realities and social situations. “It allows us to deal with the most important aspects of our lives, for instance, sex, politics, race and ethnicity, religion, and family relations […]” (Mintz 1999: 237). Through humor speakers can express distance as well as coherence. This can be done through written or spoken humor. Written humor can be found in cartoons, comics, or magazines. Television sketches, radio, comedies etc. provide spoken humor. In this framework, however, the emphasis lies on spoken humor.

Verbal humor can play with sounds, meanings, or ambiguities, for example. Playing with words, like in puns, are quite popular:

I am a pheasant plucker, a pheasant plucker’s son, And I’ll be plucking pheasants till the pheasants plucking’s done. (Goldstein 1990: 40)

Apart from the phonetic side of humor which deals with the sound of words, semantics looks at meanings as in:

A: How do you like your coffee, black?

B: Us niggers do have names, ma’am. (Goldstein 1990: 41)

Here, the misunderstanding occurs due to the pause which is made between the words ‘coffee’ and ‘black’. Meaning depends a lot on images and associations we have.

Humor is a message which aims at causing laughter. This can be realized through music, pictures, comments, or any sort of action (Bremmer/Roodenburg, 1999: 9). Humor has many different facets and labeling something funny depends a lot on the individual’s taste.

2. Historical development - an outline

Over the last decades, humor has been discussed a lot. Bremmer and Roodenburg (1999) claim that its roots lay back in 384 B.C. and thus, the concept of humor has already been an issue in the ancient world. The modern meaning of the term humor came up in England in 1682. Beforehand, it had been a mental disposition (Bremmer/Roodenburg 1999: 9). It was perceived as one of the four liquids that were thought to be in a person’s body to influence health and character. These bodily humors were choler, melancholy, blood, and phlegm and they determined a person’s mood or spirit (McGhee 1979: 4). If the four humors were not stable, depending on the disproportional amount of the liquids, it meant that a person was choleric, depressed, or joyful. Having a good humor implies a balance between the four substances. If someone was unbalanced, laughter controlled inappropriate behavior (McGhee 1979: 5). But, “[s]lowly, humor shifted from being a designation for the fluids that made up the temperament to being a designation for the temperament itself, particularly the odd or quirky temperament suggested by an imbalance of the humors” (Wickeberg 1998: 18). This change marked the beginning of a new understanding of the elements of thought. After that, people were said to possess humor rather than to be constituted by humors. So, humor belongs to all human beings and is nothing that possesses them.

A shared understanding of the term came up in the last third of the sixteenth century. “The idea that humors could be objects of criticism rather than simply transparent characteristics of persons, was an entirely new one” (Wickeberg 1998: 20).

Bremmer and Roodenburg claim that humor was initially investigated in antiquity. Due to missing documents of Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), it is quite difficult to find out more about ancient theories on humor. Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC) is also an important source for the Latin expression and definition of humor. In these days, humor is seen as obscene. The imitation of others, crying or laughing, is not welcomed. Especially the upper class is not supposed to jest about one another. Making jokes is regarded as something only lower class people do. If the elite joke anyway, it is mainly about people outside their own group. Humor can indicate membership as well as superiority towards others. During this time the superiority theory initially came up. Cicero says that humor and conversation is a visual art and that both are based upon the antic rhetoric (Bremmer/Roodenburg 1999: 15). Moderate humor is elegant, witty and creative, whereas unacceptable humor consists of rude and dirty expressions (Bremmer/Roodenburg 1999: 33).

Originally, moderate humor and making jokes were exclusively for privileged people. In the ancient world and the Middle Ages, clowns were seen as gossipers, but also as ‘bon viants’. In the Middle Ages, comical people were actors or other not eminently respectable members of society. Later on, joke-telling became more popular and sometimes even an important part of a good conversation. It happens to be an art of social intercourse. The development of professional comedians is, as Bremmer and Roodenburg say, mainly unexplored (1999: 15).

With regard to Raskin (1985), laughing at other people’s bad luck and to gloat over someone’s misfortune is the source of humor. He argues that “[L]aughter is born out of hatred and hostility” (1985: 11). The ridicule represents the lack of sympathy in humorous comments. It is, conferring to Rapp, “the most ancient form of humor available to man” (quoted in Raskin 1985: 22).

During the time of Plato and Aristotle, laughter was seen as a method to control “excessive, ridiculous, or otherwise unacceptable behaviour” (McGhee 1979: 5). So, people who laughed too much became the objects of laughter and were called humorists. Aristotle says that laughter is caused by ugliness and deformity in the object laughed about (Wickeberg 1998: 47). Hobbes gives a new direction to the understanding of laughter[1] and develops the “most influential, psychologically based theory” (Wickeberg 1998: 48). He states that “laughter was articulated by class differences” (Wickeberg 1998: 48). That means the lower class people can joke and laugh, whereas it is unacceptable for upper class people to do so. Laughing was regarded as something only stupid and uneducated people do. In contrast to previous times, humor is not only meant to humiliate others or to show superiority, instead it has become an accepted form of entertainment and pleasure.

3. Conditions for humor – the context

Jokes or comments can be funny in one situation, but not in another one. The social context in which a joke is performed is important. Laughing alone is not as funny as if you are in company. If you do not like somebody, you are unlikely to laugh at his joke, whereas you would laugh if a friend tells a joke which is not funny at all. Being polite and respectful may be the reason (McGhee 1979: 209). McGhee claims that especially women use laughter as a “social lubricant” (1979: 209).

The relation between humor and society is very controversial. With reference to Le Goff (1999), the question arises about whom and about what it is acceptable to laugh. Is it permitted to make fun of certain groups, people or countries? Who sets the rules about Do’s and Don’ts? Every nation makes fun of different topics and has another humorous style. Expressions like “typical German humor” or “English humor” do not seem to appear from nowhere. Every culture shapes the people living in it. Morreall (1983) says that “[a]dults from different cultures often fail to appreciate each other’s humor, because they don’t have the same picture of the world and so do not find the same things incongruous” (1983: 61). This is why we do not always understand humor in foreign countries and, moreover, translated jokes are often not that funny anymore. This can be problematic regarding sitcoms or comedies in general where the desired effect of laughter can get lost through translation. So, humor is mainly a language-based and culture-based phenomenon. Trudgill claims “[t]he hypothesis is approximately that a speaker’s native language sets up a series of categories which act as a kind of grid through which he perceives the world, and which constrain the way in which he categorizes and conceptualizes different phenomena” (1974: 24f.). Society has an influence upon the language but at the same time language influences the society.

“[…] one of the most common social functions of humor is the construction of solidarity and in-group identity […]” (Archakis and Tsakona 2005: 41) This will be examined in the empirical part. Besides society, “[…] background knowledge, tone of voice, audience reaction, and verbal clues all play an important role in establishing the humorous intention of the speakers” (Hay quoted in Archakis/Tsakona 2004: 43). If we are in the right mood and if the joke-teller performs well, we appreciate the joke; it is the interplay of circumstances.

4. Laughter

Humor and laughter are widely seen as roughly co-extensive, but to distinguish humor from laughter is very difficult. “One man’s ‘humor’ may be another man’s ‘laughter’” (Raskin 1985: 8).

For a long time, laughter was regarded as humiliating because it was always directed at an object and thus laughter included making fun of somebody. Over the years a certain sensibility has emerged. Instead of only laughing at somebody, “humor allowed a person to sympathize with others as they laughed at him, thus preventing him for exercising excessive sympathy in his own direction” (Wickeberg 1998: 67). Humor has become both: a sensitive laughing with others and a laughing at oneself.

Laughing is an innate capacity of humans and already starts when they are born. For children, laughter is an expression of pleasurable emotions. So, it can be seen as a reflex because we only laugh if something happens to our soul or body. If something is regarded to be funny, the usual emotional reaction is laughter. However, laughter is not a necessary reaction to humor, even though it may seem so. If we do not get a joke, for instance, puzzlement or confusion may be the response. Moreover, personal taste, mood, or time is essential for humor. “Laughter can be used to express an unending variety of emotions” (Grotjahn quoted in Raskin 1985: 9). If they laugh due to other people’s mishaps, their laughter is much more hostile than laughing about something funny.

Laughter is a physiological process as well as a psychological phenomenon as Raskin (1985: 19) claims. We unconsciously make gestures and sounds at the same time. Diverse facial muscles contract, we breathe irregularly, we grasp for breath, and sometimes, tears roll down our face. In this procedure, endorphins are set free which makes us happy. (

Due to Giles and Oxford, laughter arises in seven different situations: humorous, social, ignorance, anxiety, derision, apologetic, and tickling (McGhee 1979: 25). Not all of the situations which cause laughter, like for example tickling, indicate a humorous state. So, it is hard to distinguish between laughter due to circumstances and “real” one. The reactive side of humor is little investigated.

Originally, laughter served to show your opponent your teeth. This snarling was an aggressive sign on the one hand, and an expression of relief on the other hand (Bremmer/Roodenburg 1999: 10). According to McGhee, nervous laughter happens when people feel uncomfortable and try to release the tension through laughter (1979: 29). Laughter, argues Spencer (1860), serves as a form of “safety valve”. Energy which is repressed is released through laughter (McGhee 1979: 15). This is the same as the relief theory claims: a sudden joke can surely ease up a tense situation.

Humor is used to define relationships, to define themselves as part of a social group, and to establish the kind of speech they are in (Fasold 1990: 1). Subcategories of the phenomenon of not-being earnest are jokes, humor, or funniness, for instance. The variety of verbal humor in everyday life including different reactions was not in the focus, of the theories of humor. Rather, standardized jokes were only analyzed where laughter was the desired effect.

5. Jokes

Many different types of humor, like jokes, slapstick, mean mockery, or sitcoms exist. To show the entire variety of humor would go beyond the scope of this paper, so only selected types of humor are in the focus. It can be differentiated between joke telling and conversational joking. Telling a joke is a conventionalized and socially bound speech behavior, whereas in conversational joking the play frame created by the participants, with a background of in-group knowledge, encircles not only verbal features but also non-verbal communication (Boxer/Cortés-Conde 1996: 277).

The emphasis of this paper lies on sitcoms including situational humor which is highly context depended. Jokes do not always depend on the context and can be seen as the antipode of sitcoms. Jokes are a short story with a surprising end. This unexpected end is called punch line which is the climax or the turning point of a joke. Schopenhauer explains that we hear something what we did not expect. It does not come out of nowhere; it is just not what we thought it to be (Morreall 1983: 17). However, explanation must be given. We have to understand the joke and maybe its ambiguity in order to say that it is a joke. The jab line in contrast, occurs in the body of a text and is fully integrated in the narrative in which it appears. Jab lines can be found in longer texts or sitcoms, for example.

Sometimes it is hard to say whether or not a comment, a situation, or even a twinkle is comical. Jokes, however, follow a clear line. This can be a riddle, a question-answer pattern or a little story. So, it is easier for the listener to know that something is supposed to be funny than it is in spontaneous humor (Shultz 1976: 12). Humor is based on incongruity, which is that humor implies action or comments which are not expected. “It is a concept which accounts well for the most obvious structural feature of jokes, the surprisingness of the punchline.” (Shultz 1976: 12) Moreover, linguistic ambiguity including phonological ambiguity, or lexical ambiguity, for instance, plays an important role.[2] As mentioned earlier, semantics plays an important role as well. Many jokes are funny because of the meaning of what is said:

A: How do you like your coffee, black?

B: Us niggers do have names, Ma’am.

(Goldstein 1990: 41)

This misunderstanding makes up the incongruity of the joke. We do not expect person B to respond in this way.

Next, it is important to put the hearer in the correct position in order to deliver a joke properly. Most jokes start with the phrase “Did you know this one?” or “I have a good one…” Consequently, the hearer is in the right mood to appreciate a joke. Raskin states that a joke “should not be too long, and it should not be too short. It should not be too trivial, and it should not be too hard to understand. The punch line should not be given away too early. The amount of detail should be adequate” (Raskin 1985: 189).

Verbal jokes can play with phonological ambiguities. This means, a sound has more than one interpretation:

The teacher asks the student to create a sentence including the phrase
“bitter end”. The student replies: “The dog chased the cat and he bitter end”. (Shultz 1976: 13)

Besides, the intonation of words or phrases can make up a joke. “In certain ambiguity-based jokes, the two readings correspond to different intonations” (Ritchie 2004: 31).

Jokes are mainly context-independent. Accordingly, they can be told in every situation and do not require any previous knowledge. Sitcoms, on the other hand, depend a lot on the context as well as previous knowledge. The main idea of a joke is that two opposing scripts appear. The trigger, which is the punchline, causes the switch from the expected script to the non-expected one.

6. Conversational joking

Former research has mainly been done on real conversations. The focus of this paper, though, lies on conversational joking and situational humor which can be seen as the counterpart to a canned joke which “has been used before the time of utterance in a form similar to that used by the speaker […]”² (Attardo: 296). Thus, conversational jokes are invented spontaneously during the conversation and are very context-based. Boxer and Cortés-Conde (1996) also differentiate between joke telling and conversational joking. They say that joke telling is a conventionalized, socially bound speech behavior, whereas in conversational joking, a play frame is created by the participants with a backdrop of in-group knowledge, encompassing not only verbal features, but also suprasegmentals and non-verbal communication. “[I]n situational humor ‘being there’ becomes a very important part of ‘getting it’. In joke telling the cues are highly formalized and socially marked” (Boxer/Cortés-Conde 1996: 277).

Language can influence relationships a lot. Making compliments or encouraging someone obviously bonds more than insulting or offending someone. Pragmatics, for instance, allow a new view onto language. Fasold (1990) puts it that way:


[1] For a detailed impression see Leviathan (1651) which describes Hobbes’ idea of laughter in contrast to the Aristotelian understanding of laughter (Wickeberg, 1998: 48).

[2] For further information about jokes can be found in Shultz, Thomas R. 1976. A Cognitive-Developmental Analysis of Humour.


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  • Irina Wamsler (Autor)

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Titel: What's funny? A definition of humor and humor theories