Humor Theory 101 – What Makes Us Laugh by Manuel Escarpa

Over the years, I have had the honor of meeting many great amateur and professional stand-up comedians and comedy writers.  While ever experience is different, one common theme of comedy club green room conversations is lamenting about a new joke that failed (or sometimes talking up a joke that killed!)  And while there is no clear science for writing jokes, I believe that humor theory can provide a good foundation for getting started.

First, let me first clearly state that professional comedy writers will insist that stage time at local comedy clubs is, and always will be, the best way to test out new material and get a real audience reaction.  I agree with them.  There is nothing like a good open mic night to test out  your latest bits.  But, as new joke writers, its tough to just spew out great stuff without some understanding of what makes people laugh.

In general, it is important to understand that despite thousands of years of research, the academic study of humor is still somewhat lacking (although it isn’t due to a lack of trying).   It’s just that humor is still one of those areas that is more art than science.  The science can just refine the creative process and better help us understand our audience.  So with that, let me lay out some of the top humor theories and how each can help you become a better joke writer.

Superiority Theory – The Original Humor Theory

First proposed by Plato and Aristotle, the superiority theory of humor has been around for thousands of years.  It’s basic premise is that in any joke, there is a winner and a loser, and that people like to laugh at the shortcomings of others. According to Aristotle, we like to laugh at “inferior” people because we take pleasure from feeling superior to them.

While it sounds like something that we shouldn’t do, the truth is that many of the most popular joke categories, such as blonde jokes, racist jokes, yo mama jokes, and ethnic jokes, align very well to this theory.  And while, most people would probably not openly admit to liking jokes of this type, we can find the truth by researching the most commonly used joke-related keywords on Google searches.  As an example, the keyword “racist jokes” currently has over 165,000 searches each month in just the United States and is one of the top joke category related keywords.  So, despite their being not very politically correct, these jokes are still very much in demand.

However, as a joke writer, you need to understand that jokes that align to this theory are often the most polarizing; people either find them hilarious or very offensive.  So, if your objective is to write jokes for mass-market stand-up comedy or sitcoms, you have to be VERY careful as you can severely limit the size of your audience if you subscribe to this theory.  Furthermore, in today’s world of social media and the renaissance of public flogging for subscribing to any opinion that isn’t politically correct, you face the risk of a viral backlash.  So be warned, many people may love them privately, but they may not be the best jokes from a career perspective.  But hey, at Jokerz, you are always free to submit them anonymously ;-)

Incongruity Theory

Having a background in computer science, I personally find incongruity theory the most intriguing.  The origin of this theory is attributed to the Scottish poet, James Beattie. But basically, the main idea behind this theory is that laughter is what happens at the moment your brain realizes that the direction it was guessing a story would take changes abruptly, to a surprising direction.  As an aside, the reason I find this theory intriguing is that it explains the phenomenon of laughter as a neurobiological response to this situation.  In the world of microprocessor design, it is similar to how designers must handle a special situation called a branch prediction failure.  So, maybe laughter is just the biological equivalent to the brain restarting its pipelines after it jumps ahead in the wrong direction.  It definitely explains why a joke isn’t as funny the second time you hear it.

But maybe the best way to explain incongruity theory is via an example taken from Richard Wiseman’s LaughLab article on the subject:

Two fish are in a tank.  

One fish turns to the other and says, “hey, do you know how to drive this thing?”

In the first line, our brain forms a mental picture of two fish in a fish tank and at the punchline, “do you know how to drive this thing”, our brain is thrown off by the fact that the picture it formed of the “tank” was the wrong picture.  Admittedly, it’s not the funniest joke in the world, but it provides a great example of the theory.

As a writer, we can use this theory by writing jokes that paint a picture using words or phrases that lead our brains down a predictable direction.  Then just when the reader or listener gets sucked into that direction, throw them into a parallel direction that the brain didn’t expect!  Incongruity theory tells us that you’re likely to get a laugh!

Relief Theory

Have you ever been so stressed out that the strangest things cause you to laugh hysterically?  Relief theory believes that laughter is a homeostatic mechanism that relieves psychological tension caused by a person’s fears.  This theory was originally pioneered by Sigmund Freud in the 1905 book, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious.

From a joke writer’s perspective, this theory is a bit tougher to use as a basis for your writing, since it is based on a state-of-mind specific to the reader.  However,  it is something to contemplate when writing jokes related to current events, particularly traumatic, stressful, or contentious events, which occupy the minds of large groups of people.   For example, historically, it has been common for new jokes to be written about new emigrants to an area by the existing residents.   When the Irish began immigrating to the U.S. in the 1800s, many of the existing population feared their presence, and as a result, many a derogatory Irish joke was written.  While you could rightfully claim this is an example of superiority theory, you could also make a case that the writers of these jokes were trying to find a non-violent way to release their stress.

So as a writer, you could seek out current events where there exists a state of tension between two groups of people, and seek to write jokes that at least one side of the issue would find funny.  If you’re really good at writing, you might even be able to write comedy that manages to cater to both sides of the issue and might even serve to de-escalate that tension in a positive way.  A really great example of this can be seen in the following stand-up comedy bit from Jerod Carmichael, written and performed during the Chick-fil-A same-sex marriage controversy in June of 2012.

I personally marvel at Jerod’s ability write comedy that managed to walk a fine line between all parties to the controversy.  He skillfully manages to defend his love of Chick-fil-A, while using arguments that closely parallel those used by the gay rights community, thereby letting the gay community know he sympathizes with them as well.  In today’s world of repressed free speech due to the backlash of social media, some well written humor manages to get some important points across.

Benign Violation Theory

Developed by researchers A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren and discussed at length in their recent book,
The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, the Benign Violation Theory is a relatively new theory, but one that I find potentially very useful to aspiring joke writers and stand-up comedians.  The BVT theory predicts that people will laugh when three conditions are satisfied:

  1. Something violates a person’s sense of how the world should be, or they believe is politically correct.
  2. The violation seems benign.
  3. The person sees both interpretations of the joke at the same time.

In practice, a lot of stand-up comedy bits and sitcom lines appear to align to this theory.  And, from a purely practical perspective, jokes written with this theory in mind are likely to have a wider audience as they tend not to be as offensive.

So as a writer, if you are writing jokes to appeal to a widespread audience, a key learning from this theory is that you should seek out ways to make the joke seem more benign to the reader or listener.  Writers who master the skill of making jokes about controversial subjects seem acceptable are the lifeblood of sitcom world.

Using Humor Theory in Your Joke Writing

In this article, I’ve attempted to give you an overview of some popular humor theories that I believe are useful to new joke writers.  While they don’t lay out a unfailing process for writing consistently funny jokes, they can provide you with insights into the psychological and sociological causes for laughter.   Joke writing is, and will always be, an art.  No process will help you perfect linguistics and timing.  But the science of humor theory can be a sort of guide, that helps you analyze your work and refine the words to create laughter in a broader audience.


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