Conditions for humour

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1 comedy

2 Conditions for humour So can we find sufficient conditions for finding something funny? John Morreall: humor and amusement are not old, well-defined terms, but words given several new meanings just three centuries ago. There simply is no single concept of humor and no single concept of amusement for which we can list necessary and sufficient conditions. (Morreall 2009: 63-64) But it seems to me that there is a distinctive, highly recognizable mental state of finding something funny.

3 Incongruity Historically, the most popular theory of humour is the incongruity theory. The basic idea is that incongruity; something strange, unexpected, exaggerated or inappropriate is what makes things funny.

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6 Incongruity There are however two main problems with the theory: 1. The notion of incongruity is too vague. This may make the theory unfalsifiable. 2. We don t have a good distinction between humorous incongruity and non-humorous incongruity.

7 A more precise formulation Michael Clark (1970) drawing on Schopenhauer (1844), defines incongruity as an experience in which we subsume under a concept something that doesn t match the things typically subsumed under that concept. The idea of subsumption is useful here. However, apart from sheer category errors, it is unclear what other forms of non-matching are permitted.

8 Norm-violation I prefer a formulation in terms of norm-violation. Norms are relative to the social and psychological background of the individual. Norm violations can be more or less intense giving one way to explain the intensity of amusement. The possession of a norm, and a sense of its violation seems psychologically comparable across social, practical, moral and physical domains.

9 Examples Stupid behaviour violates norms of intelligence. Rudeness violates norms of etiquette. Slapstick violates norms concerning the seriousness of physical harm. Puns violate linguistic norms: shifting from the most relevant meaning to a secondary meaning. We also have meta-jokes, which violate the usual point of jokes.

10 Different Norms There are different ways to understand norms. 1. statistical averages versus constraining forces or rules. 2. rules of nature versus rules based in human intentions. I appeal only to violations based on intentional behaviour. This implies that we never get humour based purely on physical violations.

11 Different violations Myaccount allows for different ways to violate a norm. 1. You can fail to live up to a norm without intending to (e.g. stupidity) 2. You can actively violate a norm (e.g. rudeness) 3. You can exceed a norm (e.g. excessive niceness)

12 Different violations These conditions also have the following implications. 1. Cases of humour don t simply involve contrast, but where something is definitely contra-indicated or wrong. 2. Cases of humour don t have to be rare (e.g. common follies). 3. Case of humour don t have to be unexpected (but may well be).

13 Incongruity Incongruity/norm violation cannot be sufficient for humour because it is found in non-humorous contexts as well (e.g. murders, tragic accidents) Thus we may suggest that the norm-violation has to be non-threatening in some sense (cf. benign violation theory). However, merely lacking a threat doesn t entail that amusement will be experienced instead. A more likely default attitude is puzzlement of curiosity.

14 Puzzlement We need some positive account of how we manage to enjoy the incongruity. Amongst psychologists, one idea is that feel pleased when we manage to resolve the incongruity in some way. For example, we laugh at puns because we realise that there is some other possible meaning of the words used. However, many cases of humour are too bizarre for the resolution of incongruity to really matter much.

15 Intrinsic value A more plausible alternative is that we enjoy the incongruity for its own sake, as an incongruity. However, Mike Martin reports a case described by Freud of a foot fetishist who became sexually excited upon seeing a certain kind of scraggy foot. Our appreciation of surrealist works of art, atonal music, or dramatic ironies, also involves the enjoyment of incongruities. Excluding physical violations may exclude some of these cases...

16 Dali- The Temptation of St Anthony (1946)

17 But there are no significant physical violations here Rene Magritte- Young girl eating a bird (1927)

18 Non-seriousness I suggest that we appeal to a definite sense of nonseriousness. Normally, when we observe a norm-violation this has pragmatic implications. Either to i) correct ii) condemn the violation or iii) abandon the norm. If these pragmatic implications are undermined, we can shift into enjoying the violation. This may be considered a release from pragmatic seriousness.

19 Positive norm-violations Where a norm is exceeded, this is amusing only if it is so lucky, naïve, or incredible that it could not normally be deliberately intended. Thus we don t get the pragmatic implication that we should update our ideals of behaviour.

20 Unintentional violations Where a violation is unintentional, we must judge it not to require correction or personal avoidance. Some instances of cruel humour can fit this. We can laugh at scenarios that result in pain, and even death, so long as magnificent stupidity is displayed (we might also feel pity or sadness).

21 Intentional violations Where humour is produced deliberately, we detect that the violation is unreal. The comedian may say all kinds of outrageous things, but this is within the scope of a pretence. We are aware that they could not really intend what they are saying. All that is implied is here is a crazy thing that no one should endorse. Thus there is no violation here to condemn.

22 Fictional violations Note that movie gangsters are fictionally norm-violating, but are not funny. Typically when engaging with a fiction, we try as much as possible to take what is presented as if it is not fictional. Then movie gangsters are not amusing because they neither communicate a pretend attitude to their violations, nor are their behaviours grossly accidental.

23 Signalling non-seriousness How might we pick up on the non-intended nature of the norm violation? This is potentially complex and subtle, but there seem to be two main methods: 1. The norm-violation is so obviously mistaken that it is highly improbable that anyone would deliberately do it. 2. The norm-violation may be combined with features known to be light-hearted (e.g. the knock-knock joke format, Yakaty Sax).

24 An example BBC news story (November 2014) I am sorry to inform you that my client does not hire Irish people due to the alcoholism nature of your kind. When I got the , it was so abrupt and short. I actually laughed when I read it initially

25 Dealing with counterexamples The non-seriousness condition seems to deal with the previous counter-examples quite well. In the case of the foot fetishist, it is clear that the fetishist takes the incongruity very seriously, they desire it. In the case of some surrealist art, there may be no sense that we are supposed to take it as unreal or accidental.

26 Do we take this seriously? Rene Magritte- Young girl eating a bird (1927)

27 Do we take this seriously? Rene Magritte- Collective Invention (1934)

28 Two necessary conditions Overall x is funny only if: 1) x violates a norm and; 2) non-seriously so. We don t have a mechanical procedure for generating jokes here. Subtleties of delivery will contribute to both the sense of violation, and its non-seriousness. Timing seems to a product of the way humour comes immediately and then starts to fade. The comedian may choose to make the shift into perceiving the normviolation more dramatic.

29 Two necessary conditions Overall x is funny only if: 1) x violates a norm and; 2) non-seriously so. It should also be stressed that the two conditions are in tension with each other. The best jokes will maximally combine norm-violation and non-seriousness, but this is extremely hard to do.

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