1.1 Superiority Theories

Hobbes, writing in 1651, talks of the ‘sudden glory’ of humorous laughter:

Sudden Glory is the passion which maketh those Grimaces called laughter; and it is caused either by some sudden act of their own that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in a another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves. And it is incident most to them, that are conscious of the fewest abilities; who are forced to keep themselves in their own favour, by observing the imperfections of other men.
(1957:36)

Here laughter is clearly at someone, that is, directed down at ‘deformities’ and ‘imperfections’ from a position of perceived superiority. This is also a strong element of Bergson’s conception of humour, which he saw as a social corrective restraining behaviour ‘by the fear it inspires’ (1911:20). This aggressive idea continues to have its proponents in recent times also. Before continuing with such, attention is drawn here to Hobbes’ ‘by comparison whereof’, a clear suggestion of contrast, which some commentators would see as a manifestation of incongruity (at least indirectly). Indeed, it can be asked, can the notion of superiority avoid this? Further examples of leakage between the theories will be furnished throughout this discussion.

Of the various Hobbesian interpretations of humour perhaps Gruner’s is the most muscular. Taking a lead also from an important (but not the only) aspect of Lorenz’s notion that humour is derived from aggressive behaviour (Lorenz, 1996:253), Gruner claims the fact that ‘Homo Sapiens evolved into a race that can be convulsed into interrupted breathing, facial contortion, and incoherent vocalisation by sudden perceptions of glory (superiority)’ is why ‘Hobbes’ position is to be preferred over all the others’ (1978:30). He speculates that laughter originated from success in combat, where the great tension built up in battle is released in victory, which both permits a return to homeostasis and is expressed in bared teeth, grunts, grimaces and shoulder convulsions. (pp.42-3). ( Mark that here ‘release’ is also a key issue. We will return to this shortly.) From such primordial beginnings he traces three ‘civilising routes’ to the joke - ridicule, a substitution for the real battle; suppression laughter, which is that reserved for hostility towards authority figures; and duel of wits, an intellectual battle of riddles, conundrums, and puns (p.83). He summarises his ideas in the following maxim: ‘In any humorous situation find an element of superiority that has been perceived suddenly.’ A review of his most recent work (1997) shows that he maintains the same position, insisting that in every humorous situation there must be a winner and a loser: if not, this renders the situation humourless (Apte 1997:222).

Jacobson, too, sees it as a key element, so much so that in the following example he cannot see the joke unless it has aggression. He comments on racist humour and discusses the traditional Northern comedian Bernard Manning. John Thomson, a young Northern comedian of the post-alternative comedy of the 1990s, parodies Manning in the form of the politically correct Bernard Righton. He takes to the stage wearing a frilled dinner shirt, clutching a pint of beer in a many-ringed hand and says in the harsh Mancunian rasp of Manning, ‘There’s a black feller…[so far so predictable] a Pakistani…[further into Manning terrain] …and a Jew, standing in a night club having a drink. [Pause] What a fine example of an integrated community!’ The audience laugh but Jacobson does not. He comments, ‘Jettison the cargo of offence and you jettison the joke’ (1997:37). He seems so intent on the need for aggression that it escapes him just who the butt of this joke is: Manning and not the ethnic groups in the narrative. That is, there is aggression there if that is what is sought. What is more pertinent for us here is Jacobson’s insistence on it as a constitutive element of humour, or at least, humour involving race. (Jacobson’s ideas of aggression and offence could just as well be dealt with below under ‘relief’ - in fact, Ross (1998) does so - a point that illustrates once more that in practice it is often not possible to keep these three major categories apart.) The relation between aggression, humour and gender will be taken up in 7.3.

Of the three major categories of humour theories superiority seems the most open to criticism, sometimes even unwittingly by its own purported supporters. For example, Ludovici, a follower of Hobbes, makes the point that not only do we laugh when the butt of a joke is a person of dignity i.e. someone to whom we may feel inferior rather than superior, but we may even laugh more heartily if this is the case (in Monro, p.103). Indeed, this could be extended to say that having a position of superiority (teacher, judge, politician etc.) could make people more liable to humorous sniping from below with proportionately greater consequences, based on the principle that ‘the higher they are, the harder they fall.’ Yet there is no talk of an ‘inferiority theory’. However, such anti-authoritarianism would at the same time lend at least partial support to superiority theorists as aggression is aggression whatever its source. We saw above how Gruner called this ‘suppression laughter’.

Lippitt has other objections. He says that we are sometimes amused out of a sense of sheer playfulness – word-play, nonsense, absurd humour- rather than out of feelings of superiority: ‘it is possible to be amused at the wit itself, for its own sake.’ (1995a:57-8, original emphasis). Where, for example, is the superiority or aggression in Steven Wright’s teasing nonsense: ‘Why is the alphabet in that order?’, ‘What does “definition” mean?’ (Wright 2000). Lippitt is also unimpressed with Hobbes’ claim that we can only laugh at our past selves (Bergson says we cannot laugh at ourselves at all). To counter this, Lippitt provides an anecdote concerning a friend of his, a highly capable post-graduate student. At home in the kitchen with his mother, who suddenly needed a tea-towel, he was asked to go upstairs to see if there were any in the airing-cupboard. This he did and returned empty-handed with the comment: ‘Yes, there are.’ When his mother laughed at such absent-mindedness, he saw the funny side of it and joined in the laughter. (p59) Many of us could think of similar incidents when people laugh at themselves immediately. On a larger scale we can consider Freud, Woody Allen, and Jackie Mason, all of whom strongly identify themselves as Jewish (Mason was a rabbi before he became a comedian), yet all provide a significant amount of Jewish jokes in which Jews are not always seen in the best light. (This notion of self-deprecation in humour – and its relation to gender – will be considered in 7.3.)

Theories of Humour>

1.1 Superiority Theories

1.2 Relief Theories>

1.3 Incongruity Theories>

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