1.3 Incongruity Theories

We start with a comment from Kant:

In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affectation arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.
[1790] (1951:172)

(Where ‘understanding’ is interpreted as reason.) Monro (1951) comments that this strained expectation is rather like tensing your muscles waiting for the start of a race. (Note the relation here to Spencer’s views on tension in the musculature discussed earlier under ‘relief’.) Your mind is set on a certain outcome and then suddenly wrenched off its path. Lippitt wonders what this ‘nothing’ might be. A possible answer, and this parallels Monro’s, is that ‘nothing’ is an unexpected meaning, one different from that originally anticipated (1994:147).

Schopenhauer’s formulation is more detailed. A humorous situation arises when:

Two or more real objects are thought through one concept, and the identity of the concept is transferred to the objects: it then becomes strikingly apparent from the entire difference of the objects in other respects, that the concept was only applicable to them from a one-sided point of view. It occurs just as often however, that the incongruity between a single real object and the concept under which, from one point of view, it has rightly been subsumed, is suddenly felt.
[1818] (1957:76)

Here the incongruity is made explicitly manifest with two or more different objects
(‘object’ is here interpreted to mean people, institution, ideas) subsumed, or thought of, under one concept, that is, understood in just one interpretation.

Bergson, too, can be seen to have incongruity as a central part of his theory, though earlier we saw that he viewed humour also as a form of superiority. ‘A situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time’ (1911:96). But perhaps the most explicit and detailed formulation comes from Koestler. He first conceived his idea of ‘bisociation’ in 1949 and refined it in 1964. After providing two humorous stories he comments:

The pattern underlying both stories is the perceiving of a situation or idea, L, in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference, M1 and M2. The event L, in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously, on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, L is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two.
(1964:35.original emphasis. See Fig.1)

Koestler's bisociation theory

Fig. 1. Diagrammatic representation of Koestler’s bisociation theory (1964:35)

Though this can be clearly seen as a case of incongruity, it should also be added that Koestler in his earlier formulation also included an element of relief when he said such bisociation ‘causes a momentary dissociation of parts of the emotional charge from its thought context, and the discharge of this redundant energy in the laughter reflex’ (1949:110). This could be Spencer again.

Scruton takes issue with the incongruity theory. Writing in the 1980s he argues that a caricature of the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, amuses ‘not because it does not fit Mrs. Thatcher, but because it does fit her, all too well’ (1982:202). He criticises the inaccuracy of the term ‘incongruent’, suggesting instead that we are amused when people act in character: ‘What amuses us, it could be said, is the total congruence between the idea of the man and his action’ (p.202). If we apply this point to any well-known comedy character we can see that Scruton may be making a valid point. For example, if the neurotic hotelier Basil Fawlty, the main character of the situation comedy ‘Fawlty Towers’, is rude to a guest or has a screaming fit, nothing seems out of character or incongruous about that. Indeed, it can be argued that this is a central feature of all situation comedies: establish the characters and their relationships and then reproduce this situation, in which the characters recognisably play in character.

However, Lippitt counters this with the observation that such behaviour may well be in character but it still nevertheless is incongruous when ‘compared with “normal” people and how we expect them to behave’ (1994:150). Thus, if we now apply Lippitt’s idea to Basil Fawlty’s behaviour we can see that such behaviour is, indeed, incongruous for a hotelier. And a moment’s reflection reveals that sit-com characters invariably have traits which set them at odds with the moral and social codes of the world (Victor Meldrew of ‘One Foot In The Grave’, the cantankerous old cynic, Captain Mainwaring of ‘Dad’s Army’, the pompous, officious incompetent, Del Boy of ‘Only Fools And Horses’, the inept, bungling small businessman, and so on). Further, it is common for these characters to have a more normal foil to underline their incongruity: Fawlty’s wife Sybil, Meldrew’s wife Margaret, Mainwaring’s Sergeant Wilson, Del Boy’s brother Rodney. (This point also raises the supplementary question of ‘normality’ and this will be dealt with more fully below in a discussion of ‘common sense’ in 6.1.)

There are two further counters to Scruton’s observation which are worthy of note. The first is the formal point that it is clearly incongruous for someone who is not Mrs. Thatcher to sound and look just like Mrs. Thatcher; the actress fits the Prime Minister ‘all too well’ and this is incongruous. This can be seen as constitutive of all such caricatures: this is not A yet, somehow, it is A. Secondly, there is the question of intent. Discussing such examples of observational humour, Double comments: ‘The aim of a caricature is not simply to say: Mrs. Thatcher looks like this; it is to say: isn’t the way Mrs. Thatcher looks funny?’ (1992:40, original emphasis). He relates such scenes to Brecht’s stylistic theatrical device of Verfremdungseffekt, which aims to make the familiar appear different, incongruous, or, in this case, amusing.

Moving on to Bain, whom Monro classes as a relief theorist, we find he is heavily critical of the notion of incongruity. He lists at length examples of incongruity, which he says do not cause amusement.

There are many incongruities that may produce anything but a laugh. A decrepit man under a heavy burden, five loaves and two fishes among a multitude, and all unfirmness and gross disproportion; an instrument out of tune, a fly in ointment, snow in May, Archimedes studying geometry in a siege, and all discordant things; a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a breach of bargain, and falsehood in general; the multitude taking the law into their own hands, and everything of the nature of disorder; a corpse at a feast, parental cruelty, filial ingratitude, and whatever is unnatural; the entire catalogue of vanities given by Solomon, are all incongruous, but they cause feelings of pain, anger, sadness, loathing, rather than mirth.

Such an extensive list seems almost like a challenge and it is not difficult to propose a humorous fit for a number of them. A decrepit man under a burden could be Steptoe Senior unloading heavy junk from his cart, gross disproportion could be the unfeasibly obese Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s ‘Meaning of Life’, and so on. Clark (1987:141) and Lippitt (1994: 52) both make the point that nothing is intrinsically funny, a context is needed. Similarly, it can be said contra Bain that nothing is intrinsically unfunny, these listed items could all be sources of amusement in a suitable context. Perhaps the thrust of Bain’s argument is related to this and he is saying that incongruity itself is not intrinsically funny, and with this we would concur. What is also interesting about Bain’s point is that incongruity can give rise to other emotions, a point which will now be pursued with Morreall.

He sees three possible major reactions to incongruity: negative emotion, reality assimilation, and amusement. Negative emotion is when we respond to an incongruous event with anger, fear, uneasiness, or some similar disturbed feeling. Reality assimilation (he takes the term from the psychologist McGhee) is when the incongruity puzzles us and challenges our usual understanding of the world. These two reactions share some common features which distinguish them from amusement. In both of them, Morreall argues, there is a feeling of loss of control and we are motivated to either change the situation or our reaction to it (negative emotion), or our understanding of it (reality assimilation). Amusement, in contrast, is pleasant – ‘we enjoy the incongruity’ (1987a:195), we do not feel the world is slipping out of our control nor do we want to change the situation or our reaction to it (pp.188-96). (Elsewhere he calls amusement ‘a pleasant psychological shift’ (1987b:132).) So, depending on a wide variety of contextual features, the items in Bain’s list could well provoke a different range of responses as outlined by both Bain and Morreall, one of which responses could be, as suggested above, amusement.

Before moving on to a summary of all these theories, there is still an important aspect of incongruity to be dealt with. Palmer reminds us that on this point of incongruity and humour there are differing interpretations of the role incongruity plays, or rather, is seen to play. Is it simply the occurrence of incongruity that gives rise to humour or is it the resolution of such incongruity that is the crucial factor? (1994:95). Here we will look at three ways that incongruity in humour can be interpreted. Firstly, as simply the perception of incongruity; secondly, as the resolution of incongruity; and lastly, as the appreciation of incongruity.

The first category, the perception of incongruity, can be attributed to what might be called the ‘classic’ proponents: Kant’s ‘strained expectation into nothing’ and Schopenhauer’s ‘two or more real objects are thought through one concept’. With these, it would seem, it is primarily the perception that there is an incongruity that is the major contributor to the humorous event.

Suls, however, puts forward the idea that perception of incongruity is not itself sufficiently explanatory. He argues it is not the mere presence of incongruity in the punch line of the joke which gives rise to humour, but that it is the resolution of this incongruity with what has gone before that is the key: ‘humor derives from experiencing a sudden incongruity which is then made congruous’ (1972:82). Further, ‘the punch line is seen to make sense at some level with the earlier information in the joke. Lacking [such] a resolution, the respondent does not “get” the joke, is puzzled, and sometimes even frustrated’ (1983:42)

There are also those, however, who are not troubled by incongruity and see no need to iron it out. Rather, they argue that the incongruity is not only necessary for humour but that it must be appreciated for what it is, it needs to be embraced. Monro notes that ‘there is an element of appropriateness in the inappropriate, when it is funny. It is not really a question of something intruding where it does not belong, but of something which plainly does belong, but is not allowed for by our pre-existing attitude’ (1951:255). Schaeffer emphasises that ‘we accept a minor principle of congruity at the precise moment that we recognise incongruity’ (1981:9). Mulkay sees the main problem with the resolution theory as one that does not distinguish between information-processing in the humorous mode and in serious discourse. Thus, in Suls’ view, joke recipients expect a congruent outcome and when presented with incongruity have to somehow resolve it in order to understand the joke. Mulkay counters this as follows:

I suggest that jokes are designed to display congruity and incongruity at the same time; and that recipients presumably respond to them accordingly. Jokes do have to make sense. They have to furnish an understandable connection between the punch line and the rest of the text, and thereby between the frames of reference juxtaposed within the joke. But the range of interpretative connections allowed in the realm of humour is much wider than that permissible in serious discourse.

Palmer, too, has reservations about simple resolution. His ‘logic of the absurd’ model has two parts, the second of which states that the joke process is ‘implausible [and] … nonetheless has a certain measure of plausibility’ (1987:43). In a later work he is firmer: ‘incongruity is both maintained and resolved simultaneously’ (1994:96).

And speaking of one particular type of humour, Attridge is unequivocal. The intentional pun

is not just an ambiguity that has crept into an utterance unawares, to embarrass or amuse before being dismissed; it is ambiguity unashamed of itself, and this is what makes it a scandal and not just an inconvenience. In place of a context designed to suppress latent ambiguity, the pun is the product of a context deliberately constructed to enforce an ambiguity, to render impossible the choice between meanings, to leave the reader endlessly oscillating in semantic space
(1988:141, original emphasis)

This appreciation of incongruity can be seen to introduce a third element into the comprehension process. Johnson is explicit on the matter.

Jokes or the act of joking arise out of the perception of the presence of two realms of meaning. As such the joke constitutes a third realm, but because of its causal dependence on one or both of the two realms, it cannot be studied independently.

Willis makes a related point with his ‘strong trace model’, in which the straightforward meaning (M1) towards which the recipient is led is understood but not fully established as it is replaced at the punch line with the second meaning (M2), which is both understood and established. Yet because the cues for M1 and M2 need to be the same until the final twist, the full joke comprehension is M3, in which M2 predominates but in which there is also a strong trace of M1 (1992:21). (This will be discussed in greater detail in 6.1 below.)

It is hopefully by now clear that though there are grounds for stating that each of these three major theories has some contribution to make to our understanding of humour, none works as a comprehensive theory and each has shortcomings, or, as Littlewood and Pickering have it: ‘the problem with most theories of humour and comedy is that they claim an excessive applicability to themselves’(1998:293). Lippitt also notes their lack of comprehensiveness and points out that, for example, Hobbes’ ideas on superiority and aggression ignore the structure of the object of amusement i.e. incongruity, whereas Schopenhauer, an incongruist, neglects the emotions and the attitude of the amused person and concentrates on the structure alone (1995a:57).

It has also become clear at the same time that none of them is self-contained, they each have a tendency to spill over into one another. It was noted that different elements of Bergson’s theory suited both superiority and incongruity theories, and that the aggressive aspects of Freud’s tendentious jokes have a place in both his relief theory and in superiority also. Monro takes note of a number of significant leakages. He shows that Leacock, a Hobbesian who sees laughter beginning as a primitive shout of triumph (like Gruner), also believes that humour turns on the contrast between the thing as it is or ought to be and the thing as it isn’t or ought not to be i.e. incongruity (1951:96). Similarly, Ludovici, who sees in every laugh ‘that element of self-glory which Hobbes’ noble mind detected’ also thinks that all nonsense can be seen as a liberation from the rigid laws of reason and logic (in Monro pp.101-1), leaving Monro to comment that this is Freud not Hobbes (p.106). As for Freud himself, Monro sees his relief theory as a transformation of the superiority theory through his recognition of the repression of our aggressive instincts in our early years (p.192).

We are not yet finished with Freud nor the discussion of theories. There are two individuals who both claim a theory that encompasses all three of the major ideas discussed above – Morreall (1987b) and Matte (2001). Morreall says that all laughter involves a psychological shift and this can be either cognitive or affective. The former could be covered by incongruity theories, where we are aroused by things which do not fit into our conceptual patterns, the latter could involve both superiority and relief theories, where laughter involves an increase in positive feelings (superiority), a decrease in negative feelings, or the release of suppressed feelings (relief). Such a shift which is also pleasant provides laughter. Thus, his deliberately simple formula is, ‘Laughter results from a pleasant psychological shift’ (p.132).

Matte’s theory is wholly based on a psychoanalytic perspective. He makes the novel claim that Freud’s conception of humour, which most commentators regard as a relief theory (perhaps the relief theory) is, in fact, along with Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s, an incongruity theory. ‘The incongruous tension of two different ideas which results in laughter is due to the operation of the psychoanalytical dynamic of unconscious and conscious’ (p.239). Further, this psychoanalytical incongruity theory subsumes those of relief and superiority.

Relief and superiority are…as much a part of the psychoanalytical dynamic as the unconscious and conscious.. In the psychoanalytical sense they are the drives, and because the psychoanalytical dynamic has been shown to be an incongruous one, it means that superiority and relief are the drives of incongruity.

This leads him to claim there can be no other theory of humour besides an incongruous one: ‘Incongruity becomes a grand theory, incorporating the drives of superiority and relief’ (p.238).

While at first sight Morreal’s definition of a new theory may seem to be so broad that it gives us a rather blunt instrument where a scalpel is required, it should by now be apparent that a truly comprehensive theory which covers all manifestations of humour is not yet available (and may never be available), and so his concept does at least have the merit of having the capacity to embrace a wide variety of humour, and thus resonates with the treatment of humour in this dissertation, a treatment which is inclusive rather than exclusive. As for Matte’s proposition, it rather seems that as incongruity is a feature of humour that is hard to exclude, whereas not all examples of humour can be seen as instances of relief, Matte simply (and unconvincingly) effects a psychoanalytical colonisation of incongruity and relegates the other two major theories to the role of servants. To put this in plain terms, we may never know why the chicken crossed the road, but such attempts at the hegemony of humour are of little or no assistance to students using a wide variety of ideas trying to get to the other side.

Theories of Humour>

1.1 Superiority Theories>

1.2 Relief Theories>

1.3 Incongruity Theories