THEORIES OF HUMOUR


‘Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.’ These words of Hazlitt [1819] (1964:285) are echoed in others’ ideas of humour and laughter. Bergson’s first point, for example, is to stress that ‘the comic does not exist outside of what is strictly human’ (1911:3, original emphasis). Milner entitles his presentation of a semiotic theory of humour ‘Homo Ridens ’ (1972). Scruton goes further: ‘Man is the only animal that laughs, but it seems that laughter belongs also to the immortals’ (1982:197). Hyers would have us share that immortality.

To participate in comic insight is to participate in the immediacy and the spontaneity of the Now. It is not an argument going somewhere or having been somewhere, but a procession brought to a sudden halt and plunged into the laughter of eternity.
(1974:156)

However, there are those with more fundamental views. In a chapter entitled ‘Apes and Angels’, Jacobson begins his study of humour with a discussion of excrement. He offers a joke in which a statue of the Belvedere Apollo, when granted a wish by the woman who has spent years cleaning it, expresses the long-frustrated desire to ‘shit on a pigeon’ (1997:2). Jacobson adds: ‘If comedy, in all its changing forms, has one overriding preoccupation, it is this: that we resemble beasts more closely than we resemble gods, and that we make great fools of ourselves the moment we forget it’ (p.2). Nor is this an isolated view. The practising comedian Sue Perkins, in an interview about her work, states, ‘ I can make jokes about Dante and Dostoevsky and Chaos Theory but ultimately humour is about toilet jokes’ (Perkins 1999).

Given such disparate perspectives it is unsurprising that many commentators have remarked on the lack of clarity achieved by theorists of humour. Monro sees the task of developing a theory of humour as a stumbling block ‘on which many great men have stubbed their toes’ (1954:13). Milner is unimpressed by the lack of progress and laments that ‘the riddle is still with us’ (1972:1). Wilson considers that given the ‘genius’ of those that have grappled with the problem over the last two millennia the results are ‘disappointing’ (1979:9).

Another common feature of commentaries is that the wide variety of theories are grouped into three broad categories (Monro 1954, Wilson 1979, Attardo 1994, Lippitt 1994, 1995a, 1995b). These are: superiority theories (Wilson calls them ‘conflict theories’ (p.9)); relief theories (Lippitt’s ‘release’ 1995b:169); and incongruity theories (Attardo’s ‘a.k.a. contrast’ (p.47)). Attardo tabulates them and calls them the ‘three families’ (See Table1), his table showing the wide variety of humour which can be subsumed under the three rubrics. It is to a discussion of these that we now proceed but first it is necessary to briefly comment on the terms ‘laughter’ and ‘humour’.

It will be seen that various of the theorists talk about a ‘theory of laughter’ in which they see laughter as being either the evidence or the measurement of humour. The aim of this dissertation is to study humour in as inclusive a way as possible, where humour is something that causes amusement, which may or may not be expressed through laughter. This study therefore agrees with the anthropologist Johnson when he says, ‘ to see the existence of jokes as being defined by the presence of laughter is to reduce a cultural phenomenon to a physiological reaction’ (1976:197). There is widespread multidisciplinary support for this view. The psychologist Suls comments, ‘We can find something humorous but neither laugh nor smile. Conversely, laughter may be induced by many circumstances – fright, guilt, nervousness – that are not funny’ (1983:48). And the neuroscientist Provine (1998), in his research into the evolution of the brain, found that much laughter in social intercourse is not humour-related.

If you start to listen and write down what these people are saying it’s things like: ‘Hey, Joe, where you been?’; ‘Gotta go now!’; ‘Where did you get that tie?’; ‘Hey, here comes John!’. These are not jokes. But this is the kind of thing that is typically followed by laughter.

Thus, when a theorist is seen to be discussing ‘laughter’, for our purposes it is taken to mean ‘humour’ or ‘humour-related laughter’ unless otherwise specified.

Cognitive

Social

Psychoanalytical

Incongruity

Hostility

Release

Contrast

Aggression

Sublimation

Superiority

Liberation

Triumph

Economy

Derision

Disparagement

Table 1. The Three Families of Theories. (Attardo 1994:47)

Theories of Humour

1.1 Superiority Theories>

1.2 Relief Theories>

1.3 Incongruity Theories>

Contents>