Humor Theory

March 14th, 2009 — admin



The desire to write about funny is evidence
that the sense of humor is lost to us for good.


Bernard Shaw

1. Foreword

1. Historical Background

2. False Theories and Accurate Speculations


2.1. False Theories

2.2 Accurate Speculations

2.2.1 The Innateness of Humor as a Psychological Phenomenon

2.2.2. The Aggressive Nature of Humor

2.2.3. The Social Implications of Humor

2.2.4. Laughter as an expression of pleasure

2.2.5. Conditions for the appearance of the funny

2.2.6. A mathematical approach

3. Humor as a Defensive Function


3.1. Humor in uniform

3.2. Political humor

3.3. Jewish humor

3.4. Feast in time of plague

4. Classification of Humor


4.1. Humor of deprecation

4.2. Humor of elevation

4.3. Mixed humor

5. Humor Theory

6. Experimental Verification

7. Abstract Anecdotes

8. Conclusion

9. To Be Continued…


Illustrated by Yuri Ivanov

Authorized translation by Anna Tonkonogui


1. Foreword


If one dares to proclaim in earnest that laughter is as necessary to human survival as the instinct of self-preservation or sex, he risks becoming an object of public ridicule.

Jokes, anecdotes, farces, and caricatures are treated as things of a secondary importance in our society; as things not particularly significant to our daily lives or to the path of the development of history. But if the nonbiased reader takes this issue under critical observation, he will undoubtedly see the errors in this curbed position.

How long can someone survive without food or drink? Intervals between the intake of sustenance usually last several hours, but can be stretched to tens of days without particular harm to one’s health. A person can go without drinking for a considerable while. People can abstain from sex for some time, sometimes for hours. There are people, including those of inordinate talent and genius, who have never had sexual relations.

But can we find people who have never laughed? Doubtless, even if such people could be found, their numbers would be much smaller than those of virgins.

How frequently do we laugh? Once in a month? Once per week?

Humans come across something funny or make something humorous up themselves daily, several times a day, frequently tens of times per day. We take much more time out for humor than we do for sex or for eating. We wisecrack, like we breathe – all the time.

But to the research and study of humor far less attention has been devoted than to books about cooking, cocktails, or sexual finesse. Quantity, however, is compensated by quality. Practically all of the major philosophers of the past have studied the nature of humor. Countless hours have been devoted to deciphering the mysteries of laugher. But the riddle has remained a riddle. In thousands of years, merely the surface of the solution has been skimmed; the full answer elusive. The mechanism of the funny is as veiled to us as it was to our ancestors.

It is entirely possible that the resolution is contained in the present work.

Many years ago the author came to a startling and simple solution. He understood why one situation or phrase made our mouths curve upward in a smile or provoked wild laughter, whereas another situation composed of the same events and carrying the same information left us disinterested and uninvolved. The author analyzed the existing classification systems of humor as well as countless jokes, anecdotes, humoresques, comical narratives, caricatures, etc. He came upon the logic of the funny, and came to the conclusion that a quantitative evaluation is possible.

But the author in his younger years was not skilled in science and its methodology. He could not lay out his thoughts in an accessible and convincing manner. He was unable to convince the professionals. He was not then, and, for that matter, is not now an expert in human psychology or linguistics. He was constantly held back by the fear that his discovery was not at the least bit novel, that it had already been widely discussed, and worse, put aside.

Since then, forty years have gone by. In that time, the author’s ideas have had time to settle and become covered with noble patina; two doctor’s dissertations were defended; experience was gained in articulation of thoughts. On many occasions since, the author has had to proffer and defend enterprising technical positions.

In the course of nearly forty years the author has tested his theory with practice, and compared his formula against every joke, anecdote, and funny phrase that he encountered. All, whether written in prose or verse, fit the theory. Never had the author been forced to take the role of Procrustes, contorting situations to fit his brainchild.

At the same time, the author has punctiliously tracked the achievements of scientific progress, trying to spot the moment when someone else would arrive at the same conclusions. But this has never occurred.

Taking into consideration that the author might not have the next forty years at his disposal, he made the decision to make his theory public.

This theory may bring criticism and disparagement on the part of the reader. The author himself sees its certain failings and inevitable subjectivity. However, the theory has its strong sides, which will prove of interest to the curious reader.

The reader will be offered a concept based on the same principles as the widely accepted scientific theories. These principles are verifiability, objectivity, and quantitative appraisal. The suggested theory does not factually contradict any of the existing theories of humor, and is instead based on them, unites them, makes peace among them.

The task at hand might be considered completed if after reading this work the reader will exclaim: “Why, everyone knows that! There’s nothing new in this theory!”

And that will be considered the highest affirmation.

When man began to preserve the written language, the methods of transcription were prohibitively expensive. Our ancestors imprinted only the most important events in their lives on sheaves of papyrus, clay tablets, or cliff-wall petroglyphs. We would expect that such an insignificant subject matter as humor would remain outside the set of ancient records that have reached us today. (However, such a lack of records would not lead us to the conclusion that the funny was foreign to our ancestors).

Surprisingly, such records have remained, and the oldest of these can be traced back to the times of the Egyptian pharaohs. In the opinion of the renowned British investigator Carol Andrews, ancient Egyptian humor was not unlike the contemporary. Like us, the ancient Egyptians liked obscene jokes; they had political satire, parodies, something akin to animated cartoons, and even black humor.

Plato (427-348 B.C.) is considered to be the first great philosopher that devoted significant effort to the study of humor. The founder of philosophy did not bypass this non-serious subject. And his opinion on the subject proved to be negative. Plato saw nothing good in humor. In the treatise The Republic Plato examined the negative consequences of psychopathic laughter. In Philebus, only defects are ascribed to the comical figure. Those prone to laughter think themselves richer, handsomer, and smarter than they are in reality. Plato considers humor a negative phenomenon, because this emotion is based on malevolence and envy, in particular laughter caused by the hardship or ill-fortune of another, or mockery of someone of lower status or privilege. Plato did not make an attempt at the explanation of the nature of humor, but came to the considerably important conclusion that laughter can have serious consequences, including affecting the status of an entire republic.

As such, laughter was denounced by Plato. Was he wrong in his appraisal? Not so; the reader will soon understand that he was quite correct.

Many thinkers and writers arrived at the same conclusion. For instance, Evgeny Zamyatin in his dystopian novel We wrote: “Laughter is the most frightening weapon: laughter can destroy anything, even murder.”

Indeed, laughter, pamphlets, caricatures, entire literary works were used in political battles, and often with crushing power.

There are many political regimes in which ridiculing the government is the loyal subjects’ national pastime. The risks associated with the realization of this pastime rarely stop anyone. Several analysts have come to hold the opinion that an anecdote becomes interesting only when its telling can land you in jail.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) in Rhetoric views jokes as a form of educated snobbery. He pointed out two main features of the comic: “The ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others.” It will be shown below that the great philosopher was only half-right: specifically, he was right about the first half.

Aristotle was the first to introduce the concept of the effect of sudden or triggered laughter. This idea was firmly forgotten by his descendants, and became re-developed over two thousand years later in the works of Kant and Schopenhauer. In contrast to Plato, Aristotle allowed that humor, in limited quantities, could be beneficial.

Quintilian dedicated a massive composition to the study of humor; also hypothesizing that humor contains a certain medley of truth and lies.

The Middle Ages were not happy times for studying such a merry phenomenon as humor. The next period of active investigations into the matter coincided with the early Renaissance.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) developed the views of Plato and Aristotle that laughter has bearing on one’s social status and superiority over one’s peers. In Leviathan, Hobbes writes that the human race is in a constant power struggle, and that it should not be surprising that victory goes to the one who laughs. Hobbes expressed a fruitful idea that laughter is an expression of sudden triumph, caused by a no less sudden feeling of superiority over others or over one’s past.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in Critique of Pure Reason asserted that “laughter is an emotion which is born from the sudden change of an anxious expectation into nothing” (that is, with the statement of the key word, the ‘salt’ of the anecdote, our predictions about the expected conclusions are unfulfilled).

For instance, the tale of a man whose hair is said to have turned grey in a single night from excess of grief won’t call forth laughter, even if we don’t believe the story (transition to the opposite). On the other hand, we laugh at the story of a man grieved to such an extent that his wig turns grey (transition into nothing). A good joke must contain in itself something that we initially take to be true, momentarily deceiving us, and the next moment vanish into nothing. This is the mechanism that provokes laughter, Kant postulated. He dissected the psychological situation brought about by the taking in of witticisms. Of course, Kant never did define the term ‘something’.

From the provided examples one could conclude that the Kantian something is a regular absurdity. But not every absurdity is funny and keen. To produce laughter the absurdity must be presented in a certain way, which Kant incisively delineated. He was the first to note that only a certain structure of a thought (“play of ideas”) can produce laughter.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Herbert Spencer again turned to analyzing the structure of laughter-causing situations. According to Spencer, laughter can be caused by a range of feelings, not always pleasant (sardonic and hysterical laughter). Strong emotional upheavals lead to a build-up of nervous energy. This energy seeks to escape, and most easily does so through those muscles which, because of low mass, have the least inertia: the mouth muscles, the mimetic muscles, the vocal apparatus, and the respiratory musculature. If those channels prove to be insufficient for the release of nervous energy, other escape channels are used, and the entire body begins to shake in convulsions. This is the mechanism of laughter, triggered by simple emotions. Spencer has a different explanation for laughter as a response to the comical. The comical inexorably signifies some sort of incongruity, but this incongruity must carry a descending character. In other words, in a comical situation we expect something big, and find something small. This is what is called a descending incongruity. In the opposite case, if instead of something small we suddenly discover something large, we get a feeling of ascending incongruity.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) developed this idea into the so-called “theory of the absurd”. According to Schopenhauer, laughter appears from the recognition of incongruity between the physical expectation and the abstract conception of certain things, people, or actions; a concept that descends from Aristotle. Success in recognition of the absurd, recognition of non-correspondence between a concept and the real thing is, according to Schopenhauer, the reason for laughter.

This idea, as we will see, is quite close to the theory proposed in the present study, but it is not capable of explaining the most important thing: why absurdity is not always funny; what differentiates funny absurdity from the unfunny one. Although Schopenhauer tried for a complete solution to the problem of the funny and the flat, his traction, as well as his explanation of the phenomenon of the humorous, provided in a paragraph of The World as Will and Representation (1819), leaves much unexplained.

Sigmund Freud and his followers contributed significantly to the analysis of humor. In his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) Freud, having studied most of the accessible to him works about laughter gave a psychological evaluation of wit. He arrived at the following conclusion: “The pleasure of wit originated from an economy of expenditure in inhibition, or the comic from an economy of expenditure in thought, and of humor from an economy of expenditure in feeling.” We won’t concern ourselves with picking apart the work of Freud, as he has had enough critics without us. Freud had always suffered from an oversimplified appraisal of his work. According to Freud: “Humor is a means of obtaining pleasure despite the distressing affects which interfere with it; it acts as a substitute for the generation of these affects, it puts itself in their place. If we are in a situation which tempts us to release painful affects according to our habits, and motives then urge us to suppress these affects in statu nascendi, we have the conditions for humor. In the cases just cited, the person affected by misfortune, pain, etc., could obtain humorous pleasure while the disinterested party laughs over the comic pleasure. We can only say that the pleasure of humor results at the cost of this discontinued release of affect; it originates through the economized expenditure of affect.”

Freud’s ideas found a number of followers. D. Flagel in the Dictionary of Social Psychology (in the article “Humor and Laughter”) moved the emphasis to the significance of cultural traditions and status of social groups. The release of energy related to humor and laughter was likewise related to the breaking down of social taboos. A similar point of view was upheld by M. Choicie (“Fear of Laughter”), construing laugher as a defense mechanism against taboos. According to him, humans, with the assistance of laugher, overcome fear of their father, mother, the government, sexuality, aggression, and so on. In this way, laugher is equal in its social importance to the arts, neuroses, and alcoholism. E. Kris (“Ego Development and the Comic”) supposed laughter to be not merely a method of release of energy, but also a return to childhood experience.

D. Levine, followed by R. Coser extended this thesis to social behavior as a whole, asserting that humor and laughter always contain certain aggressiveness, regardless of whether they are directed towards a specific object. On the contrary, M. Eastman (Wit and Absurdity: Freud’s Mistake) postulated that there is such a form of humor as a nonsensical joke. Nor does folk humor, in his opinion, completely fit under the aggressive heading. The so-called children’s anecdote, according to Eastman, thwarts the aggressiveness theory entirely. Eastman conjectured that humor, along with having sexual and aggressive origins, might simply be man’s desire to escape an unpleasant reality.

Ludovici, like Plato, found something “sinister” in the nature of humor. “There is not a single joke contained within the New Testament,” he wrote. “… laughter in the Bible nearly always signifies contempt, and not merriment” (outside of isolated exceptions in the Books of Psalms and Jove).

A more serious adherent to the idea of the aggressive nature of humor was Albert Rapp (“The Origin of Wit and Humor”, New York: Dutton, 1951).

Henri Bergson (1859-1941) in his “Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic” made a significant contribution to the examination of the social meaning of laughter. In contrast to Plato, Bergson defines the main function of laugher as the improvement of society. According to Bergson, laugher loses all meaning outside of the social group. This view is held by nearly all of the present-day scholars. Bergson adds that laughter is connected to humans or to something that can in turn be connected to humans. “A landscape,” writes Bergson, echoing the earlier-stated thought of N. G. Chernishevsky, “may be beautiful, inviting, magnificent, drab, or repulsive; but it is never funny.” Bergson asserts that the lone man never laughs.

Bergson used as a springboard the conclusions of Theophile Gautier, who said that the comic in its most extreme form was the logic of the absurd. He came to the conclusion that “More than one philosophy of laughter revolves round a like idea. Every comic effect, it is said, implies contradiction in some of its aspects. What makes us laugh is alleged to be the absurd realized in concrete shape, a “palpable absurdity”;–or, again, an apparent absurdity, which we swallow for the moment only to rectify it immediately afterwards;–or, better still, something absurd from one point of view though capable of a natural explanation from another, etc.”

Bergson thought that “all these theories may contain some portion of the truth; but, in the first place, they apply only to certain rather obvious comic effects, and then, even where they do apply, they evidently take no account of the characteristic element of the laughable, that is, the particular kind of absurdity the comic contains when it does contain something absurd is an immediate proof of this desired? You have only to choose one of these definitions and make up effects in accordance with the formula: twice out of every three times there will be nothing laughable in the effect obtained. So we see that absurdity, when met with in the comic, is not absurdity in general. It is an absurdity of a definite kind. It does not create the comic; rather, we might say that the comic infuses into it its own particular essence. It is not a cause, but an effect–an effect of a very special kind, which reflects the special nature of its cause. Now, this cause is known to us; consequently we shall have no trouble in understanding the nature of the effect.”

But despite the promised absence of trouble in understanding the nature of the effect, neither Bergson nor any of the researchers that succeeded him were able to name it. They brought us closer to solving the riddle, but they did not find the answer.

Robert R. Provine, the author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.” (2001), conducted an experimental evaluation of Bergson’s positions on the social nature of humor. He asked 72 students to keep a laughter journal, that is, to record when they laughed and whether they were laughing alone or in a social context. It turned out that students laughed more frequently in a social contest considerably more frequently: by approximately 30 times. Provine, like Bergson, came to the conclusion that laughter in solitude without an audience practically doesn’t exist.

The Hungarian scholar Arthur Koestler in “The Act of Creation” and John Morreall contested Bergson’s view about the social role of laughter: “If I found a bowling ball in the refrigerator, this absurd situation might seem funny, even though I don’t think of the bowling ball as a person.” Koestler postulated that laugher is an action without any particular purpose, entirely disconnected from the battle for survival. Laughter is a unique (luxurious!) reflex, having no specific biological function. This reflex plays a large role in our intellectual and physical development. Moreover, laughter plays a part in our battle for survival and in our battle with our misfortunes. Laughter, according to Koestler, creates, liberates, and renews. It frees us from the fear which binds our liberty.

Nor was the dilemma of humor bypassed by the author of one of the most controversial theories of the nineteenth century: Charles Darwin. In “Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal” he expressed his views on the role and meaning of laugher as a reaction of the adaptation of organisms to the surroundings, and the evolution of laughter. Darwin thoroughly investigated the anatomy of the human and ape facial muscles, and analyzed the sounds of laugher. In most representatives of the animal kingdom, vocal signals are used to attract the opposite sex. Animals vocalize joy upon seeing their offspring, their friends, or their herd. Sounds of pleasure greatly differ from expression of horror. Wails of misfortune are characterized by a long sustained exhale and short inhale, while laughter is the opposite – a long uninterrupted inhale, and choppy short exhales.

The role of mimetic components in laughter, particularly the pulling apart of the lips consists of enlarging the resonating cavity of the mouth, which ensures a sufficient strength of the auditory signal. There is a whole series of gradations of laughter – from a barely noticeable smile, to homeric roaring. The smile is the first stage in the building of a laugh. Darwin explains in the following way: the habit of uttering sounds from a sense of pleasure first led to the retraction of the corners of the mouth and of the upper lip, and to the contraction of the orbicular muscles; and now, through association and long-continued habit, the same muscles are brought into slight play whenever any cause excites in us a feeling which, if stronger, would have led to laughter; and the result is a smile. Thus a smile turned into an independent expression of pleasure – in all the world’s cultures.

John Locke in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” attempted to draw the distinction between a clever statement and a simple remark. Cleverness, according to Locke, lies first and foremost in the rapprochement of ideas and in their unity, fast and diverse, which gives the sensation of pleasure.

J. Edison, refining Locke’s ideas, noted that not every union of ideas is clever, merely the unexpected unions. Moreover, the foundation of a joke can be not only the closeness of ideas, but also an incongruity.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) expressed his ideas on wit in his “Science of Logic”. Hegel approached the analysis of wit as a form of thought. Even though it does not express the notion of things and their relationships and has for its material and content only the determinations of ordinary thinking, [wit] does bring these into a relation that contains their contradiction and allows their notion to show or shine through the contradiction.

In this way, the “shining contradiction” between reality and appearance is that thing which is common to all wit. But we can hardly accept that with this formula Hegel made plain the entire nature of wit. The phrase “shining contradiction” is itself in need of explanation.

Michael Bakhtin proposed his interpretation of laughter and folk culture. In “The Work of Francois Rabelais and the Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance” he assumes a significant reconstruction of our artistic and ideological consciousness. In Bakhtin we find a cultural explanation of the little-studied tradition of folk humor and forms of laughter in various spheres of human creation.

While the Egyptians built pyramids and the Greeks created theater, folk culture invented the carnival. Carnival and festive laughter play an important-most role in the history of the comic. The canonical medieval culture is characterized by exclusively serious overtones. Seriousness was considered to be the only method of expressing truth and other important and useful things. Laughter, however, is just as universal as solemnity, according to Bakhtin. Laughter contains the history of society and conception of the world.

In the Renaissance epoch, laughter became an expression of the new, free, critical and historical aspect of the period. Laughter always conquered fear. The Renaissance created a new set of morals. Already with medieval humor there was the presentiment: victory over fear will come. Through laughter Man resisted fear. But in the Middle Ages, only the external fear was subdued. The Renaissance, wrote Bakhtin, overcame the internal fear.

The Russian reader is well-acquainted with Alexander Luk’s book On the Sense of Humor and Wit, 1977. For many years, practically no work of a Russian scholar studying the nature of laughter was published without mention of his substantial work. Luk was the first author of the Soviet period who did the work of systemizing the theories of the funny and drew a set of deep, independent conclusions. To him belongs the original system of classification of methods that call forth laughter.

Known are the writings of A. Dmitriev (Sociology of Humor: Descriptions, 1996), A. Arkhipova (Anecdote and its prototype: the Genesis of the Text and Constraining of Genre, 2003,) E. and A. Shmelev (Phonetic Knowledge in the Russian Anecdote), located in the web of research of M. Voinarovsky.

Y. Borev (“On the Comic” Culture, 1962), V. Frolov On Soviet Comedy” Culture, 1954), B. Minchin (“Priests of Feeding the Theory of the Comic”, Kiev, 1959), Y. Elseberg (Problems in the History of Sattire,” 1957), V.I. Karasik (Anecdote as Subject of Linguistic Study).

We direct lovers of clever Russian wordplay to the voluminous text of Vladimir SannikovThe Russian Linguistic Joke: From Pushkin to Present Day,” Moscow, 2003. A part of that book is reserved for the analysis of puns.

The works of L. Karassev appeared in the late 1980s – early 1990s in Russian, French, and Polish editions. These works offered a new conception of humor and laugher. The big idea was of laughter as a cultural-historical-ontological phenomenon, which revealed its meaning when juxtaposed with its surrounding symbols. A. Dmitriev thought that Karassev’s conception could be termed as “semantic”, since the basis of all of the author’s constructions was the hypothesis of laugher as a symbolic whole, developing according to its own internal laws.

The author relegates the conception of laughter to a realm outside of the boundaries of that which we would call “scientific knowledge.” We are unable to say anything about the origin of laughter, as we have no reliable knowledge about it or any of its components, which compose the quintessence of human activity and sensuality – language, thought, ritual, mythology, and so forth. For this very reason the problem of the origin of laughter cannot be examined separately in an isolated manner. Laughter appears simultaneously with language and thought. As for the dynamics of this process, L. Karassev holds the position that laughter appears immediately; at the same moment as all of the other important-most elements of human culture (many linguists hold the same view). Laughter appears as a single whole, as a prevailing quality, and only then does it begin to develop, become enriched, etc.

According to Karassev, the various apparent manifestations of humor can be grouped into two types. The first type of laughter has to do with situations in which a person expresses happiness, bodily joy, “physical” or “vital” enthusiasm. Karassev calls this type the “laughter of the body,” and groups it along with states which are characteristic not only of humans, but also of animals, who also are familiar with the joy of playing games and of physical delight.

The second type is associated with an evaluation of the comicality of a situation. This type of laughter can include elements of the previous type; however, its essence is that it embodies a union of emotion and reflection. This type of laughter is called the “laughter of the mind.”

If the first type, the “laughter of the body”, is at the bottom of human sensuality, then this “laughter of the mind” is at the top. This realm of reflection, paradoxical evaluation, is the birthplace of wit. “In short,” says Karassev, “it could be said that there are two ways to laugh, and one way to cry.”

The “laughter of the mind” is that very laughter that Aristotle was talking about when he wrote about the ability to laugh as a particular feature of humans that separated them from animals.

These last works, perhaps, comprise everything that were written in Russian.

English-language literature is considerably more prolific, and the author admits that he was able to become acquainted with a large part, if not most of it, through the survey work of other authors.

Laughter is a much more accessible subject for study than the subjects studied by other sciences (in particular the natural sciences). It is always with us, and doesn’t cost a penny. Nonetheless, practical studies of humor started only about a hundred years ago. Not only philosophers, but sociologists, psychologists, linguists, and professional comedians: writers, artists, and journalists started to study the question of laughter.

G. Stanley Hall, the founder of American psychology, took part in composing a questionnaire for the study of ticklishness in 1897. Perhaps he used the well-known definition of a ticking as a way of getting laughter manually. Other various studies include: Martin’s introspective analysis (1905), the memory of funny situations (Heim, 1936), the stimuli that cause laughter (Cambouropoulos, 1930), children’s laughter (Kenderlin, 1931, Ding and Jersild, 1932), and the study of the development of the funny (Washburn, 1924, Wilson 1931).

The intensity of research increased in the seventies and eighties of last century when international conferences on humor were organized, the first of which took place in Cardiff, Wales, 1976; and when books were published, summarizing and drawing conclusions on previous studies. Numerous periodicals are currently being published, including the International Journal of Humor Research.

Victor Raskin, currently of Purdue University, suggested the so-called semantic theory of humor (Victor Raskin, Semantic Mechanisms of Humor – Dordrecht: Reidel, 1985), developed alongside Salvatore Attardo’s (Linguistic Theories of Humor. 1994). The books of these authors are published in a limited print run, and are not available on the web. We were able to become acquainted with these books through the courtesy of the authors.

“The goal of the linguistic theory of humor, as formulated by its author, was the determination of conditions sufficient and necessary for the text to be funny.”

According to the ideas of these authors (initially presented by Arthur Koestler in “Act of Creation”), the humoristic effect appears at the sudden juxtaposition in the mind of two unrelated contexts at the point of biosociation: “Biosociation – a circumstance of intersection in the mind of two disjointed but logically justified associative contexts.” We laugh when two contexts, completely disparate from one another, begin to seem connected through bisociation – thus a cognitive dissonance is formed, which is compensated by the reaction of laughter. How do we recognize the comic effect? According to cognitive theories, our memory stores events in the forms of structures, which Minsky called frames, and Raskin and Attardo – scripts. A frame or a script is a structured description of the typical features of the object. Raskin postulates that at the foundation of the comical effect lies a collision of contexts, and not simply of semantic meaning. According to this theory, the humoristic effect arises if the following conditions are in place:

  1. the text has full or partial compatibility;
  2. two parts of the text are incongruous in a particular sense.

Raskin asserted that “Any humorous text will contain an element of incongruity and an element of resolution.” The difference between Raskin’s theory and the theories cited above is that Raskin gave the concept of opposition a universal semantic meaning. Later, after a discussion with Raskin, Attardo came to the conclusion that his theory falls under the category of the theories of incompatibility (see below). The result of this discussion was their collaborative work “General Theory of Verbal Humor” (1991).

Salvatore Attardo’s book, and his article (“The Linguistics of Humor, 2004) comprise a reasonably exhaustive examination of the various theories of humor from the times of ancient Greek philosophers through the present. The surveyed literature includes publications from many different sources and in multiple languages. Salvatore Attardo’s book and article contain a colossal amount of material, and reflect comprehensive achievements of modern scholarship in the direction of humor.

That which is not contained in the works of Attardo may be found in the writings of Thomas C. VeatchA Theory of Humor, Humor, the International Journal of Humor Research, May, 1998“, which is available on the web. It also contains an enormous amount of material, including a complete survey of everything that was ever published in the English language on the topic. It is our great pleasure to direct the reader to this source:

As additional bibliographical sources, let us point out the work of Ceccarelli (1998) and the resource placed by him on the web:

The number of different theories of humor at present is so extensive that agreement cannot be found even on a unified classification system. Victor Raskin believed that existing theories could be divided into three groups: incongruity theories, hostility theories, and release theories.

Incongruity theories predicate that humor appears as a result of understanding the incongruity between the expected, and the achieved result. This idea was proposed by Aristotle, and “discovered” several times since. The most well-known adherents of this theory are Kant, Schopenhauer, Koestler, Paulos (mathematical catastrophe theory), Hazlitt, Locke, Monro, Nerhardt, Suls, Shultz, and McGhee.

In recent years, Hofstadter and Gabora (1989), as well as Coulson (1996, 2001) advanced the cognitive blending theories. Some of the works of these authors are being prepared for publication, and so we cannot refer to them.

The theories of hostility go back to Plato, in part to Aristotle and Cicero, and find support in the works of Schopenhauer, Hobbes, and Gruner (1978, 1997). Such theories state that funniness consists of attaining a feeling of superiority over something, or in overcoming an obstacle, or aggression, in the attack of some object. As Ludovici remarked, “in laughing, we bare our fangs.”

The theories of liberation teach us that humor is a result of the release of a type of psychic energy, liberating man from a certain amount of restraint. One of the more famous of these theories belongs to Freud. The adherents of a similar viewpoint include such authors as Spencer (1860), Penjon (1893), Kline (1907), Gregory (1924), Eastman (1936) and Monro (1951). These authors postulate that human actions are limited by numerous prohibitions – sustention of rational behavior, the need for straightforward expression of thought, and adherence to common sense. The humorous manner of expression of thought and way of socialization frees us from these restrictions; for example, through the means of the tallow jokes and anecdotes frequently cited by Freud. Subsequent studies showed that none of the mechanisms described by Freud were unique to humor. Attardo in his latest work proposes that Freud’s theory may be grouped with the theories of incongruity.

The work of V. Raskin contains the assertion (p. 131), that all three groups of theories are well described by the linguistic theory of humor. This may be so, but does this theory give us key to answering the main question: why do people laugh? We did not find an answer to this question in Raskin’s book.

In “On the Comic”, 1974 B. Dziemidok unites the conceptions of the funny into the following groups:

— Theory of negative quality.

— Theory of degradation.

— Theory of contrast.

— Theory of contradiction.

— Theory of deflection from the norm.

— Theories of a mixed type.

Most of the existing researches on humor are full of surface-level conjectures and contain little empirical data. These researches have a severely limited scope and completely ignore the big picture. Some of these researchers surround themselves with fancy terms, or terms they invented themselves in hope of substituting them for a true understanding of the phenomenon of laughter.

Existing empirical studies, in turn, describe valuable insights, but do not provide generalizations which make it possible to explain them.


The study of numerous works and discussions with specialists, professionally studying questions of humor, have led us to the emphatic conclusion that the mechanism of the funny is far from having being understood. A theory of humor, fully, logically, and convincingly revealing its nature, does not as of yet exist.


“Humor is a pervasive feature of human life…yet its nature is elusive.”
(LaFollett & Shanks)

“The sacred secret of laughter… lies beyond the horizon of contemporary science.”
(A. Luk)

“Humor is one of the elements of genius”

“That which is shallow in the serious form may be deep in the witty.”
(G. C. Lichtenberg)

The reader should not assume that no understanding has been attained about the nature of humor. On the contrary, upon reading the available studies, it is hard to not be surprised at how closely our predecessors came to solving the eternal riddle, and how thin, at times, was a barrier separated them from the truth. It is as though the Creator offered them hints, but for some reason, these hints were neither heard nor understood.

The many scholars did so much and came so close to the solution that we have only to tie together the accurate assertions of our predecessors into a unified whole. As soon as we accomplish this, many people will exclaim: “but that’s obvious!” Precisely that is the goal of the present study.

An accurate appraisal of the accomplishments is possible only in the case that a satisfactory theory is already known. We will try to give a brief summary of those theories and guesses which from the point of view of the proposed theory are either false or true. Doing this is further important in order to distinguish those theories from new material contributed by this work.


2.1. False Theories


Researchers of all times are united by one a common property. Humor researchers have investigated humor and its manifestations exactly like scientists investigate natural phenomena: that is, as a phenomenon existing independently of the researcher. Nobody grew laughter in a test tube, like homunculus. It is quite obvious that laughter exists independently of our will. Most likely, it was inherent in humanity from the moment of its appearance, instead of later forming along with civilization. Moreover, according to a number of observers, humor is also found in animals; in fact, certain characteristics of the humor of animals and of humans have unquestionable similarity.

Naturally, as a basis of the scientific conception of humor it must be accepted that humor is one of the basic forms of human activities. From here the logical conclusion is drawn that humor is one of the most primitive forms of these activities.


Therefore, we will treat A. Luk’s assertion that “the sense of humor is vaster than any definition because it is a very complex state of the soul” as an incorrect one.

Luk’s assertion that “these qualities (wit and humor) do not play a decisive role in biological evolution and the battle for survival” also seems incorrect. Luk thinks that “having discovered these qualities in himself, Man began to cultivate and develop them. In modern society, wit and a sense of humor are quite highly valued.”

Koestler held a similar (false, from our point of view) position, claiming that laughter is an activity without any particular useful goal, having nothing to do with the battle for survival, a luxurious reflex, not playing any specific biological part.

Luk agrees that humor can be defined as “benign lampoonery”. We, however, following Thomas Hobbes, suppose that humor is always aimed at gaining supremacy over those around us.

We will also allow ourselves to group Mark Eastman’s position about the existence of innocent, meaningless jokes, and that humor (aside from sexual and aggressive causes) might be the simple desire of man to escape from an unpleasant-to-him reality, with the set of false theories.

Sigmund Freud’s theory is deep and elegant. But it was not confirmed experimentally, and its role in the understanding of humor is unclear. Though many of Freud’s findings were quite valuable, and were developed by his followers, including in this work.

With the false theories we will group the views of M. Choicie, who considered laughter a defensive reaction against the fear of breaking social taboos.

Laughter and humor, most scholars think, play an entirely different function in the development of humanity as a whole.


2.2 Accurate Speculations


Here we will cite those theories and views which, combined in a logical manner, will lead us to the elucidation of the age-old riddle. We took a liberty to label as “accurate” not those guesses which support our theory, but only those which have found wide acknowledgement and are confirmed by experimental data. For convenience’s sake, we will break them up into groups.


2.2.1 The Innateness of Humor as a Psychological Phenomenon


Laughter is inherent in not only adult representatives of the human race, but also in children. Pliny remarked that a smile appears on an infant’s face within the first few weeks of life. A baby’s laughter can be caused by brightly colored objects, food, musical sounds, his mother’s face, being tossed in the air by parents or close ones, a new non-frightening situation, tickling, or gentle caressing. By the end of the third month, infants start to smile not only due to unconditional stimuli, but also at their signifying conditionals. Thus, the initial biological purpose of the smile and laughter is purely informational: to inform the parents that their offspring is sated and content.

Humor itself starts to appear in children starting at a very young age. An experimental behavioral study of children in Belgium, the United States, and Hong Kong showed that boys attempt to cause laughter more frequently than girls; moreover this tendency starts at the age of 6, which many consider to be the age that humor appears.

Dmitriev studied the humor in children, beginning with the preschool age. He came to the conclusion “about the existence in children of a sort of socio-spiritual need, which no other cultural education could satisfy. When a child turns to a peer, offering to tell a joke, this is not merely a silly way of spend time, but something much greater: the exchange of valuable information about “adult” life.” He postulated that children’s humor “is a powerful source of forming certain political (sic!) orientation and modeling a future world view.”

For preschool children, humor and jokes are not concentrated in the narrow field of their childish understanding, as an uninformed investigator might have supposed. Instead, paradoxically, 90% of anecdotes heard and recorded in preschool and kindergartens have to do with politics and the world.

Dmitriev tried to determine the proportion of children for whom humor was an important way of socializing. He discovered that “no more than 10% of children were able to immediately upon request tell a political anecdote. But if the child knew such anecdotes, then he would compulsorily tell not one or two, but three, four, or even more. In the telling of such anecdotes, the child can demonstrate the maturity of his intellectual skills in front of his parents or friends.”

We will be daring enough to assume that Dmitriev was unable to duly access the importance of his discovery: specifically of the connection between the tendency of children to “humorize”, and the tendency to advance in society. There is a large number of studies showing that not all people are predisposed towards leadership. The proportion of those who display leadership qualities is about 14%, i.e. 1/7th of the entire population. This correlates well with the 10% found by Dmitriev, if we take into consideration the limited extent of his studies.

In countries with a developed system of democracy, that is, in those where people have the opportunity to fully develop their potential, an enormous quantity of enterprises, large and small, come to existence. Some of these enterprises consist of tens or hundreds of thousands of employees, some only of one or two. But if we conduct a statistical analysis, we find that the average number of people involved in an enterprise is around… seven. Could this be another piece of evidence that 1/7th of the population want to be and under certain circumstances become leaders, whereas the other 6/7th readily take up subordinate positions under these leaders?

Let us assume that this hierarchy developed not in the epoch of the democratic free market, but has existed throughout all time. We do not have universal data to back up this view, but we do have certain supporting observations. At one time, the author spent many hours in a certain establishment closed to the public – the Smolensk Historical Archive – trying to find written sources for compiling his genealogy. Thousands of works went through his hands. These were ancient handwritten notebooks, containing writings of nobles who lived in Smolensk over the course of several centuries. A part of these writings bore traces of floods, mice, and bookworms. Our ancestors’ handwriting was awful, and their orthography would have caused a second-year summer school student to swell with pride. The author, whose conscience was poisoned by prime Marxist-Leninist theory, mentally prepared himself to encounter inventories of nobles’ estates containing thousands, or at least hundreds of disenfranchised serfs. To his deepest surprise, he did not find more than one or two such estates. On the contrary, the number of landowners with several, sometimes one or two serfs was the predominant number. But the average amount of landowners (leaders) and serfs (subordinates) was at that same mystical level, with an approximate ratio of one to six.

We offer the reader the opportunity to conduct a survey of his circle of friends and acquaintances, and to determine what percentage of them ascribe themselves to the set of inveterate jokers, wags, and the lives of the party. Might this percentage also correlate with the ratio of natural leaders, with that same magical proportion of 1/7th?

But could humor be a primitive enough phenomenon such that it may be found not only in children, but also in animals? In addition to the above-cited observations by Darwin of primates, we refer to the experimental results of Meyer, who conducted experiments on monkeys, trying to determine which objects his subjects prefer to observe for extended periods of time. Meyer came to the conclusion that elements of aesthetical enjoyment were inherent in primates. They preferred austere forms, limited variety; those inherent characteristics of the examined object which communicated its informational value. Indeed, without strict observance of meter and other laws of versification, even poetry may not be beautiful, was the parallel that the researcher drew.

The participants in one on-line discussion on humor came out in favor of the view that humor is inherent in other animals. One wrote: “Of my current dogs, the eldest is unusually smart. With an undisputable sense of humor. Barrymore can always tell when he’s being talked to seriously, and when he’s being joked with. He is not averse to joking around himself. His favorite joke is to steal a woman’s slipper and toss it up and down in the air with his teeth, grinning and watching the people’s reaction over his shoulder. In the absence of an audience, slippers do not interest him. Let us remember this phrase.

It appears that the given data points in favor of the theory that humor is an innate quality and can be found not only in people but in other thinking beings. If this is the case, then humor carries in itself some sort of function necessary for the survival and development of the race. This function, of course, is not comprised of mere entertainment, but must be no less important than food or sex.

But is humor primitive, or, despite its instinctive origins, is it one of the higher expressions of human reason? If the pleasure from humor is obtained as a result of the satisfaction of primitive necessities, can we suppose that for truly wise individuals, those close to the apexes of reason, this pleasure deprecates? We cannot say this for certain, but we note that there is not a single smiling icon. And there is not a single piece of evidence that Jesus laughed.


2.2.2. The Aggressive Nature of Humor


“It seems surprising that people laugh at the misfortune of others. For instance, a man is walking down a winter street, slips, wildly flails his arms, and finally falls. The reaction of the spectators is varied, but after the victim stands up and sheepishly brushes the snow off his clothes, the majority of the on-lookers smiles or laughs – the incident turned out to not be serious. The fall itself turned into a comical event, breaking the monotony of the rhythm of everyday life.”


With this example, Dmitriev supposes that “the spectator relaxes (nothing grievous or dangerous has happened!) and begins to laugh.” But is this the cause of laughter? Is empathy the reason that we obtain pleasure from the described adventure?

We pose a simple question: what sorts of things are funny, anyway? We will try to give the following definition: an event is termed funny if it causes laughter. Most readers will agree with this definition until the following question is posed: can we term those situations funny in which the person laughs at the misfortune of others? To our great chagrin, we must admit that such situations exist. Experimental data (Robert R. Provine. Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, p. 20) shows that “we laugh more when bad things happen to obnoxious than to pleasant people.” According to the author, this is a point in evidence (not opinion; evidence) of the aggressive roots of humor.

The authors of multiple studies, writers, and historians report to us that “in the past, the lame, the invalids, the mentally disabled, and courtiers were degraded and even killed with accompanying ridicule and laughter.”

Public executions of criminals resembled present-day festivities. The public laughed and caroused as at a show, food and drinks were distributed among the crowd, and jesters and fools entertained the public, causing an even greater rejoicing.

And that’s nothing! When Jesus was dying on the cross, many among the crowd found this amusing, and exchanged jokes. They found it funny.

But have such times passed? Are there no people in present times who laugh, seeing a physical deficiency in a neighbor, or who roll with laughter when someone slips on the ice or runs after a hat blown around by the wind (in such a case, even the most polite person might have a hard time holding back a smile).

And not just this. Unfortunately, even today the news inform us that mob violence, including mass-murders all around the world is accompanied by… laughter.

In 1999, crowds of people laughed during the ethnic genocide in Indonesia and Kosovo. In 1999 in Littleton, Colorado, two criminals shot masses of people. Some witnesses of the event remained. Aaron Cohn, a survivor of the massacre, later told some reporters that both of the murderers “laughed. They were just hooting and hollering. They were having the time of their life.” (“Death Goes to School with Cold, Evil Laugher”, Denver Rocky Mountain News, 21 April, 1999).

And don’t most of us experience intense euphoria when a well-placed joke puts our opponent in a funny, unfavorable, frequently demeaning position? Moreover, to do this it’s not at all necessary to demonstrate your real mental superiority. The power of the joke is that it does not necessarily have to be well-argued. Its purpose is to psychologically elevate the joker over his rival, and to place the latter in a foolish position. An important and irrefutable observation to which we will refer many times is the fact that the joker and his target perceive the joke, especially a particularly offensive one, entirely differently. The victim, as a rule, is not up to laughing. And this once more speaks to humor being a type of a weapon in the battle for social status.

According to the theory of psychoanalysis, in certain situations, humor and its derivative laughter play to the aggressive behavior of groups. S. Freud noted that for the tendentious humor, three persons are needed: first, someone who uses laughter (wit); second, a target for aggression; and third, someone who receives the goal of laughter (wit) – the extraction of pleasure (‘I’ and ‘It’).

Freud also supposed humor to be one of the manifestations of instincts – sexual and aggressive. According to Freud, humor is as much a means of the attraction of the female as the magnificent tail of the peacock or the bright comb of the rooster.

Unexpected confirmation of this view is offered to us by modern genetics. Vasiliy Velkov (“The Reason of Evolution and the Evolution of Reason”, Lebed, #375, May 16 2004, in Russian) informs us that “sexual selection is targeted at the strengthening of secondary masculine characteristics, and at the same time, at increasing the degree of their appeal to the females. Overall, there exists a positive connection between the ability of males to convincingly demonstrate their secondary sexual characteristics and the ability of the females to appraise them and then accept their genes. The more attractive the males, the faster and more frequently they are selected by the females. And the sooner their daughters start doing the same thing, and the more attractive their sons will be. With sexual selection, the process of evolution speeds up. But secondary sexual characteristics can be not only morphological, but also behavioral: the capacity for leadership, for obtaining resources, etc. And behavior depends on general cognitive abilities; on the level of intellect.


Evolutionary models in which sexual selection is based on behavioral and not morphological characteristics show that in this case evolution proceeds even more rapidly than when selection is based only on an attractive physicality.

“As for evolutionary reason for intraspecific aggression – this is that same mechanism which chooses the “stronger” genes for transmission to future generations. Genetic programs of aggression always act simultaneously with the genetic programs that control aggression, so that the entire population isn’t destroyed. The evolutionary path of the species – reproduction, slow degeneration, or rapid self-destruction – will depend on the degree of balance between these oppositely directed genetic programs.

There are two main complimentary theories of evolution of the intellectual abilities of Homo sapiens and his ancestors. One of them is based on the fact that high intellect (and associated advantages) undergoes a significant positive sexual selection. The other theory (the so-called “Machiavellian”) is based on the idea that subpopulations not having the intellectual capacity for adequately responding to aggression undergo strong negative natural selection. Sexual selection towards the strengthening of the intellect is ensured because males with a high intellect have an advantage in the transference of their genes; as ones who hold a leadership position in the hierarchy, they have a harem or the right of the first night.

And the evolutionary significance of such high human qualities as wit, eloquence, musicality, and inventiveness is as attractive behavioral characteristics for the transfer of genes to future generations. Significantly, in the X-chromosome the genes coding for the reproductive functions are located next to the genes for intellectuality, and, as it has been recently shown, deficiencies in the latter change the functions of the former. Indeed, among individuals with a low IQ (lower than 70), over 30% don’t leave descendants, while among those with an IQ higher than 131, only 3-4% don’t have children. The evolutionary function of this location of sexual X-chromosomes is evident.”


If the given genetic data is correct, then the sense of humor is indeed linked to basic instincts. We could say that a sense of humor is built into us like the homing instinct is built into the sperm.

D. Levine, followed by R. Koser advanced Freud’s thesis on social behavior as a whole, claiming that humor and laughter always contain a certain level of aggression, regardless of whether or not it is directed at a specific object.

Albert Rapp (“The Origin of Wit and Humor”, New York: Dutton, 1951) and his followers thought that “laughter is the offspring of hatred and hostility. If hostility was not innate in mankind, laughter wouldn’t exist (nor, for that matter, a need for the funny). All contemporary forms of wit and humor contain evidence of its aggressive origins. In some witticisms this comes through more clearly; in some it’s disguised. But its roots are contained in every one, if only one has the desire and ability to recognize this fact. But many people simply don’t express the desire.

Ridicule, for example, bares our fangs and claws. The great majority of jokes and witticisms that reach us via radio [at the time that the book was being written, television had not yet come into use] contain elements of ridicule. Certainly, they are subdued. Certainly, a person living in civilized society can accept them. But savagery is still concealed within.”

“This,” continues Rapp, “is one of the greatest paradoxes: even though there exists something hostile and derisive in laughter, at times some forms of the funny are full of charm and affability. A good sense of humor is one of our greatest merits. The ability to see something funny in our surroundings, to make those around us laugh, is one of our most beloved characteristics.

How can we explain this paradox? How can the same object be noble and low, affable and hostile, a potential blessing, and potential danger? All of the important questions posed by people about humor and laughter culminate in precisely this.” The answer to these questions is given in the present investigation.

Rapp attempted to reconstruct the evolution of the funny: “the sole source from which all of the contemporary forms of wit and humor developed is the triumphant roar in an ancient duel.” A likely outcome of such a duel was a rejoicing winner and a mournful (at best) loser. The way in which the winner released his energy was through laughter, and the unlucky wretch…cried. The party of the conqueror also laughed, and those who belonged to the camp of the conquered grieved. Rapp supposed that ridicule was the first, and for a long time, the only form of laughter. The caveman laughed at physical misfortunes of others, as they foretold of a coming victory in battle. Subsequently, intentional mockery began to supplant the battle, and probably became one of the ways in which the defeated could take revenge.

Rapp thought (and correctly so) that the tendency to rejoice, even over serious misfortunes of others is far from having been outlived.

Has it been long since the verbal battle displaced the physical? Did this happen in the cave-dwelling years, or when people began to construct cities? We think that humor developed at the moment that humanity appeared.

Battles for social leadership exist among animals as well, but animals hardly fight to the death. Sometimes their duels are limited to demonstrations of supremacy of size or aesthetics, as in peacocks. Sometimes the duel comes to head-butting or shoving.

Even venomous snakes don’t bite each other. Animals have ways of morally overcoming their opponents. Why not allow that primitive humans employed “moral combat”? We think that humor must have had a place in the ancient world. It was likely a part of everyday live of the cave dweller, who was no less intelligent than you or I, my respected civilized contemporaries.

In modern times, physical entanglements have turned into duels of wit. Daily we compete and sharpen our competitive mastery not in physical, but in mental superiority, wherein our wit and our ability to find solutions serve as weapons.

We offer two more opinions.

Martin Grotjahn (“Beyond Laughter. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957) wrote: “To summarize, wit begins with an intention to injure, which our culture causes us to repress. … The better the disguise, the better the joke.”

William Fry (“Sweet Madness”, Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, 1963) went even further. Examining the relations between individuals engaged in laughter, he hypothesized that humor contains aggression of one individual against the other. He drew a parallel between a verbal duel and a real battle engagement. In this competition we have all the chances of losing, without even realizing the fact that we are engaged in a fight.

The importance of humor for mankind is underscored by the observation that very few people will agree that they have no sense of humor. Steven Leacock wrote: “strange as it is, I have never met a person who wouldn’t think the same of himself. Each admits, when he has to, that he has poor vision or that he can’t swim or shoot a rifle. But God forbid you express doubt in friend or acquaintance’s possession of a sense of humor – you will inflict fatal offence.” It is as though this sense is instinctively considered vital.

Darwin and Spencer thought that laughter plays an important role in our survival.

Dmitriev wrote that “the entire system of creation and use of the sense of humor can be thought of as a unique mirror of the public essence of man; one of the forms of self-assertion.” “Like a boulder is the weapon of the proletariat and tanks are the weapons of the government, so the anecdote (author’s note – political) is the weapon of the intelligentsia.”

Objectively, and a bit abashedly we must admit that laughter is related to dominating others, and its aggressive nature is experimentally confirmed.

And if the reader still has some doubt on the matter, we ask him to turn his attention to two well-known facts.

First: children are frequently cruel in their jibes. Remember your own childhood, your classroom, your street life, your summer camp. Stretch your memory.

Second: Analyze the relationships of very close people; namely, members of the same family. How many families can we find in which the husband, wife, mother-in-law, children, brothers and sisters don’t compete daily for leadership, influence, and decision-making?


2.2.3. The Social Implications of Humor


The expression – “the management jokes” is well known to us. But do we realize the real implications of this short formula? Imagine a certain group of people in free association, each having a different social status. It would be false to connect this status with the intellectual potential of the people comprising this group. In it might be older people who have had the time to become professors or generals, but also gifted younger people “carrying” a marshal’s baton in their haversack or graduate briefcase.

R. Provine conducted a series of interesting studies in professional collectives. Observations of one of them, consisting of psychologists, showed that the most high ranked individuals made an average 7.5 jokes each during this period; those slightly lower in the hierarchy an average of 5.5 jokes per person, and the lowest-ranked professionals only an average of 0.7 jokes.

Can we imagine a group of officers, different in rank, who would freely exchange banter with each other? More likely, the generals’ jokes would dominate this medium. And we don’t think this is because the title of the general is conferred on someone for his comedic abilities. The author had had to spend some time in a military hospital, where the favorite divertissement of the ugly blue robe-clad patients was playing dominoes. The game caused great animation and drew spectators. Unlucky partners were ridiculed with military directness and roughness. One fine day, the patients became witnesses to an memorable scene. One of the more hapless and ridiculed players was checking out of the hospital and came to play a last round with his partners. He played as poorly as ever, but Lord, the desire to laugh at him completely disappeared. For before ensigns and junior officers suddenly appeared a man in the uniform of a colonel. That day, the jokes were made exclusively by him. And always successfully!

One can observe the social division of jokers and their targets to an even greater extent in countries where the caste system was preserved. In southern India, for example, the men who belong to the lowest caste servilely and foolishly giggle when speaking to a representative of a higher caste. But that same person suddenly begins to speak intelligently and clearly in the presence of individuals from a lower caste.

Indeed, what need for jokes does an absolute monarch have? We are all acquainted with such collections as “Physicists joke”, “Musicians joke”, but who has ever seen collections such as “Kings joke” or “Generals joke”? Presidents – those on the other hand do joke. For presidents aren’t kings or generals; they are elected by the people. Candidates for presidency joke too – and how! Not a single campaign speech manages without humorous passages or sarcasm. Humor in the democratic system is a weapon in the battle for power; moreover, it is a weapon as deadly as it is irrational. When Ronald Reagan was getting ready for the pre-election debates, his opponent Jimmy Carter found a soft spot in the program of his challenger, and constructed many questions around this point. During the decisive televised discussion. President Carter asked his question one more time. Reagan didn’t even think to answer it. He looked ironically at his opponent, and uttered with a tinge of annoyance: “Oh no, there you go again”. And … he won the election. President Carter, who in all honesty was correct, lost.

R. Provine (p. 30) came to the unequivocal conclusion that “humor has such high social value that only those higher on the hierarchical scale can afford it.”

The social nature of humor becomes even more evident when we answer the question: who do we laugh for? We breathe, eat and drink even when alone. We don’t lose the desire to eat or drink a glass of water if there’s no one standing next to us who could observe it. Do we laugh for ourselves or for the sake of others?

R. Provine asked his students to keep a special journal in which they were to keep track of when they laughed and under what circumstances. It turned out that the students laughed 30 times more frequently in the presence of others than when alone.

The author of this work conducted his own mini-study. He quizzed surrounding individuals of different ages and genders whether they were inclined to laugh in conditions of absolute solitude, that is, in their sleep. Not one of the surveyed could remember a single episode. When dreaming, we don’t have an audience. Who should we laugh for?

Let us site two more interesting observations. R. Provine conducted investigations of who laughed more often: males or females, performers or the audience.

The answer to the first question proved ambiguous, as illustrated by the following table:

Performer Audience (predominantly) Episodes Speaker laughs Audience laughs





















Notice that the men (who predominantly act as leaders) are not entirely inclined to laugh at the jokes of the opposite sex, whereas women not only laugh more frequently, but laugh more at men’s jokes than at those by representatives of their own gender.

The above table gives us one additional key to understanding the nature of humor. If we limit ourselves to the study of removed theories, explaining what is funny and how the resolution of a contradiction leads us to laughter, we would never be able to approach an answer to the simple question: why do performers laugh more frequently than the listeners? But from the experimental data it follows that the performers laugh more willingly than the audience. Why does a person telling a joke for the thousandth time laugh more loudly and contagiously than those surrounding? At the same time, if among the listeners is another person who’s heard the joke at least once before, he, as a rule, doesn’t laugh. To him, it’s boring.

“Any person,” writes Dmitriev, “when interacting with others, as a rule tries to maintain his image, hold up his prestige. An admission of the latter from the side of others is a need which stimulates the activeness of behavior. Doubtless, the reader knows from his own experience that a teller of anecdotes is never satisfied with the story alone. Its recognition by the crowd, if, of course, it happens, brings the raconteur incomparable satisfaction.

Could this commonly observed fact be direct indication that humor is aimed at the achievement of superiority over those surrounding, on heightening the social status of the “humorist”?

Then why does the audience laugh? Could we explain its laughter as a similar aim towards increasing its social status? We will see below that this supposition is not without sense.

It’s evident that not a single theory can explain the multifarious nature of humor if it doesn’t take into account its social aspects. Let us take a broad genre such as parody. A skilled parody invariably calls forth a smile and is predestined for a longer lifespan than the original parodied work. Everyone knows and remembers the magnificent Alexander Ivanov and his inimitable manner of hosting the TV show “Around Laughter”. But how many people remember and know the names of the poets he parodied?

Let us simulate this situation. Imagine that you live in the USSR, you are a well-known, venerated poet, laureate, surrounded by family, getting ready to watch the show “Around Laughter.” Recently you published a poem – beautiful, enthusiastic and full of all Soviet dignity: ”In any case, I will not kiss up to Ford!” Suddenly from the television’s screen V. Lifschitz’s parody is broadcast across the nation:

To Robert Rojdestvenski Ford cries aloud:

“Why are you, Robert, so unbearably proud?

Robert, a single hot kiss’s all I crave!”

“No, – answers Robert, – no, Mister, behave!”

Za Robertom Rozhdesvenskim, ridaya, mister Ford:

“Ah? pochemu ti, Robert, tak nesterpimo gord?

Ti podari mne, Robert, goryachit potseluy!”

“No, – otvechaet Robert, – no, mister, ne baluy!”


Your family members, especially the children and grandchildren, laugh; but is the situation funny to you? You, a famous poet, were just ridiculed in front of the entire nation.

Readers of the elder Russian generation may remember the “Twelve Chairs Club”, which occupied the 16th page of the “Literaturnaya Gazette”. Born of the imagination of V. Vladin, the great people-connoisseur and soul-lover E. Sazonov unrestrainedly ridiculed writers and poets in his talented parodies. The soul-lover spared no one. Not all of the parodied liked this, but matters hardly ever dissolved into protests. This went on until E. Sazonov composed a parody on the author of the multi-volume book on the life of Vladimir Lenin, the live classic Marietta Shaginian. This wasn’t the first humoristic work dedicated to this prolific novelist. In the 20s, Alexander Archangelsky dedicated the following quatrain to her:

Doubt it not, her life work’s ardor

A single page will not subsist:

Poetess, lecturer, carder,

Sage of wool, and novelist.

Shirotu eyo razmaha

Ne ulozhish’ v pischiy list:

Poetessa, lector, pryaha,

Sherstoved i romanist.


The wise A. Archangelsky knew what and to whom to write in the hard times he had to live and work. This epigram heightened the social status of the novelist. E. Sazonov, on the other hand, did not appreciate the situation. Not having our theory of humor at his behest, he published a witty parody on the prolific writer. And the writer… got offended. In a few issues, an official apology and admission of tactlessness and impropriety of the parody on Marietta Shaginian was published on the 16th page of the “LG”. For some reason the evaluation of the parody by the readers of the “LG” and by the writer turned out to be diametrically opposite.

Bergson thought that “laughter possesses healing powers. Intended for derision, it must cause moral pain to the person at whom it is directed. By means of the funny, society takes its revenge on those freedoms which are accompanied by laughter. If the laughter carries a touch of sympathy or empathy towards its object of ridicule, it doesn’t fulfill its mission.”

It was noted (D.H. Monro, “Argument of Laugher. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1951) that laughter could also play a defensive role. We will return to this fruitful idea in Chapter 3 when we look at the defensive functions of humor.

The thesis about the social nature of humor becomes even more convincing if we pose the question of what the antithesis of funny is. If laughter is an expression of pleasure and rising up the social ladder, then what psychological state expresses an unhappy state of mind, and a descent down that same ladder?

This question was addressed by L. Karasev. Unlike A. Ahiezer, he offered as a type of antithesis to laughter the feeling of shame. This initially unexpected solution has its logic, supported by much objective material which the author gathered from many different sources, including philosophy, psychology, history, philology, and so forth.

The antithesis of laughter and shame form an ideological axis of the entire concept of Karasev’s study of laughter’s past, its conception, and today’s and tomorrow’s problems of laughter. Karasev finds all of the parameters corresponding to laughter in the phenomenon of shame. The author marks the “intellectual”, reflexive character of shame, its suddenness, unpredictability of the moment of its manifestation, impossibility of its suppression through reason, even though by its nature it is fully reasonable, the strength of the affect, its connection with the realms of ethics and aesthetics, etc.

According to Karasev, shame is laughter turned upside down. Shame is the “negative modus” of laughter; their relationship can be found not only in developed forms, but in the very point of their inception. Shame, like laughter, proves to be dual: there is “shame of the body” and there is “shame of the mind’. If the “laughter of the mind” historically uses the pre-made mask of the “laughter of the body”, so the “shame of the mind” similarly uses the mask of its primitive predecessor – “shame”. Having appeared, shame and laughter act very similarly: both come unasked, possess us fully, stop from time to time and then start up again. It’s as hard to control shame as it is a burst of laughter. Like the spasms of laughter, which return us to the wonderful moment of discovering our supremacy, “spasms” of shame return us to the situation in which our faults became apparent and recognized “inside”. Moreover, in both cases a real external-physical pragmatic is absent: shame, bringing us strong and quite real sufferings, is in reality not connected with any real, actual threat. Laughter, bringing us strong joy, in no way is correlated with a real actual fortuity. Through shame, we don’t become poorer, nor do we become richer through laughter.”

This wonderful comparison gives us another argument in favor of the idea that laughter is connected with the progression upwards on the social ladder (as opposed to shame, when we progress downward), and humor is the means for this advancement, our weapon in social interaction.


2.2.4. Laughter as an expression of pleasure


It’s unlikely that we need to spend much effort to convince our readers of the validity of the position stated in this subheading. Nearly all of the investigators are united on this account. Laughter is caused by pleasure. We laugh when we feel good. But only on rare occasions does a person laugh when he just feels good. He must feel really good! Many remember the night scene from the film “War-Time Romance”, in which a man dressed in his underclothing sticks his head out from a third floor window and laughing shouts across the entire street: “Wooondeeeerful!!!” while his happy and embarrassed wife pushes him away from the window. We can understand this man. At that moment, he felt ve-rrry wonderful!!!

Laughter is the innate reaction to feeling good, inherent not only in man, but in the higher-order animals – monkeys, for example. The newborn begins to smile very early. Its smile and laughter are indicators of purely physical comfort, the satisfaction of his first-order aims and needs, most of all, of hunger. Smiles and laughter are natural reactions to the satisfaction of desire. In very young people, laughter serves as an indicator of the expression of health; of the excess and activity of vital forces.

With age, development, and formation of a person’s social connections, laughter gains a social role, becomes one of the means of social interaction. With age, along with his first-order goals, the person develops second-order goals and their concrete expressions – wants. Their satisfaction similarly brings about positive feelings, which are externally expressed through smiles and laughter.

Dmitriev correctly assumed that “The laughter of joy and the laughter of the mind are expressed in the same form, and this is the reason for the traditional contrasting of laughing and crying. Laughter is a sign of joy; this is why it’s so natural to contrast it to tears.”

A. Luk confirmed this idea, and added that “the greatest joy can be obtained by a person through mental exertion”. A well-known scholar, the author of “A History of Physics”, Nobel Prize laureate Max von Laue wrote that “understanding how the diverse and labyrinthine phenomena of mathematics are reduced to the simple and harmoniously beautiful Maxwell’s equations is one of the most powerful experiences accessible to man”.

And here is what the great naturalist Charles Darwin had to say in his autobiographical papers:

“I have discovered, though unconsciously and gradually, that the level of pleasure, brought about by…the mental effort is incomparably higher than the pleasure brought about by some technical skill or sport. My chief enjoyment … throughout the course of my entire life had been scientific work and the exultation caused by it allowed me to forget at times, and sometimes removed entirely my perennially poor health.”

As a physiological expression of pleasure, the act of laughter is pleasant in itself, causes euphoria, and a sense of well-being and comfort: “Of all of the bodily movements, which affect both the body and soul, the laughter is the most healthy: it enhances digestion, blood flow sweating, and revitalizes the vital forces in all organs”, writes C.Hufeland, the medic of the Prussian king Friedrich in “Macrobiotics”.

Here is the well-known opinion of Sydenham, the outstanding British physician of the XVII century: “The arrival of a good clown into a village does more for its health than 20 asses laden with drugs”.

A. Luk justly pointed out that laughter could be caused both by a feeling of comfort (including physical comfort), as well as suddenly thwarted danger. Luk thought that “the act of laughter in itself is pleasing, calls forth euphoria, a feeling of well-being and comfort, being the physiological expression of pleasure”.

But a good mood is not the only reason for laughter. We cannot laugh all the time, even if living in the best of all possible worlds. To cause laughter, it is necessary for the happy state to exceed its usual level, to make a splash, an impulse. We need the amplitude of this impulse to greatly exceed the level of merely a good mood.


2.2.5. Conditions for the appearance of the funny


The question implied in the heading of this section is not at the least targeted at the disclosure of the nature of the funny. To discover the reasons for the appearance of laughter and the reasons for laughter are two completely different tasks. Everyone knows that an egg dropped on the table from a height of 1 cm has chances of remaining intact, whereas an egg that falls from the table to the hard surface of the floor doesn’t have those chances. But to understand the reason for this, the genius of Isaac Newton was necessary, who told us of the basic laws of mechanics.

Performing elementary experiments with magnets, even the most unprepared observer can determine that two magnets are sometimes attracted to each other, and sometimes repelled. A simple explanation for this phenomenon was found. It consisted in that one end of the magnet was termed the “north pole”, and the opposite, the “south pole” and N-pole is attracted to the S-pole and repelled from the like. There was certainly practical sense in this explanation, but it got us no closer to understanding the nature of magnetic interaction than would have coloring the N-pole blue, and the S-pole red. Only much later, when it was discovered that the magnetic field of constant magnets was caused by electrons spinning in parallel planes, thus enhancing each others’ magnetic fields, that our understanding widened to the level of present physical theory.

Laughter exists independently of our wishes. We have to treat it as a given, a natural phenomena. It is evident that the study of this phenomenon must begin with the study of the conditions of its conception. More precisely, with the conditions of conception of that powerful brief impulse which gives us an objective, though as of yet incomprehensible feeling of joy.

G.W.F. Hegel, in “Science of Logic” provided original, deep judgments on the question of interest to us. He approached the analysis of wit as a form of thought. Hegel wrote that “the usual understanding grasps differences and contradictions, but not the transition from one to the other, whereas that’s the most important.” He thought that wit carries in itself contradiction, expresses it, brings things into relation to each other, allows their notion to show or shine through the contradiction,” but does not express understanding of things and their relations. The thinking mind, according to Hegel, sharpens the dulled differentiating of the different, the simple variety of understandings to significant distinction, to contradiction.

In present times, it is accepted that any witty statement is based on some kind of contradiction, some unexpectedness, contradicting strict logic.

Hegel came very close to determining the nature of humor. But neither he nor his followers could penetrate the thin barrier, separating them from truth.

We can hardly say that with his verbal formula Hegel had exhausted the nature of wit. The words “shining contradiction”, as the following examples show, are themselves in need of decipherment.

William Hazlitt gives a long list of things that make people laugh. For example: a caricature of a person with a nose in the shape of a bottle, or the form of a midget next to a giant. We laugh at the clothing of foreigners, and they at ours. Three chimneysweeps and three Chinese men, having run into each other on a London street laugh at each other until they all collapse, and so on and so forth.

S. Freud, C. Darwin, Eastman and many others thought that to laugh, one needs to be in a happy state of mind.

Freud moreover thought that the person must be receptive to the joke; expecting it.

We know through experience that many comedians, even those who haven’t read Freud, prepare their audience, informing it that a joke or a humorous anecdote will follow. Sometimes they use an announcement of the sort: “that was a joke, this is how I joke.” A brilliant method was used by Michael Zhvanetsky. He came out on the stage and dropped a completely innocent line to the audience: “here’s what’s interesting: the minister of meat and dairy industries exists and is looking well.” After which there would be a pause. And only in about 10 seconds, the Soviet audience would understand that it was a joke, and a wave of growing laughter would roll over the audience.

Freud correctly assumed that humor is better received in circumstances favorable to its reception. An experienced toast-master only begins to joke for real after the guests had gone through several wineglasses. The “warmed up” guests are more easily stirred to a humorous spirit. The boundary is very thin. One regular joker told the author that once in his life, even this approach failed. “See,” he said, “I started joking as usual after about the third glass. And I can see that it’s not going well; they’re not laughing. What’s the matter? Then I understood: it was cold in the room; so the audience didn’t get warmed up after the first three rounds”.

John Locke in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” attempted to draw the distinction between a clever statement and simple judgment. Judgment, according to Locke, consists of a thorough separation of ideas. It focuses not on similarity, but on differences, however small they might be. The purpose of judgment, Locke thought, was to avoid error based on random, trivial similarity.

Cleverness, he thought, lies first and foremost in the rapprochement of ideas and in their unity, quick and varied, which gives the sensation of pleasure.

J. Edison, refining Locke’s ideas, noted that not every union of ideas is clever, merely the unexpected unions. Moreover, the foundation of a joke can be not only the closeness of ideas, but also their incongruity.

A. Luk came very close to understanding humor when he tried to analyze the role of the time factor in the reaction to the comic. He cites Mark Twain in his analysis of the importance of the pause, and comes to the conclusion that to determine the “salt” of the joke or anecdote takes a certain amount of time.

If the idea becomes immediately apparent, or if on the other hand it takes too long to figure it out, then the effect of the witticism decreases significantly, and sometimes vanishes entirely. Though the occasions in which the listeners “get” the joke several days hence and laugh aren’t all that infrequent. Still, there exists a certain optimal time for processing.”

Miroslav Voinarovsky (2003) defined humor as a “suddenness sharply converted into understanding”. He, like A. Luk, very nearly approached the resolution of the funny, having given attention to the time factor. Voinarovsky wrote: “Man cannot predict ahead of time what will be said, and a pause happens, a delay in understanding. It is not without reason that anecdotes are set up as simple and sudden riddles: one must quickly recover from the suddenness, and then figure out what the speaker meant. The search for the answer should not take up much time. Not over 10 seconds. Otherwise the comical effect will be lost. Why this happens – we can try and guess (underlined by us), but this is a completely different question.”


It is even more important for the comprehension to happen at once, suddenly, almost instantly. If it happens gradually, like in the solution of a problem, then the humorous effect won’t be there. This means that the desired solution must be very simple, not divisible into multiple steps, each of which must be solved sequentially. The comprehension must happen quickly, not more than one, maximum 2 seconds after the person has started to figure out the solution. Then that selfsame effect appears – like a flash, a beat of a drum or a shove, which externally discharges into laughter or a smile.

However, when we understand the meaning hidden in the anix (the “riddle”), this proves to us that we are after all smart enough. This removes the suspicion of our own stupidity. Which brings happiness. This also explains the need for the rapid comprehension. If it takes too long to guess the anix, that means we’re stupid. If we solve it step by step, smoothly, then this appears as a more serious effort than the answer, which appears instantly in the moment of comprehension, required.


It is pleasant to rise over others, but even more pleasant to rise over the great. It is clear that the difficult path of ambition – to make something great – in the given case is especially difficult. There remains the easy way: through the degradation of others.

Alexander Luk thought that “perhaps that which is common to all types of jokes is their step outside the limits of formal logic”. In the variants of wit that he dissected: absurdity, false contrast, false strengthening, and others, this step beyond the limits of formal logic is expressed simply in the violation of the laws of identity, contradiction, excluded third, and sufficient reason. Luk arrives at a splendid guess: Finding and suddenly realizing the logical mistake, especially someone else’s, is probably that switch that turns on positive emotion and its accompanying laughter – on the condition that there are no causes suppressing the positive emotion. Laughter in this case is an expression of the intellectual triumph of finding the error.”

This expression of A. Luk starts to uncover the veil over the mystery of the funny, but does not give an answer to the main question. If laughter is an expression of intellectual triumph, then why is even greater triumph not accompanied by peals of laughter? A person delights in having noticed a typo in a poem: “And what rough yeast, its hour come at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born”. But why did that same person, having solved an incomparably more difficult intellectual problem, for instance a complex mathematical example, or a chess etude, or a non-trivial equation, which he really can be proud of, does he so rarely dissolve into bouts of laughter?

All of the theories of humor known to the author halt at that question. They explain that humor is caused by contradiction, which demands resolution, a solution exactly as the early theories of magnetism led to the discovery of the poles, but at the same time the mechanism remains completely veiled as in fog.

Contemporary linguistic theories are a characteristic example. All of them converge on the position of Hegel, but attempts to explain the nature of humor lead only to the examination of “shining contradiction” from different angles, some from the point of view of semantics, and some from semiotics and other complex objects, accessible only to specialists.

Meanwhile, the mechanism of humor is simple and primitive. Humor is accessible to all layers of society; moreover, it’s more accessible to the lower layers to a large extent than to the higher. For this reason, the understanding of its nature should also be simple. Simple and intelligible to any.

But we have not yet discovered its explanation.


2.2.6. A mathematical approach


A science can only be called thus when it is mathematically systemized.

Naturally, the representatives of the psychological and linguistic sciences aren’t always able to do this task, but attempts at verifying hypotheses with algebra had been made. Among others, attempts have been made in the field of humor and corresponding studies.

The brain, as we know, is capable of performing most complex mathematical and logical operations completely unconsciously. What if it performs those same operations when it’s perceiving humor? Is it possible to compose some, even approximate, mathematical equations which describe this work and give as a result a value of the amplitude of emotions? When this (completely individual) amplitude is exceeded, laughter appears as a reaction. A small amplitude leads to an internal smile, a hardly noticeable change of facial expression; a high amplitude stretches the lips into a grin, and an even higher one leads to the generation of audible jerky sounds which we call laughter.

Leibniz’ statement that music is the rejoicing of the soul, which calculates, without knowing it itself,” which at first glance seems to have little to do with the matter at hand, is in fact quite relevant and gives us a hint to what is actually happening when we perceive humor.

Birkhoff thought that aesthetic delight depends on harmonic interrelations in the system of perceived object. He even suggested the formula

M = O/C

where M is the aesthetic measure of the object, O – the ordering, and C – the complexity. Birkhoff claimed that aesthetic pleasure could be reduced to mathematical laws of rhythm, harmony, equilibrium, and symmetry.

Morris adhered to a slightly different point of view. He thought that the perfect poetical measure is so monotonous that it becomes unbearable. This is why poets turned to free verse, to changes in rhythm. Similarly in the realm of the graphic arts: geometric proportions of the outside world are a measure from which art must always retreat. The degree of the retreat is determined not by laws, but by the artist’s instinct. It is precisely this retreat from ideal laws of nature which makes a work of art beautiful. A simple peasant pot, according to Morris, contains more charm than a Grecian urn with a perfect geometric form. Morris’ ideas, actually, do not contradict, but complete the views of Birkhoff. To our eyes, a person receives the most pleasure when he makes subconscious operations (calculations) which correspond to the upper limit of his abilities. From monotonous, everyday work, it’s difficult to achieve the pleasure that comes with an intellectual triumph. Thus poets, supersaturated with iambic tetrameter, began to invent more difficult work for the brain; the painters left Malevich’s “Black Square” and landscapes with birches behind, and began to search for new forms which would satisfy their heightened demands.

Humorists are likewise in search of new forms. We will show that this movement found their highest embodiment in the so-called abstract anecdotes.

Victor Raskin offered the following formula of the funny:

X =f(Speaker, Listener, Stimulus, Life Experience, Psychology, Situation, Society),


where X can take on positive (Funny) as well as negative (Unfunny) meanings.

M. Voinarovsky gives the following formal description of the mechanism of suddenness and its resolution, which we will give in a reduced form below:

“Let us say we have reached the point of suddenness and are trying to predict the subsequent events. At this moment the brain is aware of the introduction and the catch, but not the solution. Each variant of the solution corresponds to an elementary outcome: y1, y2,…ym. All of these outcomes together comprise a large number of possible outcomes M. When we make predictions, listening to the speaker, our brain chooses a certain number of random outcomes yi, for which the maximum probability is p(yi). These outcomes comprise a large number of more probable outcomes K, which is a subset of M and contains k elements (k ≤ m).


In view of limited time and the enormous m the brain cannot complete the analysis of probabilities of all of M, and therefore the size of k is much smaller than m.

Naturally, the brain doesn’t use the reliable but slow algorithm of a sequential sorter. Instead, it uses some other algorithms, not fully known to us. As a result, some of the elements M that make it into K correspond to the highest probability, and some (also having high probability) don’t make it in. Their probability is equated to zero, and the sum of probabilities of already evaluated events is normalized to one:


p'(yj) = 0 for yjK
p'(yj) = p(yj) / S for yj

where S = ∑p(yj) for all j where yjK.


This is imprecise, but the brain must content itself with this approximate but solely accessible estimation. I should say that the brain, seemingly, makes many parallel evaluations for different variants of set M. For instance, evaluations of what the next concrete word will be or what part of speech it will be: a verb or a noun, are possible.

The effect of suddenness consists in that sometimes events yj occur, which were not calculated to be in set K.


A perfectly reasonable question might arise in the reader: how will all the material provided in this Chapter lead us to the nature of humor? It doesn’t seem like we were able to arrive at an understanding of the affect caused by deft wit, anecdote, couplet, caricature, or humorous tale.


Follow me, reader, and I will show you that we stand on the threshold of the discovery!

From what was said in section 2.2.2. (The Aggressive Nature of Humor) we can draw the conclusion that humor is the lot of the strong and aggressive individuals of our race. But hierarchy in our society is not something that is set in stone. The battle for the top is constantly ongoing.

Those who temporarily fall to the bottom, and do not have the opportunity to joke as easily as those who stand above, are forced to use the type humor which we will call “defensive”.

We will limit ourselves to four types of “defensive” humor, in which this function is clearly seen. These types are: military humor, political humor (in countries where freedom of speech is limited), Jewish humor, and that which is known as feast in the time of plague.

An appropriate analogy might be the Japanese martial art Judo, which literally translates to “the gentle way”. The Judoist dodges straight punches; through agility he puts his opponent into an unfavorable position from which it is easier to perform a skillful throw and gain victory over a physically superior opponent.

The types of humor examined in this chapter use the same tactic. For victory in the verbal battle one does not need to have decisive logical arguments or knowledge. The goal of comical opposition is to put the opponent into a psychologically unfavorable position while staying within the frame of safe (permissible) interaction.

Military and political humor arose from the necessity of the majority’s subjection to the minority, that is, to the commanding regiment or to the government.

Jewish humor developed in a national community in one way or another isolated, barred from the ethnic and religious majority by cultural, religious and legal barriers.

A feast in time of plague, clearly, carries in itself the same defensive function of heightening the vital strength of the organism, resistance to extreme conditions.

Humor which fulfills a defensive function is not limited to these examples. We could name such types as gallows humor, corporate humor, hysterical laughter, etc.


3.1. Humor in uniform


Let’s begin with a paradox: it’s impossible to imagine the army without humor, just as it’s impossible to imagine it without strict discipline.

Much of military humor consists of ridiculing and showing in unfavorable light those who military officers must unquestioningly obey. This is not a simple task, but often the ranking officers themselves come to aid. Young officers come to the service armed with present-day knowledge, and frequently fall under the subordination of ancient commanders. This happens especially frequently during boot camp, in which tomorrow’s officers go through under the command of eternal sergeants.

Military jokes are impromptu, but many end up having a long lifespan.


One commanding officer of the Kiev military school, with which the author’s childhood is connected, in an attempt to give a rank of cadets with identical suitcases the uniformity recommended by regulations, once commanded: “if it is standing between the legs, put it to your side.”


The major has long since departed for another world, but this phrase lives.

Another incident which occurred in the same school cost one of its participants a disciplinary penalty, despite the impeccable logic demonstrated by him.

A young officer was stopped by the school’s commandant, who asked strictly:








A rather popular hero of military humor, Gallant Soldier Joseph Shvejk, might be regarded not as an absolute negation of the particular situation – the army (the sociological aspect), and not as a “merciless criticism of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy” (the political aspect), but as the usual internal opposition of a simpler person to the “heroic” standards of behavior ascribed to him. The biggest effect is produced by the discordance of a small, comical man and a strict organization.

The heroes of military humor walk the thin line of interactions permitted by regulations. Thus, great resourcefulness needed to gain advantage under unequal conditions.


– Whose cigar-butt is lying on the ground over there?!


No one’s, sir! Smoke it at your leisure!


While hunting:


-Hey sergeant, did I kill the rabbit?

-No sir! You granted it a pardon.


3.2. Political humor


It’s quite obvious that political humor is a reaction (sometimes inadequate) to an overly strong concentration of power in society. It serves as an example of relatively safe liberation of pent-up aggression in regard to the authorities. Power creates institutions which aim to place various prohibitions and limitations on society. People seek any forms of resisting the authoritarian impulses, and, obviously, humor is one of the most effective forms of such resistance.


Two Russians are sitting in a cafй. One of them is reading a magazine, on the cover of which are depicted a Rolls-Royce and an old model of a Muscovite. The other asks:


– Which car do you like better?


– The Muscovite, obviously.


– So you know nothing about cars!


– No, cars I know a lot about. It’s about you that I know nothing.


Against the background of universal torpor, which seized Russian society during the period of coup of the Committee of the State of Emergency GKCP suddenly appeared a felling quip, calling to resistance:


“I had my cannon toaded light.”


The author clearly remembers hearing these words a few days before the then-minister of internal affairs shot himself.


3.3. Jewish humor


In Victor Raskin’s book (Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. – Dordrecht: Reidel, 1985) an entire section (9, chapter 6) is dedicated to this form of humor, while the entire book contains a large amount of purely Jewish jokes and anecdotes.

But first let us provide two examples, gotten from his book.


1. The Russian ruler is inspecting the troops. He approaches a short soldier on the left flank, and demands to know his name.

-Muhameddinnov, Your Majesty!!!

– Alright, Muhameddinnov, tell me, would you be able to kill the Tsar?

– Hoooraaay!!! shouts the poor Turk, having poor command of the Russian language.

The irritated tsar approaches the tallest soldier on the right flank.


-Ivanov, Your Majesty!!!

– Tell me, Ivanov, would you be able to kill your Tsar?

-Never, Your Majesty. I’d sooner deprive myself of life; kill my parents, than ever endanger my beloved ruler, for whom each of us would be willing to lay down his life!!!

-Good man, Ivanov, – says the tsar, and moves on to the next group.



-Tell me, Rabinovich, would you be able to kill the tsar?

-What, with a drum?


(Russia, 1900’)


2. – I told my son to marry a shiksa. If he marries a nice Jewish girl and she gets pregnant, he’s going to worry like hell about her health. If she becomes fat or gets sick, he will be upset.


But a shiksa also might get pregnant, or gain weight, or…

– Sure, but who’d care?


(USSR, 1930)


As we can see, defensive humor under certain conditions may lose its main function and bare “fangs and talons”. Raskin, despite all this, considers Jewish humor self-deprecating. “Jewish humor includes all ethnic jokes which have the Jews for the targeted ethnic group”. According to Raskin, “the especially mentioned ethnic characteristics ridiculed in Jewish jokes are: sarcasm, wiliness, intelligence, cowardice, untidiness, Jewish logic, attraction to money, paradoxical relation to things, family relations (Jewish mothers and wives, and also JAP – Jewish American Princesses – that is, Jewish daughters). Also mentioned are anti-Semitism, relations with non-Jews (the goyim) and even the pogrom.

Avner Ziv (1988) determined the purpose of Jewish humor as an aggressive-defensive mechanism. This view may be disseminated to all forms of defensive humor. A good illustration of how a defenseless person might receive an advantage from an unfavorable position could be seen in this episode of the “Gallant Soldier Joseph Љvejk.


“They awoke a Jew in the tavern, who began to tear his hair in regret that he cannot serve the gentlemen soldiers, and eventually began to beg them to buy his ancient, hundred year old cow, an emaciated thing, all skin and bones. He asked a fantastic sum of money for it and swore that a cow like that could not be found in all of Galicia, in all of Austria and Germany, in all of Europe, and in all the world. He howled, cried, and swore that this was the fattest cow that by Jehovah’s will ever set foot on the earth. He swore by his ancestors that people came all the way from Volochinsk to see this cow; that rumors ran through the entire realm that this was not a cow, but a fairy tale, that this wasn’t even a cow, but the fattest buffalo. Finally he fell before them and hugging their knees, one after another, wailed: “Kill this old unfortunate Jew, but don’t leave without the cow”. His wailing brought the clerk and the cook into complete confusion, and eventually they hauled off the dying beast, which no butcher would have taken a second glance at, to the field kitchen. And long after the money was in his pocket, the Jew wept that he was ruined, destroyed, robbed, having sold such a splendid cow so cheaply. He begged them to hang him for making such a mistake in his old age, for which his forefathers will be turning over in their graves. After rolling round for a little bit more in the dust, he suddenly got up, shook off all his grief, went back to his shack and told his wife: “Elsa, my life, the soldiers are idiots, and your Nathan is wise!”


As we can see, all forms of defensive humor, including the self-deprecating, carry powerful aggressive ammunition, and serve as a weapon in the battle with a superior opponent.


3.4. Feast in time of plague


“The earthquake in Armenia greatly shook up all the soviet people”.

“Time” TV program, 20 Dec. 1988


We know that it is characteristic for man to make jokes in critical and dangerous situations. Classic examples are the jokes with which famous Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov encouraged his soldiers. We might argue about their propriety on the battlefield, except that the great general had never in his life lost a single battle.

Academician Dmitry Lihachev even suggested that “encouragement through laughter at the most pathetic moment of a deadly threat was always a purely Russian national phenomenon.”

It is well known fact that the soldiers who spent a long time in entrenchments, in dampness, and in freezing weather seldom fell victim to catarrhal diseases. They sneezed, coughed, but almost no one landed in a hospital with influenza or an acute respiratory condition. Clearly, in extreme conditions, the subconscious defense mechanisms turn on, including humor. In dangerous situations this defense mechanism turns on automatically, subconsciously.

The author had to survive an event, the scale of which might be compared to the Black Plague. The event in question is the accident at the atomic station near Chernobyl.

When on the morning of April 26, 1986 we heard about the “explosion” at the Chernobyl reactor, the first reaction was, as it is imprinted in memory, a laughter. Horror, fear of the uncertainty came later, but in the beginning, there was laughter. And it didn’t stop for many months in the entire city of Kiev (50 miles from Chernobyl), which was covered by a radioactive cloud on the eve of First of May Day. This was an unforgettable time. Conversations, discussions, arguments on the bus, in a subway, at work, in companies, in bed all revolved around the same subject. Everything else stopped existing. The situation was made more difficult by the fact that the government found nothing better to do than to kill all sources of information and even ban the sale of instruments to measure levels of radioactivity, previously held in the Civil Defense divisions of any significantly large enterprise.

In response, multiple anecdotes, jokes, and ditties appeared, most of them dedicated to one of two themes: the expected reduction of potency in men, and the undoubted role of alcohol in suppressing the effects of radiation.

Two weeks after the explosion, on May 8th 1986 the author was coming off the plane in the Litovian airport, the first phrase he heard from the crowd of those meeting him was the ditty:

A “Zaporojetz” is no car
A Kievian is no man.


Zaporozhets ne mashina,
Kievlyanin – ne muzshina.


The men of Kiev did not remain in debt, and tried with all their might to prove the falsity of this accusation. The sexual aggression in the city drastically increased. But the amount of laughter increased even more. In the Institute hallways, one could hear peals, even explosions of laughter constantly emanating from behind the closed doors of laboratories and offices.

The city laughed!!! And we survived.

The first attempts to classify wit go back to hoar antiquity: they were undertaken by Cicero and Quintillian.

Cicero relied on his experience as a public speaker. In his treatise “The Orator” he grouped all forms of wit into two different types:

1. Funniness that comes of the nature of the object itself.

2. The verbal form of wit, which includes:

This is the first formal classification of wit. You can imagine with what mastery and, apparently, practical results the great orator used these methods.

Quintillian also examined wit in relation to rhetoric. He separated witticisms from mere funny statements more clearly than did Cicero. He understood that people laugh not only at witticisms, but also at stupidity, cowardice, lack of restraint, and so forth.

Quintillian divided all of the reasons which cause smiling and laughter into six groups:

    1. Refinement (urbalitas).
    2. Grace (venustum).
    3. Piquancy (salsum).
    4. Joke (facetum)
    5. Witticism (jocus)
    6. Good-natured teasing (decacitas).

Alexander Luk classified the methods of wit known to him as follows:

    1. False contrast
    2. False strengthening
    3. Driving to absurdity:
      1. Exaggeration (hyperbole)
      2. Understatement or softening (euphemism)
    4. Witticism of absurdity:
      1. The connection of two logically incompatible statements
      2. Paralogistic conclusion
    5. Mixing of styles or “combination of plans”:
      1. Mixing of vocal styles
      2. Metaphorical terminology
      3. Incompatibility of style and content
      4. Incompatibility of the style of speech and the situation in which it’s uttered
      5. Pseudo-profundity
    6. A hint, or a precise chain of associations
    7. Double meaning
      1. Play on words
      2. Ambiguity
    8. Irony
    9. Backward comparison
      1. “Pure” backward comparison
      2. Literalization of a metaphor
    10. Comparison through a random or secondary characteristic, the enumeration of incompatible subjects in the same list.
    11. Repetition
      1. “Pure” repetition
      2. Repetition with a change in grammatical construction
      3. Repetition with a change in meaning.
    12. Paradox

Victor Raskin differentiates the verbal forms of the funny in the following manner (incomplete list):

1. Ridicule

Who was that gentleman that I saw you with last evening?

– He’s not a gentleman, he’s a senator!

2. Self-mockery

A man condemned to the firing squad on Monday: “What a way to start the week”.

3. Self-disparaging humor

4. Riddle

5. Word play

What is the first thing a person runs into when he gets to New York for the first time?

-An automobile.


Thomas C. Veatch in his “A Theory of Humor” gives the following (also incomplete) list of the types of the funny:

    1. Driving to absurdity
    2. Satire
    3. Literal interpretation of a metaphor
    4. Irony
    5. Double meaning
    6. Contradiction
    7. Incompatibility
    8. Withdrawal from danger
    9. Establishment of superiority
    10. Excessive rationality
    11. Excessive rationality
    12. Deviation from the commonplace
    13. Others

Miroslav Voinarovsky (, in Russian) divides the funny into the following categories:

    1. Anix (term introduced by Voinarovsky)
    2. Pun
    3. The grotesque
    4. Double meaning
    5. Reversing
    6. Association
    7. Transferring
    8. Omission
    9. Repetition
    10. Reduction
    11. Interpretation
    12. Hint
    13. Incompleteness
    14. Euphemism
    15. Rhyme (with a hint at impropriety).

A common thread in these interpretations is that they don’t track internal, fundamental differences clearly enough. They don’t pretend to scientific nature. A scientific classification of the forms of humor must be based not on a list of the forms, but on the grouping of the methods or forms by general essential characteristics. The deeper we can penetrate the essence of the funny, the more logical, and, as a rule, the simpler the classification will be. Ideally, the scientific classification will consist of only two divisions.

One such classification exists and belongs to Sigmund Freud, who differentiated jokes and the comic in the following way: “A joke is invented; the comic happens”.

Raskin similarly differentiated intentional and unintentional humor, which is close to the conclusion of Freud.

The author of the present investigation thinks that there are more than enough arguments in favor of the aggressive nature of humor, the point of view that humor is always used as an intellectual weapon in the fight for increasing one’s social status, or as preparation for intellectual combat; training of a sort, a warm-up. Social status is not measured in absolute units. It is the position of a person relative to other individuals. An increase of social status can come about in only two ways: an increase of one’s own status, or the decreasing of the social status of those surrounding. On the basis of this view, a universal classification of the funny might go as follows:







It’s not hard to see that all three types of the funny can be used for advancement up the social ladder, fixation of reached positions, or for training our abilities to combat others. This mental training seems harmless, and has led many scholars to the conclusion about the existence of inoffensive jokes, not causing anyone harm. Similarly, fencing lessons, archery, and boxer training might all seem inoffensive; everything depends on the point of view and realization of the knowledge received at these lessons.

It is interesting that the aggressive nature of three out of the four known types of the funny: satire, sarcasm, irony and humor, is not doubted. And it’s only apropos humor do opinions diverge. Many believe that there exists a harmless form of humor, not targeted at anyone’s deprecation or elevation. We will try and show that there exists a different viewpoint on this form of the funny.

Let us provide a few examples.


4.1. Humor of deprecation


A pure example of the humor of deprecation is mockery of a person who got into an awkward position or who possesses physical deficiencies. For example, “‘Oh, look at that hair! Has it gone all rusty? Did your parents leave you out in the rain?” Such humor was used by clowns on the arena. The white-haired clown smacks the red-haired clown on the head, he trips, spills a bucket of water on himself, gets into a pickle. Situational comedy, especially silent movies, over which we laughed ourselves to tears, almost entirely consists of such humor. Here’s an example:


D. Minaev


A mongrel loped down Nevsky Avenue
Behind, Burenin quietly ran
Oh, guard the dog, monsignor policeman
From the menace of the biting man!

Po Nevskomu bezhit sobaka,
Za ney Burenin, tih I mil…
Gorodovoy, smotri, odnako,
Chtob on eyo ne ukusil!

In this epigram, there is almost nothing of the riddles inherent to humor, no “shining contradiction”, except perhaps for a small exaggeration that a case of man biting dog is improbable. This is a typical example of depreciating humor. Notice, however, that without this small contradiction, this epigram would have been flat and simply fall out of the category of humor.


4.2. Humor of elevation


Alexander Ivanov to Maya Plisetskaya (famous Bolshoi Theater ballerina)

Of you, I’ll always speak enthralled,
Impromptu, and with charm;
Your legs to keep, the Bolshoi’s halls
Would give up their right arms.

Ya govorit’ o vas bi mog
Ekspromtom I ne vdrug;
Bol’shoy teatr bez vashih nog
Bukval’no kak bez ruk.


It would seem that aggression is nowhere to be found in this epigram. It is certainly flattering to the woman addressed. But aggression is indeed present here. The brilliantly written epigram elevates simultaneously the author, the reader, and the great ballerina. The image of Maya Plisetskaya is elevated through refined flattery. The author secures his position as leader of national parody and epigram. The reader’s status rises as well, though to a lesser degree. All this becomes evident with a simple alteration of the text. Let us remove the element of humor from this epigram. For instance:

Of you, I’ll always speak enthralled,
Impromptu, and with charm;
For you, the Bolshoi’s vaulted halls
Would give up their right arms.

Ya govorit’ mogu seychas
Ekspromtom I ne vdrug;
Boyus’, Bol’shoy teatr bez vas
Bukval’no, kak bez ruk.


The meaning of the epigram is the same; the same amount of flatter and admiration is present. But the play on words “legs-arms” has disappeared – and the reader literally feels duped. He has nothing to think about; nothing to puzzle out. The element of mental gymnastics is no longer present. The author is automatically cast into the set of tedious rhymes. And the readers don’t get the same impulse of elevation or self-delight that they do from the classic epigram of Alexander Ivanov. The cited epigram is a classis case of the humor of elevation. It allows the reader to feel himself “on the level”, and sometimes even above the level if we happen to hear this epigram in the presence of someone who didn’t get it.

Another example of pure elevating wit is the following couplet by Alexander Pope:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;

God said ‘Let Newton be’ and all was light.

to which Sir John Collings Squire later added:

It did not last: the devil, shouting ‘Ho.

Let Einstein be’ restored the status quo.


4.3. Mixed humor


Lord Alfred Tennyson began a “To E. L. on his Travels in Greece” as follows:

Illyrian woodlands, echoing falls
Of water, sheets of summer glass,
The long divine Peneian pass,
The vast Akrokeraunian walls,

Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair,
With such a pencil, such a pen,
You shadow forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there:


The recipient of the tribute, the great parodist Edward Lear wrote his own version of the poem:

Delirious Bulldogs; — echoing calls
My daughter, — green as summer grass; —
The long supine Plebeian ass,
The nasty crockery boring falls; —

Tom-Moory Pathos; — all things bare, —
With such a turkey! such a hen!
And scrambling forms of distant men,
O! ain’t you glad you were not there!


In this parody, not only is the author of the poem lightly mocking the original poem, but also himself (as the beneficiary of the original). At the same time, the status of the author is elevated through his clever manipulation of words and meaning. The reader’s status is similarly elevated through solving the simple mapping between the parody and the original. This is humor of the mixed type; a multi-dimensional parody comprised of both deprecation (of the parodied author) and elevation (of the author and the reader).

The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter


Mark Twain


In the previous chapters we accumulated enough evidence to allow us to make clear the state of present-day investigations in the field of the funny. We have everything we need in order to embark on an orderly and systematic search for the answer to the main question: “Why does a person laugh?” We won’t concern ourselves with the question “when?” or “under what conditions”, but merely “why?” And also: “what for?”

For we have not encountered answers to these basic questions.

In chapter 2 we came to the following conclusions:

To find the answer, we need the following statements, which we call – 13 Theses. The reader won’t find anything new in them. These theses are, as a matter of fact, borrowed from existing works and have undergone only the slightest rephrasing. An overwhelming majority of the scholars would agree with them:

    1. Humor is an innate phenomenon, and plays an essential role in the survival of the species.
    2. Humor is not the most complex, but one of the most primitive of emotions. There are evidences that humor is innate in primates and other animals.
    3. Smiles, laughter, exploding with mirth, brought by a wit, are all expressions of pleasure.
    4. Any joke is characterized by certain illogicality, a “shining contradiction”, a riddle, separating it from the usual logical thought.
    5. Pleasure from humor is reached from gaining either
      1. superiority over another, or
      2. intellectual triumph from solving the riddle, thus…
    6. “A keen word said twice becomes dull.” (Alexander Pushkin)
    7. An audience reacts more enthusiastically to jokes if it is in a good mood.
    8. An orator laughs at a joke he knows well with greater pleasure than the audience.
    9. Humor is perceived differently (frequently with opposite signs) by the joker and the audience, and the person or persons being ridiculed; by the “aggressor” and his listeners on one side, and the “object of aggression” on the other.
    10. A well-done joke can elevate or offend a person to whom it’s addressed more so than a flat joke.
    11. Humor is a social phenomenon, an intellectual weapon. It doesn’t exist outside of the human factor. Humor is a weapon of aggression in the strong, and fulfills a defensive function in the weak.
    12. The greatest effect is reached if the time spent solving the “riddle” is small.
    13. For the best apprehension of the joke, the listener should be prepared (forewarned).

Humor is a primitive phenomenon (theses 1 and 2). It is accessible to everyone, even to children and savages. Its nature has, most likely, a similarly simple, primitive explanation. It is this very sort of explanation that we are to arrive at, not even arrive at: not overlook. As it will be shown below, this solution has already been located by our predecessors. They had one additional small step to make; the last stride to the finish line.

Laughter is an expression of pleasure (thesis 3). A pure instance of the laughter of deprecation is free from riddles, from the “shining contradiction”. This primitive, rough humor presents no mystery to us. This laughter manifests from the satisfaction of purely aggressive, low feelings, self-elevation at the price of the humiliation of others. We could pretend that we are not subject to such humor, that misfortunes that happen to our enemies leave us with discomfort and entirely unpleasant feelings. Of course, in that case we would have to ignore a couple of things. Ignore the thunderous laughter of the audience while watching slapstick silent films; forget our childish glee at the site of clowns on the circus arena, who got into funny situations with falling and spilling water on themselves. We’ll forget these things as a distant dream, and move on to the more refined forms of the funny. According to our classification system, there are only two: the humor of elevation, and mixed humor.

Every joke of the humor of elevation contains an intellectual “riddle” (thesis 4) which we must solve. Laughter testifies of the pleasure we gain from successfully accomplishing the mental task – the solving of the “riddle” (thesis 5 b). For instance, the simple reversal of words or their incorrect usage frequently becomes funny, as we are offered the mental challenge: restore the logical order of the words and understand their intended meaning. If there is no riddle, or the answer to it is known ahead of time, we have nothing to solve. The joke stops being funny (thesis 6). Regular jokers frequently use this method. They simply switch around the words in a phrase or place unexpected synonyms in well-known idioms. If a person replaces just one word in a heavily used phrase: “Make a mountain out of a molehill” and instead says “make a mountain out of a brass farthing” he might pass as a comedian.

Thesis 4 is considered to be correct by a majority of investigators. Quintillian wrote “And by Hercules, the entire purpose of a joke is to express reality in a different way: this is done by warping one’s own or someone else’s convictions or by saying something impossible”.

And this is how Arthur Schopenhauer expressed the same idea in his book “The World as Will and Representation”, (1819): “Laughter always signifies the sudden apprehension of an incongruity between a concept and the real object thought through it, and represents a mere expression of this incongruity.” The key word here is “unexpected” or “sudden”. It will be explained below why.

Let us label the value which designates the level of Pleasure received from Solving the Riddle with the abbreviation PSR. This pleasure may be strong, weak, or entirely nonexistent. The value of PSR may be expressed as several variables. We will formalize these variables below.

The listeners’ mood elevates the effect of humor (thesis 7). When in a good mood, people laugh more willingly; it’s easier to make them laugh. The level of the mood can also be expressed as a variable. We shall call this value the Background Mood (BM). The Pleasure received from Solving the Riddle is superimposed on the Background Mood. The Effect of Humor is the sum of these two values. This gives us the basis for constructing the initial expression for the Effect of Humor (EH).

EH = PSR + BM, (1)

where EH = the effect of humor,

PSR = the pleasure gained from solving the riddle, and

BM = the background mood.





The Effect of Humor = A Change in Social Status.


This is the answer to the first of the questions we are facing.


Each point and each ball scored elevates us in our own eyes, and in the eyes of those surrounding.


Each joke does the same with us.


And nothing more!



The final, seventh (that magic number 7!) formula, which dots all the ‘i’s, looks as follows:


EH = PE * C/Tp + BM, (7)


where C is the complexity of the riddle, and

Tp is the time spent on its solution.


This is the formula of laughter.

We found it!


if you wish to know why we are laughing.


Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • MySpace
Posted in Complete humor theory. Comments Off on Humor Theory

Comments are closed.