Three Types of Humor

Which type of humor most appeals to you?

Posted Oct 29, 2020

Today's guest blogger is my good friend and professor of psychology at Cal Poly Pomona, Dr. Jeffery Scott Mio.

When I was a professor at Washington State University, a colleague of mine used to say that there are two types of people in the world: lumpers and splitters. Lumpers are those who like to amass different aspects of an area into smaller categories; splitters are those who look at larger categories of an area and split them into separate categories. This post will be more on the lumper side.

The formal psychological study of humor began in the 1970s (see Mio & Graesser, 1991). However, no less than Sigmund Freud was interested in humor way back at the turn of last century (Freud, 1960/1905, 1961/1927). Even before Freud, philosophers such as Plato (428–348 BC) and Rene Descartes (1596–1650) wrote about humor (see Morreall, 1987). Throughout the years, it has been determined that there are three major types of humor: Superiority, Incongruity, and Relief.

Superiority humor is where a person or an entity is depreciated, making the receiver of the humor feel superior to the person or entity. For example, when I was younger, I heard that there was a rivalry between the states of Iowa and Minnesota, so people from Iowa would tell Minnesotan jokes, and people from Minnesota would tell Iowan jokes. A friend of mine told me that in Canada, they tell jokes about people from Newfoundland, and more recently, I discovered that people from the United Kingdom tell jokes about people from Wales. Even self-deprecating humor is a form of superiority because the person engaging in self-deprecating humor is essentially saying, “Look at this stupid thing I did, but you and I know that I am smarter than this.” In the African American community, “doing the dozens” is exchanging put-downs in a contest to see who tells the best put-down jokes. An example of this is “Yo mama” jokes where each contestant tries to put down the other contestant’s mother.

Incongruity humor is a favorite form of humor among cognitive psychologists because a cognitive concept is a “script” and incongruity can also be conceived as a script juxtaposition form of humor. This is a broad category that contains things like puns, where there is a juxtaposition between two sets of meaning of a word, satire, where there is a juxtaposition between what is and what should be, and anachronistic humor, which is a juxtaposition between the present and another period of time. For example, when I was a child, I used to watch a cartoon called The Flintstones. This was a family in the prehistoric era that would have modern conveniences like a vacuum cleaner which was a small wooly mammoth vacuuming up the dirt in the house.

Relief humor is a type of humor that creates a tension in the body of the joke, and the punchline is the relief of this tension. Essentially, all formal jokes take advantage of tension relief. I used to have another colleague at Washington State University who loved telling jokes. This was during a period when Madonna was one of the hottest singers in the world who built her reputation on her sexual energy. My friend asked me, “Did you hear of the new Madonna stamp?” I thought about it for a second, and I asked if the punchline was, “It licks itself?” He burst out laughing, saying that my punchline was better than the punchline he heard, which was, “You don’t know which side to lick.” However, all structures of formal jokes try to build this tension, and the revelation of the punchline releases the tension.

In examining these three types of humor, Graesser, Long, and Mio (1989) found that the type of humor that elicited the highest ratings of funniness was the Superiority form of humor. In fact, Richard Wiseman (2002), director of the LaughLab in England, found the funniest joke in the world was the following joke:

Two hunters are in the woods when one of them suddenly collapses. He wasn’t breathing, and his eyes looked glazed. Thinking quickly, the other guy grabs his cell phone and calls for help. He shouts at the emergency operator, “I think my friend is dead! What do I do?”

“Calm down,” the operator says in a soothing voice, “I can help you. But first, we need to make sure he’s dead.”

The phone goes silent for a second, then the operator hears a gunshot; “OK,” says the hunter, “Now what?”

As one can see, this joke involves a superiority component in that the hunter is made to appear to be rather stupid, so both the joke teller and the receiver feel superior to the hunter.

At the beginning of this blog post, I said that this will be on the “lumper” side, and I placed all forms of humor into three categories. In looking at recent literature, people are splitting humor into many different, smaller categories. One online article splits humor into nine categories, and another article splits humor into 20 categories (Nichol). However, most of these different categories are variations of the broader incongruity category. For example, Nichol identifies farcical, high/highbrow, hyperbolic, ironic, and juvenile/sophomoric forms of humor. Seen from a different angle, all of these are forms of incongruity or script juxtaposition humor.

All of these forms of humor juxtaposes what is with what should be. For example, a “Far Side” cartoon showed an “Al’s Meat Market” truck out of control and about to crash into “Noreen’s Vegetarian Restaurant,” killing diners sitting by the window. This is ironic in that the vegetarians are eating vegetables in order to be healthier and live longer, yet they are about to be killed by a meat delivery truck.

With respect to leadership and humor, leaders can build a relationship between themselves and their workers by using humor as long as the humor makes the workers feel superior. This can be done by disparaging the business’ competitors, or it can also be done by the leader engaging in self-deprecating humor. It should never be done by deprecating the workers, as this is just seen as cruel, not humorous.

References

Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 8, pp. 9–243). London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1905)

Freud, S. (1961). Humor. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 21, pp. 159–172). London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1927)

Graesser, A. C., Long, D. L., & Mio, J. S. (1989). What are the cognitive and conceptual components of humorous text? Poetics, 18, 143–163.

Mio, J. S., & Graesser, A. C. (1991). Humor, language, and metaphor. Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 6, 87–102.

Morreall, J. (1987). The philosophy of laughter and humor. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Nichol, M. dailywritingtips.com/20-types-and-forms-of-humor/. Downloaded 10/28/20 from internet.

Wiseman, R. (2002). LaughLab: The scientific quest for the world’s funniest joke. London: The British Association for the Advancement of Science.