Funny How? What’s Funny About It?
The psychology of what makes jokes funny.
Posted May 31, 2018
The title of this article is taken from a famous scene in a restaurant, in the movie Goodfellas (1990):
In the scene people are laughing and having a good time, but after Henry (played by Ray Liotta) calls the unpredictably violent Tommy (played by Joe Pesci) funny, Tommy appears offended. Henry and his companions (and the viewers too) experience very tense moments as Tommy's anger builds up explosively, before we realize it was all an act and Tommy was not offended.
Indeed, in real life, many jokes express a high level of hostility and can easily offend others. And yet, at least most of the times, we end up laughing and enjoying them, instead of feeling outraged.
We even value a sense of humor in others. Therapeutically speaking, laughter itself has many potential health benefits too; more importantly, it has almost no side effects,1 though let us not forget that eyes can tear and jaw and stomach can hurt, from a hearty laughter that lasts a while.
The question I would like to address today is what makes jokes funny. Below I review three major theories of humor, with a few jokes to serve as examples.
The superiority theory of humor suggests that humor is essentially an attack on others. We laugh at whatever makes us feel superior to others.
For instance, how do you feel about yourself after having watched the behaviors of characters on funny TV shows (e.g., Arrested Development) or in the movies (e.g., Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun)?
Consider Homer, from The Simpsons. Homer is overweight, stupid, lazy, incompetent (at his job, as a husband, as a parent, etc), childish, rude, reckless, quick to anger, abusive, etc.
You might not be the greatest worker, spouse, or parent, but you might feel pretty good about yourself after you watch Homer mess everything up on a regular basis.
Take his parenting. How many of you would tell your children, after they have failed at something, that the lesson is that they should never try? How many of you would tell others that raising children is easy because children “practically raise themselves, what with the Internet and all”?
The superiority theory may also explain why comedians can elicit laughter by mocking and belittling others. Many racist or “dumb blonde” jokes make the reader/listener feel superior―unless, of course, the reader too has spent hours staring at the orange juice carton just because it said “concentrate,” on the label!
The arousal or relief theory of humor suggests that a joke or humorous situation is one that has the ability to relieve emotional arousal and tension.
It is said that Muhammad, the Muslim prophet, once told an old woman, a guest at his house, that Paradise was not a place for old ladies. When the lady began to protest, the prophet smiled and said that the old will indeed enter Paradise, but right after God turns them into young people.
The set-up, of a heaven inhospitable to old people, is intended to create tension, and the punchline serves to relieve it.
Sometimes the tension is not created by the joke, but is already present in the situation, which is why some jokes that elicit a lot of laughter in certain tense situations, are not as funny when retold in other circumstances.
Years ago I was struggling with one of my courses and had reluctantly joined a study group to prepare for a major midterm, it was not helping. I was quite worried and tense.
One day, as we were walking out of the library, we saw another classmate on the other end of the hallway, kick his closet in anger. The joker of our group suddenly stopped, and with a panicked look on his face looked back, whispering, Anybody got any bear tranquilizer on you? Everyone chuckled, though I laughed on and off for a whole minute.
I am not sure why I found it so funny. I do think it had something to do with how tense I was. I imagine that this is one of those situation that people qualify with, "You had to be there." Or, perhaps more accurately, you had to have been as tense as me to have found the comment that funny.
Joke 1: Doctor says to the patient: Mrs. Smith, unfortunately, based on your recent test results, it seems that you’re not quite as sick as I had hoped.
Joke 2: Two goldfish are in a tank. One turns to the other and asks, So do you know how to drive this thing?
The incongruity theory of humor suggests that humor results from incongruous situations, such as ones that violate our expectations.
In Joke 1, for example, the physician’s statement is incongruous with our expectations of the caring and professional way a doctor should behave. In other words, the word “unfortunately” was not followed with bad news for the patient, as we expected.
Jerry Suls has proposed that what makes a joke funny, is the resolution of the cognitive incongruity.2
Based on a joke’s set-up, we have certain expectations about the outcome of the situation. In Joke 2, for instance, we assume that the word "tank" refers to an aquarium. But when one fish asks another about driving the tank, the statement fails to conform to our expectation.
Surprised, we search for a logical link between the punch line and the set-up. We then note that tank also means an armored vehicle. The incongruity is resolved and so we laugh.
Of course, this all happens in less than a few seconds.
Based on this theory, some level of ambiguity in the original set-up is necessary for the joke to work. The fish joke would not have worked with the word “aquarium.” Similarly, had we originally assumed that the word tank referred to the armor vehicle, we would not have found the joke funny.
Superiority theory, relief/arousal theory, and incongruity theory, propose different reasons as to what makes a situation humorous.
Of course, the same joke may be explained by more than one theory.
For instance, the doctor joke may also be explained, at least in part, by the arousal theory. Based on the set-up, we are expecting unfortunate health news, but the punchline reveals that the patient is in fact much healthier than thought.
I would like to conclude this article with one last joke. You can ponder which theory (or theories) can explain the humor in this one:
My grandpa had warned people that the Titanic would eventually sink. Though he was initially ignored, he did not give up. He went around, warning as many people as he could, over and over again, shouting at the top of his lungs….Eventually people got tired of his screaming and kicked him out of the movie theater.
1. Strean, W. B. (2009). Laughter prescription. Canadian Family Physician, 55, 965-967.
2. Suls, J. (1972). A two-stage model for the appreciation of jokes and cartoons: An information-processing analysis. In J. H. Goldstein & P. E. McGhee (Eds.), The psychology of humor: Theoretical perspectives and empirical issues (pp. 81–100). New York, NY: Academic Press.