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The Universality of Physical Humor

Comedy from the base of a pyramid of vulnerability.

Key points

  • Humor requires the highlighting of vulnerabilities, the most universal of which are directly associated with physical limitations.
  • Physical humor references traits like body size, strength, coordination, and health, as well as those directly affecting sexual reproduction.
  • For shortcomings not perceived as posing substantial risk to life and reproduction, expressing one’s shared vulnerability can be advantageous.

We are physical beings. The fact that all responsible parents and caretakers look after the physical needs of their children and teach them to recognize their own corporal limitations suggests that this contention is universally recognized as true. In evolutionary terms, the primary goal of every individual is to grow to maturity and propel its genetic information to future generations, and for millions of years, these have been physical processes. Our emotions, cognitive abilities, and social skills, amazing as they are, all play supporting roles in this production.

John Charles Simon
A simple pyramid of vulnerabilities.
Source: John Charles Simon

It makes sense, then, that our most fundamental vulnerabilities relate to the physical realm and the most universal type of humor draws almost exclusively from it. Members of every culture laugh in response to the purposeful highlighting of corporal shortcomings. Jokes will reference overall body size (frailer than, shorter than, taller than, and/or bulkier than that which is considered ideal), the proportionality and functionality of various body parts (big ears, poor eyesight), and the lack of physical strength, speed, and/or coordination, to name just a few. Such traits have had a direct influence on the probability of survival throughout our history. They affect our ability to defend ourselves from predators and rivals; they affect our ability to find, acquire, and process needed resources; and, as a result, they influence our ability to attract potential mates and raise offspring.

We have biological needs as well. We experience discomfort and weakness when hungry or thirsty. We function poorly in excessively cold, hot, wet, dry, or windy conditions, when denied fresh air to breathe, when sleep-deprived, and when unable to expel waste products.

Matters of health are also closely associated with survival and reproduction. So we should also expect humor to reference things like injury, illness, disease, parasites, and similar maladies. We similarly draw a direct connection between cleanliness, hygiene, and other such indicators with their potential effects on people’s vitality.

Such vulnerabilities are a mainstay of both informal and formal humor. Sometimes they are underscored through a simulation of aggressive behavior. This is the spontaneous humor that often takes the form of playful attacks or physical competition. A father might, for example, advertise his intent to toss his son or daughter off the dock into the lake. An exchange of snowballs can be amusing when conducted in the context of playful aggression. Removing someone’s wig or toupee highlights a condition typically associated with advanced age. Almost all medical humor involves physical vulnerability. Jokes dealing with body weight, sexual shortcomings, poor eyesight, and body odor all are staples of this variety. Practical jokes, too, often involve physical themes—consider the hand buzzer or dribble glass, to name just two.

Innershadows Photography/iStock
Source: Innershadows Photography/iStock

The target of one’s playful attack is not always another person. We can display or accentuate our own vulnerabilities to amuse our audience. Pretending to gag on a not-very-tasty mouthful of food, doing belly flops into the swimming pool, and distorting our physical features (a “funny” face) to make ourselves less attractive all draw attention to our own frailties. Feigning an injury or handicap, poor hearing, the loss of balance, or an exaggerated pain response—such actions increase our apparent vulnerability, lower our status, and invite others to lift us with laughter.

Many types of physical humor require emotional distancing. Mean-spirited practical jokes are funniest when done to others, not to us or our loved ones. Sexual inadequacies are alleged for other races, nationalities, or ethnic groups, less frequently our own. A hammer to the head is funniest when suffered by a movie character or clown, someone we’re confident will bear no real-world ill effects. So-called “gallows humor,” physical humor referencing deathly serious matters, is a form that relies a great deal upon emotional distancing.

Examples of physical humor abound on YouTube making it difficult to select just one or two examples. Of course, one can’t go wrong doing a search on the names of silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd. Following them were comedy teams such as the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, and the Three Stooges. Successful sitcoms have always featured physical humor. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance in the chocolate factory is a classic episode. British shows like Fawlty Towers and Mr. Bean were heavily invested in this form. American television series such as Get Smart, Gilligan’s Island, and Laverne and Shirley were famous for their slapstick humor and, today, rarely a minute goes by without one sitcom character referencing the physical shortcomings of another. Characters either demonstrate, or are reminded by others, that they’re too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, too slow, or too weak. They may be balding, unkempt, in poor health, losing their memory, tossing their “cookies,” or just getting old.

The list is very, very, very long.

And, because the audience can always identify with one or more of these traits, they’re nearly always amusing. Just ask the producers of America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Here’s a performance from Britain’s Got Talent that provides an example of cultivating laughter through the highlighting of one’s own physical limitations. Note how the first instance isn’t fully recognized by the audience as intentional and their response is one of concern rather than amusement. It’s only after they realize the performer’s failures are intentional that they express their lifting laughter.

© John Charles Simon.

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