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Humor Theory: Theories of Origin. English 009.V Cultures of American humor From franklin to fey Swarthmore College Professor Keat Murray Fall 2012. Theories of Humor. Origin Theory Function Theory. Superiority Theory. Plato (427?-347? B.C.E.)

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Humor theory theories of origin

Humor Theory:Theories of Origin

English 009.V

Cultures of American humor From franklin to fey

Swarthmore College

Professor Keat Murray

Fall 2012

Theories of humor
Theories of Humor

Origin Theory

Function Theory

Superiority theory
Superiority Theory

Plato (427?-347? B.C.E.)

human evil and folly are often the objects of laughter

when laughing, we lose self-control and our rational sensibility, which is detrimental to our ability to know truth and act on it

laughing at someone is an act of malice and a false presumption of superiority over that person (Morreall 4)

“Men of worth must not be represented as overcome by laughter” (Republic)

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.)

laughter is a derisive act aimed at human error and evil, though it often demonstrates the laugher’s ignorance and insolence

laughter is caused by ugliness or deformity in the object, without the intercession of pity or sympathy to stifle laughter (Wickberg 47)

laughter is not wholly condemnable and is acceptable in moderation, for it can serve as a moral and social corrective by illuminating wrong action


Superiority theory1
Superiority Theory

Thomas Hobbes (1558-1679)

in life’s perpetual struggle for power, laughter comes at moments when we feel an advantage over others

laughter expresses “a sudden glory arising from some conception of some eminency in ourselves, in comparison with the infirmity of others” (Leviathan)

laughter is self-congratulatory, boastful, triumphant, an assertion of power

(Morreall 6-7; Smuts, par. 13; Wickberg 48-51)

Incongruity theory
Incongruity Theory

Whereas Superiority Theory is rooted in human emotion, Incongruity Theory works from the cognitive side

Blaise Pascal (1623-62) speaks the basics of I.T.: “Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising development between that which one expects and that which one sees”

While Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) anticipates Relief Theory, his formulations about humor fundamentally reflect I.T.:

“In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd. Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.”

(Morreall 15-16; Smuts, par. 8-10; Wickberg 174)

Incongruity theory1
Incongruity Theory

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Kant’s supposition is incomplete because incongruity does end with something, if only a realization about fallible expectations

a humorous situation involves an incongruity between a general concept and an individual occurrence that does not conform to the general conception

“What causes laughter . . . is a mismatch between conceptual understanding and perception” (Morreall16-17)

an incongruous, humorous occurrence alerts us to our reliance on reductive, limited understandings of the world and the nature of human experience

(Morreall16-17; Smuts, par. 11-12)

Relief theory
Relief Theory

At bottom, Relief Theory purports that laughing is the release of nervous energy

Humor is one way to release pent-up energy about social prohibitions, such as those involving sex and violence, which are frequent topics of humor.

Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713)

“The natural free spirits of ingenious men, if imprisoned or controlled, will find out other ways of motion to relieve themselves . . . . They will be glad to vent themselves, and be revenged on their constraints”

Prohibition increases the desire to do what is forbidden, and this frustrated desire, in turn, increases the pent-up nervous energy that must be vented.

(Morreall 20; Wickberg 50-51)

Relief theory1
Relief Theory

John Morreall provides a poem by Harry Graham to exemplify R.T.:

I had written to Aunt Maud

Who was on a trip abroad

When I heard she’d died of cramp,

Just too late to save a stamp. (22)

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

Emotions often take the form of nervous energy and lead to muscular motion.

Unlike fear and anger, laughter does not induce a motor response to practical action; rather, it tends to incapacitate the laugher and render him/her incapable of doing anything. In this way, laughter only serves to release nervous energy, not to do anything with it.

(Morreall 23-24; Wickberg 174-75)

Relief theory2
Relief Theory

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Creating jokes is, like dreaming, a largely involuntary act

During our everyday experience, we use psychic energy to suppress thoughts, feelings, and impulses that are deemed socially unacceptable or forbidden. In joking and laughing, our conscious minds let in the suppressed thoughts, feelings, and impulses. As a result, the psychic energy that is typically used in the act of suppression is not expended but “saved” and then released, or discharged, in laughter.

Laughter, produced from observing the comic, involves an economy of psychic energy.

(Morreall 26-30; Wickberg 174)

Another theorist
Another Theorist

Henri Bergson (Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, 1911)

Superiority and Incongruity theories blended

“humor involves an incongruous relationship between human intelligence and habitual or mechanical behaviors . . . helping people recognize behaviors that are inhospitable to human flourishing” (Smuts, par. 28)

source of humor often recognizes human superiority over subhuman; a source of humor is often a threat to reduce a person to an object (ibid)

humor is linked to human experience, whether by metaphor, personification, or other means (Morreall 94)

humor often has a social basis; comedy is rooted in customs, manners, and ideas of a social culture---humor doesn’t translate well from one language or culture to another (Boskin 200, 201)

humor often functions as a social defense against aberrant, eccentric, radical, or unconventional ideas and behaviors

Historicizing humor theory
Historicizing Humor Theory

“What the tripartite categorization of laughter theories obscures, in the first place, is that which is most obvious to the historian: superiority, incongruity, and relief theories, without exception, are modern in their origins. Premodern understandings of laughter frequently appear to be variants of the so-called superiority theory in the classificatory schemes of present-day analysts, but that is largely because these analysts interpret those understandings through the lens of the egoistic psychology of the modern era. It would be more appropriate to call these premodern understandings of laughter ‘deformity theories’ rather than superiority theories, because they focus on the deformed nature of the laughable object rather than on the feeling of psychological superiority. In other words, the historical perspective reveals that there has been a long-term transition from a theoretical focus on the object of laughter and its qualities—the thing laughed at—to a newer concern with the psychological causes of laughter” (my bold, Wickberg 47).

Works cited
Works Cited

Boskin, Joseph. Rebellious Laughter: People’s Humor in American

Culture. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1999. Print.

Morreall, John. Taking Laughter Seriously. Albany:

SUNY Press, 1983. 4-37. Print.

Smuts, Aaron. “Humor.” 30 July 2011. Web.

Wickberg, Daniel. The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern

America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1998. Print.


Note: D.H. Monro developed the standard tripartite categorization of humor into Superiority, Incongruity, and Relief theories. Other models exist as well, such as Patricia Keith-Spiegel’s eight types of humor theories, Jim Lyttle’s three types of theories (functional, stimuli, and response), and theoretical paradigms that distinguish objects and subjects of humor (Smuts, par. 8-9).