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Humor: Features, Functions & Subjects. by Don L. F. Nilsen, and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Features of Humor. Double Entendre (Intentional Ambiguity) Insight Epiphinal (e.g. a punch line) Slow (e.g. a put-on or shaggy dog story) Surprise Garden path (e.g. false clues)

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humor features functions subjects

Humor:Features, Functions & Subjects

by Don L. F. Nilsen, and

Alleen Pace Nilsen

features of humor
Features of Humor

Double Entendre (Intentional Ambiguity)


Epiphinal (e.g. a punch line)

Slow (e.g. a put-on or shaggy dog story)


Garden path (e.g. false clues)

“Expected” surprise (e.g. Fibber McGhee’s Closet)

If God is omniscient, can he be surprised—Does He have a sense of humor?


Catching on to a joke (i.e. a mini intelligence test

Telling a joke correctly (salient details, local details, not boring)

Relief afterwards (e.g. success in telling or catching on)

more features of humor
More Features of Humor

Distortion of salient feaatures (caricature, parody, political cartoons)

Superiority or hostility (e.g. Charles Gruner’s prize)

Incongruity (based on pattern) (e.g. rule of 3 to establish pattern)

unresolved (e.g. child’s riddle)

Visually Resolvable (umbrella is a storm)

Intellectually resolvable (e.g. girl in tennis shoes locked in a room with a piano, a wooden table, a saw, and a baseball bat)

Intellectually unresolvabe (e.g. What hangs on the wall, is green, is wet, and whistles? Answer: A herring)

NOTE: hangs on the wall

is green

is wet


creative functions of humor
Creative Functions of Humor

Artistic functions of humor (i.e. Arthur Koestler’s “Aaaah!”)

Realism (e.g. public art)

Distortion (e.g. surrealism, impressionism, expressionism, dada)

Scientific functions of humor (Arthur Koestler’s “Ah ha!”)

Ironies (e.g. Fulton’s Folly)

Paradox (caused by paradigm shifts)

Disparate connections (e.g. tides, moon, electricity, magnetism, electric motor)

Cathartic functions of humor (i.e. Arthur Koestler’s “Ha Ha!”)

the benefits of humor in a hierarchal social system
The Benefits of Humorin a Hierarchal Social System

Political and religious benefits of humor (especially in a hierarchal social system)

To turn the tables (e.g. Hogan’s Heroes, Mulla Nasrudin stories, Governor Mecham jokes)

To explain the ironies of war (e.g. Catch 22, Animal Farm, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman [SNAFU, FUBAR, “friendly fire,” and “the fog of war”)

educational functions of humor
Educational Functions of Humor

Teaching and Learning

Arguing and Persuading

the social functions of humor
The Social Functions of Humor

Inbonding and Outbonding

Promoting social stability and control (convergent thinking)

Promoting social change (divergent thinking)

health literary benefits of humor
Health & Literary Benefits of Humor

Health benefits of humor (e.g. psychosomatic wellness)

Literary benefits of humor

Opposing scripts and punch line of a joke

Double entendre & denouement of a literary piece

Analogies & the master tropes: Metaphor, Metonymy, Synecdoche, Irony (e.g. schemes & tropes in Harry Potter)

Parody (e.g. human slinky, parodies of Poe)


Juvenalian (1984, A Modest Proposal, War Prayer)

Horatian (Animal Farm, Gulliver’s Travels, Huckleberry Finn)

Sarcasm (e.g. Stephen Colbert, John Stewart, Mr. Slaughter in The Graveyard Book, Lemony Snicket in a minute)

Comic Relief (e.g. Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth)

Characterization (e.g. The Taming of the Shrew, Archie Bunker, I Am the Cheese)

psychological benefits of humor
Psychological Benefits of Humor

Psychological benefits of humor


Social control (e.g. satire or an inside joke)

Establishment of superiority

Release and relief (after the tension of telling or hearing a joke)

Ego defense, coping, and saving face

Gaining status

Testing limits

Dealing with the unknown (e.g. Western tall tales & contemporary urban legends [FOAF tales])

evolution of the jester
Evolution of the Jester

The king and his jester

The clown and his scepter

The ventrilolquist and his dummy

Unscripted commedia del’arte (street performer, Punch & Judy Shows, Audience interactive comedy)

subjects of humor
Subjects of Humor



Sexual roles


Religion and belief system

Taboo subjects

Censorship from the right: sex, religion, body parts, swear words, obscenities, vulgarities

Censorship from the left (Political Correctness): women, gays, disabled people, ethnic minorities, old people, anyone who is marginalized

time for audience examples
Time for Audience Examples

Have members of the audience tell a joke, a story, or an anecdote and explain the educational, health, literary, psychological or social impact: