Join 3,424 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


A Theory of Humor | Why something is funny, why it sometimes is not, and when it crosses a line.
November 20, 2007 11:48 AM   Subscribe

Theory of Humor. A scientific paper, written by Tom Veatch, describes his Theory of Humor. When is something funny? When is it not funny? When does it cross the line? Why are puns generally shitty? And the mysterious and magical powers elephant jokes have on children, revealed! A great data set to use for practice in applying the theories presented in the paper can be found here.
posted by iamkimiam (57 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Plate of beans, meet funny.
posted by MythMaker at 11:55 AM on November 20, 2007


I figured out humor yrs ago:

CENT. Everything funny requires some form of all four of these elements:

* Conflict
* Empathy (not sympathy, but empathy)
* Nuance
* Timing
posted by grubi at 11:56 AM on November 20, 2007


These links are from the HTML versions of the paper published in Humor, the International Journal of Humor Research, May, 1998, copyright Walter de Gruyter.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:57 AM on November 20, 2007


His basic definition seems to be: humor is violation of expectations...but it has to be a violation within certain expectations of normality, i.e. the situation cannot be wildly in violation of expectations.

Sounds about right to me.
posted by creasy boy at 11:58 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Gotta love when someone over-analyzes the shit outta something as individual as taste in humor! I find that to be funny. Not funny ha-ha, though.
posted by newfers at 11:58 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


These answers don't help people find wisecracks.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:58 AM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


What I like about his theory is that it accounts for subjectivity.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:00 PM on November 20, 2007


I laughed my dick off reading this.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:01 PM on November 20, 2007


I CAN HAS LOLCATS?
posted by fandango_matt at 12:02 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


In the ten-year-old's world, it is a wonderful and essential feature of elephants that they are gigantic in size. Further, it is also a widespread attitude that one isn't supposed to dirty one's food; kids, especially, are actively being socialized into keeping food in the right place (on the plate or in the mouth) and their (often dirty) shoes off of things that need more considerate treatment.

I'm very interested in the theory of humor, but I'm also very underwhelmed by this explanation. Ten-year-old simplicity and taboo-breaking explains fart jokes but doesn't nothing to explain why this is funny:

Q: How do you know that an elephant has been in the refrigerator?
A: There are footprints in the butter dish.


The funny thing here is that you'd need to examine such a minute clue as the butter for what should obvious. He kind of touches on that with the talk of giganticness, but doesn't spell it out as explicitly as the "dirty butter" theory.
posted by DU at 12:05 PM on November 20, 2007


I read the explanation of the elephant joke thing, and I thought it was pretty darn sensible and non-bullshitty.

Also, I think elephant jokes are hilarious. I must be very, very, very slow at constructing my personal picture of reality - either that or I'm just immature as hell!
posted by facetious at 12:06 PM on November 20, 2007


I've often thought that laughter is more or less a yelp of relief that something bad is happening to someone else.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:07 PM on November 20, 2007


"Come in... and *enter*!"

Now THAT'S funny!
posted by briank at 12:10 PM on November 20, 2007


When I was a kid, I thought elephants were funny because they had such huge dicks.
posted by jefbla at 12:12 PM on November 20, 2007


Comedy= Tragedy + Time.
This paper is getting funnier by the minute.
posted by Floydd at 12:14 PM on November 20, 2007


other rules to funny:

The theory of threes and fives when delivering a punch line. (Or. Even numbered repetitions are not funny.)

Multiple syllabic words with the letter "k" in them.

Being specifically non specific and use "honest" colloquialisms.

Make it personal and where possible self depreciating.

Promise them something great, something really really great... and then...
posted by tkchrist at 12:15 PM on November 20, 2007


Tragedy-Comedy=Time

Hey! I think I'm on to something here!
posted by Floydd at 12:18 PM on November 20, 2007


57 is the funniest number. Buick is the funniest car.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:19 PM on November 20, 2007


No, no. Studebaker is the funniest car!
posted by fandango_matt at 12:24 PM on November 20, 2007


37 is the funniest number. It's prime.
posted by wendell at 12:27 PM on November 20, 2007


And the author is totally wrong about puns. Puns are awesome. Because they make people go "awwwww"...

And I wonder if Tom Veatch's father calls him "Son of a Veatch"?
posted by wendell at 12:31 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Funny cars?
posted by rooftop secrets at 12:33 PM on November 20, 2007


The Studebaker used to be the funniest car. It was challenged briefly by the Ford Edsel, but the Edsel was too tragic to be funny. But it has been usurped by the AMC Gremlin. That's a funny car!

And spaghetti is the funniest food (but sushi is seriously challenging it).

Funniest furniture? Bean bag chair by a mile.

Funniest animal, still the platypus, flamingo probably second but walrus (aka LOLrus) is moving up (and it is interesting that the two USA political parties chose two of the top ten funniest animals as symbols).

Funniest high-tech gadget? Tough call, but I still have trouble taking the computer mouse seriously.

You have now been schooled in humor. Werd.
posted by wendell at 12:40 PM on November 20, 2007


I've taken a quick glance at this. I'll have to read it more carefully tonight, but one big question is crossing my mind right now.

This might have something to do with the fact that this paper was written in 1999, but I can think of a lot of contemporary humor that doesn't fit into his classes. When Dave Eggers puts a drawing of a stapler in his autobiography with the caption, "This is a drawing of a stapler," what cultural assumption is bring violated?
posted by roll truck roll at 12:43 PM on November 20, 2007


Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.
-- Mel Brooks
posted by Clave at 12:43 PM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


H2 · tq = √∞ / T

Where:
  • H = humor
  • tq = timing quotient
  • √∞ = the square root of infinitya
  • T = tragedyb

    a The square of infinity has repeatedly been calculated to be 0.9999, or 1.

    b Just as all comedy has elements of tragedy, all tragedy has elements of comedy; without incorporating trace elements of their opposites, tragedy and comedy would be rendered acutely impalpable. The above formula requires paring tragedy down to its base tragediness. This is achieved by taking standard tragedy (Ts) and dividing it by 42. Doing so while running over a litter of kittens will ensure untainted tragedy.

  • posted by Terminal Verbosity at 12:47 PM on November 20, 2007


    When Dave Eggers puts a drawing of a stapler in his autobiography with the caption, "This is a drawing of a stapler," what cultural assumption is bring violated?

    Something about relevance, I believe, but I still haven't had time to read all of the linked thesis thingy. Non-sequiturs mixed with thick irony and false pomposity. Like changing the classic painting to read "this IS a pipe, asshole". Or not.
    posted by wendell at 12:52 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


    I will carry this research paper with me to bars so I can be funny to women. Then they will sleep with me.

    That's how it works, right?
    posted by backseatpilot at 12:54 PM on November 20, 2007


    This is achieved by taking standard tragedy (Ts) and dividing it by 42.

    No, I told you the number is 37! 42 only applies in Britain if you apply the exchange rate of the Python vs. the Seinfeld.
    posted by wendell at 12:54 PM on November 20, 2007


    When Dave Eggers puts a drawing of a stapler in his autobiography with the caption, "This is a drawing of a stapler," what cultural assumption is bring violated?

    I'm not sure I can put it into words, but I think there IS a cultural assumption being violated. Which isn't to say I necessarily buy the paper's theory.

    Let's see: the Eggers thing is funny because we expect items in books to have some level of subtext (that's the cultural assumption). Or we expect illustrations to illustrate something besides themselves. There's supposed to be a POINT to having a picture in a book. The picture is supposed to move the story along or clarify one of the book's ideas.

    Or, in a bad book, there might be a gratuitous picture: one that adds nothing. We have a cultural assumption of gratuity, too, but our assumption is that gratuity will try to hide itself behind a mask of relevance. The sex scene "pretends" to be a part of the story, even though it's just there for gratuitous titillation. Eggers joke is a bit like a movie in which, during a sex scene, there's a caption that says "GRATUITOUS SEX SCENE."
    posted by grumblebee at 12:55 PM on November 20, 2007


    Funniest kitchen implement: potato masher. (Also funniest grenade.)
    Funniest Irish surname: McGillicuddy
    Funniest gas giant: Neptune. (Surpassed Uranus as of 2004 census data.)
    Funniest Far Side cartoon: The one with the deer hiding from a hunter and thinking "Yeah, he's definitely shooting at me. Do I know this guy? Got to think!"
    posted by Iridic at 12:57 PM on November 20, 2007


    I will gather up all of the copies of this paper and hide them in the hidden room of my labyrinth. If people begin to track them down, I will poison them. Humor is the heretical work of the devil, and must be oppressed.

    Must go, time for compline.
    posted by COBRA! at 12:58 PM on November 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


    The funniest car is the Edsel. 2nd-funniest = Deusenberg.
    posted by Mister_A at 1:02 PM on November 20, 2007


    I am skeptical of ANY paper that explains humor as a single thing. First of all, I don't think there's any such thing as "humor." "Humor" is a shorthand term for "the stuff that amuses us or makes us laugh."

    You might want to amend that to, "the stuff intentionally crafted to make us laugh that actually DOES make us laugh." That separates "humor" from "unintentional humor" and "bad jokes."

    Clearly, different people laugh at different things, so we have to expand the word "us" in the last sentence. Whereas in other subjects it might makes sense to care only about the majority, that seems odd when it comes to humor. If I tell a joke to a hundred people and only one of them thinks it's funny, it seems to me that there's still humor going on (for that one person).

    So humor is an interaction in which one agent attempts to amuse another agent, and that other agent IS amused.

    We can then ask: which attempts at these interactions succeed? I'm sure the answer isn't infinite. There's got to be a finite set of things that make people laugh. And there seems to be a smaller finite set of things that make the majority of people (in one culture) laugh. But though these sets are finite, I bet they're pretty damn large and hard to reduce into simpler categories.

    In other words, I believe that laughter and feelings of amusement -- as with smiling and tears -- are overloaded responses that are natural to people in tons and tons of situations.
    posted by grumblebee at 1:04 PM on November 20, 2007


    humor is violation of expectations

    i.e., surprise is funny. John Cleese described this pretty well in a TV bio that aired 15 years ago or so.
    posted by neuron at 1:05 PM on November 20, 2007


    I read a pretty good definition of humor once that went something along the lines of "the simultaneous juxtaposition of two overlapping but incompatible frames of reference."

    Also there should be a priest. Or Michael Jackson.
    posted by Turtles all the way down at 1:11 PM on November 20, 2007


    I read a pretty good definition of humor once that went something along the lines of "the simultaneous juxtaposition of two overlapping but incompatible frames of reference."

    I really like that, except I think there's another kind of humor that involves something living up-to and beyond its expectations. For example, here's my favorite P.G. Wodehouse quotation:

    "Bertie! You wouldn't let down a pal?"
    "Yes, I would."
    "But we were at school together, Bertie."
    "I don't care."
    "The old school, Bertie, the old school!"
    "Oh, well--dash it!"

    Having show this to many people, I wouldn't be surprised if I was the only person here who found it funny. But I do find it funny. I love it. It makes me happy every time I read it or think about it.

    What I like about it is that Bertie -- the quintessential English toff -- is being so ENGLISH and so TOFFISH. It's what I expect him to be and what I want him to be. And DAMMIT! He's being it. And he's summing up an entire world in just a few words.

    Maybe you could say that the two overlapping frames of reference are that of reality, which rarely lives up to my expectations and this fiction, which lives up to them so well. But that seems like a stretch to me.
    posted by grumblebee at 1:19 PM on November 20, 2007


    There's also the ritual aspect of the injoke. How many people on Metfilter actually find pancake references funny? Even if you found them funny in the first place, you probably don't find them funny any more. But you may find them fun.
    posted by grumblebee at 1:20 PM on November 20, 2007


    Now that I think about it I think the quote was "the abrupt juxtaposition...", which seems a bit more accurate and factors in the importance of timing.
    posted by Turtles all the way down at 1:24 PM on November 20, 2007


    No, goddammit. Conflict + Empathy + Nuance + Timing. You're not listening.
    posted by grubi at 1:26 PM on November 20, 2007


    For a layperson's discussion of physical comedy, there's Why Is That Funny?
    posted by Rykey at 1:30 PM on November 20, 2007


    D'oh! It's actually called Why Is That So Funny?

    Ha, I messed up the title of the book in my previous comment! Now that's funny!
    posted by Rykey at 1:31 PM on November 20, 2007


    Why is that funny?
    posted by iamkimiam at 1:37 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


    MOO!!!
    posted by yhbc at 1:40 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


    "This is a drawing of a stapler," what cultural assumption is being violated?

    For me, that statement is not funny, precisely because nothing is being violated. However, I find it clever, because it references a work of art in a recursive way, which is what the work of art being referenced actually does (and what makes that work of art so "arty"). It's a homage...to nothing.
    posted by iamkimiam at 1:40 PM on November 20, 2007


    But...the ball! His groin! It works on so many levels!
    posted by Cookiebastard at 1:52 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


    The problem with all these definitions of humor is that they are so broad, that they do include humor but then they include so much else - that essentially the definition is worthless.

    When a huge bus crosses a red light in front of me or a pedestrian appears suddenly in the street in front of my car - thats not humor, thats horror. Even though it is also a case of events defying expectation.

    Which brings us straight to campy horror movies and people laughing at the person about to be murdered. Why is this funny (not to all people, I know)? If it becomes more real, it becomes less and less funny. So a threshold is also crossed somewhere - humor threatens to invade and overcome our reality. And then its not so funny.

    Also satire can be funny, not because it contradicts reality but because it brings it into excruciating focus.
    posted by vacapinta at 1:53 PM on November 20, 2007


    Again, I run into Cookiebastard on the internets.

    These things, they do happen.
    posted by grubi at 1:58 PM on November 20, 2007


    If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s Sheboygan.

    From one of the links: “individual laughter is frowned upon in some churches” that there is funny.

    Bergson goes with social function, and, in the mechanics - repetition, inversion and reciprocal interference of series and traces them all back to children’s toys and games (the jack-in-the-box, the marionette and the snowball) More
    posted by Smedleyman at 2:15 PM on November 20, 2007


    vacapinta, the reason why it is not funny to see somebody almost get hit by a bus is because the Violation interpretation is way too strong. We think people who find this funny are mentally ill because we recognize that getting hit by a bus is not a moral violation to them. The paper covers this, and it's the basis for the subjectivity of humor. Also, we find this funny in movies because we recognize that events in movies are NOT real, and therefore the thing being Violated is NOT really happening. But the situations on screen still clash with our unique set of moral principles...the realization of this juxtaposition occurs in our minds simultaneously, which is the definition of humor (according to Veatch). That is why we find these things funny in movies, and not so funny in real life.
    posted by iamkimiam at 2:24 PM on November 20, 2007


    there are (3) types of humor:

    1- a logical series of events leading to an illogical conclusion
    2- an unpredictable substitution of reason
    3- slipping on a banana peel



    (if you laughed at this, then this list is a #1) ha
    posted by mrmarley at 2:51 PM on November 20, 2007


    All we have are puns. All other forms of humor are being beamed into our brains by aliens. It's a fact.
    posted by stavrogin at 3:18 PM on November 20, 2007


    there are (3) types of humor:

    1- a logical series of events leading to an illogical conclusion
    2- an unpredictable substitution of reason
    3- slipping on a banana peel


    Again, what about CHARACTER humor? Characters that tickle you because they're so quirky in a fun way? Like DeNiro's character in "King of Comedy" or Peter Seller's various characters in "Lolita." Sure, those characters DO specific things that are funny, but what I like most about them is not what they do but how they ARE -- their mannerisms, etc. Same with "Fallstaff." When I think about him with amusement, I rarely think about specific things he does. I think about him as a funny character.

    I've noticed that many people don't appreciate character humor, because it doesn't involve anything resembling a joke. But those of us who love it, LOVE it. It's my favorite kind of humor.
    posted by grumblebee at 3:41 PM on November 20, 2007


    When I think about him with amusement, I rarely think about specific things he does. I think about him as a funny character.

    But is amusement the same as humor? Children are amusing just by nature too, but I dont think thats the type of thing thats being defined here...
    posted by vacapinta at 4:02 PM on November 20, 2007


    I've noticed that many people don't appreciate character humor, because it doesn't involve anything resembling a joke. But those of us who love it, LOVE it. It's my favorite kind of humor.
    posted by grumblebee


    Warning: Complete speculation to follow...
    Maybe if one is really attached to facial characteristics, and pays close attention to them—maybe moreso than the average person—they may be sensitive towards correlations between the things people say and the expressiveness of their face when they say them. With a heightened awareness to that aspect of communication I would guess that one would also see the juxtapositions and contrasts (like deadpan, sarcasm, etc. but even more subtle variations of these). Those contrasts are akin to a V interpretation, where the expectation of how one should/would say something constituting an N interpretation. These things would occur simultaneously, and for those who are strongly attached to facial expression, would provide the necessary ingredients for amusement or humor, but not necessarily strong enough to provoke a laughter response. <>

    What do you think?
    posted by iamkimiam at 4:41 PM on November 20, 2007


    I'd rather read Freud's "Jokes and their relation to the unconscious". Now that's funny.
    posted by wckdgfy at 5:11 PM on November 20, 2007


    But is amusement the same as humor?

    Well, we can define "humor" any way we want, but if you're asking "Are you sure you're experiencing the same thing when you watch a scene containing so-called 'character humor' as you are when you watch, say, standup comedy?", I'd answer -- for me -- yes (except I enjoy the character stuff more).

    When I watch the character stuff, I laugh and I FEEL like I'm watching comedy. Good character humor seems to affect me in exactly the same way as good slapstick or whatever. All this is totally subjective, of course, and we're welcome to dismiss my experience as too eccentric to matter. But we need to be careful that we're not simplifying the definition of "humor" to match a theory.
    posted by grumblebee at 6:19 PM on November 20, 2007


    « Older Thanksgiving is, among other things, cooking stock...  |  Sex and the College Girl, by N... Newer »


    This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments