My Theory of Humor

I’ve written a lot about humor on this blog, and I’ll reference some of those writings when they’re appropriate, but here’s a list of posts on this topic (humor and illusion, some general reflections and self-deprecating humor, humor as sympathetic social critique, musings on racial humor)

Humor is a hard topic to find hard and fast data points that need to be incorporated into a theory on the subject, but I’ve come to the belief that humor is a type of perception. It’s similar to having depth perception or the ability to have all areas of the visual field in focus at once. There are several things that I think powerfully support this account of humor.

1. Finding something funny is direct and immediate. You never “believe” that something is funny except in the loosest sense of that word. Rather, something STRIKES you as funny in a way that you cannot submit to judgment. This is similar to how a room STRIKES you when you open your eyes to look at it. The funniness of a joke is THERE for you in the same way that a familiar face is just there.

2. Humor also appears to be conceptually permeable in the way that ordinary perception is. Ambiguous images are seen differently depending on what the person is asked to think about at the time (binocular rivalry experiments). There are other examples about how one’s past experiences and beliefs influence what one sees. For example, your mind will see whole worlds in a page even when the words are obscured when you know the language that the words are written in. Same thing goes for hearing. You will hear words even when they are produced very softly or very strangely if that word makes sense in the sentence (and of course, you speak the language under consideration). The same goes for humor. What you find humorous is hugely influence by the language you speak, the culture you grew up with, your mood, and what you’re thinking about at the time. Here’s an example I read in Palmer’s Taking Humour Seriously. Apparently, there is a joke in which a coyote takes shelter from a storm in a cave; he then turns around and finds that a human is already in the cave. The coyote drops dead. This joke is likely not funny to you and it REMAINS not funny even when I tell you that the coyote is the trickster in this particular culture’s mythology. The coyote is supposed to be in control and poised, but here he’s surprised by a mere human. I could go on explaining the joke ALL DAY, but you would never laugh an the reason is that you don’t get it. You don’t have access to all the cultural nuances that are absorbed by you below consciousness that would form this into a funny joke.

So, the phenomenon of “getting it” is a critical part of a theory of humor, I believe.

A further implication is lurking here. Jokes that are explained are not funny. Conceptual elaboration of a joke that one is trying to get will never work. This is very similar to the way that no amount of explanation can relate the color purple to someone. You just have to see it. The same thing with humor. If you don’t “see” the humor in a joke, no amount of explanation will get you to enjoy the joke. You have to see it.

3. Humor is not like seeing any one thing (like a chair) but rather is analogous to a WAY of seeing. What I mean is that the mind automatically organizes light from the world into DEPTH. Objects “seem” closer or further from you, regardless of their absolute size. When you hold up a dime next to a mountain and the dime takes up more space in your visual field, you still see the mountain as bigger, partially because of the compensation your brain automatically dials in for the depth that is at work.

Thus humor is a kind of global sensitivity to the world. It is a mode of perceiving someone who falls down after missing his taxi, or the way that a boring professor sounds when he’s elaborating something he thinks is very somber. People with good senses of humor are attuned to these experiences. They see the humor in things before other people do, or they see ways to make jokes, just as some people see the way through a maze or around an obstacle. To someone with a sharp sense of humor, certain alterations to the world stand out as things that would make the world more funny.

4. The “in virtue of” issue. It’s very common, when asked why one believes something, to give an elaboration in terms of some type of reasoning. You believe  many things in virtue of believing something else. If someone tells you that exactly three birds in a room of five birds are blue, then you can surmize that 2 are non-blue. But not usually with basic beliefs relating to the external world. If you’re looking at a lamp on a table and someone asks you why you think there is a lamp on the table, you’re likely to think they’re insane or are trying to be funny. You will say “I just see them there.” Same thing with humor. If someone asks you why you think something is funny, what can you say? Other than that it just SEEMS funny. This is related to point #1.

Also entailments. If I believe that the earth is round and most blue, then I believe it’s round (that’s entailed by my conjunctive belief before). But if I find something funny, that does not entail anything about related jokes, or anything else. There are no entailments between jokes as there are between beliefs, which makes me thing that humor is a type of perception.


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