It’s no secret that everyone has a different sense of humor. Some of your friends may be into dry humor.
Your other friends might be more into slapstick. Maybe you’re the type with friends who love to engage with witty wordplay.
Or perhaps you just love people who tell self-deprecating jokes. Suffice it to say that the funny rainbow of comedy has room for everyone under the sun.
But sometimes, people have a fairly simple question. “Why are some things just funny?”
It’s a genuine thing to wonder about considering there are so many jokes and ways to tell them. But science has actually distilled a couple of underlying theories behind why something is funny.
I know it seems like this article is about to turn into a research paper. But I promise that jokes and laughs will still be scattered throughout.
Consider this a benign threat! (You’ll get it later if you keep reading).
Either way, if you’re in the world of mainstream or corporate comedy or interested in it, then it’s important to learn what makes us laugh and why. And who knows – maybe you’ll even develop a more keen sense of humor from these theories!
See Related: What is Dry Humor?
Ok, let’s break this one down. Incongruity can mean “lack of harmony” or “dissonance.”
That doesn’t sound really funny. But what matters here is that something is at odds with another.
In comedy, this often means that any kind of logic or familiarity is going to be replaced with something entirely different. And this takes the audience’s expectations and turns them on their head.
So just when you think you’re going down one road, this joke is going to swiftly reverse directions and take you down another. And that is exactly where humor parks itself.
A lot of comedians – and comedy writers for that matter – will capitalize on this idea. They might try to set up a concept that seems interesting and yet relatable.
But then at the last second, they say something unexpected. And this leaves the whole group laughing from such a fun and hilarious twist.
I know what you’re thinking. Is humor and being funny that easy? And if so, why?
Well, research done by Thomas Veatch has shown that both the body and mind start to anticipate a joke when it’s first told. And this sense of knowing what comes next allows us to form a logical conclusion of things.
But when the unexpected arrives, our senses suddenly have to switch gears. And the two things that once seemed incongruous get intertwined in the very same thought.
Without any way to justify how these things are related, the body starts to laugh. It finds the humor in this incongruous pairing.
And the laughs that we emit allow us to release the tension between these two things that seem unrelated and even contradictory. Ok, this might all sound a little too abstract.
So how about an example? Take a look below.
“I always take life with a grain of salt. Plus, a slice of lemon. And a shot of tequila.”
A fairly classic one-liner. But I bet you didn’t see where it was going!
This joke begins with a fairly common phrase. Taking life with a grain of salt.
This might stir up ideas about how life can be overwhelming so it’s important to take one step at a time. Or any number of adages that are never to be taken literally.
But adding in the line with the lemon tips off the sense of humor. Then, suddenly, the grain of salt is to be taken literally.
And the final line hits the funny bone by revealing tequila as the humorous answer to all of life’s problems. What began as a common phrase turned a corner and led the audience right into a drinking game!
And comedians are able to both make a point while getting their friends to laugh. Another way to think of this theory is to think of the breakdown of a joke.
There’s a setup, then a punchline. There’s the familiar, then the unanticipated.
After a while, you might find this pattern to be present in several different types of humor. But the best jokes will always keep you on your toes, unable to figure out the punchline before it lands.
Some people find cockiness to be a turnoff. After all, it doesn’t seem like the most enjoyable thing to be around someone who thinks they’re better than you, right?
But the superiority theory in comedy actually reveals that maybe we all think we’re superior in one way or another. And that superiority is where we find humor in others’ mistakes.
This theory posits that laughter comes from someone else’s misfortunes. Think of someone tripping or falling in such a hilarious way that it’s impossible for you not to laugh.
That’s the superiority theory put in practice. You might not think you’re superior at that moment.
Maybe you convince yourself that you’re just laughing at the ridiculousness of the fall. But odds are, deep down, you laugh because you don’t think this could happen to you.
Charles Gruner added to this theory that the humor found through superiority is all about competition. Once we know that we are better in comparison to others, we laugh about it.
Sounds somewhat mean, right? But it’s something we are all guilty of in life.
In fact, it’s so much a part of human nature that this theory can trace all the way back to the likes of Plato and Aristotle. Just read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan for proof!
In it, Aristotle talks about deriving joy and humor from feeling superior to others. We might feel better than someone who is seemingly inadequate in life or even another person who goes against societal norms.
Another way to think of the superiority theory is schadenfreude. And if you don’t know what this is, consider checking out Broadway’s Avenue Q soundtrack for a fantastic explanation chock-full of humor.
Picture this. A person is at a dinner party and has been holding their pee for God-knows how long.
They manage to discreetly make their way to the bathroom. But when they reenter the room, they’re trailing toilet paper by the bottom of their shoe.
This is a fairly classic trope that’s been used in live entertainment and movies. Maybe you’ve even seen it happen in real life. But it helps to create the idea of the superiority theory here.
The joy and humor of this scenario come from seeing someone else in an unfortunate situation. To watch them suffer in an embarrassing way seems like something that shouldn’t be laughed at.
But we laugh anyway! It just happens to be one of those darker parts of humankind where joy and humor are derived from someone else’s pain.
Luckily, the toilet paper example is fairly tame in comparison to other jokes. But if Aristotle could coin the rudimentary elements of this theory, then it surely says something about how humans have always led their lives with this sense of superiority.
Superiority theory is not the only one of these theories that got its roots from ages ago. Relief theory is equally up there in rank having gotten its roots from Sigmund Freud.
Freud, as well as other relief theorists, believe that laughter and humor are all about releasing tension. But funny enough, all successful comedy is about creating tension in the first place.
Remember the breakdown described earlier? There’s a setup, then a punchline?
Well, that setup is the very moment in which comedians deliberately create tension to play with. Then, they manufacture a release by ending on a funny note.
When tension spills over, laughter helps us get rid of it. So laughter becomes this welcome relief that we have been searching for.
You’ll find this used in movies quite a bit. Especially in action/adventure or even thrillers.
The world is about to end and the main characters know the devastating things they have to do in order to save it. Then, someone says, “Just another Wednesday, huh?”
With so much emotion pent up, a moment of humor and laughter becomes something of a welcome respite. And people can enjoy taking refuge in a funny comment despite everything else being tragic or intense.
Another part of this theory suggests that laughter from relief actually comes from fear. Have you ever laughed when you were nervous or in an uncomfortable situation?
Odds are, you have. And you cringed when you read that last question, thinking of that something you did some-odd years ago (or yesterday even).
Well, coming from a psychological standpoint, Freud believed humor and laughter to indicate the repression of something else. So, in relief theory, laughter reveals the very thing that somebody fears.
Pretty trippy, huh? Who knew comedy could play so many tricks on the brain?
Take that end-of-the-world example again. That’s a pretty scary thing to face, right?
Well, making a funny comment about it being a Wednesday can certainly relieve your nerves. But your laughing doesn’t take away from your fear of the world ending.
That certainly feeds into Freud’s belief that humor is derived from fear. But when used in entertainment, relief theory can actually be thought of as a plot device.
Sure, tension is building. Then laughter helps to break it down.
But then what happens next? Tension builds again. And laughter continues to break it down.
Comedians may use this device in their comedy sets to take the audience on a fun ride. But the point of relief theory is to give people a moment to process and relieve tension.
Benign violation theory
Benign violation theory, or BVT, is similar to the incongruity theory. But it takes the theory just a step further (well, technically three).
For BVT humor to occur, three conditions must be present. Those conditions are:
- Something threatens the norm
- This occurs within a benign or safe context
- And both of these interpretations are interpreted at the same time
Confused? That’s okay. Let’s break it down.
Perhaps the best illustration of BVT is tickling. Let’s say you’re play-fighting with someone.
Then, they start to tickle you. You can’t help but laugh even though tickling is a violation of your space.
But because you’re playing, you know that this violation does not have significant or threatening consequences. So you’re able to find a sense of humor in it all.
Applying this to comedy, BVT suggests that we find funny what is safe to find funny. And what makes us laugh only makes us laugh because they do not pose a physical threat.
Besides, the social benefits of laughing can far outweigh any benign violation. So it just makes sense to laugh.
Think about physical comedy in old vaudeville shows. A successful vaudeville set makes you believe that certain physical stunts pose no actual harm to the actor or comedian in question.
They might slip on a banana. But the comical way in which they fall allows us to laugh because we know they’re not hurt.
In a way, BVT can be viewed as the opposite of superiority theory. Schadenfreude says that people laugh when they watch someone say or do something unsuccessfully.
But BVT suggests that people find humor in spaces when they know no actual threat is posed. So even if the action pursued is not successful, so long as they are unharmed, we laugh because it’s funny without the danger.
A master of this benign violation theory is none other than the Three Stooges. They might not have known that their humor landed them in this comedic category.
But even still, their slapstick routines are able to inspire laughter without fear of a threat. Out of context, hitting someone over the head with a frying pan can be a fairly fatal activity.
But when the Three Stooges do it, they pop back up with cartoon birds flying around their heads. You know that they feel no pain.
And the humor comes from this safety net. Practically all cartoon violence falls under this benign violation theory.
Even puns and innuendos can fit into these qualifications. Subverting everyday language is funny enough and especially without the threat of violence.
So whether your laughter is inspired by a slapstick routine or a string of dry humor puns, benign violation theory does its part. And you can laugh as much as you want.
The bottom line
So, what do people find funny? There are a lot of different answers to that.
Ultimately, everyone is going to have a different sense of humor. So if you’re trying to make everyone laugh, you may as well give up that uphill battle.
Instead, focus on what you find funny. You’ll make friends with others who share a similar sense of humor.
And you’ll get to focus more on laughter in your life. Who doesn’t want that?
Keep Reading: How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation
Adam Christing is a professional comedy magician, virtual MC, and the founder of CleanComedians.com. He is a member of the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood and a popular corporate entertainer, magician, and virtual speaker.