Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What Is Humor?

I was watching a recent episode of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon attempts to create a unified theory of humor. The joke in this idea comes from the fact that Sheldon has little to no concept of humor or sarcasm. Inherent also, however, is the implication that humor is just “what’s funny,” and can’t be quantified. However this is completely untrue.

Humor of all kinds can be boiled down into one simple concept: Subversion of Expectations. That is the essence of humor. A joke or a funny situation sets up a given expectation with its premise, and subverts that expectation with its punch line. For example, take the following joke: (Note: To see the joke answers, please highlight the area next to the A:)

Q: What’s worse than two hangnails on the same hand?

A: The Holocaust.

We’re given an expectation that the answer will be of a similar degree to the question. We would expect an answer like: a hangnail on each hand, or three hangnails on one hand.  But the true answer is completely out of proportion to the question. Thus we are surprised, and we laugh.


This particular joke is complicated by the fact that it is completely bereft of cultural sensitivity. Thus, if you are connected to the culture of the answer, you may find it offensive, rather than funny. Or you may find it funny, but feel guilty. However, this guilt and discomfort is also a part of humor. The famous line “Comedy equals Tragedy plus time” has its basis in truth. We laugh to protect ourselves from our existential terror, the so called “Morbid humor,” but when a tragic event is far enough away that we can assuage ourselves by parodying it varies depending upon the event and the audience. And, as a friend of mine once said: “Every joke is at someone’s expense.” 

Note that humor comes from subversion of expectations, not destruction of expectations. For example.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

A: To use a washing machine.

To be sure, this is not the answer we expected, but it’s also not one we could have arrived at by any permutation of logic, so it’s not funny. The true answer to this joke, “To get to the other side,” is also not funny, but only because every child has heard the punch line, so this answer meets expectations. If you had never heard the joke before, you would expect a more deterministic reason for the chicken to cross the road, so the simple answer “to get to the other side,” would be surprising and funny. It’s a diminishing of expectations, the opposite of the humorous technique in the first joke. The point however, is that it’s an answer that can make sense in the right context, even if it’s one we didn’t expect.

Jokes can also use subversion of expectations to build an increasingly complex network of humor, setting up new expectations with the first subversion, and then subverting the new expectations, as in the famous “Monkey Routine.”

Q: Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?

A: Because it was dead.

Subversion of expectations. The answer makes sense, but it is the most out of proportion of all the possible answers.

Q: Why did the second monkey fall out of the tree?

A: Monkey see, Monkey do.

Our expectations are subverted once more. We expect an extreme answer and get a simple one.

Q: Why did the third monkey fall out of the tree?

A: Peer Pressure.

By this point, our expectations are so tangled we don’t know what to expect, and so an answer that is neither simple, nor extreme, but still meets the parameters of the joke, that it is unexpected and can still be arrived at logically (even though it almost certainly never would) is perhaps the funniest of all.

This joke also observes the Rule of Three, which states, for reasons too complicated to go into here, that no more or less than three permutations of the same joke provide maximum humor. You will find that sitcoms that employ runners, or a joke that repeats, will generally do it no more than three times: the first to establish the joke, the second to establish that it is a running gag, and the third to finish off the joke before it becomes expected. The idea of a runner, or a stand up comedian’s “callback,” both follow the idea of subverted expectations. We expect that the joke is over, so when it returns later and somewhat out of context, we are surprised and amused.

What about something like slapstick? When we see our clown walking carelessly towards the banana peel, we know exactly what is going to happen. He’s going to slip and fall. It’s exactly what we expect, and yet we laugh. Why? In this case, it is our visual expectation that is subverted. That is, every day, we see people walking down the street. It’s very mundane and boring. When someone suddenly stops that activity, goes flying, and takes a tumble, it subverts our visual expectation, if not our cognitive one. As Krusty the Clown once remarked regarding the “pie in the face” gag, “It only works if the schmuck has some dignity to begin with!” We know the pie is going into a face, what’s funny is the subversion of our typical visual experience that a dignified person won’t appear with a face full of pie.

I believe if you analyze any kind of humor, be it slapstick, political satire, joke, situation comedy or standup routine, you will find that at its heart lies the subversion of expectations. If your joke isn’t getting a laugh, you probably haven’t set up the expectation well enough or subverted it effectively. Take my Blog….



Rick Paik Schoenberg said...

I like it. Great blog! I totally agree with your definition of humor. There does seem to be some creativity inherent in humor too. I mean, not anything that defies expectations is necessarily gonna qualify as humor. It's got to be original and creative too, I think.

I always find it interesting when people try to define things, in general. I had a student arguing that statistical graphics should qualify as "art", and in my book the definition of "luck" and "skill" came up, though I've never seem them defined in any other probability or game theory book. I remember my high school biology teacher talking about the definition of a living thing, and whatever definition people gave, he could come up with something we wouldn't normally think of as living that met the definition AND something we would usually think of as living that didn't. It's just hard to strictly define anything, actually.

Anyway, hope to see you sometime soon!

Anonymous said...

Could you perhaps elaborate on how the timing of the delivery factors into how a joke is received?

A joke that's not very good can suddenly become a laugh riot when told by someone with a mastery of timing and delivery and I'm curious how this fits into the subversion of expectations.

Craig Berger said...

Thank you for this great question. I believe that timing and delivery are about masking the joke teller's goal to subvert expectations. When we see a comedian, we all know he is there to tell jokes. Masterful delivery makes us forget that the expectation he is setting us up with is about to be subverted--Deliver the punch line too soon, and we don't have time to process the expectation the joke teller wants to subvert. Deliver it too late and we're already waiting for our expectations to be subverted, so the joke falls flat.

Years ago, to open the Oscars, Steve Martin told this joke:

"There are no losers here tonight."

"But we're about to change all that."

If he delivers the punchline too soon, we don't have time to process that he is ostensibly delivering the cliche that if everyone works hard and does their best, no one really loses. If he waits too long to slam us with the punchline that, no, that's a load of crap, It's just that the winners haven't been decided yet, the audience is likely to figure out where he's going and not be amused.

Also, when you think of comics that have classic delivery styles, you can see how subversion of expectations applies. A guy like Steven Wright would deliver his observations in monotone, clipped sentences. In the "Seinfeld Era," where everyone was doing observational comedy in long, emotionally expressive stories, this was an effective subversion. Sam Kinison used to break into screaming rants during his routines. Since we expect a performer to maintain some kind of decorum when in front of other people and not completely lose it, this was an effective subversion of expectations as well.

Andy Kaufman had a brilliant routine where he would come out as his "Foreign Man" character (who would later become known as "Latka" on the TV series "Taxi,") and do impressions of famous people, which were terrible, as he did them all in a vaguely Slavic, broken English accent. He would wrap it up with his "Elvis" impression, where he would change costume and get all done up like the classic late Elvis, to the audience's delight. Then he would suddenly break into song in a perfect Elvis balladeer's voice, and the crowd, not realizing that the 'Latka' voice was a put on, would go absolutely wild. A complete subversion of expectations and a very effective delivery of a joke.

Thanks again for the question.