I. A Dark and Unstormy Night
It was a long, laid back day with nothing much happening. Mostly I tried to avoid the blaring noise of my roommate’s triple TVs on which he was obsessively following the day’s feats of pig skin tossing. So I probably hadn’t eaten enough. I went for a run, came home properly famished, and prepared a nice meal of vegan basil-cashew pesto & lasagna, but also with those wheel-shaped pasta pieces that I have gazed longingly at since I was a small nerdy child but that my parents considered frivolous. It turns out they were right—the rotelle was frivolous. It occurred to me that it had been years since I’d seen a theory of humor and that the last one, benign violation theory, was partially right but incomplete and unconvincing. Wikipedia and the IEP contain discussion of other theories, most of which are obviously remnants of former times that no one would propose in the modern world. But it turns out that most of them have good features that can be combined into a theory of humor that appears, to my eyes and shriveled sense of humor, to account for the various known types of laughter in a way plausibly based on evolutionary and biological needs. Then I ate dinner. Priorities, you know.
Ancient Greeks, with the typically horrifying social views of the time, initiated the “superiority theory” of humor that said we laugh at the misfortunes of others due to the glee of knowing we are superior to them. Freud is known for a “relief theory” of humor that said we laugh to relieve sexual energy. (You probably predicted that as soon as you saw “Freud”.) Continental philosophers developed the “incongruity theory” of humor which mostly involves complicated ways of saying that things are funny because they are ironic, which while perhaps true is not terribly enlightening. (You probably predicted that, too.) Those are the big three theories, and there are hundreds of others. None of the big three is able to account for the observed variety of laughter and humor in a way satisfying to modern expectations, and none of the little hundreds have much material to read online. The big three sound very much like products of their times. But I don’t live in those times. I want a theory that sounds like a product of our times. A modern update, I think, should start with a minor theory of humor called the “play theory”, which is, simultaneously incongruously and congruously, best expressed by the recent incongruity theorist Brian Boyd as the transition from seriousness to playfulness.
II. A Play Theory of Humor with Unnecessary Discursions into Deep Social Injustices and Poop
Over the course of the evolution of complex organisms, some species developed for niches that required advanced behavioral adaptations, and members of these species began to require long developmental periods before entering the job market maturity. National selection disfavors those who would waste calories, so adaptations which encouraged the early development of the will to murder important adult survival skills would be quick to achieve fixation in the population. Chief among these, at least from the perspective of humans the immature, was play. From their own perspective on the inside, they play for the joy of it, mimicking the behavior of the adults around them, and from the outside perspective we observe that in so doing they develop their minds and bodies for the pursuit of happiness tortuous and torturous struggle for survival and reproduction in a pitiless environment.
Wait, sorry, that was a theory of play. And you already knew it, so here I’ve bored you rather than humored you. All part of my generous plan to help you laugh with joy when you quit reading! But really, the theory of play turns out to adequately explain what humor is and how it works. In order for blog commenters animals to engage in play-fights without ripping into each other’s flesh, they need a mental state corresponding to “this fight isn’t for realsies”, a playful, non-serious attitude. Reliably distinguishing between situations that are serious versus playful is so important that not even blog commenters the blind idiot processes of blog commenters evolution could fail to develop a sense of humor and to link it to an observable physiological signal. In humans, that signal is a complex and still-evolving centuries-old social contract, philosophical tradition, and legal framework laughter. In our biological and cultural evolution, we’ve coopted laughter to signal nonserious, nonthreatening, friendly, cooperative, and playful intents of all kinds. Humor is the feeling of switching from a serious mindset to a playful mindset.
The earliest laughter is probably due to the sheer joy of messy poops. But after that is tickling. The areas of the body that are most ticklish are those that are most vulnerable to attack. That vile gargalectic rubbing, which I am totally still bitter about, stimulates the pain receptors in those areas, causing an exciting but deeply unpleasant sensation that I will punch the living daylights out of you for attempting. A less defensive way of putting it is that tickling teaches children combat skills, and the adults JUST WON’T STOP because the kiddo can’t stop laughing.
As soon as humans reach the age where torture tickling becomes socially unacceptable, laughter becomes objectively morally licit humorous. At least for the person laughing. Sometimes. Family and friends tell jokes (more on that below) to elicit a common playful attitude, let each other know that they are in safe company, and help people relax from stressful situations. Sometimes they fake those signals. Even a fake laugh track is such a strong signal that we might start laughing along; and if we simply start laughing together for no reason, we will shortly be laughing genuinely and uncontrollably. Nervous laughter, embarrassed laughter, and random laughter when nothing’s funny is an unconscious effort to achieve that playful safe camaraderie in a stressfully serious social situation. Slapstick humor involves little humor for the victim, but as the pain involved is the sort that people consider benign, it looks a lot like roughhousing play. In one nervous-laughter-like form of schadenfreude, people first empathize with a victim and then return to their own senses, experiencing the shift from the seriousness of the victim’s condition to the relief of realizing they are not the victim. Similarly, people who have a near-miss with disaster in one moment and then find themselves safe in the next will often laugh. The laughter is more abundant when it turns out the near-miss was not real, like being chased by a nightmare monster spider …
… that was actually a friendly dog.
Jokes are successful when they shift people’s attitudes quickly from the very serious to the very playful. Puns cause a person to consider two situations at once, a serious-ish context and a nonsense (and therefore non-serious) context. Perhaps depending on the order in which a person recognizes the contexts, then, puns could be funny or killjoys. One-liners, two-liners, and longer jokes set up the ordinary, serious context before the punch line delivers an absurdity, relief, or benign violation that switches the context to play. Silly sounds and potty humor get big laughs from small children because DoODY BARFS aRe GRosS children of that age have recently been painstakingly taught that adult society Does Not Speak of Such Things, and so talking of it anyway breaks the politeness social barrier and engenders a conspiratorial camaraderie.
Comedy is successful when it manages to switch people from the serious to the playful over and over again in short order. The usual way to achieve this is to feature the interaction and contrast between an outlandish situation or character(s) and a humdrum situation or character(s). Such a scenario makes it easy to call attention first to one then the other, and to rapidly switch back and forth. We tend to identify the outlandish element in this pairing as the funny one and ignore the commonplace features, which are, after all, not funny in their common places. That’s not quite right, however, as the humor does need both elements. In any case, this way of identifying what things are funny is why “funny” also means “strange” in other contexts.
Humor has a dark side. Mocking laughter, even when obviously forced, is effective mockery because it leads people to think that the mockee is abnormal and that their plight is not worth taking seriously. Superiority-laughter, schadenfraude, bully-laughter, and supervillian-laughter is like mockery and slapstick: they laugh because they approve the victimhood of certain people as benign. “It was only a joke!” is a bully’s defense for his bad behavior, and in the best light means that the bully intended only harmless play-fighting, but in its darker reality means the bully views his victim as a socially acceptible target. “It was only a joke!” is also a defense for bad arguments, by threatening the person who would dispute the argument with being thought a killjoy and social outcast. Thus humor is a ready-made tool for turning the abnormal into the inferior, jacking into our emotional systems to cast certain people who are in some salient way out of the ordinary as suitable for mistreatment, and for preventing the still-privileged from successfully arguing otherwise.
None of this explains laughter caused by nitrous oxide, unless we suppose that it’s fear of pain suddenly giving way to euphoria. However, there are many other responses besides laughter to nitrous oxide, so it might be biologically complicated.
III. Crackpottery versus crackknucklery
The features that distinguish theories worth examination from crackpot theories are good writing and good hygiene new predictions and new results.
1.) Infants can sometimes be induced to laugh by the game of peekaboo. Peekaboo, in case you can’t remember that far back, involves a parent repeatedly hiding her face from the infant, then suddenly showing her face again with a big smile and saying “Peekaboo!”. On this blog post’s play theory, it works because the infant does not yet recognize object permanence and so transitions from a serious Missing Milksource Momma mindset suddenly to an If Momma’s Happy I’m Happy mindset. This suggests two simple tests: First, similarly to peekaboo, infants should laugh when a person first maintains a strone-serious face for a while and then suddenly beams with a big genuine smile, with no hiding of the face in between. Second, stoners, whose attention span may be reduced to only a second or two when sufficiently high, should laugh like babies at peekaboo.
2.) Get a bunch of stock photos of people. Rate them as serious (S) or playful (P). Pick 2 randomly (SS, SP, PS, PP), and construct a graphic that switches from the first to the second to a neutral field for a while, then cycles back around. Put one such graphic on the left of a screen and one on the right. Ask people to pick which graphic is one of: funnier, less funny, friendlier, less friendly, more threatening, less threatening, or larger (as a control).
3.) Prediction: Children taught not to speak about vegetables will find vegetable jokes funny for the same reason they find potty humor funny now.
4.) Prediction: Adults who identify with a religion but know little about it, if taught about an honored person in their religion, will find jokes about that person funnier than adults who do not identify with the religion who are taught the same information.
5.) Prediction: If the same bad argument is presented to some subjects and described as a “joke” and presented to other subjects and described as a “claim”, the former subjects will take longer to identify the flaw in the argument.
On second thought, I’m not going to crack my knuckles to test these because
IV. Obviously This Couldn’t Have Been Original
After I wrote the above, Posh Hugs Inn did a better job Googling than I did and found that somebody else published the same theory, albeit couched in pointless jargon. On the other hand, they don’t seem to have bothered with predictions. Perhaps we don’t need to actually run the tests, and armchair philosophy is adequate in this unusual case, because we can simply imagine the situations and find them funny or unfunny. After all, no one is funnier than armchair philosophers.