The Psychology of Humor – What Makes Something Funny?

An anonymous comedian, tired of having his work dismissed as trivial and fluffy, once joked that “there is nothing funny about my comedy routines.” Whether or not he was being intentionally witty, the remark is an interesting one. Humour is a serious business. For many, it is a healthy way to renew and deepen their bond with other people and cope with the trials of life.

What Is Humor?

Before considering its role in mental health, it would be helpful to clarify what exactly humour is and is not. Many people confuse humour with sadistic pleasure. But laughing at someone’s embarrassment, humiliation, or failure, isn’t true humour. True, deep, life-enhancing humour is inclusive, not exclusive. You can see this contrast in literature. For example, two of the 20th century’s greatest comic novelists, P G Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, use humour for different effects. Wodehouse is never harsh or cutting. He is a master of inclusive humour, making the reader feel that life itself is fundamentally comic. This is why critics have described reading him as like “taking a warm bath,” or “swimming in champagne.” In other words, he embraces and draws you in. Evelyn Waugh, though a superb novelist, is anything but inclusive. He always seems to be laughing at someone.

It should also be stressed that, though laughter can be a sign of humour, it isn’t always. People laugh for different reasons. Some laugh to hide embarrassment, soothe other people’s feelings, or even prevent aggression and violence. And laughter can also be a response to things other than humour, such as joy, shock, or disbelief.

The Release of Emotion

As any student of Freud will tell you, it isn’t good to bottle up emotion. Humour often acts like a release, and the best jokes usually begin by arousing emotion, allowing it to build, then triggering the release with a punch line. Thus, the more emotion a subject arouses, the more attention it will draw from comedians. This is why so many jokes involve sex and money!

For example, a British TV show once played a joke in which a comedian posed as a highly refined art critic with an upper class English accent. One night, he took to the stage in a rough pub in a poor, working class area of England, where he began lecturing the audience on art and culture. His subjects were deliberately obscure and his language highly technical. Of course, the customers had no idea that this was a joke and an unpleasant silence fell. A hidden camera revealed a mixture of anger and bewilderment on their faces. He seemed to be patronising and sneering at them, as though he regarded them with contempt. In many this aroused feelings of inferiority and stupidity, leading in turn to anger. Then, just as these emotions are reaching boiling point, loud music begins and he does an idiotic dance, just like a drunken teenager. Suddenly, he is the fool and all those inferiority feelings are released in explosive laughter.

The Deflation of Pomposity

The Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler concluded that people were motivated above all by a desire for power. Human beings are social creatures and very conscious of their position within the group. Indeed, their self-esteem largely depends on how they compare to others. If they feel they compare badly, their self-esteem will be lowered and they will suffer depression. Those who know they are at the bottom resent it and often react with violence, while those who possess the money and power use these to underline their superiority. Private education, polished manners, and a refined accent are all ways of asserting difference and superiority. Society consequently rests on a great deal of hatred and tension.

Humour is a peaceful, non-violent way of soothing these feelings. The following joke provides a good example. A lady dressed in expensive clothes pushes her way to the front of a bus queue. The people behind her are all workers in a factory and grumble at her arrogance. The bus driver tells her that he isn’t ready yet. She grows angry and says “look here, my car has just broken down and now I have to get on this dirty old bus. I am not in the mood for you.” Still he refuses to allow her on. She gets even more angry and yells “do you know who I am? I am one of the factory owners’ wives.” The bus driver smiles and replies “I don’t care if you are the factory owner’s only wife, you still can’t get on.” The driver has deliberately misunderstood, thus deflating her and cheering up the other passengers.

Monty Python provides some good examples of this. Being British, they had grown up in an exceptionally class-conscious society, one in which social distinctions are numerous and subtle, revealed in everything from accent to hairstyle. Perhaps their most famous sketch involves this deflation of pomposity. When John Cleese, representing the government “department for silly walks,” does his absurd walk, he does so wearing an expensive suit and exhibiting the refined manners and accent of an English gentleman.

Open and Closed

Most people approach life in one of two ways: open or closed. Being open means accepting new information and allowing it to change your view of the world. Others resist anything that may force them to update the way they think of themselves, other people, and life in general.

Therapists often deal with people who have closed themselves off. They reach a certain age, often late adolescence, and seem to get stuck there. The refusal to shift and open up is often due to fear. People resent change. So they need something to remove this tense resistance, something to make them loose and receptive to new information. Humour can help free people from the suspicious defensiveness with which they normally approach the world. For example, imagine someone raised in a nasty, abusive cult. When they meet people from outside, they resist and resent their criticisms. Only when someone teaches them to laugh at the absurd beliefs with which they were raised can they begin to question and challenge the cult for themselves.

Above all, humour changes the way people see the world. The literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote that the two greatest characters in all literature were Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Falstaff. Both seem to have grasped some profound, essential truth about existence. But while Hamlet turns away in disgust, Falstaff laughs. Though he is a dangerous man, his humour is all-embracing and, as Bloom puts it, it is humour which “denies that life is real or life is earnest and… lifts us into the atmosphere of pure freedom,” something Falstaff achieves “not with the sourness of a cynic” but the “gaiety of a boy.”

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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