Humour, an analysis



In "The Act of Creation", Arthur Koestler provides a brilliant analysis of the mechanism of humour. He argues persuasively that humour results from the collision of incompatible frames of reference. Hopefully, this is apparent in the discussion of specific jokes below. Yet one cannot use this as a formula for producing funny jokes. Koestler has answered half the question by identifying a necessary condition for funniness. What is lacking is a sufficient condition. The intriguing question remains: why is one collision of reference frames funny while another is not?


This essay attempts to find the answer, but first some funnies. Since humour is an elusive concept it is best approached by a series of examples.


   1. Story of an Engaged Man
I was a very happy person. My wonderful girlfriend and I had been dating for over a year, and so we decided to get married. There was only one little thing bothering me. It was her beautiful younger sister.
My prospective sister-in-law was twenty-two, wore very tight miniskirts, and went around braless. She would regularly bend down when she was near me, and I always got more than a pleasant view. It had to be deliberate. She never did it when she was near anyone else.
One day the younger sister called and asked me to come over to check the wedding invitations. She was alone when I arrived, and she whispered to me that she had feelings for me that she couldn't overcome. She told me that she wanted to make love to me just once before I got married and committed my life to her sister. Well, I was in total shock, and couldn't say a word.
She said, "I'm going upstairs to my bedroom, and if you want one last wild fling, just come up and get me."
I was stunned and frozen in shock as I watched her go up the stairs.
When she reached the top she pulled off her panties and threw them down the stairs at me. I stood there for a moment, then turned and made a beeline straight to the front door. I opened the door, and headed straight towards my car.
Lo and behold, my entire future family was standing outside, all clapping! With tears in his eyes, my father-in-law hugged me and said, "We are very happy that you have passed our little test... we couldn't ask for a better man for our daughter. Welcome to our family!"
The moral of this story is:
Always keep your condoms in your car.

This joke belongs to the genre called shaggy dog story, where a situation is painstakingly elaborated, carefully leading the listener in a certain direction, only to jump tracks at the last moment. This one has three climaxes, the erotic high-point, when she throws down her panties, the false punch-line, when he discovers the ruse, and the real punch-line. Sex is probably the most common topic for humour. Sex is still a somewhat taboo subject and hence is emotionally charged. It is on the one hand universal and on the other too personal to be publicly divulged. Because of the taboos surrounding sex, any story or joke that treads on this tricky ground automatically commands our interest due to the tension generated by the subject. Sex is an area where many people feel vulnerable, something that is exploited in humour. So many jokes deal with sex because, apart from its intrinsic interest, it is an area of life where incompatible frames of reference abound and collide with emotionaly-charged results. Some of the opposed frames are: good girl vs bad girl, cad vs nice guy, nasty vs nice, morality vs pleasure, public vs private, words vs actions, truth vs lies, love vs lust, commitment vs adventure, and the old male double standard ("this is how men are, but women are not like this").


The 'engaged man' joke profits from the archetypal tension between love and lust, or between commitment and adventure. It exploits not only the ambivalence of the protagonist but more importantly, that of the listener. How did you want the story to end? The first part leads up to his leaving the house, building tension by not letting us know whether they will or won't do the act, which appears to be the whole point of the anecdote. At this stage the story is unresolved. When he goes out the door we are led to believe that he is taking the honourable path. The second climax is due to the collision of the two opposing reference frames - those of philandering and marriage. The tension between the two was set up in the last two sentences of the first paragraph, and this is the leitmotif of the entire joke. This first collision releases much of the tension of the story, as it appears that it has reached its resolution when we re-interpret the actions of the sister. Yet it is not funny enough. Finally, the actual punch-line debunks this apparent resolution, trumping it with a more satisfying one, by presenting a sharper collision between the joys of philandering and the security of the moral path. As with any good punch-line, we can see in retrospect that every element of the story was building to this very conclusion. Note that the real punchline would not work if not for the false one that precedes it.


Why is it funny? Because of the sharp and surprising, yet logical collision of the two incompatible reference frames at the end. It is all the more funny because this surpasses what previously appeared to be the punch-line (the discovery that it was a set-up). The surprise reversal of the message from 'do the right thing' to 'be a cad but don't keep condoms in your pocket' discharges through laughter the emotional tension built up during the entire story. Part of the reason why this joke works so well is that the motivations of both the sister and the protagonist are different from what we initially think, yet in the end their opposed agendas cancel each other so neatly. It is also funny because the "moral" at the end is not a moral at all, as well as the reversal of trickster and tricked.


2.         Q: What can used tampons be used for?

            A: Tea-bags for vampires.


This one works because it succinctly engineers a collision between the three incompatible reference frames of intimate hygiene, tea-drinking and vampirism. The improbability of logically combining these three unrelated reference frames in just ten words is what makes it funny. That and the outrageousness of the solution. Unlike the shaggy dog, which pulls us in one direction only to overturn our expectations, this koan poses an absurd question and answers it with persuasive, if absurd, logic.


My friend Raghu commented, "It is also perhaps the allusion that we and the vampires are not all that different. Just as we drink tea, vampires drink blood and just as we use tea bags for convenience, there is the suggestion that vampires can look at tampons for their quick sip of blood. Such taboo-breaking parallels are at the core of many jokes."


3. One of my favourite Far Side cartoons shows a policeman who has stopped a car in which a dog is in the driver's seat with a man next to him. The man says, "Me, crazy? Sure, I let him drive every now and then, but he's never off the leash for one moment."

Like the tampon joke, this is humour of the absurd. It relies on the clash of two superficially similar but incompatible reference frames: the rules that govern proper behaviour in the unrelated areas of driving and dog-walking. Secondly, it exploits the difference between following the letter and the spirit of a rule, which is another clash of reference frames. At a deeper level, it asks whether all of us are not sometimes like the man with the canine chauffeur - a little crazy beneath our apparent normality, based as this is on conformity to social rules.

We tend to laugh when in a serious situation, the offender lays stress on the non-essential part of the rule and says that he is observing the rules, all in dead-pan seriousness.


4. If you don't pay your exorcist, you'll get repossessed.

This is a simple though rather clever pun. The humour turns on the neatness of the ambiguity of "repossessed". Added to that is the exotic nature of the subject. The collision is between the reference frames of arcane religious rituals and the mundane reality of paying bills.


5. The Queen Mother visits a nursing home and approaches a lady who looks to be 90. The Royal asks her, "Do you know who I am?" The old lady answers, "No, but if you ask the nurse over there she will tell you."

Here the clash is between two different reference frames for identity, that of knowing a famous person and that of remembering your own name. It is funny because the lady's reply is so unexpected, forcing us to jump tracks. In addition we are amused when a high-profile person gets her come-uppance, being treated like any other old lady, and a demented one at that. The humour is increased by the bizarre predicament of a person not knowing their own name. There is also the element of self-satisfaction, as in, "I'm better off than this."


6. One drinker asks another, "Does your tongue burn when you're drunk?" The second answers, "Dunno, never been drunk enough to set it alight."

In this case the clash is between the literal and the figurative meanings of "burn". In one reference frame a mild side-effect of alcohol is mooted. In the other it is understood that people do crazy things when drunk. The joke ups the ante by surprising us with the literal interpretation of "burn". The humour is increased by the nonchalance of the answerer, who is replying as if to a humdrum question. The extreme situation of a person attempting to set alight their own tongue provides the emotive force that makes it funny.


7. Someone made a panel of photos of Bush, pairing each with a photo of a chimp bearing a similar expression.

The reference frames are those of humans and apes, so that we re-interpret the photos of Bush in a simian context, the effect of which is to make him look ridiculous. Even without Bush's help, chimpanzees are funny because of the clash of the two reference frames of animal and human.


8. Life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease.

This one collides the reference frames of life and death in an unusual way. It is emotionally charged because it manages to cram life, death and sexuality into just seven words. It is surprising and absurd yet it makes perfect sense. It is funny because it sets up such an improbable, yet in hindsight, logical collision. Perhaps it also helps us to put our worries into perspective.


9.         Q: What is the difference between a slut and a bitch?

            A: A slut is a woman who goes with every man. A bitch is a woman who goes with every man except you.

This one crashes the reference frames of lust and moral disapproval. It captures the paradoxical mixture of desire and disgust with which our society regards sexuality. It also expresses the double standard many a man has regarding himself and other men, ie that the woman he desires should do it with him and him only. The motive power of this joke comes from the tension between desire and resentment on the part of males towards females, their fascination mixed with disapproval, desire melded with dirt. Another reason why this joke works so well is that it turns its sting back onto the teller, the male, by exposing his double standard. The woman is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. Despite appearances, this joke is not really about women at all, but only about how men regard them.

It is funny because it is surprising, clever and emotionally charged. Also, because it boomerangs back to hit the male who is making his judgemental pronouncement. We often appreciate a joke that rebounds on the teller, especially if it punctures their unfounded feelings of superiority. This joke exploits the tension between "nasty" and "nice" by showing that this distinction is paradoxical in the sexual context and by exposing the contradictory feelings harboured by males.


10.        Q: What do you call a psychic dwarf who has escaped from gaol?

            A: A small medium at large.

This one conflates the reference frames of ESP, physical stature and prison, melding them improbably together by way of a triple pun. This results in the switch to yet another reference frame - that of distinct clothing sizes, paradoxically combined. The answer is absurd yet logical and satisfying.


11. Marx: "I wouldn't join any club that would have me."

The collision is between the speaker's complex of superiority and his inferiority complex, ie his patrician condescension and his low self-esteem. It cleverly and succinctly captures the psychological truth that superiority and inferiority are paradoxically entwined. It shows that feelings of superiority are a sham because they are just as neurotic as their opposite.


12. Oxymoron: military intelligence.

This is the shortest joke I know. It collides two different contexts for intelligence. I find it funny because of its brevity and because it punctures pretension so effectively.


13. Two Englishmen are fox hunting with their wives. One says to the other, "Larry, do you realise you just missed my wife with your last shot?" Reply: "Awfully sorry, old chap. Do have a shot at mine over there."

The collision is between the reference frames of hunting and "tit for tat". It is funny because of the quintessential English nonchalance of the second man in the context of life and death.


14. Definition of a teenager: someone who does not realise that one day they will be as stupid as their parents.

This one collides the distinctly different world views of teenagers and parents. It is funny because it sharply points out a simple truth, that the teenager's view of things is going to change drastically, only they do not know it. It turns on the different interpretations of "stupid", though at the deeper level of paradox, rather than that of the pun. This joke's strength is in the succinct expression of a truth of modern living. It also reminds us that judgements often say more about the people making them than about their ostensible subjects.


15.        Q: How many Zen Buddhists does it take to change a light bulb?

            A: Two. One to change it and one not to change it.

Here is a collision between the frameworks of routine household maintenance and mystical self-realisation. This joke contains, or appears to contain, a profound truth about existence, transposed to a very mundane level. It is funny because it is surprising and logical.


16. President Kennedy paid a visit to the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. To underline American support for West Germany he declared, "Ich bin ein Berliner." The literal meaning, which was what he intended is, "I am a Berliner." Unfortunately, for the American, he generated one of history's best howlers, for what he actually said was, "I am a doughnut". He should have omitted the 'ein'.

The clash is between the reference frames of expressing international solidarity and saying nonsense. What makes it funny is that this was a real situation in which an important person made a silly mistake. The fact that this actually happened, and in a solemn context, rather than being a made-up joke makes it so much more funny. That his error was so natural, as opposed to a random mistake, adds to the humour. A real situation is funnier than a made-up one because it is more surprising. Also, being real rather than made up, the collision of reference frames is sharper.


17.        Who?

If you can start the day without caffeine or pep pills,

If you can be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,

If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,

If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,

If you can understand when loved ones are too busy to give you time,

If you can overlook when people take things out on you when, through no fault of yours, something goes wrong,

If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,

If you can face the world without lies or deceit,

If you can relax without liquor,

If you can do all these things,

Then you are probably the family dog.


The two reference frames are those of the human and canine worlds. The first ten lines seem to present a set of impossible conditions that no-one could satisfy. The answer is surprising and clever. It is also literally true and tells us something about both humans and dogs. It is funny because it releases the tension created by the series of questions in a surprising and satisfying way.


18. A man comes home early from work and finds (of course) that his wife is in bed with another man.

"What do you think you are doing?!" he demands.

The wife turns to her lover and says, "See, I told you he was stupid."


Here the familiar set-up has been given fresh life by a surprising twist. Instead of being contrite, the woman uses her husband's words to belittle him. The clash is between the literal and the expressive meaning of the husband's question, which the wife exploits to cutting effect. Her use of absurdity forces us to jump tracks.


Some conclusions

What patterns can we identify in these jokes? The comments above show that Koestler's analysis is correct. Each joke works on (at least) two levels, which sets up the basic mechanism of colliding reference frames. But what can we say about the sufficient condition, ie why is one collision funny and another not?

Firstly, nearly all set up an emotionally charged, often outrageous situation, whether through sexual tension, embarrassing bodily functions, breaking of taboos, the macabre, criminality, the crazy, or the high and mighty.

Secondly, all contain the element of surprise, as each twists our expectations and takes us where we don't expect to go. This is why a joke is funny only on the first telling - because of the element of surprise.

Thirdly, all are clever in that they contain an internal logic, the logic of the absurd. It is necessary to say two quite different, but sort of plausible things, at the same time, making sense on two different levels simultaneously. However, this is not enough: the clash of the two levels needs to be resolved with unexpected inevitability. This is where the cleverness comes in. The cleverness of the way in which the nonsense is made to look sensible is integral to our appreciation of the joke. Stupid jokes (ie jokes that we think are stupid) are generally unfunny.

At a higher level, something else is required: creativity. The two key components of creativity are novelty and construction. Novelty is needed in humour to generate surprise, while logical coherence on two different levels is the constructive element.

Another feature of many jokes is brevity. In some cases the humour is sharper because it captures a truth about life. However, the three factors of emotional charge, surprise and clever resolution seem to be the essential ones.

Jokes are often hard to remember. This is because humour relies on a twist, on exact wording and timing, ie it is a precise art and only getting "near enough" may make the joke fall flat. It may spoil the surprise or distort the message on one of the two incompatible levels.

A common comic device is paradox, which features in # 1, 3, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15 above. Paradox might be defined as an extreme clash of reference frames, where a resolution seems logically impossible. Though devices such as irony, paradox and exaggeration are common methods of constructing jokes, their use does not guarantee that a joke will be funny.

"Little Miss Sunshine" is one of the few films I have seen recently that succeeded in making me laugh out aloud. Yet it is basically a serious film. If anything, it has more drama and sadness than comedy. The combination of dramatic veracity with funny one-liners and situational humour makes the humour stronger. Because I cared about the characters and saw them as being more than just one-sided funny people, their funny aspects were a lot more powerful. Humour relies on contrast - in a slapstick comedy where one ridiculous event follows another, with no serious material to offset it, the humour is less potent.

Any discussion of what is funny must take into account the personal element. What is humorous to one person is not to another. This is obvious when one person experiences a mishap that is funny to everyone except the person affected. Clearly, there are many reasons why a given person finds something funny at a particular time. This will depend on their mood, their attitude to the subject of the joke, the atmosphere, the use of alcohol, other peoples' reactions, cultural factors and myriad other elements. There are perhaps equally many factors that predispose a person to not finding a joke funny. I think that any attempt to capture all these personal and contextual factors is likely to fail. Hence I have taken the approach of examining the jokes themselves, rather than how people react to them.

Finding something funny is an emotional rather than an intellectual reaction. A joke that has to be explained to us is not funny, because to experience humour we need to feel the resolution of the clash of reference frames. It needs to be experienced emotionally, not explained. If instead it is laboriously discovered then there is no catharsis. The experience of humour relies on feeling an emotionally satisfying discharge of the emotional tension created by the collision of the two incompatible frameworks. For it to be satisfying, the elements of emotional charge, surprise, and cleverness are needed.


Tad Boniecki

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