How Humour Works




This is about humour. I shall not make any clear distinction between humour in general and jokes, only to say that jokes are archly and tightly structured set pieces and a subgroup within humour.

The best way to understand humour perhaps is to look at why analysing or explaining particular cases of humour kills the humour stone dead. It is well known that analysis (using that to cover explanation) of how a piece of humour works kills it. Just as taking apart a portable radio makes it cease to work as a radio, though all the bits are still there – they are not assembled. There is nothing less funny than talking about why something is funny. What is less obvious is that this gives us a key to understanding humour.

The main idea is this. Looking at what is taken away by analysing or explaining (informally called ‘picking it apart’ or ‘spelling it out’) a case of humour, thereby killing it, we can infer that these elements are what keeps it alive. What is taken away through analysis and kills humour gives us an insight into what makes the humour work.

Analysis takes away three things that are essential to humour working. These are: surprise, the unsaid, and sequence

Analysis takes away three things that are essential to humour working. These are: surprise, the unsaid, and sequence. All these elements are interconnected, but take away any one of them and the humour is stone dead. Together these give the form of humour, though not its content. This applies as well to verbal humour as to visual humour.

Analysis destroys all these features of humour or a joke, and as it destroys the humour itself, its being funny, this thereby shows us the features of humour that make it work. Take these features away and the humour dies, so having them present is what make it live. It is at least part of the story of what does so.

John Shand: The Wind on Your Face

The limits of language are all there before us in the everyday. For there is no description or account of the wind on your face (nor of the experience of seeing a red rose) that could give you any idea at all what the wind on your face was like to have.

So in turn. A piece of humour or joke leads to a surprise. But we are deliberately misled in the construction of the humour in such a way that intentionally, or at least unaccidentally, it sets our mind working in a certain direction as to where we are going, then suddenly at the end we are turned on our head. People are sometimes offended by humour partly because they feel they have been tricked into a ride to somewhere they did not want to go. The misleading is done not just by what is said, but by what is deliberately unsaid, that is, not just anything left unsaid, but certain specific things that might have been said. For if the unsaid had been said, or said in a different way, there would be no surprise at the end. …

Originally appeared on Daily Philosophy Read More