The Nature of Humor
"Humor is a grace. It's absolutely a
grace because, if people laugh, willy-nilly they make commitments to what's going on.
They make good commitments, too. They covenant. Laughter is a kind of
covenant, a spiritual covenant."
-- Walter Wangerin
|Characteristics of Humor
- Humor, while it has a psychological component, is primarily an
intellectual appeal; in other words, humor finds its source in our ability to
understand why something is funny or not funny. Keep in mind that
"intellectual" here does not mean "high-brow" or
"academic." By this definition, The Three Stooges can be
"intellectual." The important thing to keep in mind is that humor is a
- Humor often depends on human, societal norms that are understood or
present. We perceive the humor in the incongruity between the normal or the expected
and the strange, absurd, or foolish. Norms can include patterns of speech, of
behavior, and of moral action. As such, the humorous discrepancy contains an
inconsistent or unsuitable surprise. Examples of this include:
- literalization: humorous character understands something as literal
that is only figurative
- inflexible: humorous character is unable to adapt to circumstances
and continues to make the same mistake or repeat the same behavior.
- irony: can be verbal, situational, or dramatic. Irony points
out the incongruity between differing ideas or between what the audience knows and what
the characters in the story know.
- Aristotle has argued that humor must be painless or harmless to the
participants to be found funny, that we laugh when the boy slips on the banana peel but
not when he slips and hurts himself. Do you find this convincing?
- Aristotle also argues that humor depends on the superiority of the
audience; we must feel we are better than what we are laughing at.
- Humor is dependent upon the perceiver having a way to "objectify
the situation." In other words, we often laugh at things that we have
experienced or been guilty of, but we laugh when we gain a bit of distance from the
behavior. We disassociate ourselves for a moment and step back to see the behavior
for what it is--incongruous, funny.
- Humor comes in a number of varieties and forms. Some humor may
be very gentle, the kind where we either sympathize with a comic situation or even
identify with it. Other humor may be harsher, more sarcastic, even full of angry
invective. Some humor is cool and detached in its wit, while other forms can be
sardonic in an internal, pessimistic manner. Fowler's typology of humor (see below)
sets out a number of differing (but overlapping) types of humor. According to
Fowler, each type of humor has a purpose or goal, a province (or comic territory) it tends
to cover, a typical method it uses, and a particular kind of audience it requires.
- Because humor blends with emotional states, such as gentleness or
cynicism, I would suggest that Fowler's chart is somewhat incomplete. He does a good
job of picking up on the shades of negative or cruel humor (the cynical, the sardonic, the
invective), but one could point out a few more nuances under gentle humor. For
example, some humor is very hopeful, even redemptive, full of joy, while other forms of
humor can be farcical or clownish. Some humor borders on a sense of wonder and delight.
I've included a few extra terms in his chart.
H.W. Fowler's Typology of Humor
[from A Dictionary of Modern English Usage
||MOTIVE or AIM
||words & ideas
||morals & manners
||faults & foibles
||Victim & bystander
||statement of facts
||An inner circle
||exposure of (moral) nakedness
||possibility of correction
||offer of forgiveness
||magical & mystical
||wonder & whimsy
The Ethics of Humor
- Because laughing at/with someone or something carries with it a
number of purposes, methods, and audiences, humor does have an ethical component. We
can be superior or humble, hopeful, gentle, angry, or cruel. We can grow in
self-knowledge or become self-satisfied.
- Some humor seeks to reenforce ethical models; it judges us,
however indirectly. Other humor seeks to free us from ethical concerns. It is more
concerned with an open, playful world, which may be full of wonder or farce, but is
concerned with laughter and delight for itself. Of course, these in themselves are
good things, responses that God has built into his creation.
- Humor, at its best, can take us outside ourselves, teaching us not to
take ourselves or the world so seriously. The objectivity or disassociation of humor
can offer us humility, allowing us to laugh at ourselves. It can tell the truth about what
the world is like and what we are like. It can be reflective of the joy of
redemption and the wonder of a grace-filled world.
- Yet humor can also tempt us to cruelty, judgmentalism, and cynicism.
We have to ask if the humor in question is teaching us to love others, hate sin,
and extend grace to an often confusing world. If it is doing the reverse of these,
it still may be useful to us, but we will have to judge it with a more discerning eye.
A Few Notes Toward a Theology of Comedy
- Playfulness and a creativity are character traits and
actions which the Christian can affirm that God created us for. God's playful creativity
is expressed in the universe, and our human dominion of creation is also playful. Surely,
then, we can affirm that we were created in part to enjoy the whimsical and ironic.
- Good humor practices the virtue of
truth-telling. Humor reverses our expectations, showing the wise to be foolish and
the foolish, wise. This is a good thing, for we should always be about the pursuit
of truth and honesty.
- Peter Berger suggests that a comic debunking of society actually
allows us to love our enemies because we take them less seriously than they do.We may
learn to love the political braggart or the boasting literary type. We may have
compassion on the hypocrite.
- Comedy often stresses the burly, eccentric bodily world
as a worthwhile emphasis. God's creation of the world and Christ's incarnation
remind us that God created the physical, bodily world and called it good, even if it is
now also subject to sin and corruption. The Christian is one who exists in this
world with its eating, defecating, and procreating. Christian comedy, then, should affirm
and laugh at human life.
- Robert Roberts suggests that comedy's perception of incongruity
arises from the "perspectivity" of the perceiver. There must be a vantage point
from which something appears incongruous. He goes on to distinguish 1) "having a
perspective," which is "to be capable of adopting" the perspective
since it is "available or accessible" to you, from 2) "owning
a perspective," which implies a tendency towards regularly adopting the perspective,
and from 3) "adopting a perspective," which implies the actual activity of
having a perspective present in oneself. In this sense, one can temporarily
experience another perspective through humor without necessarily being convinced by or
abiding by it in any habitual way.
- Roberts also argues that this disassociation that humor produces
makes humility possible, for the person who finds his or her own behavior funny is
able to see its dangers. More specifically, for the Christian, there is always the
incongruity between ones sinful, current self which will only be complete in the
eschaton, and ones positional, justified self, the self that God sees us as in
- Reinhold Niebuhr argues that our "provisional amusement"
with the worlds incongruities must either move to faith and joy or bitterness
and incredulity. Humor has its limits; if laughter seeks to deal with ultimate
issues, it turns bitter because it is overwhelmed. Humor alone cannot find a way to
deal with human sin and wickedness.