It’s an old comedy truism that to explain a joke is to kill it. Still, that’s exactly what humor theory seeks to do because when you get down to it, laughter is a strange phenomenon.
There are several theories about why humor might be an important psychological and social element of human society. Some see humor as a way of being able to prove you’re part of a group. Showing that you’re “in” on an “in-joke” helps prove you’re part of an “in-group,” thus fostering unity. It can also potentially be a way to cope with dark and difficult situations.
Humor theory breaks down into four main theories explaining why we find different things funny, and what that says about us and the societies in which we live and laugh.
1. Superiority Theory
There is millennia of philosophical thought devoted to this theory, from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes and Hobbes. However, much of that thought can be distilled down to a single, oh-so-useful German word — “schadenfreude.” Avenue Q devotes an entire song to gleefully defining the term, with Gary Coleman telling Nicky it’s “human nature, nothing I can do, it’s schadenfreude — making me feel glad that I’m not you!” The song gives all manner of examples — waitresses dropping glasses, figure skaters falling, “vegetarians being told they just ate chicken” — each fulfilling the central idea schadenfreude, namely “happiness at the misfortune of others.”
However, that alone doesn’t equate to “superiority.” We may be glad we’re not the waitress dropping glasses, but that alone doesn’t make us “superior” to them as this theory would argue. On the other hand, if we know the waitress has been rude to us or other customers, and then she drops those glasses, that feeling of “superiority” starts to creep in. In this context, the humiliation and potential workplace consequences for her dropping the glasses can seem like a “comeuppance” for her bad behavior.
This is one reason a lot of villains at the end of comedies often meet with humiliating consequences. Seeing someone who’s rich and powerful but morally bankrupt be brought down a peg and put into an embarrassing situation we can laugh at allows the viewer to affirm their moral superiority to them. For example, the Glenn Close remake of 101 Dalmatians ends with Cruella de Vil drenched in molasses and dumped into manure. Superiority Theory would say this is framed as a fitting moment of gross out karmic humiliation where we’re supposed to laugh with superiority at an evil would-be puppy killer getting the punishment she deserves.
2. Irrational Theory
If the Superiority Theory is rooted in moralizing humor, the Irrational or Incongruity Theory centers it on rationality and the subversion thereof. Several Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers, including Kant and Schopenhauer, developed some version of this theory of humor as a subversion of rational expectations. Kierkegaard took this one step further, arguing “Humor is the last stage of existential awareness before faith.” In this view, humor isn’t just a funny subversion of expectations, but an acknowledgement of the “existential awareness” of boundaries, incongruities, and paradoxes of our existence.
For example, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a woman, Viola, dresses as and pretends to be as a man, “Cesario,” to avoid capture. She is sent on a mission by Duke Orsino (whom she loves) to give a love letter to a lady named Olivia — who promptly falls in love with “Cesario” instead. When Viola/”Cesario” realizes this, saying in amazement, “I am the man!” the audience gets multiple layers of expectation-subverting humorous comedy. We recognize the incongruity of Olivia’s observation, but the humor of her mistake allows us to laugh at and question our own gendered reality. Viola’s not a man, but Olivia thinks she’s “the man” of her dreams, falling for a “fake” man, “Cesario,” instead of a “real” one, Orsino, who still has no idea Viola loves him. The multiple incongruities of this love triangle not only subverts gender expectations but also exposes the audience to new “existential awareness” of gender and gender roles and how flawed and flexible they can be.
3. Benign — Violation Theory
According to Caleb Warren and A. Peter McGraw, Benign — Violation Theory occurs when (1) A situation violates our ideas of how things “ought to be,” (2) the situation is still benign, and (3) “both perceptions occur simultaneously.”
Body humor has long been favorites for “violating” social conventions in a “benign” way. In “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Jonathan Swift “violates” his era’s unrealistic expectations of goddess-like feminine perfection by listing Celia’s disgustingly bespattered belongings and “bodily functions.” Bridesmaids’ famous “Food Poisoning Scene” sees the gang forced suddenly and violently “relieve themselves,” ruining the bridal shop and a bride’s dress and our ideas of how elegant bridesmaids “ought” to act in the process. However, the humor works in different ways. Both violate a social idea that women “ought to be” beautiful, but remember that “in-group” idea of laughter. In Swift, we’re meant to laugh at women and their bodies, while in Bridesmaids, we laugh with them. While both use crude bodily humor, Swift’s poem arguably mocks and shames women — “His foul imagination links / Each Dame he sees with all her stinks” — while Bridesmaids, we’re meant to empathize with them and their misfortune.
Shock humor often indulges in this as well. At the end of Mean Girls, Regina George is hit by a bus and Cady tells us nonchalantly “And that’s how Regina George died — no, I’m totally kidding,” giving us multiple benign violations. We don’t typically describe death so nonchalantly, so Cady’s line at first “violates” what we think “ought to be” the properties surrounding the dead. However, when she reveals she’s kidding and the situation is actually “benign” because Regina isn’t really dead, our expectations are “violated” again.
4. Relief Theory
This is as simple as it gets — laughter as a release valve of sorts to relieve pressure. In this view, humor is an expression of emotions that we have pent up inside ourselves. Whether these ideas are ugly or otherwise, the key is to release them and reap the psychological and emotional catharsis.
This is one reason why we see a lot of situations in comedies that we wouldn’t want to see happen to ourselves but are all too ready to laugh at when it occurs to others. “Life is pain” in this idea, and so is comedy, centered around its release.
This is the comedy ethos for everything from Looney Tunes to Seinfeld and Fleabag.
The pain inflicted upon Elmer Fudd when Bugs Bunny outfoxes him?
That’s a form of relief.
Watching George Costanza get frustrated as his many personality flaws and plans predictably backfire?
A form of relief.
The Unnamed Narrator of Fleabag telling us something incredibly raunchy and inappropriate?
A form of relief and a “violation” of what we think “ought to be,” since society traditionally instructs us not to say or do the lewd things she does.
Whether you “empathize” with the comedic character in question, are glad to see them “suffer,” or are excited by them doing or saying things that transgress social norms, in this theory, it’s all a relief.
As an article on humor theory, it’d be great to end with a joke here. However, as noted, theory and over-analysis has a way of killing jokes. While that may be true “in theory,” however, “in practice” we can all just pretend this ending is way funnier than anything Kant’s coming up with these days.