What's funny and why?

   "Humor may be defined as the kindly contemplation of the
    incongruities of life, and the artistic expression thereof."

	-- Stephen Leacock, economist and humorist (1869-1944)

   Can you imagine an economist with a sense of humor?
   A queer duck to be sure.  On the other hand, if he really
   understood economics, he would have to burst out laughing.

   I'm not at all sure about that "kindly" part.  Thinking of
   the satire of Jonathan Swift and Ambrose Bierce, or even
   the paradoxes of Oscar Wilde, "kindly" is not the first
   adjective that springs to mind.

Whatever - It's good for You
The Delicious Wit & Sarcasm of Oscar Wilde

The following is extracted from a journal kept while undergoing psychotherapy as a result of an auto accident in which I sustained spinal injuries and the result of denial of medical benefits by my own insurance company.

  What is humorous?  The experience of  a  paradox  or  incongruity
  that  is  usually  resolved.   Not  to  say that all paradoxes or
  incongruities are are funny.  The incongruity can  be  formal  or
  contrafactual.   A joke is a formal setup, which can contain some
  degree of contrafactual absurdity, followed by a punchline.   The
  punchline   reverses  or  alters  the  semantics  of  the  setup,
  momentarily creating the paradox which the hearer then  resolves.
  In  the  setup,  the  hearer  is  not  supposed to understand any
  ambiguity of meaning, which is why most jokes loose  their  power
  if  the  hearer already knows the outcome.  The process sequence:
  setup paradox resolution is important to the effect of the  joke.
  The  sense  of  amusement  comes  from the delight of the paradox
  itself and its conscious resolution by the hearer.

  Henny Youngman:
  "... take my wife [pause] Please!"

  The elegant punchline or switch is  the  single  word  "Please!",
  with  the  imploring  inflection.   The semantic setup is the the
  meaning of "take", which the hearer is expected to understand  as
  "take   for   example".   The  setup  creates  the  illusion  and
  expectation on the part of the hearer, that he is actually  going
  to  get and example of some kind of behavior.  The very structure
  creates a strong expectation in the hearer, enhanced further by a
  deliberate  pause.  The "Please!" not only creates an incongruity
  in the hearer's expectation, but also  creates  an  unanticipated
  switch  in  the semantics of the verb "take", and consequently of
  the meaning of the phrase "take my wife".  The fact  that  it  is
  his "wife" whom he presumably knows intimately, primes the hearer
  for humor, because he is  expecting  something  incongruous,  and
  perhaps  slightly embarassing, to begin with that indeed involves
  his wife.  It is  the  imploring  inflection  of  "Please!"  that
  amplifies  the  power  of  the  semantic switch.  The brief lived
  paradox, (confusion of mind with regard to semantics) a point  of
  tension,  followed  rapidly  by  the  resolution,  the release of
  tension, and the delight  at  the  release  of  tension  is  what
  elicits  the inevitable laughter.  And all of this takes place in
  about 3  or  4  seconds!   A  form  of  joke  goes:  "What's  the
  difference  between  and  X and a Y? - X doesn't do Z!", where in
  fact, X probably or at least can really do Z, and for X to  do  Z
  would be a contrafactual absurdity.

       This form follows the theory.  In the humor of Ernie Kovacs,
  the fundamental focus is contrafactual absurdity.  But the shtick
  that I remember best is the Nirobi Trio.  This  was  hysterically
  funny apparently to more that just me, yet it doesn't seem to fit
  the above paradigm.  The trio was three people in  gorilla  suits
  that  were playing musics in a mechanical way.  One was a drummer
  and in back of one of  the  other  gorillas.   At  a  practically
  determined  place  in  the music, the drummer hit the musician in
  front of him with his drum sticks.  The truly funny part  for  me
  was the very slow take that the battered gorilla took to the back
  of him.  It was like a cat and mouse game, with repetition of the
  cudgeling,  and the front musician trying to catch the drummer in
  the act.  To do so he would occasionally look around  very  fast,
  but  of course always at the wrong moment.  Finally he would look
  around at just the right moment when the  drummer  had  the  drum
  sticks  poised  for  the  blow.   It was the same complex cat and
  mouse game every time and every time it was  still  funny.   Form
  humor  with a little contrafactual absurdity thrown in.  Gorillas
  do not play musical instruments.  The humor  was  more  dynamical
  than the verbal joke form above, but still relies on playing with
  expectations, and delays in their being satisfied.  There is even
  a  moral  overtone  to  the  Nirobi  Trio,  since  the culprit is
  ultimate caught red handed.  The focus is not on the  incongruity
  of two things, and an unexpected resolution.

       Jack Benny is so funny in a  similar  way.   Everybody  knew
  exactly  what  was  going  to  happen, it was a question of when!
  Jack Benny was the ultimate minimalist of comedy.  He could  make
  people  laugh  by  doing  and saying exactly nothing.  It was the
  nothing, and not knowing when the nothing would cease that caused
  the  tension.  The brilliance was knowing by gauging the audience
  exactly when to break the tension.  He would stretch the  tension
  to it's breaking point, before actually doing or saying anything.
  If it was a verbal situation, and it usually was, everybody  else
  knew  perfectly  well  what  the answer should be.  He would just
  look, and not say anything.  The humor is in the  incongruity  of
  saying nothing when saying something is expected.  Yet, the setup
  was the expectation of exactly  what  happened.   The  setup  was
  personal,  the  behavioral repetition created the expectation and
  it was the very repetition of the  behavior  that  became  funny.
  Are there any other questions?  I'm really sorry that Aristotle's
  treatise on Comedy was lost.

                     EXAMPLES THAT FIT THE THEORY

Attributed to Milton Berle

   * You know a kid is growing up when he stops asking you where he came
     from and won't tell you where he's going.
   * Remember, a kiss that speaks volumes is never a first edition.
   * A synonym is a word you have to use because you don't how to spell the
     other one.
   * A man returns from a long overseas trip. Seeing his wife waiting for
     him as he comes down the steps of the plane, he yells "FF".
     The wife yells back "EF" "No, FF" "EF" 	  
     Another passenger asks his buddy, "What's that all about?"
     His friend says, "She wants to eat first."
   * A hump is the thing on a camel's back. Unless it's another camel, then
     it becomes a verb. 
   * How come "fat chance" and "slim chance" mean the same thing?
   * One of the chorus girls in a Las Vegas hotel fainted. It took six men
     to carry her out. They walked three abreast.
   * A lawyer called his client and said "Justice has been done."
     The client said "Then we'll sue."
   * There's a dead skunk and a dead lawyer in the middle of the road. How
     do you tell the difference? There are skid marks in front of the skunk.
   * What is the difference between God and a lawyer? God never thinks He's
     a lawyer.
   * Nobody likes a crooked lawyer-- until he needs one.
   * Then there was the elephant who saw a man in the nude and said
     "How the hell does he eat with that?"
   * My nephew had his vasectomy done at Sears. Now, every time he makes
     love the garage door opens.  
   * There's so much nudity in films this year the Oscar for Best Costume
     Design will probably go to a dermatologist.
   * You can always tell a nearsighted man at a nudist colony. It isn't
   * I went to a party at a nudist colony, but it wasn't much fun. Everybody
     got so drunk they started putting on their clothes.
   * Did you ever hear a pessimist count his blessings? "Five, four, three,
   * An optimist believes that after he marries his secretary, he can still
     dictate to her.
   * An optimist thinks the glass is half full. A pessimist thinks the glass
     is half empty.  A realist knows that before long he'll have to wash
     the glass. 

Attributed to Henny Youngman:

   * This guy gets loaded with liquor, they make him take the freight
   * If there's a nip in the air, he tries to drink it.
   * I was so ugly when I was born the doctor slapped my mother.
   * I just redecorated my bar.  I put new drunks around it.
   * I solved the parking problem.  I bought a parked car.
   * A Hollywood couple got divorced, then they got remarried.  The divorce 
     didn't work out.
   * Doctor leaving his crowded office to go out and move his car said to 
     his patients, "Don't anybody get any better.  I'll be right back."
   * I'll never forget when I lost my baby teeth.  I didn't know my father 
     could hit that hard.
   * If you don't like the way women drive, stay off the sidewalk.
   * I'll never forget my first words in the theatre.  "Peanuts, Popcorn!"
   * My grandson traveled with us. First two words he ever spoke were 
     "room service."
   * I asked my brother why he was wearing my raincoat.  He said, 
     "You wouldn't want me to get your suit wet, would you?"
   * God sneezed.  What could I say to him?
   * I like to work in New York rather than California.  I get paid three 
     hours earlier.
   * My doctor put his hand on my wallet and said, "Cough."
   * A very exclusive hotel.  Room service has an unlisted number.
   * Doctor says to a little old man, "You're going to live until you're
     sixty."  He said, "I AM sixty."  Doctor said, "What did I tell you?"
   * My violin is very valuable.  It's a Sears Yamaha.
   * Did you hear about the scientist that crossed a praying mantis with a 
     termite, and now he has a bug that says grace before it eats your house.
   * A drunk falls down an empty elevator shaft.  He's laying there bleeding. 
     He says, "I said UP."
   * My doctor is an eye, ear, nose and throat and wallet specialist.
   * Two guys were talking.  What's the latest dope on Wall Street?  My son.
   * I made a killing in the market.  I shot my broker.
   * A guy says he hasn't had a bite in two days.  So I bit him.
   * He just got a new job.  He's a lifeguard in a car wash.
   * Two dumb guys go bear hunting.  They see a sign saying, "Bear left," 
     so they went home.
   * All the other comedians are on TV.  I'm waiting for color radio.
   * A fellow walks into a bank and says, "Give me all your money."  
     Manager says, "Take the books too, I'm $10,000 short."
   * Want to have some fun?  Walk into an antique shop and say, 
     "What's new?"
   * The plane was going up and down and sideways.  A little old lady 
     said, "Everybody on the plane pray!"  So a man said, "I don't 
     know how to pray."  She said, "Well do something religious.  
     So he started a bingo game.
   * You know what's embarassing?  When you look through a keyhole 
     and see another eye.


   There is no good theory, however, for:

    Elephant Runs A Muck


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Created: 1997
Last Updated: May 28, 2000
Last Updated: November 30, 2006