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

  1. 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 perception.
  2. 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.
    • reversal
    • exaggeration
    • 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.
  3. 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?
  4. Aristotle also argues that humor depends on the superiority of the audience; we must feel we are better than what we are laughing at.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 (1937)]

(gentle) humor discovery human nature observation The sympathetic
wit throwing light words & ideas surprise The intelligent
satire amendment morals & manners accentuation The self-satisfied
sarcasm inflicting pain faults & foibles inversion Victim & bystander
invective discredit misconduct direct statement The public
irony exclusiveness statement of facts mystification An inner circle
cynicism self-justification morals exposure of (moral) nakedness The respectable
the sardonic self-relief adversity pessimism self
Additions to Fowler's Typology
joyful redemptive possibility of correction offer of forgiveness The humble
joyful redemptive possibility of correction offer of forgiveness The humble
fantasy delight magical & mystical wonder & whimsy The child-like
farce mockery exaggeration hyperbole The normal
the clownish play silliness slapstick The amused

The Ethics of Humor

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 
  6. 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 one’s sinful, current self which will only be complete in the eschaton, and one’s positional, justified self, the self that God sees us as in Christ. 
  7. Reinhold Niebuhr argues that our "provisional amusement" with the world’s 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.