Humor is a funny thing. Some days, I work as a school receptionist. Imagine this: Tomorrow morning, as the first school visitor approaches my desk, I let out a long, howling shout and strip to the waist, revealing the school colors painted across my chest. I am promptly sacked. No one finds this funny: my boss thinks it is embarrassing to the school; the visitor finds my unfit body revolting; I think it is outrageous to be fired for showing the same school spirit that everyone loved at the last football game. And then the story spreads. The students laugh and wish they had seen it; a coworker, who never particularly liked me, laughs and claims my parking spot. Three years pass: my boss laughs as she recounts the story to a future receptionist; I laugh as I share a testimonial at a group therapy meeting. Why isn’t this universally funny or unfunny? Why does point of view make a difference? Or time? Or context?
This post is the second in a series about humor. The first dissected laughter. Laughter is odd: it’s an
involuntary reflex; it’s an intricate, interrelated series of physical reactions; it’s a behavior that’s common to many animals, and yet seems very different among humans. Humor is what makes up that difference; it’s what makes things funny to us as human beings. This post explores the first of three theories about humor – in other words, three theories about why we laugh. I’ve chosen to approach this from an evolutionary perspective. Humor permeates our lives and rewards us with endorphins. Any evolutionary biologist worth her salt will tell you such a phenomenon must provide some sort of survival advantage. But what?
“Thog, yo’ mamma so old, her last name was O’Saurus”
Four to five million years ago, our hominid ancestors transitioned from trees to plains. Since their new home meant more things with claws and teeth and fewer places to climb or cower, the safety of numbers became more important than ever before. Consider: People are thirty times more likely to laugh in a group than when alone: community is laughter’s natural context. Strangers who laugh together begin to like one another: laughter encourages social bonds. And laughter is ridiculously contagious: it can put an entire group on the same (positive) emotional page.
In light of this, could humor have evolved to help us all get along?
As many western philosophers and middle schoolers will attest, laughter isn’t always kind. What do we laugh at? Other people’s suffering and shortcomings; insults and mockery; as Aristotle put it: the ugliness in life. This is why we laugh at poor old Charlie Brown.
Philosophers call this the Superiority Theory of humor: humor occurs when we feel superior to others; we joke to show ourselves superior to others. I will argue that this ugly bit of pride may actually be an element within an evolutionary Group Harmony Theory. Does this seem counterintuitive? Consider the alternatives. Witticisms at a rival’s expense are a show of aggression without physical violence. A caveman telling the “yo’ mama” joke above can dominate poor Thog while keeping the clan intact and its members healthy; bludgeoning Thog with a mammoth bone is riskier. In fact, mockery works better than violence since laughter will strengthen social bonds among the other clanmates. And there’s also a subtle, long-term survival advantage: mates and leaders are attractive due to intelligence rather than brute strength.
Consider also superiority jokes taken to a societal level – ethnic humor, for example. It forges group unity through exclusion. Anthropologist Christie Davies theorizes that such humor serves dual purposes: both the rival group and the undesirable quality ascribed to them become “other.”
These are examples of superiority humor at its nastiest, but it isn’t all insults and racism. There is a saying in my family: We only tease the ones we love. Playing animals laugh to signal that their wrestling is not an attack; similarly, there is often good-natured verbal sparring between friends. What’s more, teasing a loved one can serve a greater purpose. My wife often teases me about dawdling when it’s time to go somewhere. I’d bet dollars-for-donuts that this isn’t just kicks-and-giggles: she’d be mighty pleased if I took the hint and got out of the house on time. (I’m afraid the joke is on her there.) As comedian John Cleese put it, humor is the most socially acceptable form of disapproval or criticism.
Cleese’s work – often satire and parody – is a good example of critical humor taken to a societal level. Consider how this “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch pokes fun of government programs, national spending, and international competition:
Henry Spaulding called in-group critical jokes “honey-coated barbs.” Ironically, often an in-group joke told by an outsider ceases to be funny – it’s all barb and no honey. Take, for example, clip from The Office:
This combines several elements of superiority humor: Chris Rock’s humor is an example of African American in-group humor; Michael Scott’s imitation of it plays off the awful history of racist jokes in America; but Aristotle might argue that what makes the show’s audience laugh is Michael’s utter stupidity – and, therefore, our sense of superiority to him.
There’s one final way that laughter provides social harmony: the “laugh-to-keep-from-crying” principle. Living in community creates stress; humor offers relief. “Laughter [has] evolved in the human race as an antidote to sympathy,” said psychologist William McDougal, “a protective reaction shielding us from the depressive influence of the shortcomings of our fellow men.” Put another way: perhaps we laugh at Michael Scott to keep from hating him.
There are very few who would disagree that humor provides a survival advantage: we bond; we abstain from fighting; we distinguish ourselves; we reform; we cope. However, is keeping group harmony a satisfying sole explanation? Let’s go back to that Office clip again. My wife has never liked The Office because scenes like the one above make her angry and uncomfortable. Although I became a huge Office fan, I can’t say I blame her: I feel uncomfortable when I watch it… Hold that thought and consider this: by the time that the Michael Scott is leaves the show, he’s become a beloved character to most fans. True, he’s changed and developed some, but for the most part he’s still as stupidly insensitive as ever. When I laugh at Season Seven, is it purely at this sympathetic character’s expense? Perhaps, but some would say that The Office’s humor lies not in a feeling of superiority, but in that uncomfortableness that my wife dislikes. Our laughter, they argue, is nervous, not derisive. This alternative explanation draws on the Relief Theory of humor – the subject of the next part in this series.
Plagiarism is not funny. No, I take that back: my dad tells the story of a time in grade school when he copied “the Hoodson River flows into the Atlanic Oken” off the paper of the boy next to him during a geography test. That is funny. Nevertheless, I am no expert in the fields of humor, psychology, or evolutionary biology (although I have been likened to a caveman). Here are the sources I consulted while writing this post and the next two in this series.
The Anatomy of Laughter. Classroom Video On Demand. Films Media Group, 2003. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.
Bellows, Alan. “Gelotology 101: Anatomy of the best medicine.” Alien Hand Syndrome and Other Too-Weird-Not-To-Be-True Stories. New York: Workman Publishing Company Inc, 2009. 95-99. Print.
“In the Beginning: Humans and Environmental Change.” Global Change Program. University of Michigan, 14 Jan. 2005. Web. 30 Oct 2014.
Koestler, Arthur. “Humor and Wit.” Encyclopedia Britannica. New York: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc, 2002.
Lockhart, Kathryn. “Comics.” The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity. Ed. Robert Banks and R Paul Stevens. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997. CDROM.
—-. “Humor.” The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity. Ed. Robert Banks and R Paul Stevens. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997. CDROM.
Martin, Rod A. “Humor and Laughter.” Encyclopedia of Psychology. New York. 2000. Print.
Monro, D H. “Humor.” Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2nd Ed: 2006. Print.
Morreall, John. “Humor [Addendum].” Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2nd Ed: 2006. Print.
—–. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring 2013 Ed. n.p. Web. 31 Oct 2014
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Nilsen, Don L F. “Humor.” New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 1st Ed: 2005. Print.
Wallis, Jim. “The Truth Smirks.” Sojo.net. Sojourners, Jul. 2009. Web. 30 Oct 2014.
“Yo Mama So Old Jokes.” Jokes4Us.com. Web. 2 Nov 2014