Selections below from a comic-theory anthology emphasize several recurring identifiers, techniques, or dynamics of comedy or humor.
1. Incongruity (related to irony)—mismatches like tall and short couple, country mouse & city mouse, fish out of water, fat man wearing tight jacket.
2. Superiority—psychologically, audience enjoys seeing others suffer without consequences > momentary satisfaction that pain isn't happening to audience, or audience hasn't made comparable foolish mistakes like comic characters. ("They're so dumb!")
Thomas Hobbes, Human Nature (1650), ch. 8: "the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly."
3. Excess or absurd repetition; inflation or reduction to extremes.
4. Wit and humor: humor is something funny or ridiculous in and of itself, like a child wearing grownup clothes; wit is a verbal intensification of the situation, usually via ironical commentary.
4a. High (intellectual) comedy & low (physical) comedy may correspond with wit and humor.
High comedy features higher-class characters; emphasizes wit or wordplay; speakers are sophisticated, sometimes physically delicate or stand-offish
Low comedy features lower-class characters with exaggerated, excessive, or extreme physical qualities like obesity or horse-face; emphasizes visual or physical humor and slapstick, often involving food, sex or other elemental life-properties like water, flesh, or exaggerated body parts; instead of wordplay, low characters may speak incorrectly and use malapropisms.
High & low comedy may meet. (In Lysistrata, the Magistrate is mostly high comedy since he's a high official and talks wittily, but one low-comic climax is when the women throw water on him (physical humor), and another is when he becomes sexually excited.
High & low comedy also meet in modern situation comedies. (In Seinfeld, for example, Jerry is high comedy while Kramer is low.)
5. Inflation and deflation a.k.a. anticlimax: Comic characters inflate or swell to point where bubble bursts, or they're reduced to level of lower animals in terms of appetites or appearances.
(Oxford English Dictionary anticlimax: 1. Rhetoric. The opposite of climax: ‘a sentence in which the last part expresses something lower than the first’ (Johnson); the addition of a particular which, instead of heightening the effect, suddenly lowers it or makes it ludicrous.)
6. Comic relief may appear in any narrative genre, but the comic narrative is essentially conservative: comedy reinforces social norms by laughing away people who act out or don't fit. The conclusion of a comic narrative (marriage, dance, reunion) restores pre-existing, threatened unity. (In contrast, tragedy may be liberal or progressive in terms of learning from past.)
The Comic in Theory and Practice.
Ed. John J. Enck, Elizabeth T. Forter, and Alvin Whitley.
NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1960.
B. White, "Some Remarks on Humor," in The
Second Tree from the Corner (1954)
can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process
and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind. . . .
It has a certain fragility, an
evasiveness, which one had best respect.
Essentially, it is a complete
mystery. . . .
Whatever else an American believes or disbelieves about himself, he is
absolutely sure he has a sense of humor. . . .
Hazlitt, "On Wit and Humour" (1819)
is the only animal that laughs and weeps;
for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.
We weep at what thwarts or
exceeds our desires in serious matters:
we laugh at what only disappoints our
expectations in trifles. . . .
The essence of the laughable then is the
the disconnecting of one idea from another, or the jostling of one feeling
against another. . . . The
ludicrous is where there is the same contradiction
between the object and our expectations, heightened by some deformity or
inconvenience . . . .
You cannot force people to laugh: you cannot give a reason why they
should laugh: they must laugh of themselves, or not at all.
As we laugh from a spontaneous
impulse, we laugh the more at any restraint upon this impulse.
We laugh at a thing merely because we ought not.
If we think we must not laugh, this perverse impediment makes our
temptation to laugh the greater . . . .
Misunderstandings . . . , where one person means one thing, and another
is aiming at something else, are another great source of comic humor, on the
same principle of ambiguity and contrast. . . .
Again, unconsciousness in the
person himself of what he is about, or of what others think of him, is also a
great heightener of the sense of absurdity. . . .
is the describing of the ludicrous as it
is in itself; wit is the exposing
it, by comparing or contrasting it with something else.
Humor is, as it were, the growth of nature and
accident; wit is the
product of art and fancy. Humour .
. . is an imitation of the natural or acquired absurdities of mankind, or of the
ludicrous in accident, situation, and character: wit is the illustrating and heightening of the sense of that absurdity
by some sudden and unexpected likeness or opposition of one thing to another,
which sets off the quality we laugh at or despise in a still more contemptible
or striking point of view.
Goldsmith, "A Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy."
If we apply to authorities, all the great masters in the dramatic art
have but one opinion. Their rule
is, that as tragedy displays the
calamities of the great, so comedy should excite our laughter, by ridiculously
exhibiting the follies of the lower part of mankind.
Boileau, one of the best of modern critics, asserts that comedy
will not admit of tragic distress. . . .
When tragedy exhibits to us
some great man fallen from his height, and struggling with want and adversity, we
feel his situation in the same manner as we suppose he himself must feel,
and our pity is increased in proportion to the height from whence he fell.
On the contrary, we do not so
strongly sympathize with one born in humbler circumstances, and encountering
accidental distress . . . . The
one has our pity; the other our contempt. Distress,
therefore, is the proper object of tragedy, since the great excite our pity by
their fall; but not equally so of comedy, since the actors employed in it are
originally so mean [i. e., low or foolish], that they sink but little by their
fall. . . .
Yet notwithstanding this weight of authority, and the universal practice
of former ages, a new species of dramatic composition has been introduced under
the name of sentimental
comedy [compare to TV
"situation comedies" or "sitcoms"], in which the virtues
of private life are exhibited, rather than the vices exposed, and the distresses
rather than the faults of mankind make our interest in the piece.
These comedies have had of late great success, perhaps from their
novelty, and also from their flattering every man in his favourite foible.
In these plays almost all the characters are good, and exceedingly generous; . . .
[they] have abundance of sentiment and feeling. If they happen to have faults or foibles, the spectator is
taught not only to pardon, but to applaud them, in consideration of the goodness
of their hearts . . . .
Freud, Wit and its Relation to the
-- idea of "comic excess"
-- idea of "comic excess"
child's motions do not appear to us comical, even if he jumps and fidgets, but
it is comical to see a little boy or girl follow with the tongue the movement of
his pen-holder when he is trying to master the art of writing; we see in these
additional motions a superfluous
[excessive] expenditure of energy which under similar conditions we
save. In the same way we find it
comical to see unnecessary motions or even
marked exaggeration of expressive
motions in adults. Among the
genuinely comic cases we might mention the motions
made by the bowler after he has released the ball while he is following its
course as though he were still able to control it. All grimaces which
exaggerate the normal expression of the emotions are comical . . . .
Henri Bergson, "Laughter." (1900)
comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human.
A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and
ugly; it will never be laughable. You
may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human
attitude or expression. . . .
Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the absence of feeling which usually accompanies laughter.
It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect
unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and
is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion. .
. . [I]n a word, give your sympathy its widest expansion: as though at the touch
of a fairy wand you will see the flimsiest of objects assume importance, and a
gloomy hue spread over everything. Now
step aside, look upon life as a
disinterested spectator: many a drama will turn into a comedy.
. . . Laughter appears to
stand in need of an echo. Listen to
it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined sound; it is
something which would fain be prolonged by reverberating from one to another . .
. . Our
laughter is always the laughter of a group. . . .
[Society] is not satisfied with simply living, it insists on living well.
What it now has to dread is that each one of us, content with paying
attention to what affects the essentials of life, will, so far as the rest is
concerned, give way to the easy automatism of acquired habits. . . . This rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.
. . .
attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact
proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine. . . .
Something mechanical encrusted on the living
. . . .
Meredith, An Essay on Comedy and the Uses
of the Comic Spirit (1877)
women [must] recognize that the Comic Muse is one of their best friends.
They are blind to their interests in swelling the ranks of
sentimentalists. Let them look with
their clearest vision abroad and at home. They
will see that where they have no social
freedom, Comedy is absent . . . .
You must . . . believe that our state of society is founded in common-sense, otherwise you will not be struck by the contrasts
the Comic Spirit perceives . . . .
Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in
Man and Animals (1872)
when intense, leads to various purposeless movements--to dancing about, clapping
the hands, stamping, &c., and to loud laughter a less distasteful word or
phrase used as a substitute for something harsher or more offensive.
Laughter seems primarily to be the expression of mere joy or happiness.
We clearly see this in children at play, who are almost incessantly
laughing. With young persons past
childhood, when they are in high spirits, there is always much meaningless
laughter. . . .
With grown-up persons laughter is excited by causes considerably
different from those which suffice during childhood; but this remark hardly
applies to smiling. Laughter in
this respect is analogous with weeping, which with adults is almost confined to
mental distress, whilst with children it is excited by bodily pain or any
suffering, as well as by fear or rage. Many
curious discussions have been written on the causes of laughter with grown-up
persons. The subject is extremely
complex. Something incongruous or unaccountable, exciting surprise and some sense
of superiority in the laugher, who must be in a happy frame of mind, seems
to be the commonest cause. The
circumstances must not be of a momentous nature . . . .
Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957)
(comedy as narrative genre)
(comedy as narrative genre)
usually moves toward a happy ending
[comic narrative], and the normal response of the audience to
a happy ending is "this should be," which sounds like a moral
judgment. So it is, except that it
is not moral in the restricted sense, but social.
Its opposite is not the villainous but the absurd . . . .
The principle of the humor is the principle that unincremental
repetition, the literary imitation of ritual bondage, is funny.
In a tragedy--Oedipus
Tyrannus is the stock example--repetition
leads logically to catastrophe. Repetition
overdone or not going anywhere belongs to comedy
[comic excess], for laughter is partly a
reflex, and like other reflexes it can be conditioned by a simple repeated
pattern. . . .
The humor in comedy is usually someone with a good deal of social
prestige and power, who is able to force much of the play's society into line
with his obsession. . . .
The society emerging at the conclusion of comedy represents a kind of
. . . . Its ideals are seldom
defined or formulated: definition and formulation belong to the humors, who want
predictable activity. We
are simply given to understand that the newly-married couple will live happily
ever after, or that at any rate they will get along in a relatively unhumorous
and clear-sighted manner. That is
one reason why the character of the successful hero is so often left
undeveloped: his real life begins at the end of the play, and we have to believe
him to be potentially a more interesting character than he appears to be. . . .
Illusion is whatever is fixed or definable, and reality is best
understood as its negation: whatever reality is, it's not that.
from Andrew O'Hehir, "I'll Tell You What's Funny."
Salon.com 2 March
from Andrew O'Hehir, "I'll Tell You What's Funny." Salon.com 2 March 2013.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Almost every major figure in the
history of philosophy has proposed a theory, but after 2500 years of discussion
there has been little consensus about what constitutes humor."
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Almost every major figure in the history of philosophy has proposed a theory, but after 2500 years of discussion there has been little consensus about what constitutes humor."
Broadly speaking, most humor is either about expressing superiority over others,
relieving tension and expressing forbidden thoughts, or expressing a surprising
incongruity, as between expectations and reality. [cf.
Broadly speaking, most humor is either about expressing superiority over others, relieving tension and expressing forbidden thoughts, or expressing a surprising incongruity, as between expectations and reality. [cf. irony]
. . . The "superiority theory" of humor . . . , which can involve
using jokes as weapons against the less powerful, goes back at least as far as
Plato and Aristotle, who both saw laughter as essentially malicious. As Thomas
Hobbes put it, laughter "arises from some sudden conception of some eminency in
ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others." Racial, ethnic, or
regional jokes often rest on the listener's presumed superiority to blondes or
Poles or Texans or whomever. . . .
. . . The "superiority theory" of humor . . . , which can involve using jokes as weapons against the less powerful, goes back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle, who both saw laughter as essentially malicious. As Thomas Hobbes put it, laughter "arises from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others." Racial, ethnic, or regional jokes often rest on the listener's presumed superiority to blondes or Poles or Texans or whomever. . . .
But no one who thinks or writes about comedy would argue that the "superiority
theory" is the only strain of humor or even the dominant one. Humor is
often, or more often, used as a subversive tool by the relatively powerless, a
weapon of symbolic rebellion. . . .
But no one who thinks or writes about comedy would argue that the "superiority theory" is the only strain of humor or even the dominant one. Humor is just as often, or more often, used as a subversive tool by the relatively powerless, a weapon of symbolic rebellion. . . .
Mark Twain: "Only laughter can blow [a colossal humbug] to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."