Table Of Contents
- A Grand Theory of Humor
- The Study
- The Theory
- Dissecting The Frog
- The Snap
- Subversion Of Humor
- Gatekeeping Humor
A Grand Theory of Humor
It might surprise some of you to find out that I’m a rather funny fella. I understand It’s kind of a hard claim to back up and an especially difficult story to substantiate when I tend to shy away from funny words or nuance-lacking hot takes in my public work.
But humor has been a rather core part of my personality for a while. It’s one of the only aspects of my outward presentation that has remained constant since middle school. Well maybe that and my art skills. I’m quite good for a middle schooler, I’ll have you know.
Humor was my way to cope with anxiety. It was how I made friends. It was how I climbed the 3rd grade social ladder and became King Of The Nerds. To be clear, I was still a nerd, but I was the crowned and inaugurated leader of my pack. I was the coolest nerd - the proxy between factions. I could pass preferences between groups. The nerds would rather not get picked on for the way they spend their free time and the cool kids would rather not be bothered by long conversations about calcite’s optical properties.
The social utility of humor was so great that I’ve been experimenting with its use ever since. I would say a sentence in a certain way and note its reaction. Which intonation, phrasing, or environment elicited the most positive reaction?
This mechanism of experimentation has some faults. It’s quite easy to lead yourself down a branch that leads to a dangerous dead-end. If you find that disrupting your creative writing class with euphemistic terms garners a bigger reaction, you may be inclined to increase its usage until you serve some hard time in detention.
Or you make mistaken inferences. You find that “edgy” terms tend to get bigger reactions, so you lean into that pattern enough to become an insufferable approximation for a human.
Well I’ve been there done that and left that behind. I’ve slowly incorporated techniques from my favorite comedians and local jokesters over the years. I found reliable techniques to communicate humor with a variety of audiences in a way to advance my social position.
I apologize if my framing comes across too inhumane. I could dance around my motivations and jump straight into the core of the article, but I think it’s important to give some context for my research. I don’t think I’m alone in this approach, but it’s just often not discussed this plainly. I think to the detriment of the study. And yes, it definitely can be a study.
Humor is one of those areas that people tend to think of as being beyond intellectual reach. The oft-thought-of genius with poor social skills comes to mind as a quick counter-example. If one could be funny with research, wouldn’t our funniest comedians be our dorkiest nerds?
Those among you who have tried your hand at stand-up comedy probably don’t have such a presupposition. Our greatest stand-up comics are nerds. Included in the comedian’s journey are thousands of hours of practice. Your jokes might be getting belly laughs around friends, but the stage is a completely different environment.
Some great comics are rather lackluster off-stage. I’m sure being known as the “funny guy” in your friend group is great motivation to give it a shot and that creates a decent overlap between the groups, but it is not a prerequisite. It requires practice with joke composition, intonation, breathing room, and character. It is a performance. You, the comic, are a theater kid and the geekiest of dweebs.
The craft and art of joke construction are well appreciated by comics, but seems to be lesser known and accepted outside of those circles. I think myself a bit of a comedy snob. Some might enjoy a nice rose and an A24 film while I enjoy watching 3 hours of stand-up in complete silence - letting out nary a chuckle. I sit poised in silent study alongside a grand theory of humor.
Humor can be adequately defined as the pleasant misdirection of expectations.
That adjective exists to exclude situations that only exist to frighten or perturb. Promising a reward only to take it away or any other such cruel act can’t be thought of as funny.
What is missing in this definition are categories that exist outside of joke construction. Namely, slapstick comedy. Children falling down (for some), clowns getting hit with whiffle-ball bats (as they deserve), or an unsuspecting victim meeting face-to-face with a rake. I don’t tend to find this funny, but I respect that many people do. We will get back to this, but we can exclude this subset from our theory for now.
I’d heard this definition years ago. It’s nothing novel - I’m not claiming to have invented this. My immediate reaction upon first hearing it was to feel uneasy with it as an umbrella term. Off-hand I could think of many examples that wouldn’t neatly fit into this bucket.
Note that throughout this article I’ll be dropping examples of “funny” that probably won’t make you laugh. This is partly because the environment I’m setting up will be far too averse for the kind of joke examples I’m providing to thrive. It’s not just that my writing style can be a bit dry at times, but that the analysis of humor tends to remove most of it. Comedians on average will laugh a lot less when watching other comics perform. This fits neatly into our theory, which we’ll get into later.
I used to get a lot of comments comparing how I look like a younger Brendan Frasier. Not a mean comment by any standard, but it happened often enough for me to take note of it. It was so common that I decided to open my set with a line referencing as such.
Hey there! Uh, somebody once told me I look like if Brendan Frasier fell down a few times. George of the jungle gym, they’d call me.
While this consistently got a very positive reaction from the crowd, I couldn’t place how it fit into the theory. Where in here was there a misdirection of expectations?
It’s a very common opener for stand-up comedy. We have an introduction (”Hey there!”), a self-deprecating comparison (”Brendan Frasier after an accident”), and then a tag (”George of the jungle gym”). A tag is a humorous extension of the main joke. You’ll find them everywhere in stand-up if you start looking.
But where is the misdirection? We have self-deprecation and a pun.
I’ll explain by deconstructing a few much simpler jokes.
Dissecting The Frog
Two goldfish are in a tank. One turns to the other and says, “Do you know how to drive this thing?”
A lot of these jokes tend to make use of wordplay. It’s less about puns and more about the scenario you’re setting up. We’ve told a story in a misleading way.
It’s not uncommon for fish to be in a water tank of some sort and so we assume “tank” here is referring to something more civilian. A fish asking about “driving” forces us to reassess our initial assumption. The realization that the first sentence actually made reference to a battle tank is the “funny”.
It’s that snap of “oh, I’ve completely misread the situation”. The stronger the snap, the better the laugh.
I used to play piano by ear. Now I use my hands.
I like this one a little better as we’ve raised the absurdity of the situation. As strange as it is for fish to drive a military vessel, someone attempting to play the piano solely with their ears is a stranger scenario. We’ve created a stronger snap.
This comedic whiplash can be strengthened by creating a heightened investment in the assumed scenario and a stronger absurdity in the realized scenario.
If you’re really good at wordplay or choosing your phrasing carefully, you can keep an assumed scenario going on for a while. Another option is to use a colloquialism or generally popular phrases. We can craft our own jokes by picking one at random and changing its destination.
It’s as they always say: There’s no such thing as a free lunch or a working coupon at Burger King
Not the funniest joke, but it’s a classic comedic setup. Because it’s such a common saying, we know where it’s going and assume we’ll be able to predict its ending.
The snap can be made stronger by cutting off the phrase before it finishes.
When there’s a will, there’s relatives
This one is nicer because it also incorporates wordplay. Here, “will” means either determination or your last wishes.
The snap is the most important part of the joke. The snap is the punchline. I’ll avoid using the term “punchline” here because people already have an assumed definition for that word. The snap need not itself be clever, only unusual.
We can strengthen a snap with crass language. It’s why some people might feel that swear words are a crutch. They’re an easy way to reinforce the snap. Curse words are simply syllables we’ve reserved for being inherently undesirable in formal language. The idea of them being improper means their presence in a common turn of phrase is unusual.
If we want to avoid anything above a PG rating, we can simply be more descriptive with our language. Let’s pretend we’re setting up a scene in our sitcom called “Acquaintances 4 Life” where our two superficial friends are bickering over a misunderstanding.
MAN 1: So now all of the sudden buying coffee is some sort of financial transaction?!
MAN 2: Yes! Yes, obviously, you gumdrop yogurt sack!
A myriad of words would have worked just as well here. We could think of “moron”, “idiot”, “dummy”, and plenty less savory terms, but we intentionally went in a different direction.
A “gumdrop yogurt sack” is a nonsensical string of nouns and so its presence is inherently absurd. It’s the absurdity of the term rather than its inherent crassness that is entertaining. We can take advantage of this and downplay terms that are usually amplified to get a similar effect.
MAN 1: Around 2,000 people were killed in Pompeii alone, but as high as 16,000 villagers could have been smothered and burned to death by the volcanic eruptions
MAN 2: Well that’s clearly undesirable
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of well-structured absurdism than a deep dive into the lighter side of twitter. Its style of comedy feels unique to the platform and it fully embraces an interesting take on absurdist humor.
I don’t laugh very much when I consume comedy these days. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it. I still enjoy taking it in with a smile on my face. It just doesn’t get the same kind of reaction that it once did.
Absurdism in general doesn’t have to get that reaction. It definitely can, but it acts as an art form on its own. It’s a challenge in the theoretical “what if we had no story, but only the snap?”.
I’ve often heard people complain about some younger quirky humor with the phrase “random does not equal funny”. This is only true in a particular sense. I’d wager that random does equal funny. Random here being a misdirection of expectations.
The issue with “random humor” is that it often is expected. With all the words available to you in your mother tongue, any combination of sounds is unexpected. However, it is expected that the combination inherently is unexpected. If you expect the unexpected, the unexpected probably won’t be funny.
This of course has to be constrained somewhat. It’s not that if you expect a joke that the joke won’t be funny at all, but that the snap is made weaker by our expectations. Peek-a-boo is only funny for so long.
We expect the “random” string of nouns “apple car table pizza”, but we probably have less predictability with “eggnog, walnut, vehicular homicide”. With this format, we have actually walked into another joke construction method. We set up expectations with a category of single-word plain nouns and then created a snap with a double-word murder charge.
Me? Oh, I had a normal day. Took a walk, ate some lunch, annexed Russia, walked the dog. You know, the usual.
It could be a fun exercise to strengthen your snaps. Quickly, come up with a random number from 1 to 10!
Was it 7?
Then you’re not random enough. We don’t want to pick a number that feels random. It must actually be unexpected. “Spaghetti” feels like a random thing to shout in a CVS, but something about its commonality makes it feel less out of the ordinary.
As you can see, our strength is from our snap and our snap must be unexpected.
But what if we were to focus solely on the snap? It doesn’t mean we lack a setup, but that our attention is concentrated on the unexpectedness of our snap.
Absurdism can feel like a heightened art form in this sense. Twitter is a good source for a lot of this, but so are black comedies and “Gen Z meme” compilations. Unusual Memes is a good example of a YouTube channel focusing on this subset. The content is comprised mostly of clips showcasing the absurd. There is no classic setup and punchline, but a constant barrage of videos attempting to subvert your expectations.
Some who wish to replicate the “funny” but without a full understanding of the intentional subversion of expectations might just take a clip and put “Only In Ohio” as subtitles to the side - running a joke into the ground until it is completely expected and removed of any comedic value.
Subversion Of Humor
By now the theme is pretty obvious, so we’re going to step into some more areas with a less clear joke structure.
Why couldn’t the dentist attend his child’s birthday? He got hit by a bus.
I remember really liking anti-jokes in high school. It’s hard to come up with unique ones, so I think they stopped being as funny at a certain point and I gave up on the art form.
While the immediate feeling is to think of this as somehow different, it falls directly into our previous joke structure discussions. We set up a premise leading the listener/reader in one direction (expecting some wordplay to do with dentists and birthdays) and then we present a snap where the situation is reasonable, but inappropriately tragic for the context.
Instead of relying on our audience’s past lived experience to subvert expectations, we can rely on their understanding of previously learned joke structures.
This technique works in more common (but less obvious) ways as well.
You’ll often hear about the rule of 3s, where a joke will be repeated a maximum of 3 times. The first 2 is for a build-up and the 3rd is a final callback and closing for the bit.
I’ve recently seen shows where a comic will get an additional laugh by stretching out a joke long past its welcome. This must be done tactfully, but the repetition is itself a subversion of expectations. Because it’s such a well-held rule, breaking it is surprising.
You can hold silence for much longer than appropriate to often get an additional laugh from the crowd. Repeating a line that originally had little comedic value can wrap back around to be funny because its repetition breaks contextual-social norms.
Note that its delivery must be unexpected. Repeating something with a lot of shock value (which had originally increased the snap) past its welcome can entice aggression instead of laughter. I must also repeat that this subversion of expectations must be pleasant. This is why a joke might land well for one crowd, but be seen as “too soon” for another.
I have outlined what I feel is a thread tying together many different sorts of jokes. By following a simple enough pattern we can algorithmically generate humor. While this is not a future I’d be very fond of, its possibility means that we’ll likely see its presence in our lifetimes.
Genres of “comedy” like slapstick and wordplay have not had a large mention because I don’t consider them whole jokes. A neck-chop or an interesting use of English is not itself a joke or a snap. At best they’re overlapping with absurdism (the pursuit of the snap), but only barely.
Laughs can also come from child-like excitement, nerve-wracking situations, or psychotic breaks. While it seems silly to gate-keep pun-enjoyers from their rightful label as comedians, I would like to at least specify that the way I use this word excludes such a group (I don’t mean to prescribe a global definition).
I’ve also not touched on body language and vocal techniques which is rather difficult to outline under a theory of humor. A good rule is that the better an imitation (of a character, emotion, circumstance), the better the result. Your presentation can also lend to the snap if you present as a shy character and reveal your material to be especially dirty.
Acting as an authority on humor is a losing battle. You can willfully not find someone funny. It doesn’t lend a lot of credibility when no jokes from the humor-expert land very well.
The point of this article is not to transform you into a comedy genius, but to explain that, like everything, comedy is a skill. It is something you can hone. It is something you can learn. I believe our general perspective around other such skills has stunted our social and scientific advancements in these fields.
Had I known one could learn to sing, I would have started lessons 10 years ago. Now I’m forced to drop the world’s worst rap album of the decade. IceJJFish and I will break records, just you wait.
I hope now you’re prepared to watch yet another comedy special alongside me in complete silence, with the occasional “Ah yeah, that was funny. Good rhythm on that one”.