The Complexity of Humour

Fun, funny, and laughter are elements that belong to the complex field of humour. Humour occurs in all sorts of social interaction, be it face-to-face or digitally mediated. It is difficult to define, even though we see it everywhere (in art, in the media, at home, at work, at school, etc.), in many forms (irony, nonsense, paradox, parody, jokes, memes, etc.), and serving many functions (social, cognitive, emotional, etc.).

Traditionally, the word humour is considered to have come from the Latin word umor, meaning liquid or fluid, referring to the four chief substances that ancient Greeks believed flowed through our bodies: yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm. In ancient humoral theory, each of these was associated with a personality trait. It was, also, believed that humoral balance was essential for a healthy, rational person. When it came to temperament, this balance, or lack of it, provided good humour or bad humour, describing mood features.
Humour is a broad term that “[…] refers to anything that people say or do that is perceived as funny and tends to make others laugh, as well as the mental processes that go into both creating and perceiving such an amusing stimulus, and also the affective response involved in the enjoyment of it”. (Martin, 2007)

Freud sees humour as a safety valve that allows us to express forbidden thoughts and feelings, repression being released in the form of laughter.

Most of the times, we do associate humour with laughter, as a physiological response, but we must consider, as Phillip Glenn did, the fact that laughter is multidimensional and it may serve many purposes: “In its ability to display affiliation, friendliness, or even intimacy, laughter plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of interpersonal relationships. It can also serve to mock, deride, and belittle others, when it is the laughter of cruelty and triumph”. (Glenn, 2003)

We cannot speak of humour without taking a close look at the concept of having a sense of humour. Most people of all ages and cultures are able to be amused, smile or laugh at something funny; therefore, they are considered to have a sense of humour. However, the quality of having a sense of humour comes in various degrees and types: people might have a good, great, sly, wicked, dry, lively sense of humour; or, in some cases, no sense of humour.

According to Martin, there is a multidimensional conceptualization of the sense of humour:
a) a cognitive ability (to create, understand and reproduce humour);
b) an aesthetic response (humour appreciation);
c) a habitual behaviour pattern (tendency to laugh frequently);
d) an emotional-related temperament trait (habitual cheerfulness);
e) an attitude (positive attitude toward humour);
f) a coping strategy or defence mechanism (tendency to maintain a humorous perspective in the face of adversity).

Studies show that people with a greater sense of humour are less likely to develop symptoms such as distress, anxiety, or depression. Apart from the psychological and social advantages (joy, satisfaction, wellbeing, prevention of depression), a good sense of humour can also benefit us physically because it improves immunity functions and ensures higher tolerance of pain.

As previously mentioned, humour is a complex notion which led to the development of many theories. Taken individually, they only explore aspects of humour without giving a complete picture. Here are some of the most important theories on humour, presented in brief:

  • Superiority Theory (humour arises from a sense of superiority, from the denigration of another person or our major past mistakes; we laugh about the misfortunes of others, every humorous situation has a winner and a loser);
  • Relief Theory (the psychoanalytic theory; seen more as a theory of laughter; based on the ability to laugh at our fears, weaknesses and mistakes; through laughter, we release energy and tension);
  • Incongruity Theory (it focuses on the cognitive aspects rather than the social and emotional aspects of humour; the perception of incongruity is crucial in determining whether something is funny or not; two objects are presented through a single concept or “frame”- the way something is presented to the audience; this influences the choices that the audience make about how to process the information-as the joke progresses, we realize that the concept applies to only one of the two objects);
  • SSTH -Script-based Semantic Theory of Humour (broadly aligned with the concepts of the incongruity theory; it focuses on verbal humour and on the use of linguistic scripts or “frames”; a “funny” text is compatible fully or in part with two scripts);
  • GTVH -General Theory of Verbal Humour (built upon SSTH theory; more developed than any other theory by Raskin and Attardo; the two scripts with which the text is compatible are opposite);
  • The Benign Violation Theory (humour occurs when three conditions are met: 1. a violation occurs; 2. the situation is benign; 3. they occur simultaneously).

Due to the complexity, multimodality and variety of humour, no single theory mentioned above is able to accurately explain the processes and mechanisms at work in all forms of humour, such as:
a) slapstick (named after a device used by theatre actors to imitate the sound of a slap during a performance; anything humorous with emphasis on exaggerated physical activities, e.g. slipping on banana peels);
b) self-deprecating (making fun of yourself);
c) deadpan (deadpan jokes are delivered in a monotone voice and with an expressionless face);
d) dark (fun at topics that are considered taboo such as  death, suicide, sexuality); satire (broad area of comedy that criticizes human flaws), usually accompanied by exaggeration, irony, sarcasm, and parody (seen as a form of social criticism);
e) surreal (odd, illogical, nonsensical themes);
f) wordplay (a form of wit that makes use of the ambiguity of language; puns, double entendres, phonetic mix-ups);
g) blue (meant to shock, it ranges from slightly indecent to straight-up obscene, dealing with subjects such as sex, nudity, and bodily fluids), etc.

Depending on various factors (personality traits, level of education, mood, sense of humour, cultural background, even principles and values), we might appreciate some forms of humour more than others. Nevertheless, all forms of humour are catalogued as communicative acts, highly contextual, and serving a multitude of purposes.

Glenn, Phillip, Laughter in Interaction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Martin, Rod A., The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach, London, Elsevier Academic Press, 2007.


prof. Alina-Paraschiva Iorga

Liceul cu Program Sportiv Nadia Comăneci, Onești (Bacău) , România
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