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This article discusses humour in terms of comedy and laughter. For ancient Greek theories of humour in physiology, psychology and medicine, see four humours.

Humour (humor in American English) is a form of entertainment and a form of human communication, intended to make people laugh and feel happy. The origins of the word "humour" lie in the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks, which stated that a mix of fluids, or humours, controlled human health and emotion.

Different types of humour which appeal to different sectors of humanity exist – for instance, young children particularly favour slapstick, while satire tends to appeal more to the older and better-educated. Humour often varies by locality and does not easily transfer from one culture to another. This happens because humour often relies on a context, and someone not understanding the context will usually not understand the humour. Various techniques, as detailed below, serve to deliver humour:



Note - many more exist


A great deal of humour is a consequence of language. Language is an approximation of thoughts through symbolic manipulation, and the gap between the expectations inherent in those symbols and the breaking of those expectations leads to laughter. Irony is explicitly this form of comedy, whereas slapstick takes more passive social norms relating to physicality and plays with them. In other words, comedy is a sign of a 'bug' in the symbolic make-up of language, as well as a self-correcting mechanism for such bugs. Once the problem in meaning has been described through a joke, people immediately begin correcting their impressions of the symbols that have been mocked. This is why jokes are only funny when told the first time.

Some claim that humour cannot be explained. However, attempts can be made, such as this one:

Perhaps the essence of humour lies in the presentation of something familiar to a person, so they think they know the natural follow-on thought or conclusion, then providing a twist through presentation something different from what the audience expected (see surprise), or else the natural result of interpreting the original situation in a different, less common, way. For example:

A man speaks to his doctor after an operation. He says, "Doc, now that the surgery is done, will I be able to play the piano?" The doctor replies "Of course!" The man says "Good, because I couldn't before!"

For this reason also, many jokes work in threes. For instance, a class of jokes exists beginning with the formulaic line "A priest, a rabbi, and a lawyer are sitting in a bar..." (or close variations on this). Typically, the priest will make a remark, the rabbi will continue in the same vein, and then the lawyer will make a third point that forms a sharp break from the established pattern, but nonetheless forms a logical (or at least stereotypical) response.

Notable studies of humour have come from the pens of Aristotle in The Poetics (Part V), of Sigmund Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious and of Arthur Schopenhauer. The French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote an essay on "the meaning of the comic", in which he viewed the essence of humour as the encrustation of the mechanical upon the living. He used as an instance a book by an English humorist, in which an elderly woman who desired a reputation as a philanthropist provided "homes within easy hail of her mansion for the conversion of atheists who have been specially manufactured for her, so to speak, and for a number of honest folk who have been made into drunkards so that she may cure them of their failing, etc." This idea seems funny because a genuine impulse of charity as a living, vital impulse has become encrusted by a mechanical conception of how it should manifest itself.

A Bergsonian might explain puns in the same spirit. Puns classify words not by what lives (their meaning) but by mechanics (their mere sound).

There also exist linguistic and psycholinguistic studies of humour, irony, parody and pretence. Prominent theoreticians in this field include Raymond Gibbs , Herbert Clark and Salvatore Attardo .

Users of some psychoactive drugs tend to find humour in many more situations and events than one normally would.

One notable trait of Australians (perhaps inherited from the British) lies in their use of deadpan humour, in which the joker will make an outrageous or ridiculous statement without giving any explicit signs of joking. Americans visiting Australia have gained themselves a reputation for gullibility and a lack of a sense of humour by not recognising that tales of kangaroos hopping across the Sydney Harbour Bridge exemplify the propensity for this style of leg-pulling.

A number of science fiction writers have explored the theory of humour. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein proposes that humour comes from pain, and that laughter is a mechanism to keep us from crying. Isaac Asimov, on the other hand, proposes (in his first jokebook, Treasury of Humor ) that the essence of humour is anticlimax: an abrupt change in point of view, in which trivial matters are suddenly elevated in importance above those that would normally be far more important.

Humour formula

Required components:


See also


  • Mobbs, D., Greicius, M.D., Abdel-Azim, E., Menon, V. & Reiss, A. L. Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers. Neuron, 40, 1041 - 1048, (2003).

External links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04