Analyses of the multiple cognitive structures and social effects of humor seldom look at why these tend to center on particular topics. The puzzle of how humor can be highly varied yet somehow constrained by its source “material” is explored using a corpus of over 600 incidents, not of deliberate jokes, but of the “wilder,” unplanned laughter that occurred during a set of interviews with economists—professionals who at the time (1999–2000) enjoyed an unprecedented degree of status and influence. The analysis finds that the source material for this laughter typically involved three kinds of socially structured contradiction: between ideals and reality, between different socially situated viewpoints, and between experiences occurring at different times. This illustrates how particular kinds of content can have a special laughter-inducing potential, and it suggests that wild laughter may at root be an interactional mechanism for dealing with social incongruity—even for members of relatively powerful groups. It is argued that this could not only help solve the larger puzzle of simultaneous variety and constraint in deliberate comedy, but also explain why the characteristic structures of humor are associated with a particular range of social effects in the first place.
Reading that abstract caused me to engage in some unplanned (silent) laughter.
For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.