Philosophy of humor bleg

What makes something funny?  What should I read on this topic?  I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and guidance.  I can assure you I will put this material to use, though not as a producer of humor.


Ted Cohen, Jokes.

Watch Richard Pryor's standup and Eddie Murphy's movies pre-1990.

The Golden Child: Mandatory watching

Or just read humor pages and blogs. Most are easy reads:

The essence of humor is when you expect something to bounce and it doesn't.

Agreed. I think the core to all humor is the unexpected, or perhaps more precisely the subversion or twisting of the expected.

Or the converse.

Like a Woody Allen joke - my parents realized I was kidnapped. They snapped into action immediately! They rent out my room.

I would pay $100 to hear what Art Deco or prior_test think is funny. I'm guessing Jack Benny for the former, drowning puppies for the latter.

What do I find funny? Puns for one - though puns are sorely lacking in Germany (even if SWR1 managed to pull something like a pun off - 'SWR1 gehört gehört' - literally 'SWR1 belongs heard/listened to,' even if google/google translate cannot handle the phrase).

I found the first half of 'He's Back' / 'Er ist wieder da' utterly hilarious, after the first ten minutes or so - though no puppies are drowned, Hitler does shoot a dog. And much like Trump boasting he could murder someone in broad daylight on 5th Ave, in the movie this action does not hurt Hitler's ratings in the least. It was interesting to see the movie in a German movie theater with a German audience - they laughed about as much as I, though with a certain undercurrent at the beginning of the comedic action that was interesting. Hitler is most certainly not a figure of humor in Germany in 2017, unlike how most Germans viewed him in 1927.

This is the perfect response, very illustrative of my point. Where do I send the $100?

Seriously? This is truly getting amusing - why not send it care of Prof. Cowen, GMU, Mason Hall, Room D150, .4400 University Drive, 3G4
Fairfax, VA 22030.

Indeed. So either you are Tyler or you finally hooked up!

Now you have a problem sending a money order for 100 hundred dollars to Prof. Cowen at his office address? Why? I'm sure that Prof. Cowen can find some worthy GMU student to pass it on to, after all - it would cover about 70% of the list price of Modern Principles of Microeconomics -

Come on, no one is surprised that PA's distance stalker routine includes knowing Cowen's address

I'm guessing you haven't seen the movie. Without joking, it is worth watching to get a bit of insight into how Germans are looking at what is happening in the U.S. right now.

Trump IS sort of like a tragicomic spoof of Hitler.

yeah, Hazel, Trump is so fucking tragic compared with god damned Hitler.

Oh my god.

Sorry, that sentence broke my brain. Will take a while to recover.

Trump supporters harass women who express things which are not full of praise for Trump.

Trumo supporters also harass men who express things other than support for Trump. But they reserve special harassment for women.


Also from Asimov: "The planet of Lockmania, inhabited though it was by intelligent beings that looked like large wombats, had adopted the American legal system, and Bamaby Burnside had been sent there by the Earth Confederation to study the results. Burnside watched with interest as a husband and wife were brought in, charged with disturbing the peace. During a religious observation, when, for twenty minutes, the congregation was supposed to maintain silence while concentrating on their sins, the wife had suddenly risen from her squatting position and screamed loudly. When someone rose to object, the husband pushed him forcefully. The judge listened solemnly, fined the woman a silver dollar and the man a twenty-dollar gold piece. Almost immediately afterward, seventeen men and women were brought in. They were ringleaders of a crowd that had demonstrated for better quality meat at a supermarket. They had torn the supermarket apart and inflicted various bruises and lacerations on eight of the employees of the establishment. Again the judge listened solemnly, and fined the seventeen a silver dollar apiece. Afterward, Burnside said to the chief judge, "I approve of your handling of the man and woman who disturbed the peace." "It was a simple case," said the judge. "We have a legal maxim that goes: . . . 'Screech is silver, but violence is golden.'" "In that case," said Burnside, "why did you fine the group of seventeen a silver dollar apiece when they committed far worse violence?" "Oh, that's another legal maxim," said the judge. "Every crowd has a silver fining." (By Isaac Asimov)

@TR - Rotten meat eh TR? Ha. Ha. Ha. Very funny. Today's news (BBC): "Brazilian police have carried out raids at the offices of some of the country's biggest meat-packing companies accusing them of selling rotten meat on the domestic market and abroad. "

Bonus trivia: I've done standup and even won a prize at amateur night. But there were only two contestants, and I won silver (the woman who won gold was really good, like a sort of amateur Paula Poundstone). But I did get a few laughs and the faces of the audience can turn from hostile to friendly in a flash. What do I think is funny? Anus jokes, fart jokes, slapstick, sexist and racist jokes, the lowest common denominator works, both in the USA and Germany. Flash the audience. It will get a laugh, guaranteed. By contrast, what prior_test2 suggests, puns, rarely work in front of a live audience. Maybe Rodney Dangerfield after he established his reputation could pull it off, but the rest of us are just wankers by comparison. Yet it? Da da dum dumb dumb dumb.

Who I don't think is that funny: anybody who pretends, like those Jon Stewart types (though he has good delivery) to dispense wisdom through telling jokes. What a crock. Comedy is play acting, not something serious or profound. I think TC could make a good standup comic, as he has a dry straight guy style that makes for good comedy.

I can assure you things are under control. Most of the rotten meat has been intercepted and the public is being warned to not eat the rotten market that found its way to supermarkets. Most meat is good and, in fact, Brazil is the greatest exporter of bovine meat. The authorities have alredy swiftly and merciless acted against the evil-doers. It was the biggest federal police action in all Brazilian history. Dozens of people and tons of files were captured.

Tons of files TR? Or tons of FLIES? HAHAHA!

Tons of files, papers and computers. The corrupt enforces have been arrested and the suspect policians are under federal invesrigation.

I just noticed the 100 dollar offer after posting - forget it.

How could you read the question without seeing that? It comes first! This is also very illustrative of the genius of prior_test.

I picked up on the Jack Benny and drowned puppies, while ignoring the generally meaningless gesture of paying someone money. And you almost got it right - one of the funniest movies I have seen in years also has a scene of a dog being shot.

But if you meant that seriously, I'm sure we can arrange a way for you to pay me 100 dollars - thus being very illustrative of the genius of msgkings.

That's the best you got? LOL

See above - this is starting to enter the realm of the absurd, if not quite reaching the level of absurdist humor.

Last word freak LOL

"the generally meaningless gesture of paying someone money"

WTF dude? Shh; Economists have been known to visit this site.

Well, what with your rush to Wikipedia of course you didn't read it.

'though not as a producer of humor'

False humility is never attractive.

Thus Spake prior_test, the man who knows what is attractive.

Not really. But since this is about what I find funny (see above), I have always assumed that Prof. Cowenis personally self-aware enough to realize that much of what he presents in public is not to be taken seriously, meaning that much of what is presented here is actually just a joke in his eyes. Thus the claim of unattractive false modesty. Obviously, I might be mistaken in assuming that, meaning that while he is still a reliable source of humor, his humility remains as boundless as ever.

The man is already married, bro. Move on.

And yet, I pine for the earnest Canadian.

He (TC) can't be arrogant, as you've told us. And when he's humble, that's wrong too. (Or illustrative of his moral/political failings.) WCTCD? What can TC do?

Humor is a moment in which our shared obedience to language and systems of meaning is disrupted by incongruity, and the animal howls that commence thereafter.

Read Bruce Fink or Richard Boothby on humor. And reflect upon the fact that humor is most powerful when it veers toward sex or death.

Explain animal howls. I chuckle quietly at very funny things.

Dan Dennett has a co-authored book on humor, btw.

Explain animal howls.


I don't know how to describe what makes something funny, but I do know that you have to be smart to be funny. We all grew up with people who got terrible grades in school but we knew they were very smart, often smarter than the grinders who got straight A's, because they were hilarious (and the grinders were not).

Some of us weren't funny at all in grade school and only became funny after years of horrifying trauma.

Being funny is finding links between things where others have not. That's called a joke.

Being intelligent is finding links between knowledge where others have not. That's called a book.

Spot on.
Went to school and college with a lot of brilliant people ( including one who picked up a Nobel) ; invariably the most earnest are never the humorous ones.

Ted Cohen, Jokes; Eric Kaplan, Does Santa Exist? A philosophical explanation; Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Heidegger and a Hippo Walk through those Pearly Gates. by Jimmy Carr.

"benign violation theory" sounds plausible, but the fact that it is Year Of Our Lord 2017, and we only have a theory casts doubt.

My guilty secret is that "Trial and Error" makes me laugh out loud. Pretty basic benign violation. Lip bomb.

"Hey man, you ever, you know, use Vaseline during sex?" "Oh yeah, every time." "Really?" "Absolutely. We put it on the doorknob and it keeps the kids out." Rimshot.

Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind might be of interest to you. If I remember correctly, it is pretty academic, considering the landscape of theory about humor and then tries to tie it together with an evolutionary explanation. Its been a while and I would have to leaf through my highlighting to say more...

I gave an ignite talk on this topic several years ago, you have to read the slide notes along with the slides:

"All humor comes at someone's expense." - anonymous philosopher.

"Brevity is the soul of wit, but truth is its heart."

I don't have an answer for you, but Steve Martin is teaching a class on comedy at in a couple of months.

My own contribution

A second vote for Ted Cohen, Jokes.

I'd suggest listening an episode of the The Partially Examined Life that concerns Bergson on humor, available here:

Bergson doesn't have the greatest ideas on the subject, but the hosts do a great job examining those ideas and the subject in general. I'd recommend them for an introduction to most philosophical topics.

Don't read books. Watch Penn and Teller's "The Aristocrats."

Next, watch all three Bill Burr stand-up specials, in order. Meditate each audience as well as the jokes.

NB: Most "classic" stand up specials and sketch shows are not nearly as funny as you remember. Does that have more to do with their timeliness, or that they were never all that funny in the first place? (See: Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Kids in the Hall) Probably the former, but I dont know.

Other questions you should address: why are some jokes "objectively" funny? Think of much of the recent Trump sketches on SNL. Why are some jokes only subjectively funny (read: you have to be part of the in-group)? Think of the kind of joke told on The Daily Show, or Last Week Tonight.

In furtherance of my prior quote, things are funny only when they are perceived as truth. Situations that are widely recognized as true can be objectively funny. However when one's opinion of the truth, or beliefs, are shaped or given substance by one's values or perceptions, then groups with different values and perceptions will differ in subjectively regarding something as funny.

For example, a joke comparing Trump to Hitler would be subjectively funny only to people who think this comparison is apt. But the condition of Trump's skin color or hair is widely regarded similarly by all, and hence these jokes can be considered more objectively funny.

As my other quote mentions, humor almost always involves somebody or something getting hurt. There are some counterexamples, but this is generally true. Consequently, any emotional attachment or sympathy we have for the person or thing being hurt is likely going to make the joke unfunny, while those with no such attachment or sympathy will more likely regard it as funny.

I believe that humor is tightly intertwined with our sense of justice. That value includes both truth and people getting what they deserve.

Pinker's How the Mind Works, p.454, is on the problem of humor.

A whole page?

While not necessarily a meditation on joke construction itself, "Laughter" by Henri Bergson attempts to understand the role of the comic (and laughter) in society.

It was first brought to my attention by Monty Python in which John Cleese reflects on "the Bergsonian idea of laughter as a social sanction against inflexible behavior."

With all due respect, the post fails an opportunity to make a perfect _Name of the Rose_ reference.

I imagine that your comment is funny, but it sailed past me. I read The Name of the Rose in German, so I likely missed something in translation.

Was it a lost book of Aristotle on comedy, that occasioned all those murders? I felt that book didn't pay off after the establishment of its atmosphere. As a reader I was wandering through a labyrinthine library, about to reach the crux, and it kept not being there, just another turning. I did bag some heresies I knew nothing of.

I don't know any books about humor but Jerry Seinfeld's comedian chats are breezy fun.

I would generally shy away from recommending something I think is funny - but since someone above mentioned that they think puns are funny (unless that was deadpan) I will put forward Roger Angell's "Ainmosni" for those who enjoy wordplay and light humor in an arch, "delightful" vein. The New Yorker knows the piece's worth and keeps it paywalled, though.

Agree, I thought maybe Tyler was angling for something on the lost book of Aristotle.

Tyler, your output of humor has doubled in recent years, and I think most of it is unintentional. That conversation with Gladwell was one of the funniest things I have seen this month, and I knew I wasn't supposed to be laughing.

Sick burn, bro.

Finally! A place I can really shine: I wrote a dissertation chapter on humor.

Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Dennett and Hurley is good.

Try Lewis, Paul. Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict. The University of Chicago Press, 2006. (though it's specific.

The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor by Morreall is a good collection.

I like, oddly, Viktor Frankl's comments in Man's Search for Meaning:

"Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humor" (54).


"The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the 'size' of human suffering is absolutely relative" (55).

"5 Leading Theories for Why We Laugh—and the Jokes That Prove Them Wrong" is useful, though it seems easier to poke holes in theories of humor than it is to come up with and develop those theories:

Email if you want more.

"Finally! A place I can really shine: I wrote a dissertation chapter on humor."

You're not the first doctoral student who had to take menial jobs after an unsuccessful defense. :)

Actually he's not the first doctoral student to take menial jobs after a successful defense, either.

I understand that Donald Trump doesn't laugh. The only other president I can think of that didn't have a hearty laugh is Nixon. I understand that Reagan liked to tell jokes, and would laugh at his own jokes. I can't imagine Trump telling a joke. Sure, I can imagine him ridiculing someone and believing it funny, but it wouldn't be. My point is that funny isn't universal. Laughing and crying are controlled by the same part of the brain. I recently saw a commercial for a drug that prevents uncontrollable laughing and crying by people who have suffered a stroke and damaged that part of the brain. Some drugs, alcohol for instance, make some people laugh, some people cry, and some people mean as Hell. I understand Trump doesn't drink alcohol. It's a good thing because it would likely make him mean as Hell. I used to think Dudley Moore was funny. I laughed out loud at the scene from 10 in which he fell down the hill while spying on the 10. I laughed out loud at the scene from Arthur in which he announced to his butler (John Gielgud) that he was going to take a bath and Gielgud responded "I will alert the media". Bill Murray isn't funny. Jim Carrey isn't funny. Will Ferrell isn't funny. Ben Stiller isn't funny. I had a law professor who looked just like Alan Arkin. Whenever he would call on me I would laugh uncontrollably. The man apparently didn't know he looked just like Alan Arkin, which itself was funny.

Honestly, the most serious indictment of Trump is that he appears to have absolutely no sense of humor. I’ve never seen him laugh or smile sincerely. There’s no doubt that he’s incapable of laughing at himself - ever.

>Honestly, the most serious indictment of Trump is that he appears to have absolutely no sense of humor.

Well then. If that's the worst you can say about him, he looks forward to your vote in 2020.

Didn't vote for him this time. Would have preferred Pat Paulson but he's dead. But if the Dems trot out Hillary again, who knows.

Trump is very funny on a meta-level.

funny uh-oh is a very different kind of funny than funny ha-ha

Trump just has a dry delivery. Half his tweets are a set up, and the MSM takes the bait. For like the 200th time. Pretty funny.

Dave Barry: "Why Humor is Funny"

Edward Piece already mentioned Penn & Teller, and here's another reference that I think is on point:

- In written form:
- Or, in 72 seconds of video:

Scott Adams writes well about how to craft jokes.

No reference to books, but hop on Pandora or whatnot and listen to old comedians from 50-60 years ago, or get on Netflix and watch comedies from the early days of TV. I find that it's much easier to analyze humor when you're removed from the immediate subject of the humor. How much of I Love Lucy depended on the mores of the day and strikes us more as interesting than funny? How much are you going to laugh at the young Don Rickles, and why is the audience laughing so much more than you are? Why would people of this earlier era find ethnic jokes so funny if 1) they really aren't, and 2) seem crude and offensive now?

IMHO this is better than reading any text on humor.


Don't dismiss trying to put your humor research to use. Take your own advice about writing out the argument with which you disagree.

And surely you can top Planet Money:

The internet encyclopedia of philosophy's page on humor is a good starting place (especially if you want an example of how analysis can kill humor):

Humour Formula, by Scott Adams

Humor Formula

In today’s blog entry I will teach you how to write humor, thus removing the mystery and in the process turning you into a joyless zombie, albeit a witty one.

I wrote on this topic more extensively in my book, The Joy of Work. So I’ll just give you the highlights here. The core of humor is what I call the 2-of-6 rule. In order for something to be funny, you need at least two of the following elements:

Cute (as in kids and animals)




Recognizable (You’ve been there)


I invented this rule, but you can check for yourself that whenever something is funny it follows the rule. And when something isn’t, it doesn’t.

One of the reasons comics are such a popular form of humor is that they often get the cute part automatically. Calvin and Hobbes is widely considered the best comic ever, but the few times it featured the parents doing the main action, it fell flat. Whenever it combined Calvin and Hobbes (both exceedingly cute), with some witty dialog (clever), a dangerous wagon ride (cruel), Calvin acting like a typical kid (recognizable), and thinking about adult philosophy (bizarre) it fired on 5-of-6 humor elements, which is virtually unheard of.

One could argue that all of the elements of Calvin and Hobbes are borrowed from Peanuts, Dennis the Menace and Winnie the Pooh (Hobbes is essentially Tigger). Originality doesn’t count for much with humor. I should know, since Dilbert has been compared to Charlie Brown grown up. And I certainly didn’t invent talking cartoon dogs. Execution is everything.

The Far Side comic made a huge splash in its day primarily using the elements of bizarre, cruel and clever. Often the comic included an animal that was cute too, in its own way. That’s 4-of-6 humor elements. No wonder he sold a trillion calendars.

Dilbert works best when cute Dogbert is doing something cruel, in a clever way, to people we recognize. That’s my version of 4-of-6 and I rarely hit it. Usually I start with a recognizable business situation and just make something cruel out of it. On a good day I can do it in a clever fashion. On a bad day I introduce some bizarre character like a giant talking cucumber. On average, I hit only 2 or 3 of the elements. That’s good enough to run in 2,000 newspapers, but it still isn’t a pimple on Snoopy’s buttocks.

Now take a look at a comic called Barkeater Lake that’s published only on the web. In this example the cartoonist is trying to satisfy the 2-of-6 rule but each dimension falls just short. The dog isn’t cute, the cleverness isn’t clever enough, the cruelty isn’t cruel enough and the bizarreness isn’t bizarre enough. He’s knocking at the door, but it needs a little extra.

You can see more examples of his work at:

Now compare that to Pearls Before Swine, a newish comic that’s already in several hundred papers and growing. The author, Stephan Pastis, has literally studied the 2-of-6 rule and applies it religiously. To my knowledge, he’s the only cartoonist other than me who does it consciously. In the following example you have cute animals, some cruelty that’s definitely cruel enough, some bizarre behavior, and it’s all tied together with a clever theme. That’s 4-of-6. See for yourself.

You can see more of Pearls at:

The only other humor tricks worth noting in this summary are:

1. Write simple sentences that are easy to read. Complex sentences with big words kill humor.

2. Use funny sounding words when you can. (Yank is funnier than pull).

3. All humor is about people. You can’t make humor about concepts or objects.

Now go forth and be funnier. You have no excuse.

...."it still isn’t a pimple on Snoopy’s buttocks.."

Never realized Scott Adams was capable of modesty.

I guess the translation might not do it justice and that is why it is not very well known and why it hasn't been mentioned yet but "Laughter" by Bergson is a book that might be right up your alley. I always felt Bergson was a massively underrated philosopher and it is one of his minor works but it provides the best definition for what laughter is, why we laugh and gives an incredibly coherent answer that encompasses all branches of humour. When I was 19 it was eye opening.

"Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."
E. B. White

Here is my nomination. It's not very funny.

The Act of Creation is a 1964 book by Arthur Koestler. It is a study of the processes of discovery, invention, imagination and creativity in humour, science, and the arts. It lays out Koestler's attempt to develop an elaborate general theory of human creativity.
From describing and comparing many different examples of invention and discovery, Koestler concludes that they all share a common pattern which he terms "bisociation" – a blending of elements drawn from two previously unrelated matrices of thought into a new matrix of meaning by way of a process involving comparison, abstraction and categorisation, analogies and metaphors. He regards many different mental phenomena based on comparison (such as analogies, metaphors, parables, allegories, jokes, identification, role-playing, acting, personification, anthropomorphism etc.), as special cases of "bisociation".

+1 to this recommendation, the parts on humor are all in the early pages of the book. Once he moves on from humor, you can move on too.

"Life and How to Survive It," Robin Skynner & John Cleese,
Chapter 1.
"Afterthought: You've Got to Laugh" p. 71 (W.W. Norton& Co 1993.)

++Ian, Koestler is great. But in comparing him with Scott Adams, likely Scott actualizes the creation of jokes with a better process.

Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
The idea was to develop a sense outrage in the jokes lead up,then the punch line refocuses the outrage to the listener with a slip of words. The outrage turns inward,and gets translated into nervous laughter. Laughter is a snarl turned inward, a conflict between self preservation and the banishment of evil.

That's an awful explanation of both the causes and consequences of humor. And people wonder why Freud's influence, except his Platonistic division of the soul into three, has waned? He's downright ridiculous at times ... and not in a funny way.

Freud cites and analyzes an excellent joke: "A wife is like an umbrella. Sooner or later one takes a cab."

"We have already elucidated the complicated technique of this example; it is a puzzling and seemingly impossible comparison which however, as we now see, is not in itself witty; it shows besides an allusion (cab=public conveyance), and as the strongest technical means it also shows an omission which serves to make it still more unintelligible. The comparison may be worked out in the following manner. A man marries in order to guard himself against the temptations of sensuality, but it then turns out that after all marriage affords no gratification for one of stronger needs, just as one takes along an umbrella for protection against rain only to get wet in spite of it. In both cases one must search for better protection; in one case one must take a public cab, in the other women procurable for money. Now the wit has almost entirely been replaced by cynicism. That marriage is not the organization which can satisfy a man’s sexuality, one does not dare to say loudly and frankly unless indeed it be one like Christian von Ehrenfels, who is forced to it by the love of truth and the zeal of reform. The strength of this witticism lies in the fact that it has expressed the thought even though it had to be done through all sorts of roundabout ways."

Henny Youngman:
A beautiful woman was knocking on my hotel door all night long - I wouldn't let her out...
A thief stole my credit card - I let him keep it, he spends less than my wife....
The doc says to the patient, "Bad news, I'm giving you six months to live. You can pay on your way out." The patient says, "Doc, I don't have any money." Doc says, "I'll give you another six months......"

Good. I also like the English comic Bob Monkhouse.

They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. Well, they're not laughing now.

I want to die like my father, peacefully in his sleep, not screaming and terrified, like his passengers.

Don't forget to re-read the humor debate from Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Justin E.H. Smith

Something is funny if it was written by P.G. Wodehouse. That's all you really need to know. Other works of humor can then be compared to Wodehouse to see if they pass muster.


Indeed. I seem to recall a sentence something like this one: "He had the look of a wolf whose Russian peasant had just scampered up a tree."


After many decades of trying , still haven't come across anything more humorous than " Uncle Fred flits by."

The best medicine.

Try Henri Bergson's Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, published in 1900. The excellent podcast The Paritally Examined Life has an episode about it which is interesting as well.

You're Mario Rizzo, right? He's the only loser who name-drops Bergson like a case of the crabs.

To me, nothing illustrates the differences in senses of humor better than this Seinfeld clip:

There's also a good passage in "A Connecticut Yankee" about how there are no new jokes.

Dr. Pete McGraw is a psychology prof at the University of Colorado--Boulder. He is also the founder of the Humor Research Lab. But better than that, he put his theories to the test as a stand up comic.

Th HuRL is here:
His book is here:

What's So Funny? By Tad Friend

I'd suggest 'Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience', by Peter L. Berger —a good compendium of ideas in the subject, an easy reading, and fun in itself.

This book is more specifically about stand-up comedy but the point is that the simple words of a joke, written down, may not be funny at all. It's the entire performance that ties it together. Franklin Ajaye wrote a great book here - one of the few that I've re-read since I originally read it 10 years ago (most of my late teenage book choices were not great).

Jerry Seinfeld explains how to write a joke in 5 minutes with an illustrative example:

That's great: "You know in my world, the wronger something feels, the righter it is. So to waste so much time on something this stupid... that, that felt good to me."

There actually is an article on the philosophy of humor in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( If you get bored with that, there's always Monty Python... (

Here's an analysis of some bits by Jerry Seinfeld along with passages from his own reflections on stand-up:

He thinks of jokes a finely crafted machines and will work on one for weeks, months, and even years, getting the timing and syllable count just right.

Hobbes saw humor as a function of power; we laugh because we recognize a moment in which we can be powerful, whether in relation to someone else or in our ability to understand something clever. I think that Hobbes' theory - especially the 2nd part (our ability to "get it") allows it to account for most other philosophical theories of humor

If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it's not funny.


Wile E. Coyote, supergenius, undoubtedly would agree.

The rest of us, not so much - beep-beep!

In this interview with Stephen Colbert he talks about joy, laughter, humor, and why it works.

Douglas Hofstader's Le Ton Beau De Marot has an interesting section on humor where he breaks down jokes to their most basic structures. I don't have the book around anymore, so I don't remember if it was one section or spread out over several, but it's excellent, like much of the book.

Comparative animal behavior. Like only humans have humor. Yeah right. Kittens and puppies tussle. Calves and goat kids romp. Humans being extreme in signalling generally (likely something to do with their cooperation capacities) .. human laughter is more obvious, blatant, is all. Don Symon's Phd thesis on play fighting in rhesus monkey was way too far ahead of it's time. (Play and Aggression a Study of Rhesus Monkeys, 1984, now through Amazon.) It outlined a framework of conditions under which play fighting was observed to occur, along with associated behaviors (e..g. play face).In cool quiet afternoons when no predators had been seen or real fights had happened in the previous hours. Mostly between close kin. Slightly more often initiated by the younger smaller weaker animal. And so on. So what do I think of 'philosophical' approaches to humor? Not so much. For whatever it's worth.

(a) "Review of the Rivals" (blog post dated 6 September, 2016), by Bruce Charlton. Explains how sometimes humor is funnier than it seems. (b) "Genius, A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds", by Harold Bloom, pages 225-231, the Moliere chapter (or start at 227 "Moliere seems to be the only valid alternative to Shakespeare") - really good on the platonic limits of the humor of observation, and as a bonus includes the not-very-self-aware Bloom throwing off several Tartuffean observations of his own (see top of page 231, or better yet, in the same book, see his uber-Tartuffean attempt at explaining that he is a better person in every single way than Saint Paul, although of course not quite as much of a genius). (c) Chesterton had a nice line about how the Gospel never describes Jesus laughing because, according to Chesterton, such a description would overwhelm us. While Chesterton was sort of a pale hot house flower (the "Sensitive Plant" of Shelley, oft mentioned by - I kd you not - Wodehouse, comes to mind) he did have quite a lot of funny things to say. (d) Steve Sailer had a really good comment thread in the wake of the now-forgotten Jerry Lewis controversy where Jerry said men are funnier than women (Jerry was wrong - he is a funny guy but nowhere near as funny as Jane Austen or Anita Loos or even that hilarious woman who starred in the Oscar-winning Three Stooges movie "Men in Black"). (e) The letters of Chekhov, and if you have read a lot about Proust you know that he made hundreds of different people who knew him in real life laugh. He was missed by almost all of them when he grew ill. He has not yet had an adequate biography.

I mixed up Marjorie White with Ruth Hiatt. Sorry, they both were very talented.

What about the entry on humor in the social science encyclopedia edited by David Sills? Of course You may be already familiar with it and you will know how dated or relevant it still is

I wonder what function humor serves from the perspective of evolution.

Inside Jokes by Matthew Hurley and Daniel Dennett explores exactly this questions.

I posted about it below, as have a few others.

Kierkegaard seems to have a theory of humor in "Concluding Unscientific Postscript."

He's a pretty smart dude.

Arthur Koestler's Act of Creation compares the sources of creativity in science, artistic endeavor and humor. He argues the sources are the same.
I saw a condensed version in a Sunday paper in London about 55 years ago and immediately bought the book.. It was a great read and it is one of the few books over the years where I still remember the arguments clearly..

No fucking way you're old enough to have read newspapers and post on a tool like Tyler's Internet forum.

Your GMU colleague F.H. Buckley 's The Morality of Laughter would be among the better places to look.

Melvin Helitzer and Gene Perret are my picks.

P G Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde, P J O'Rourke, the Marx brothers.

Sad and lamentable!

"I can assure you I will put this material to use, though not as a producer of humor"

There is a God.

If you want someone to think you're funny, don't tell them you're funny, tell them a joke.

S.J. Perelman was funny (and he wallowed in puns) . He wrote a lot of Groucho Marx's stuff.

Someone once said that the trouble with Groucho Marx is he thinks he's S.J. Perelman.

Judd Apatow's book of interviews Sick in the Head. Also Marc Marons podcast.

Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, Reginald B. Adams Jr.

Could not give a stronger recommendation among the books I've read on the topic.

This book analyzes and summarizes approaches to this question, and then goes on to propose a novel framework for how and why humor functions, from an evolutionary psychology and cognitive science perspective.

My full summary/review here:

Diogo (March 17, 2017 at 2:23 pm) wrote:
"Humour Formula, by Scott Adams. The core of humor is what I call the 2-of-6 rule. In order for something to be funny, you need at least two of the following elements: 1. Cute (as in kids and animals) 2. Naughty 3. Bizarre 4. Clever 5. Recognizable (You’ve been there) 6. Cruel"

I've never read that before, so I'd like to thank Diogo for adding it here as a comment. Have to wonder how universal this is, and whether different cultures emphasize different elements.

I used to travel quite a bit and also spent a lot of time working outside the US. I was always curious about humor in different places. While in Qatar, I had a hard time getting a handle on their sense of humor. Qataris are a small minority within their own country, and they mostly keep themselves separate from outsiders, especially non-Muslims. One day, I pulled into a shopping mall parking lot. Nearby, stood a small group of Qatari young men, laughing loudly as they craned their necks to look at a smartphone that one of them held. As I walked by, I couldn't resist asking "what's so funny?" The one holding the phone turned it my way. It was a video of someone getting his head chopped off -- only it was run in reverse, so the head went back on. I just kept walking, even more repulsed by their laughter than by the video; but by the time I reached the blessed mall air conditioning, I realized that, for these young men, it was funny not just because it was both cruel and bizarre (backwards), but also because it was recognizable. They'd all, in some way, been there, or feared being there. More sad than repulsive. Funny? I guess, if you have to ask ...

The three elements of comedy are:

1) Anything involving sidecars.
2) People slipping, both literally and figuratively.
3) Failed attempts at humor.

The beauty of this theory is that any purported counterexample will be subsumed (I claim) under 3.

See the video of the (old) Philoctetes roundtable discussion,
The Comic Imagination
Participants: Lewis Black, Jim Holt, Bruce McCall, Tami Sagher, Cody Walker (moderator)

Look up Peter McGraw at CU Boulder - Studies humor at the Humor Research Lab

Marvin Minsky did not write much on humor, but this paper also contains one of my favorite jokes.

it's really funny that I'm so obviously in the closet

It's not a surprise to anyone, believe me.

Subversion of expectation. Or: you slip on a potato skin in public or in front of your ego. Or, pointing a finger and laughing at another (a la Nelson Muntz).

When life gives you lemons? Potatoes (unless you are Latvian)
The Aristocrats
Things Rabbis say
Latvian Jokes ( )

There was an HBO special a while ago with Chris Rock, Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, and Ricky Gervais discussing technical aspects of modern standup...

Shahaf, Horvitz, and Mankoff's paper is excellent (and leans on a lot of data from the New Yorker weekly caption contest).

Cool analysis of one Louis CK joke...

Two pluses for this: it's short; it clears the high bar of a Nassim Taleb recommendation. One minus: may not be exactly on topic.

Surprising that in 175+ links/recommendations/comments no mention of 'The Simpsons', the most...(fill in the gaps).

I think that laughter (at one another) evolved as a way to gently punish mild breaches of social norms. Under that theory, most humor depends on pushing against those norms in one way or another.

among mammals, humans, monkeys, orangutans and all the other apes, dogs, wolves, hyenas, coyotes, and all the other dogs, cats, lions, tigers, and all the other cats, capybaras, guinea pigs, and all the other rodents, rabbits qua rabbits, dolphins, porpoises, and all whales with no exception, even the 200 year old ones, have a memory of laughing from pure joy at, in their respective worlds, the other humans orangutans apes dogs wolves hyenas coyotes dogs cats lions tigers all other cats capybaras guinea pigs and all other rodents rabbits qua rabbit dolphins porpoises and all whales with no exception. Pigs and boars too, parrots and crows and the larger squids and among the smaller squids quite a few; the larger cockroaches as well, and again among the smaller ones quite a few - and on the subject of insects, let's not forget the pure humorous joy of being nothing more than a bee. ("have a memory of" - can anyone argue with that?). I missed almost everything but once, a half century ago, I made someone who had never laughed at anything like that before laugh when I pretended, like W C Fields, to have missed my head while putting on my hat and to be full of goggle-eyed wonder at where my hat might be (in your hand! you missed your head and it is still in your hand, don't you understand!!!!). There are not many of us - conscious creatures - in relation to the unconscious world. Real Comedians understand that.

if you do not understand the laughter of animals you are probably not the sort of person who might be a philosopher whose opinions would interest me, and the foregoing comment seems worthless. But maybe you have not wasted your time: has anyone explained this to you before ---?"Healthy animals may lack, unless they are humans or something close, language, but the way I understand the world lots of animals, in the prime of life and healthy, know what it is to good-heartedly laugh at each other from pure joy." No that is not Shelley, not Dante, not Chaucer, not even one of the Brontes.

Many thanks to anonymous for his "sad!" comments. He definitely deserves a Seattle burrito.

Contributing factors to funny: assumptions, timing and the unexpected dismantling of assumptions.

And then, there's this:
Quantum Theory of Humor...

In 1990, Jonathan Miller investigated the nature of humour in this half-hour programme:

There is also some interesting commentary on humour in Hermann Hesse's novel, Steppenwolf.

As I recall, Heinlein grappled with this in both Stranger in a Strange Land (SSL) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (TMHM). In SSL, he explored the idea that a funny thing had to contain a wrongful thing; as I recall, the realization comes from watching monkeys throw poop at zoo visitors. In TMHM, the problem was for humans to teach an AI being how to determine whether a joke was Funny, Funny-Once, or Funny-Always.

Comments for this post are closed