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The theory of humour

There was this joke I heard on the radio yesterday. It was an “Akpos” joke, one of the many funny stories about the rainy season. So Akpos used ₦2000 worth of starch on an eighty-naira shirt. He had a big interview that evening. On his way to the interview, he ran into rain. Rain beat him until he was soaked. Then the sun started shining. The sun dried him. They say that that evening, they had to get a carpenter with a chisel, to crack the shirt off his back.

I find that once you talk about humour, about why things are funny, about why we laugh and what makes us laugh, it makes for one of the most unfunny conversations possible. But it is something that is important. Anyone who cracks the riddle of what the purpose of laughter is will, as they say, “hammer”. How this will affect your writing? I do not know. But please do not try too hard, because instead of laughing with you, your readers, and I hope to be one of them, will laugh at you.

There have been many theories of humour, each originally purporting to be the one that explained all of humour; from some proposing that laughter serves a homeostatic function in the release of nervous energy, to the ideas of Aristotle who felt that we found the unfortunate buffoon funny because we were removed and thus superior to him. For Aristotle, we laugh at inferior or ugly individuals, because we feel a joy at feeling superior to them. This theory is called, you guessed it, The Superiority Theory of Humour. I do not like it. It presupposes that we are all jerks who find other people’s misfortunes funny. Although in the case of the Akpos and the rain and the sun and his starched shirt joke, the Greeks may have been on to something.

But no theory seems to work for all of humour, for all of funny. Take for instance, my favourite theory of humour, the Incongruous Juxtaposition Theory. This one is explained that laughter comes from relief at an unexpected but absurd outcome. This explains such staples as puns, and wordplay jokes. And is the fountain from which the punchline and “knock knock” jokes drink.

Laughter seems to be the sole preserve of humans. We take it for granted that we alone laugh, but when we look backwards, we find that certain functions taken by laughter, the release of nervous energy, seem to have parallels with primates. Compare the peals of uneasy embarrassed laughter ringing through the cabin that greet the touchdown of an airplane, after a particularly bumpy flight, with the chittering and chattering of excited monkeys, who have just survived the attack of an eagle in the forest. I have always felt that this theory of humour worked best. That the best jokes took you in, placed you on what seemed a logical sequence of events, and then pulled the rug under your feet. These make me laugh.

It is true an unexpected absurd outcome is not always funny. That itself should be clear. Many deaths have come from unexpected and quite absurd outcomes. But still I suppress a chuckle writing out this sentence: I am fan of a television series called A Thousand Ways to Die. It is morbid, tasteless, but still, even I admit, funny. From the gentleman who insisted on proving the solidity of his tempered glass 34th-storey window (nothing absurd about the outcome of that one) to the chap who urinated on the central line of an electrified urban metroline, these shock and tickle, and possibly make Aristotle sound more correct: maybe we are all jerks. Maybe that is why we laugh.


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