What Makes Something Funny?


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What Makes Something Funny?

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oct. 10, 2006, 5:36 pm

They say that analyzing humor will just kill what makes it funny, but I think this stems from the fact that most people who do literary analysis are just not all that funny to begin with, which is what gives people the impression that critical analysis is such serious business when in fact it's a bunch of people wasting their time talking about stuff.

But I digress.

To reiterate the title of this topic: What makes something funny? Why do you like the funny books that you like? I touched on this issue a little in the main Humor board, but I think it's interesting enough to warrent it's own area of discussion. It's a big internet, so there's room for repetition. So let's hear it. Bring on the funny.

Editat: oct. 12, 2006, 2:17 am

circumstance, expectation, expectation denied and escalation.

Next question?


oct. 11, 2006, 5:15 am

I'm not a literary analyst by any means, but to me, something is funny when it strikes that particular cord. It could be the situation, the outcome, what is said in the phrase (or whatever), or the way the phrase is said. Humor depends on the person who is reading it. What's funny for one person isn't funny for someone else. I speak from experience. I have laughed at many a thing that the average joe next to me didn't find even worth a chuckle. This may not be what you were looking for, but that's what I've got.

oct. 11, 2006, 12:03 pm

I had to research this very question for a non-humor book I wrote this year. I've also asked this of humorists, and have even thought of taking the question to a seminar or two. I'm not innately a funny person. I have a great sense of humor, but I don't come up with things that are funny. Mine is that dry wit that makes you wonder if the person in question is seriously confused or not. Sadly, about half the time I *am* seriously confused.

What makes something funny:
Physical humor, slapstick (The 3 Stooges, but also Sandra Bullock).
Wordplay/language misunderstanding ("Who's on first?" and all puns)
Making light of serious topics (marriage, divorce, unemployment, death)
Mocking someone's weaknesses (not only "yo momma" jokes, but all the *ist jokes, and all forms of self-deprecating humor).
Going "over the top" with any situation or expectation.

oct. 11, 2006, 4:17 pm

I wrote my senior thesis on this topic, and boy are there some competing ideas out there. Simon distilled the incongruity theory of humor very well, though. As mortaine suggests, there does seem to be some difference between how we interpret different types of jokes. For physical humor and mockery, many claim (and it's a strong claim) that the superiority theory of humor applies. My man Thomas Hobbes was one of the first to formulate this one.

Anyhow, I can attest to the fact that jokes became less funny during the semester I worked on this. Every joke I heard had to be analyzed to see if it fit my theory. However, despite the dry and pedantic nature of this post, my sense of humor has recovered. I promise.

Really, it has.

oct. 11, 2006, 8:28 pm

Well, I was going to say "fart jokes" but I guess all that stuff works as well.

oct. 16, 2006, 4:11 am

Hahahaha!!!! Okay, even amid all the "intellectual discussion" about what makes something funny, that little sentence still got a laugh out of me! :) Maybe I'm still juvenile in more aspects than I thought!

oct. 16, 2006, 6:57 am

By sheer chance, I`ve been reading English Humour by J B Priestley. Among other things, he makes the case that it`s not what he calls `true humour` unless it`s characterized by a certain warmth and sympathy.

To provide my own illustration - if Wodehouse had viewed Wooster a simply a vacuous air head with too much time on his hands, his books would not work. I recall he wrote something in a preface to the effect that Wooster and his friends know they are half-wits, they don`t pretend to be anything else, they hope you don`t mind too much and possibly that you`ll like them (excuse my clumsy paraphrase).

I think Priestley has a point myself.

What do others think ?

oct. 16, 2006, 7:41 pm

I am particularly fond of anticlimaxes, the overcomplication of things, non sequiturs, and the unique use of language.

oct. 17, 2006, 3:32 am

Nickhoonaloon: I think there is something to Priestley's argument, and to your specific illustration with Wodehouse. There isn't any doubt that Wodehouse expresses a steady undercurrent of affection for even his most unsympathetic characters. Even, e.g., the sleazy private detective Percy Pilbeam gets some sympathy from Wodehouse when he fails to get the goods on one of the hapless but lucky heroes. Behind all the silliness, which enables us to feel superior to these nitwits and have a good laugh at their expense, Wodehouse subtly insists on the common humanity of all -- nitwits and readers alike.

oct. 25, 2006, 3:15 pm

What an interesting subject!

The things I find the most humorous are when I can relate to the person or situation. They have the "I have SO been there" feeling to them.

They also have an unexpectedness to them. Tension builds in a joke or story then there is the one line that goes off in a completely different direction.

oct. 26, 2006, 10:33 am

"Chipmunk Zamboni."

Bet you didn't expect that.

oct. 26, 2006, 10:49 am

Haven't seen this topic before but pechmerle raises an interesting point about humour in general. With Wodehouse, we are laughing at the characters, and that highlights the cruelty there is behind much humour. Other people's misfortunes are always a good source for a laugh, although behind it could be the feeling of, "Thank God, it wasn't me".

oct. 26, 2006, 10:55 am

I don't know why, but this last summer, we could not stop with the 'Your Mom' jokes. It goes with everything!

"What are you doing tonight?"
"What do you want on your pizza?"
"What's the big deal?"


oct. 26, 2006, 5:19 pm

"Bert, some people say this is crazy,"
"Well, they said Crippen was crazy."
"Crippen WAS crazy."
"Well, there you are, then."

oct. 26, 2006, 8:57 pm

Aquest missatge ha estat suprimit pel seu autor.

oct. 27, 2006, 9:27 am

I will not allow this forum to descend into a charnle house of obscure Monty Python references.

oct. 27, 2006, 10:21 am


oct. 27, 2006, 10:38 am

It's only a flesh wound!

oct. 27, 2006, 1:46 pm

My! It's a rather elusive fish!

21marfita Primer missatge
Editat: oct. 28, 2006, 12:05 pm

Coincidentally, I was writing a review of Aristophanes' "The Frogs" recently - which got lost somehow, shame - and it touched on this topic. I had been reading "The Frogs" in translation at lunch and had come across a bit that was so funny that diet pepsi came out my nose. (Which was odd considering I was drinking tea.) Anyway, I became curious, or perhaps suspicious, that across two millenia something would still be funny. Was it the way it was translated? And this sent me on a quest to learn ancient greek and see for myself. Well, I got enough of it under my belt to tackle the greek, and decided that it was indeed still funny. And, coincidentally, it was about literary criticism ... of the lowest order. And it was funny as written. Why, the diet pepsi is almost coming out of my nose just thinking about it. So, as I tried to say in my (now lost) review, run - don't walk - to your nearest institution of higher learning and sign up for some greek classes, get a copy of "The Frogs" in greek, pour out a nice glass of milk, and prepare to be moistened.

oct. 27, 2006, 2:47 pm

>so funny that diet pepsi came out my nose. (Which was odd considering I was drinking tea.)

See, now I thought that was giggle worthy. What category of humor would that fall under?

Editat: oct. 27, 2006, 7:05 pm

I have a copy of The Frogs but have never read it. On your recommendation, I will dig it out and read it.

"Morgan here says you find the abacus between the triglyphs in the frieze section of the entablature of classical Greek Doric temples."

"You bloody fool, Morgan, that's the metope."

oct. 28, 2006, 11:19 am

I suppose I brought in on myself. A victim of my own hubris.

nov. 10, 2006, 11:23 am

Hmmm...good question, but a difficult one. What I find funny some people might not consider worth lauging at (or even giggling).
Therefore I can only answer for myself: understatement, puns and wordplay, anticlimax.. what else is there? Oh, I do not like slapstick humour :)

nov. 21, 2006, 3:13 am

I would say that for me, it is the unexpected and a sense of derailment that is brought on by certain dialogs, reactions, responses, and set of circumstances. "Funny" is subjectively interpretive, so it depends on how the written word affects my particular mood at any given time as well.

nov. 21, 2006, 5:54 pm

">so funny that diet pepsi came out my nose. (Which was odd considering I was drinking tea.)

See, now I thought that was giggle worthy. What category of humor would that fall under?"

Yeah, that was a great line marfita. Reminds me of a line from Alice in Wonderland "The sun was shining brightly, shining with all its might/ And that was odd/ Because it was/ The middle of the night.

nov. 22, 2006, 9:05 am

Thank you, akenned5, for the pos-feedback. That very small joke was rather belabored and cheap. But I loved it! Hahahahahahahaaaa! Oh, golly, now I'm laughing at my own jokes. sigh.

nov. 22, 2006, 12:00 pm

Just as a side issue - is there distinctive English humour and distinctive US humour ?

I laughed at the diet pepsi thing earlier, and a similar-but-different posting about shaving a cat a few weeks ago (though it doesn`t take much to make me laugh !).

Nevertheless, in my admittedly limited experience of these matters, I`d say English humour or English-style humour doesn`t always work for Americans.

Who thinks what ?

nov. 22, 2006, 12:45 pm

I'm neither English nor American and love both kinds of humor the same. And yes, they are different, but I honestly couldn't tell you why.

Editat: nov. 22, 2006, 5:03 pm

They aren't even spelt the same. I don't get a lot of american humour and famously americans have problems with irony.

nov. 22, 2006, 5:41 pm

That's true. I have a weak spot for sarkasm, irony and black humour (to spell it British where it is more at home than in the US). I guess that IS the big difference between American humor and British humour. I do like American humor too though. I guess I have a universal sense of humor, I feel at home wherever people laugh...

nov. 23, 2006, 3:50 am

I think it is important to differentiate between ironyand sarcasm, In sarcasm one is representing oneself as to another person This is not the case with Irony. Generally I think British humour identifies more with the underdog. That streak of self depreciation means there is an element of "there but for the grace of God go I", In most british humour. american humour is not nessecarily more cruel but there is not the same soft spot for the victim.

nov. 23, 2006, 4:34 am

I am not so sure that this is a difference in comedy so much as in the comedians, but I have observed that British comedians are willing to portray comic characters that are high unlikeable and inspire cringeing as much as laughing such as in The Office and Alan Partridge, while American comedians don't go that far, are perhaps not the brave--they like to retain a certain level of likeability to even pathetic or annoying characters.

nov. 27, 2006, 9:21 pm

I'm not sure I agree about Americans not enjoying British humour. One of the tests my soon-to-be-in-laws set up for me (though I didn't know it at the time), was to watch Monty Python with them. I had never seen it before. When I started laughing hysterically, I passed. The previous candidate could only say, "I don't get it."
Anyway, what about humor in other countries? There is a movie out, which I haven't seen, about a man who tries to bring peace to the middle-east through humor. It ends up starting a war. So. How about humor around the world? Are there constants?

des. 1, 2006, 3:52 am

Here I go again, talking to myself. I watched the movie called, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, and while it didn't tell me anything about humor in the Muslim world, it was very funny. It reminded us of a subdued Bob Hope movie. A fellow walking around, totally oblivious of the chaos he is creating.

des. 1, 2006, 7:35 am

How about: humor happens when cleverness meets pathos, and you realize the situation could happen to you. (see morphidae, above) It's got to comment on the human condition, but in a way that isn't too threatening (else you'd scream instead of laugh!).

I think perceived humor is closely related to one's personality type. For example, I don't like in-your-face people, and I don't care for in-your-face comedians such as Jim Carrey. Robert Benchley is my all-time favorite, in his old screen shorts and in his writing: understated and self-deprecating, gentle but sly at the same time. Some folks would find him boring, though, and not funny; my husband doesn't. But her's a Wodehouse fan and I cannot warm up to those contrived situations no matter how I try; it's got to be tied to reality, for me.

Paula Poundstone's a good modern example.

des. 1, 2006, 12:27 pm

Having asked the question (about US and UK humour), I`ve not been on LT so much lately, and am belatedly catching up.

Mrs Lee - I liked the idea of someone setting out to bring peace through humour and ending up causing a war. I think Graham Greene had a book where one character says of another (from memory) "I never knew someone do so much harm from such excellent motives" - I`ve met many such people !

It`s difficult to know where UK and US humour differ - I recall the TV series Due South was so successful in Europe that a consortium of European broadcasting companies paid for it to continue when it failed in the US. I would have classed it as US humour, but even some of the cast regarded it as English in style. I love the classic years of Bob Neuhart (Ledge Psychology etc) - but he seems very different to other US comedians to me.

des. 6, 2006, 1:24 pm

given the controversy that surrounds the movie "borat", it almost seems that a new facet of humor now presents itself for discussion. i enjoyed the film but wouldn't recommend it to a sizeable chunk of humanity. a definite level of discomfort lurks below the sight gags and zaniness. and look at all the money the film has made...proof of its connection to the public funny-bone. any comments?

des. 6, 2006, 4:07 pm

I just saw Borat yesterday, and also enjoyed, and also wouldn't recommend it for fear that it would offend. I'm really not sure why I am not offended by it, I guess it is just funny enough to work. the guy has noooo sense of embarassment, or whatever it is that prevents us from mocking people to their face. I was cringing a lot of the time while watching it - how can it still be enjoyable? Though, I used to cringe watching Faulty Towers too, and I regard it as comic genius.

des. 6, 2006, 7:31 pm

yeah, fawlty towers is great comedy. i don't cringe much 'tho because i know everybody's in on the gag. they're all acting. not so in borat. sometimes we can't help but laugh when somebody slips on a banana peel for real or bumps into a closed sliding door. compensation for a little too much, too fast, empathetic pain? probably a doctorial dissertation somewhere in there...

des. 6, 2006, 9:36 pm

It`s difficult to know where UK and US humour differ - I recall the TV series Due South was so successful in Europe that a consortium of European broadcasting companies paid for it to continue when it failed in the US. I would have classed it as US humour, but even some of the cast regarded it as English in style.

Er, it was a Canadian series, actually...

I watched it when I lived in the UK, and on one occasion, when a cabbie discovered that I was Canadian, he began talking ecstatically about how much he loved Due South. Some (not all) Canadian humour does have a distinctly British twist to it.

des. 6, 2006, 9:46 pm

given the controversy that surrounds the movie "borat", it almost seems that a new facet of humor now presents itself for discussion.

One thing that strikes me about Cohen is that his prankish satire can be located within a long-standing but little-acknowledged tradition of comic satirists such as Britain's Chris Morris (Brass Eye, The Day Today) and Australia's John Safran (John Safran's Music Jamboree, John Safran vs. God). This provocative style of humour may be fresh to many North Americans, but it's really not that new.

des. 7, 2006, 9:28 am


Your comment reminded me of this:

Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot

-Charlie Chaplin

des. 7, 2006, 1:03 pm

#42 - Apologies, chamekke - the Chicago setting fooled me.


des. 7, 2006, 3:25 pm

I finally got my brain to remember Due South. I was so dissappointed when it didn't continue!

des. 7, 2006, 4:06 pm

Me, too.

Though it was never the same after they got rid of the original Detective Vecchio. The actor who played him does crop up in other things from time to time.

(My wife says he`s called David Marciano - I never remember stuff like that.)

Editat: des. 7, 2006, 6:10 pm

Messages 39, 40, 43:

George Saunders puts the Borat style of humor in perspective (sarcasm alert):


(added later) On reconsideration, make that "sarcastic irony alert."

des. 8, 2006, 10:42 am


Better watch those `sarcasm` and `irony` references.

You`ll be accused of `obfuscation` in no time if you`re not careful.

Editat: ag. 17, 2007, 4:23 pm

David Sedaris is a champion of hilarious self-deprecation in "Naked" (not touchstoneable) and Me Talk Pretty One Day (the latter title refers to his attempts to learn the language after moving to France). A gay, chain-smoking, obsessive-compulsive in a straight world. A few of his essays in The New Yorker are Googlable free on line.

set. 4, 2007, 7:56 pm

#50 - I agree tropics. I read Me Talk Pretty One day just a couple of months ago. It was just so funny. He creates such a strong sense of character with so few words. His family sound utterly wild.

52crbrown743 Primer missatge
set. 27, 2007, 9:35 pm

Something nonsensical... Like:

If a ship wrecked in the desert and you rolled down the window, would it let all the hot air out?