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What is Humor?

Updated on April 17, 2011

Humor is that which is comical in people and situations. Humor may be visual or verbal, or it may be inherent in a combination of events. The ability to appreciate the comic absurdities of life is known as a "sense of humor." However, different things are humorous to different people. A person's background, tastes, and interests Influence his sense of humor.

Keystone Kops
Keystone Kops

Types of Humor

There are numerous forms of humor, ranging from the most obvious, such as slapstick, to the most refined, such as satire and irony. One of the most common forms of humor is the joke, a remark or story that concludes with a comical surprise twist, or "punch line". Jokes are usually based on familiar situations but involve a humorous reversal, distortion, or exaggeration. Another common type of humor is the pun, a play on words in which a double meaning is applied to the same word or two words having nearly the same sound.

Slapstick is regarded as the crudest type of visual comedy. Slapstick involves fast and chaotic activity, such as pies thrown in people's faces and attempts to walk through doors that suddenly close. Some of the funniest slapstick routines were the pantomimes of the old film comedians, such as the Keystone Kops, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. Slapstick often occurs in farces, which are plays based on broad physical humor or absurd situations. Cartoons and caricatures often achieve humor through exaggeration of drawing.

Usually, wit is distinguished from other kinds of humor because it is more verbal and intellectual. A famous example of wit is Oscar Wilde's epigram: "I can resist everything except temptation." Conversation in which each person tries to top the other's remarks with a witty reply is called repartee.

Some types of humor depend heavily on the audience's knowledge of the background and subject. These include satire, parody, and burlesque. Satire uses wit and other forms of humor to ridicule human behavior. Many of the characters and situations in the novels of Charles Dickens are famous examples of satire. Parody is a written imitation of a poem or prose work that makes fun of the original. Burlesque is the comic portrayal of important persons or events in an exaggerated and derogatory manner. In each of these types the audience must be acquainted with the original in order to appreciate the humor of the "takeoff".

Among the other kinds of humor are sarcasm, a bitter taunt or rebuke, and irony, a statement that says the opposite of what it really means. Understatement was used by Mark Twain when he wrote, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Theories of Humor

No single theory of humor entirely explains why people laugh. One of the most common theories is that of incongruity, or the mixture of unrelated things. For example, a bridegroom who appeared at his wedding in his slippers would be an object of humor because of the incongruity of his appearance and the formality of the event.

According to another theory, humor is based on a feeling of superiority. The spectator watches the absurd mistakes and failures of a misfit and can afford to laugh at them because his own ability and skill have been reaffirmed. Closely connected to the theory of superiority is that of sadism, or the pleasure derived from watching the suffering of others. The cartoonist Al Capp has said that "man's inhumanity to man" is the source of almost all humor. He gives as an example the comedy of Charlie Chaplin, whose lowly status not only makes the spectator feel superior but provides an outlet for his feelings of hostility toward his fellowman.

Another variation of the superiority theory of humor was formulated by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. According to Bergson the usual comic character is a man with an obsession, such as a miser, an idealist, or a coward. Such a character is not flexible enough to adapt himself to reality and always behaves in the same foolish manner. Therefore, the spectators can afford to laugh at him because of his inferiority to their own characters and patterns of behavior.

A third theory is that laughter explodes as sudden relief from tension. For example, when a person falls into a swimming pool and emerges unhurt, the onlooker tends to react with laughter. Yet if a slapstick comedian were ever to bleed or suffer broken bones, the spectator would feel sympathy, rather than relief. Also, spectators sometimes laugh during horror films as a relief from tension.

For many critics the basis of humor is exaggeration. The speeded-up effect of some of the old silent film comedies adds to their humor because of the exaggeration of movement. Satire, parody, and burlesque are comical because they exaggerate.


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    • profile image

      Lindsey 5 years ago


    • profile image

      kimberlyslyrics 6 years ago

      second read here cause I need a reality check before I combust, whew thanks to ninjas I say!

    • irenemaria profile image

      irenemaria 6 years ago from Sweden

      Good thoughts!

    • Several Ninjas profile image

      Several Ninjas 6 years ago

      its always a nice thing to have a gut feeling about something and then discover that its backed up by evidence, or that it already exist as a theroy.

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      DoorMattnomore 6 years ago

      I have often thought certain types of humor were based on the viewers feelings of superiority. I did not know it was an actual theroy, I thought I was just paranoid. Whatever the reason behind being able to find things funny, I'm glad it exists.