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Is there a scientific formula for funny?

Theoretically Funny: The Primary Theories of What Humans Find Funny
To comedian Chris Rock, it's impossible to explain what funny is.
To comedian Chris Rock, it's impossible to explain what funny is.
Donald Kravitz/Getty Images

When Deborah Solomon, writing for The New York Times Magazine asked comedian Chris Rock what's funny, he replied, "You want to know what's not funny? Thinking about it," [source: Solomon]. Certainly, philosophy and comedy might seem like unlikely bedfellows, but they've actually been a pair for quite some time now. As we've already mentioned, philosophizing about what we consider funny has gone on for thousands of years. Plato and Aristotle could be thought of as the godfathers of funny philosophy, and many great thinkers since their time, including Freud, Kant and Kierkegaard, have contributed to the comedic conversation. Three primary theories of humor have consequently emerged and serve as the intellectual foundation for funny:

  • Superiority theory: Espoused by Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes, the superiority theory of humor focuses on the darker side of comedy. Specifically, that we laugh in response to our elevation over others' unfortunate situations or social standings [source: Smuts]. An often-cited quote from Thomas Hobbes' "Human Nature" sums up this greater-than/lesser-than dichotomy at the heart of superiority theory: "the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly" [source: Hobbes]. In other words, we're always laughing at other people's expense.
  • Relief theory: Sigmund Freud perceived laughter and humor as a form of release, which he wrote about in "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious". Deriving humor from a joke is a way humans outwardly funnel energy from sexual repression, pent up emotions or intellectualizing [source: Smuts]. If the relief theory held water, however, we might expect the crime rate to be much lower and every comedy at the Cineplex to bring in blockbuster crowds.
  • Incongruity theory: Immanuel Kant and SÇ¿ren Kierkegaard believed that finding something funny revolves around derailed expectations. An effective punch line must be unpredictable and take us by surprise. In "Critique of Judgment", Kant explains it this way: "Laughter is an affectation arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing" [source: Kant]. Modern-day "incongruity-resolution" theories work from this basic premise of presenting situational contrasts and unpredictable resolutions as the bedrock of humor [source: Science Blogs].

Today's humor research draws on elements of these primary theories and remixes them. For instance, the Benign Violation theory of humor developed by a team of psychologists at the University of Colorado Boulder explains funny as a series non-threatening violations of social norms [source: McGraw and Warren]. Essentially, a joke should violate some sort of cultural practice or value, but at a safe psychological distance to where the humor doesn't become too "real" for the audience. Flagrantly racist and sexist jokes, for instance, can quickly sour a comedy routine. Cross that off-color line, and laughter quickly sours into cringing disgust. Put another way, mixing in too much Aristotelian malice reaps offense, rather than applause.

These theories of humor help explain what elicits humor socially, culturally and psychologically, but with broad brush strokes, rather than a fine point pen. Therefore, the goal of finding a precise scientific formula for funny remains elusive. But in the brain, at least, the roadmap to raucous laughter is more direct.