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What is humor?

I've always been curious about this question, because it's one of the few human concepts I've never really been able to get an analytic handle on. It seems like the only reasonable way to understand it is to just be around it enough to get a feel for it.

I've seen two interesting definitions of it over the course of my life... one from Timothy Leary, and one from Robert Heinlein. The problem is, these definitions completely conflict with each other and they both seem to be too narrow to incorporate all of the human experience we call "humor".

Leary's definition is that humor is the juxtaposition of concepts from two different contexts. His whole theory is based on the idea that most of our structured education and communication is based on symbols. And symbols have the limitation that you have to stay in one frame, or one context, in order for them to have meaning. So when you take a symbol and place it in two different contexts, it's funny. The most basic form of humor, then, is the pun. And most other humor would just be more sophisticated versions of this. Things that are funny because they are out of context would include a bull in a china shop, a fat guy farting in church, or the classic Abott and Costello "Who's On First" routine, where each of them takes what the other says in the wrong context.

Heinlein, on the other hand, could not have taken a more different approach. His idea of humor is that we laugh to releive pain in a moment of possible frustration or mild wrongness. His idea of the basic unit of humor would be a guy slipping on a banana peel. If he hits his head and dies, then the suffering involved is too extreme to laugh at. But if he puts an arm down and catches himself, everybody laughs because it was a brief scare. When you see someone who looks ugly or says something stupid, you're tempted to laugh because you're mildly troubled by what you see or hear... but not in a serious enough way for it to worry you.

Of these two, I prefer Leary's definition, because it fits more with the kind of humor I like. However, I notice that there is a lot of humor such as slapstick and practical jokes that fits into Heinlein's idea of humor better. If you put these two definitions together, do you get all possible forms of humor? Or are they still missing some. If you do have to put them together to understand humor, why are there two so radically different categories that it falls into? Is there some way in which these categories are the same? Or are they different but united by some common idea?

Also, if it isn't already implied, one of the things I want to know is what purpose does humor serve? Just about every other emotion serves a purpose... fear is to keep us away from danger, hunger is to make sure we eat, etc. but what is laughing for? Just to keep us entertained? Why did such a thing come to be? Would a machine ever be able to understand humor?

I can think of one thing that, to me, is crucial to humor: there has to be an element of surprise. Something you didn't expect that you realize suddenly. I think good humor should be a form of learning. Irony has a lot to do with it too. I don't think all humor is irony, but it is certainly a lot of it. Irony seems to partially fit into both Leary's and Heinlein's definitions of humor.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 25th, 2003 05:24 pm (UTC)
Greetings and salutations. I've seen you post in the asperger community and since I've been lurking in your journal for a little while, I thought I'd add you as a friend and felt I should say hello.
May. 26th, 2003 01:20 pm (UTC)
Welcome to my lair! Feel free to add or remove me as you see fit.(and that goes for any other lurkers reading this too)

Originally I was hesitant to add people as friends because I thought that meant I had to automatically follow their journal--but yesterday I just figured out how the friends-groups feature works. So now I'm going to start adding anyone who adds me so they can read any hidden entries I decide to make.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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