Philosophy 03: What’s Humor?… Laughter?

The average adult laughs 17 times a day. Can you believe it?

Apparently humans aren’t the only ones with a sense of humor. Monkeys laugh by panting and sometimes screeching when being tickled or playing chase; rats laugh with a sort of supersonic squeak-giggle and apparently love to be tickled.

Those are tame animals in homes and labs, and maybe they laugh because the human sense of humor rubs off on them? Adventuresome researchers like Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall and Robert Sapolsky have spent time living with apes in the wild and probably know if they have a sense of humor of their own, but after extensive digging (ha!… a few minutes, really) I’m reasonably confident that no scientists have been camping out with wild rats in, say, New York or Shanghai or Oslo.

Anyway, this article is about us humans because we like to laugh a lot. By the end of the article we’ll see if we can put laughter into perspective with the whole human experience. But first, what’s humor, anyway?

What is Humor?

There are a few theories about why we laugh, but most experts think it has to do with incongruity. When something is suddenly, surprisingly out of joint or out of harmony, it can make us laugh. Cats and babies are incongruous a lot, which makes their funny youtube videos so popular.

Here are some examples (mostly from the USA) of how we classify humor. Note all the incongruities.

(Incidentally, different people react differently to life’s incongruities, so not everyone enjoys the same humor. The jokes below include a few of my all-time favorites, and it may be interesting to see if you find them funny. If you have one or two favorites, feel free to share them in the comments section. Nothing mean or obscene, of course. 🙂 It would be interesting to see how we react differently to incongruity… to the things we find funny. My favorites, by the way, are the jokes by Steve Martin and Woody Allen… contemporaries of mine. I also like a lot of humor from Ellen Degeneres and Stephen Wright.)

Situational humor includes practical jokes and funny home videos like the one above. And there’s the classic example of pulling a chair out from under someone who’s starting to sit down.

Observational humor has been popular down through the ages, from Aristophanes in ancient Greece, to Will Rogers and Mark Twain, to Jerry Seinfeld, who observed recently:

  • Monkeys have contributed a lot to society. They were the first astronauts in the ’60s. Which I’m sure made perfect sense in the monkey brain. “I see, so instead of the little bellhop uniform, you want me to get into a rocket and orbit the Earth at supersonic speed. Yeah, I think that is the next logical step for me. Because, I’ve been working with the Italian guy and the crank organ, and I feel ready to handle the maximum re-entry G-forces.”
  • I saw a study that said the Number 1 fear of the average person is public speaking. Number 2 is death. Death is Number 2! How in the world is that? That means to most people, if you have to go to a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.

Surreal humor exaggerates the incongruity of a situation, like some Ellen Degeneres material:

  • Stuffed deer heads on walls are bad enough, but it’s worse when you see them wearing dark glasses, having streamers around their necks and a hat on their antlers… because then you know they were enjoying themselves at a party when they were shot.
  • I’m a godmother. That’s a great thing, to be a godmother. She calls me “god” for short. That’s cute. I taught her that.

Farcical humor of the Marx brothers, the Three Stooges, and Monty Python also overstates the incongruity, but through physical action.

Self-deprecating jokes are popular with stand-up comics like Rodney Dangerfield:

  • I haven’t spoken to my wife in years. I didn’t want to interrupt her.
  • I was such an ugly kid… when I played in the sandbox, the cat kept covering me up.
  • When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them.

Improvisational comedians make up funny situations in the moment, for example at Second City in the USA, Theatresports in Sweden, and the Theatre Machine in Canada. My avant-garde Aunt Ruth took me to a Second City review when I visited her in Chicago while on leave from the Navy in the early 70s. In one memorable skit…

  • The actors on stage were all attending the funeral of a friend. Everyone was numb with disbelief at his untimely death. One friend whispered solemnly to the widow standing to his right, “What happened?” After a reluctant pause she whispered, “He got his head stuck in a gallon can of Van Camp Pork & Beans.” The fellow started trembling, fighting hard not to laugh. His wife, standing to his left, elbowed him and glared… until he whispered about the cause of death, then she too started to crack up. By the time death-by-pork-and-beans had spread through the gathering, everyone was fighting back laughter. Even the widow didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The audience howled.

Wit, popular among more educated people, was perfected by William Shakespeare… and polished up lately by cerebral comics like Stephen Wright (Join the army, meet interesting people, kill them.) and, of course, Woody Allen who wrote:

  • When it comes to sex, there are certain things that should always be left unknown, and with my luck they probably will be.
  • If it turns out there is a God, I don’t think he’s evil. I think the worst you can say is that basically he’s an underachiever.
  • I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.

Wordplay is also popular among academics, with its use of double meanings and ambiguities.

  • My wife’s reading an anti-gravity novel for book club, and she just can’t put it down.
  • Our neighbor’s addicted to drinking brake fluid, but he says he can stop any time.   

Bodily humor is about awkward biological functions, like the joke Steve Martin told back in the 70s when public smoking was starting to go out of vogue:

  • If I’m in a restaurant and I’m eating and somebody says, “Hey, mind if I smoke?” I always say, “No, mind if I fart?” It’s a habit of mine. They’ve got a special section for me on airplanes now. I tried to quit once, you know, but I gained a lot of weight. It’s hard to quit. After a big meal I really like to, l-l-light one up.

Dark and blue (raunchy) jokes are typically the least favorite among the general public. They make us cringe while we laugh.

  • Someone in London gets stabbed every 52 seconds. Poor guy.
  • Give a man a match and he’ll be warm for a few hours. Set a man on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.
  • Having sex is like playing bridge. If you don’t have a good partner, you better have a good hand.

Anecdotes are stories about people or events. They may be fact or fiction or a combination of the two, and they may or may not come from personal experience. They’re often the best framework for a good joke:

Father buys a lie detector that makes a loud beep whenever somebody tells a lie.
The son comes home in the afternoon.
Father asks him, “So, you were at school today, right?”
Son: “Yeah.” beep.
Son: “OK, OK, I was at the movies.” beep.
Son: “Jeez, I went for a beer with my friends.”
Father: “What?! When I was your age I wouldn’t touch alcohol! “beep.
Mother laughs: “Ha! He really is your son!” beep.

Entering an open-air, rooftop bar, a man finds a seat next to another guy.
“What are you drinking?” he asks the guy.
“Magic beer,” he says.
The man chuckles, expecting a punchline. “Oh, yeah? What’s so magical about it?”
“Watch.” He sips his beer, dives off the roof, flies around the building, then returns to his seat with a cocky grin.
“Wow! Mind if I try?”
The guy shrugs, so the man grabs the guy’s beer and guzzles it. He leaps off the roof, and plunges 15 stories to the ground.
The bartender shakes his head. “You know, you’re a real jerk when you’re drunk, Superman.”

So, that helps explain why we laugh: largely because of incongruity—the unexpected.

Now let’s see if there’s something deeper going on inside us that makes the world seem not just funny, but sometimes sad. After all, comedy and tragedy—laughing and crying—are closely related. And that’s not just the opinion of public speakers and playwrights who’ve learned from experience. Even health professionals and scientists are aware of the close interplay between laughing and crying.

Why We Laugh and Cry

Our sense of humor and sense of distress (and probably most of our other emotions) seem to be tied together. What’s the connection? Surprisingly, it’s not easy to find answers online.

Most articles on the internet are about pathological reasons for uncontrolled laughing and crying—brain disorders and mental illness. But with some digging you can find gems like this one at researchgate, which talks about the normal reasons for laughing, and this one (Time magazine) that explains normal crying.

The omniverse (or all universes in existence) is really all squished together in the same “space” apparently. But that’s hard to illustrate or even to imagine, so this is a pulled-apart view. Everything—every person, every planet…—has the source at the center of its being (its “soul”). Each of its outer selves (its “bodies”) has adapted to living in a particular universe (one of the vague white circles) that might be far removed from the source, as in the case of a human being on Earth in our material universe. Earth’s brutal symbiosis deflects some of the life-energy, casting a spiritual shadow around the planet that’s imperceptible to our conscious minds and our five physical senses.

Still, it’s hard to find good articles about the connection between the two. If there’s a single reason for diverse human emotions like laughing and crying, what is it?

I think it’s the incongruity between our physical lives and our spiritual lives—between what we sometimes call our body and soul. The easiest way to explain it is probably with an anecdote (not a funny one, sorry to say).

(Note: If you’re like I was during the first half of my life—convinced that there’s no afterlife or reincarnation—then you might want to skip this conclusion and retreat smiling while you still can 🙂 ).

A lifetime on Earth is like being in a campground that sits between a lush tropical paradise and a fetid swamp. On one side (toward the source) we have beautiful birds, waterfalls, fragrant flowers, and babbling brooks. On the other side (into Earth’s shadow) there are lots of vicious predators and blood-sucking parasites lurking in and around the smelly bogs.

Each day is a new adventure.

Every morning we gather around campfires and make plans for the day.

For most of us campers, our favorite excursions are awesome hikes along winding trails through paradise. These journeys always stir our soul, lift our spirits, and energize us.

But some days we’re drawn to the adventure of the swamp with its surprises. Surviving the swamp takes guts and grit, stirs up our hormones, and excites our ego. Some days we just want the drama. After all, this is a unique campground. Earth is apparently one of the few places in the entire omniverse where a soul can experience the danger and decay of the swamp.

A few members of our party want nothing to do with the swamp. They just want paradise because it’s so beautiful!… and they can feel that it’s the truth. The swamp is just an exhausting illusion, for gosh sake. Being in paradise is always exhilarating.

(US government photo with giant croc added for effect.)

A few other members are bored with paradise. They’re excited by the dangers lurking in the swamp. That’s where the real exhilaration is! The only time to visit paradise is when you’re burned out and ready for a break. Then, after a short vacation in paradise, it’s back to the swamp. Oo-rah!

So that’s life on Earth—-paradise and swamp.

Whatever the case, most of us have some paradise and some swamp in our genetic make-up—we laugh, we cry, we trust, we deceive…—and how we contend with life’s many incongruities depends largely on our sense of humor. Our sense of humor, in turn, is shaped largely by how closely we feel connected to paradise and the source, or whether we’re more inclined toward the shadow and the swamp.

So the dichotomy or paradox or incongruity between the paradise (the source) and the swamp (Earth’s shadow) is probably the reason for our diverse emotions—the reason for happiness and sadness, awe and fear, deception and honesty, fascination and fight-or-flight….


Stephen Wright says:

The conclusion is the place where you get tired of thinking.

And in this case I agree… so let’s wrap things up:

  • Living with a perennial awareness of the source that rests at the center of our being is the closest we can come to experiencing a paradise lifetime on Earth. When we feel connected to God or Allah or Brahman (or whatever we like to call the source), we can face life’s many incongruities with good humor and light-heartedness.
  • When we allow our conscious mind to be detached from the source, we’re more susceptible to the shadow with its ill humor and dark, unsavory impulses.

(Note: Got some emails reporting that the two big pictures interfered with text while reading the article on a mobile device. So I shrunk the omniverse and broke the montage into separate paradise, campground, and swamp pictures.)

About Mark Macy

Main interests are other-worldly matters ( and worldly matters (
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5 Responses to Philosophy 03: What’s Humor?… Laughter?

  1. Pat Sypult says:

    I agree completely. Earth has been that way for me for many years. Laughing and crying at the same time on a few occasions. The absurdity of having an eternal soul trapped in a physical body without knowing it is really funny and quite a surprise after death. Hysterical. Having been outside the physical body and realizing we exist apart from it is nice to know ahead of time. No fear.That is what makes life bearable.

    • Mark Macy says:

      I think if there’s one ultimate truth in the article, even if it wasn’t stated, it’s what you said, that knowing about our spiritual heritage and connection can remove the fear of death. That’s like the key that unlocks everything. Thanks for mentioning it here, Pat.

  2. John R.M. Day says:

    Thanks for this post Mark. I enjoyed learning more about laughter and humor.
    And very timely too!
    The cat and baby video made for some good laughs.

  3. Kate says:

    During the lock-up I’ve been watching some comedy, it’s good to tickle the chuckle muscle and escape . I also watched ‘Afterlife’ by Ricky Gervais on Netflix and I found those series are a genius understanding of emotions and how someone can feel and act when grieving. For me it was a roller coaster of emotions from crying to laughing, very intense emotions. I love how the article covers the different types of humor, right time and place they are all good. Thanks Mark.

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