How is That Funny?! A look at the Philosophy of Humour

Listed to the podcast for this article.

Picture this. You’re in a church for a Christian funeral.

The air is thick with the scent of burning candles and freshly cut flowers as mourners gather in the dimly lit temple. The coffin rests in the center, the sounds of soft weeping and sniffing echoing off the high ceilings. The mood is heavy with the weight of private and collective grief and mortal awareness.

And then, out of nowhere, it hits you. Triggered by the most inane, foolish, childish thoughts: the memory of some old lame joke; that scene you watched as a kid, where Mr Bean falls asleep in church; someone’s grunt that sounds like a fart. Damn it. You feel helplessly impotent in the face of that one spasm of unexplained and inexcusable laughter itching to burst out of your every pore. Your struggle intensifies when you catch and infect your friend’s eye. The sombre atmosphere only makes it worse, amplifying the absurdity of the situation.

Shakespeare once said, “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” Indeed, what better way to face our mortality than by smirking at it! But not here, not now! Please!

Then, unannounced, the urge slowly dies, fizzling out. The funeral goes on, the mourners are none the wiser to your small burst of irreverence.

But what makes us laugh? Why does humour hold such a powerful sway over us? Why does a well-timed joke or an unexpected twist of a story evoke such an emotional response? And why, in the most solemn moments, does humour seem so ill-placed yet so inescapable?

The curiosity around laughter and humour is not new. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle have grappled with these questions. Plato was skeptical about humour, seeing it as a form of mockery, while Aristotle saw it as something more nuanced, related to human nature and social behaviour.

In contemporary times, the subject has not lost its intrigue. From stand-up comedians to political satirists, humour takes various forms, and its understanding requires a deep look into our psyche, ethics, social norms, and cultural values. It’s more than just a good laugh; it’s a mirror reflecting human society, relationships, politics, and even our innermost fears and desires.

In this exploration, we aim to examine various philosophical theories of laughter and humour, from ancient ideas to modern interpretations. We’ll investigate the role of laughter and humour in human life, its ethical dimensions, how it has evolved with societal norms, and its relevance in today’s ever-changing global context. Through this multifaceted analysis, we’ll not only gain insights into what makes us laugh but also understand how laughter shapes who we are and how we interact with the world around us. It’s not just about cracking a joke; it’s about understanding the human condition. And that’s no laughing matter.

Part 1: The Philosophical Understanding of Humour

A. Superiority Theory

Yo mama so dumb,
she thought seaweed was a mermaid drug

At the heart of a simple chuckle or a boisterous laugh might lie the notion of superiority. This idea has its roots in some of the earliest philosophical investigations into what makes something humorous.

Definition and Explanation

Superiority Theory posits that our laughter often springs from a sense of triumph or feeling of superiority over others. When we laugh at someone slipping on a banana peel or a character’s misfortune in a sitcom, we might be expressing a subtle form of joy at someone else’s expense.

Historical Roots

Plato was perhaps one of the first philosophers to offer a glimpse into this concept. In his works, he was quite critical of laughter, associating it with a form of mockery or scorn. Later, Aristotle, in the Poetics, highlighted that comedy was essentially an imitation of characters of a lower type. For Aristotle, it was more about highlighting the ridiculous than merely scoffing at it.

This notion continued to shape thoughts around humour in subsequent centuries. Philosophers like Hobbes considered laughter a sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.

Examples in Society

In society, the Superiority Theory can be seen in various forms of entertainment, from satirical cartoons lampooning political figures to stand-up comedians making light of everyday failures. These often serve not just to amuse but to critique, to hold a mirror up to society’s flaws, eccentricities, or hypocrisies.

Even in daily interactions, a simple joke at the expense of a friend’s momentary confusion or mistake often brings laughter. It’s a universal experience, transcending cultural and social boundaries.

Counterarguments and Critiques

However, this approach has its detractors. Not all humour seems to fit neatly into this theory. For instance, self-deprecating humour, where one laughs at oneself, doesn’t conform to the superiority model.

Some modern philosophers and researchers argue that this theory oversimplifies the complex nature of humour. It might explain certain types of jokes and comic situations, but it falls short in encapsulating the richness and diversity of what we find humorous.

Moreover, critics point out the potential ethical issues with the superiority model, highlighting that it can lead to a mean-spirited form of humour, where laughing at others becomes a form of belittlement or bullying.


Superiority Theory has offered significant insights into understanding laughter and humour, connecting it to social dynamics and human psychology. It has shaped the work of writers, comedians, and thinkers across generations. Yet, it’s not without its limitations and criticisms. In capturing the essence of what makes us laugh, this theory opens doors but also leaves many questions unanswered. Its role in the broader landscape of philosophical theories of humour is vital, but it also invites further scrutiny and debate. It sets the stage, prompting us to look beyond, to consider other perspectives and dimensions of this fascinating aspect of human life.

B. Relief Theory

I just read that someone in New York gets stabbed every 52 seconds.
Poor guy.

Another compelling lens through which to view humour is the Relief Theory, a concept that takes us into the intriguing psychological dimensions of laughter.

Explanation of Freud’s Idea of Laughter as Relief from Psychic Energy

The Relief Theory was championed by Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist known for his groundbreaking work in psychoanalysis. In his writings, Freud put forward the idea that laughter functions as a release of pent-up psychological energy.

According to Freud, our daily lives are filled with social norms, taboos, and self-imposed restraints that build up psychic energy. This energy, he proposed, is akin to steam in a pressure cooker; it has to be released. And humour provides the valve. By laughing at a joke or comical situation, we experience a momentary release of this tension.

Dark and Gallows Humour; Examples and Significance

An interesting aspect of Freud’s Relief Theory is how it can be applied to dark or gallows humour. This type of humour often involves making light of subjects that are typically considered serious, taboo, or even morbid.

Take, for instance, jokes made about death, illness, or disasters. While these topics are typically off-limits for humour, they can become sources of comic relief. It’s not a matter of insensitivity but a way to deal with uncomfortable or painful realities.

Dark humour might be seen in literature, films, or even among groups dealing with stress or trauma. Emergency service workers, for instance, often develop a sense of gallows humour as a coping mechanism.

Counterarguments and Critiques

However, Relief Theory, much like Superiority Theory, is not without its critics. Can laughter always be linked to pent-up emotions or societal pressures? What about laughter that arises from sheer joy, surprise, or appreciation of wit and creativity?

Some argue that Freud’s focus on psychic energy and repressed emotions may be too narrow and limiting. It doesn’t necessarily explain all types of humour or laughter. It may shed light on why we laugh at taboo subjects or find relief in comedy during stressful times, but it does not encompass the full spectrum of what can evoke laughter.

Moreover, the scientific grounding of this theory has been called into question. While intuitively appealing, the precise mechanisms of how psychic energy is built and released through humour remain somewhat vague and abstract.


Relief Theory offers a fascinating perspective on humour, one that connects it with our innermost fears, desires, and societal constraints. Freud’s insights still resonate with many, illuminating why we may turn to humour in dark or difficult times. Yet, the theory also opens up more questions, challenges, and avenues for further investigation. It takes us closer to understanding the psychological layers of humour but also reminds us of the complexity and multifaceted nature of something as simple and universal as a laugh. It’s a theory that engages us intellectually, but also stirs us to reflect on our own experiences with humour, adding depth and richness to our understanding of why we laugh.

C. Incongruity Theory

What is grey, has four legs, and a trunk?
A mouse on vacation.

A significant leap from Freud’s psychoanalytic approach to humour brings us to Incongruity Theory, an intellectual framework that focuses on the unexpected mismatch between what we anticipate and what actually happens.

Explanation of Incongruity as the Mismatch Between Expectation and Reality

In simple terms, the Incongruity Theory posits that humour arises from the clash between expectation and reality. When our minds set up a pattern or logical progression, and then that pattern is suddenly broken or twisted in an unexpected way, we experience humour. This abrupt shift or incongruity is what triggers laughter.

Historical Roots, Including Kant and Schopenhauer

The seeds of Incongruity Theory can be traced back to some prominent thinkers, including Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer. Both of these philosophers explored how our cognitive processes might set us up for humorous surprises.

Kant, in his “Critique of Judgment,” described humour as the result of a sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, highlighted the essential role of incongruity in humour, suggesting that laughter is caused by the sudden perception of an inconsistency between a concept and the real objects thought through it in some relation.


Examples of incongruity in humour are abundant in various media, such as stand-up comedy, literature, and film. Consider a joke that leads you down a path only to reveal an entirely unexpected punchline. The setup creates an expectation, and the punchline breaks it, causing laughter.

Satirical works often employ incongruity by juxtaposing serious issues with absurdity. Political cartoons, for example, might exaggerate a politician’s features or place them in a ridiculous situation to highlight incongruity between public image and policy.

Counterarguments and Critiques

Despite its appeal, the Incongruity Theory faces criticism and challenges. Some argue that not all incongruity results in humour. A twist in a thriller or a dramatic reveal in a mystery novel might be incongruous, yet not necessarily funny.

Moreover, the theory may not explain why some forms of incongruity are humorous to some individuals but not to others. Cultural, social, and individual differences play a role in determining what is considered incongruent and thus funny.

The theory’s reliance on cognitive processes also raises questions. While it focuses on mental expectations and their subversion, it doesn’t fully address the emotional or social aspects of humour.


Incongruity Theory offers a rich, intellectual insight into humour by examining the sharp twists and turns that our minds can take on the road to laughter. The contributions of thinkers like Kant and Schopenhauer have paved the way for this understanding, helping us appreciate the nuances and complexities of humour’s incongruent nature. It adds a layer of cognitive intrigue to our ongoing quest to grasp why something makes us laugh. Yet, it also reminds us that humour’s intricate weave of expectations, surprises, and cultural contexts resists easy categorisation. Our laughter, it seems, keeps its secrets well, continuing to surprise and delight us in its enigmatic ways.

D. Other Theories

Beyond the traditional theories we’ve previously discussed, the field of humour studies encompasses more modern interpretations, offering different and at times complementary insights. These theories, such as hybrid and evolutionary approaches, aim to bridge gaps and present an overarching understanding of laughter and humour. They’re coupled with critiques of existing frameworks, offering a more nuanced view of this complex subject.

Hybrid Theories

The hybrid theories of humour acknowledge that no single theory is sufficient to explain all aspects of humour. Consequently, scholars have proposed combined models that take elements from superiority, relief, and incongruity theories to create a more comprehensive understanding.

For example, the Benign Violation Theory, formulated by Peter McGraw, posits that something is funny when it simultaneously violates some social or moral norm (violation) and is perceived to be non-threatening (benign). This approach seeks to reconcile various elements from the different traditional theories and applies them to a wide range of humorous situations.

Evolutionary Theories

Another branch of thought looks at humour from an evolutionary perspective. These theories suggest that humour evolved as a social tool, helping human beings to bond, communicate, and navigate complex social structures.

The work of Robert Provine, a neuroscientist and psychologist, stands out here. He explored laughter as a social glue that strengthens group bonds, enhances cooperation, and helps individuals find mates. This understanding aligns with the broader evolutionary principle that traits and behaviours that confer survival advantages tend to be preserved and passed on.

Critique of the Existing Theories

While each of these theories contributes significantly to our understanding of humour, criticisms and shortcomings are inherent in their interpretations.

For instance, some scholars argue that the existing theories may be too narrow, not fully accounting for cultural diversity and individual differences in humour. They may also overlook the multifaceted nature of laughter, focusing too much on cognitive processes while neglecting emotional and social aspects.

Critics also point to the limitation of understanding humour solely as a psychological phenomenon without considering its broader sociocultural context. It’s worth noting that humour varies widely across different cultures, times, and social settings, and no single theory can explain all its manifestations.


The analysis of humour continues to be a multifaceted challenge, compelling scholars to create diverse approaches that reflect its complex nature. Hybrid theories seek to merge the best aspects of traditional frameworks, while evolutionary models aim to root humour in our biological heritage. Both are responses to the critiques that have arisen regarding the potential narrowness or incompleteness of older theories.

These other theories remind us that the philosophy of laughter and humour is far from a settled matter. It’s a dynamic field that mirrors the very essence of what it studies: ever-changing, surprising, and, above all, human. The exploration of these multifaceted theories invites us to continue probing the mysterious ways in which humour connects us, challenges us, and enriches our understanding of ourselves and each other.

Part 2: The Social and Ethical Dimensions of Humour

A. The Role of Laughter and Humour in Society

Humour is not merely a personal or psychological phenomenon; it has broad societal applications that permeate various aspects of human life. It acts as a social adhesive, a healer, and even a political weapon, encompassing domains that are crucial to human connection and societal progress.

Social Bonding

Laughter is often seen as a universal language that transcends cultural barriers. People use humour to forge connections, build trust, and strengthen social ties. Laughter creates a sense of belonging, allowing individuals to feel part of a community.

Philosopher Henri Bergson spoke of laughter as a social gesture, a shared experience that reinforces community bonds and social norms. His views highlight the philosophical implications of humour as a communal act that shapes and is shaped by society.

Healing and Therapeutic Effects

The healing power of laughter has been recognised in various contexts, both physical and emotional. Laughter therapy and comedy interventions in healthcare settings have become increasingly common. These approaches are grounded in the belief that laughter can reduce stress, boost immunity, and foster a positive outlook on life.

Comedian and actor Robin Williams famously portrayed a doctor using humour to treat patients in the film “Patch Adams.” While a work of fiction, it reflects a real-life movement that recognises the therapeutic benefits of laughter, a subject that psychologists and medical professionals continue to research and apply.

Political and Satirical Roles

Humour can also function as a political tool, critiquing power structures and challenging societal norms. Satirical works, such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” have historically been used to highlight political absurdities and social injustices.

In the modern era, satirical television shows and stand-up comedians continue this tradition, using humour to provoke thought and inspire social change. From the biting wit of George Carlin to the insightful commentaries of John Oliver, humour has proven to be a potent force in political discourse.


The multifaceted roles of humour in society illustrate its profound influence on human connections, health, and governance. It’s more than mere entertainment; it’s a social tool that can bring people together, heal wounds, and challenge the status quo.

Through laughter, we find common ground with others, mend emotional scars, and voice our opinions in ways that resonate and engage. The philosophical implications of these roles underscore the universality and significance of humour, revealing its deep-rooted connection to the essence of human nature and our shared societal experience. Far from being a trivial matter, laughter serves as a mirror reflecting the complexities, triumphs, and challenges of our collective human experience.

B. The Ethics of Humour

Navigating the world of humour means balancing laughter’s joy with its potential to upset or offend. This ethical dimension to humour brings into focus complex issues of controversy, offensiveness, context, intention, and the ever-present tension with freedom of expression.

Controversy and Offensiveness

Comedy often thrives on challenging norms and societal boundaries. Historical figures in comedy like George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor were known for pushing these limits, leading to both admiration and outrage.

Philosophers, looking at the moral aspects of actions, might assess the ethics of a joke based on its potential effects. A controversial or offensive joke could be seen as morally wrong if it causes harm or discomfort to others.

Importance of Context and Intention

The context and intention behind a joke can significantly impact its ethical interpretation. A humorous comment meant to expose an injustice can be seen differently from one that belittles a person or group.

Philosopher John Morreall highlights the need to evaluate the context and intention in humour. He suggests that grasping the nuances of a joke’s purpose and the situation in which it’s made can reveal its ethical stance.

Counterarguments: Freedom of Expression, etc.

The subject of humour’s ethics collides with the principle of free speech. Critics of restrictions on humour assert that curbing comedic expression infringes on fundamental freedoms.

This view finds support in liberal philosophy, drawing from thinkers like John Stuart Mill who championed free expression. The challenge emerges in reconciling this freedom with the possible negative consequences of humour.

Example: The Charlie Hebdo Incident Explained

The ethical complexities of humour were brought into sharp relief by the Charlie Hebdo incident in France. Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, published cartoons depicting religious figures, including the Prophet Muhammad, in a manner that many found disrespectful or offensive.

The situation escalated dramatically when, in 2015, two gunmen attacked the magazine’s offices, killing several staff members. The assailants were motivated by a desire to punish the publication for its perceived blasphemy.

The incident led to a global conversation about the boundaries of free speech and humour, with reactions ranging from support for the magazine’s right to publish the cartoons to condemnations of insensitivity.


Humour’s ethical dimension is intricate and multifaceted. It requires a careful consideration of individual rights against collective values, a nuanced understanding of context and intention, and an awareness of the varying degrees of controversy and offensiveness.

A joke that brings joy to one person might cause pain to another. This conflict presents an ongoing challenge in defining humour’s ethical lines. The subject reaches into the heart of human morality and our shared societal norms. It raises profound questions that engage thinkers, comedians, and audiences, and these questions are emblematic of broader ethical dilemmas that continue to shape our understanding of right and wrong.

C. Political Correctness in Humour

The advent of political correctness in modern discourse is a complex issue that has created both harmony and tension in various spheres of society, especially in comedy. The subject of political correctness in humour can be dissected into three main areas: changing norms and sensibilities, the impact on comedy and discourse, and the need to find a balance between sensitivity and creativity.

Changing Norms and Sensibilities

Societal norms shift over time, reflecting changes in values, attitudes, and ethics. These shifts directly influence what is considered acceptable in humour. Philosophers like Charles Taylor have written extensively about the politics of recognition and the increasing emphasis on respecting diverse identities.

This can be seen in the growing awareness and recognition of minorities and marginalized groups. Whereas some jokes and stereotypes were widely accepted in the past, the current era sees a push towards more thoughtful and respectful humour.

Impact on Comedy and Discourse

Political correctness has had a profound effect on the comedic landscape. It prompts comedians to reflect more on the content and target of their jokes. This greater awareness can lead to more thoughtful and insightful humour but can also result in hesitance or self-censorship.

Comedians like Hannah Gadsby have spoken openly about the complexities of navigating comedy in this new terrain. Others, including Jerry Seinfeld, have expressed concerns that political correctness stifles creativity.

Moreover, the shift towards political correctness has also shaped public discourse, encouraging individuals to consider the perspectives of others, promoting empathy, and fostering more inclusive dialogue.

Counterarguments: Balance Between Sensitivity and Creativity

Critics of political correctness argue that excessive concern for sensitivity can hamper creativity. They worry that fear of causing offence may lead to a sanitised and less authentic form of expression.

John Cleese, the British comedian and writer, has voiced such concerns, suggesting that overemphasis on political correctness risks making humour bland and less daring.

However, proponents of political correctness counter that it is not about stifling creativity but rather about fostering an environment where humour can thrive without marginalising or belittling others.


The issue of political correctness in humour is multifaceted and evokes strong opinions on all sides. It encapsulates a broader societal struggle to reconcile respect for individual sensitivities with the preservation of creative freedom.

The interplay between these elements continues to shape the world of comedy, prompting comedians, writers, and audiences to grapple with the nuances of humour in a constantly evolving cultural landscape. The discourse on political correctness in humour remains an engaging reflection of the dynamic relationship between society’s norms and the art of making people laugh, providing rich material for philosophical inquiry and societal introspection.

Part 3: Personal and Contemporary Insights

A. The Importance of Self-awareness and Empathy in Humour

Humour has the unique ability to both connect and divide. It can bring joy and understanding or cause discomfort and alienation. One of the keys to harnessing the positive power of humour lies in the development of self-awareness and empathy. These elements allow for deeper connection with others, responsiveness to context, and the ability to illustrate ideas with real-world examples.

Connection with Others

Philosopher Martin Buber famously described the idea of the “I-Thou” relationship, in which individuals engage with others in a way that acknowledges and respects their unique humanity. This concept can be applied to humour, where understanding and valuing the perspective of another person is vital.

Comedians and writers who show an ability to connect with their audience often do so by exhibiting empathy, finding common ground, and using humour as a means of exploring shared experiences. Successful humour often depends on the creator’s awareness of their audience’s feelings, attitudes, and beliefs.

Responsiveness to Context

Context is crucial in determining the appropriateness and effectiveness of humour. Self-aware individuals can assess a situation and adapt their humour to suit the mood, the audience, and the setting. The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s thoughts on the influence of context and tradition on understanding are relevant here.

For example, a joke that might be well-received among friends could be inappropriate in a professional setting. Sensitivity to context requires a combination of self-awareness and empathy, allowing for an intuitive understanding of what is suitable in a given situation.

Illustrations and Examples

The late comedian George Carlin was a master at using self-awareness and empathy to craft humour that resonated with many, for example by understanding the audience’s frustrations, and by humanising complex issues. His ability to take everyday situations and turn them into insightful and often provocative comedy illustrated his acute understanding of the human condition.

Similarly, the British show “The Office,” created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, succeeded in its use of situational humour. By tapping into the common experiences of working in an office environment, it was able to create relatable and empathetic characters.

Concluding Remarks

Self-awareness and empathy in humour are not just essential tools for comedians and writers but are valuable life skills. They facilitate communication, promote understanding, and foster relationships. Whether in the realm of personal interactions or in the broader scope of societal discourse, these qualities enhance our ability to use humour as a means of connection rather than division. The intersection of self-awareness, empathy, and humour is a rich field for both personal growth and societal reflection, providing a lens through which we can examine our values, our relationships, and our place in the world.

B. Relevance Today

Humour continues to be an essential part of our social fabric, offering both insights and challenges in a rapidly changing world. It links with current social, political, and cultural trends while presenting various opportunities and obstacles.

Linking with Social, Political, and Cultural Trends

In today’s world, humour plays an active role in reflecting and shaping our understanding of various issues. French philosopher Henri Bergson’s idea that laughter serves a social function by reinforcing shared values is ever more pertinent. Comedy can act as a barometer for societal norms and attitudes, highlighting what is considered acceptable or taboo.

Take, for example, the rise of political satire. Shows like “Saturday Night Live” or John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” have become vital parts of political discourse. They use humour to shed light on serious issues, engaging audiences in ways that more traditional outlets might struggle to achieve.

In the cultural sphere, humour provides a means to challenge stereotypes and prejudices. Comedians like Hasan Minhaj and Hannah Gadsby have used their platforms to question societal norms, elevating minority voices, and encouraging critical thinking.

Challenges and Opportunities in Today’s World

As with any powerful tool, humour comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities. The nature of comedy often involves pushing boundaries, which can lead to conflicts over taste, sensitivity, and political correctness. These are not new issues, but they are exacerbated in an era of social media where content can be shared and scrutinized instantly.

The immediacy of today’s media landscape presents both an opportunity and a challenge for humour. It allows for more direct interaction with audiences, but also opens the door to misunderstandings and controversy.

Moreover, the global nature of our current, multicultural world means that humour must navigate a complex web of cultural norms and values. What is funny in one culture may not translate well into another, leading to misinterpretations and potential offense.

Yet these challenges are accompanied by unprecedented opportunities. Humour’s capacity to foster dialogue, promote empathy, and create community is more accessible than ever. Comedy’s ability to bridge gaps and connect people across disparate backgrounds has never been more needed or more potent.

Final Thoughts

The relevance of humour in today’s world cannot be overstated. As a reflection of social, political, and cultural realities, it offers us insights into who we are and where we’re headed. The interplay between comedy and modern society is complex, fraught with both promise and peril. But as a medium for communication, understanding, and change, humour’s role in our world is as vital as it is versatile. It presents a unique lens through which we can engage with our ever-changing world, appreciating both the laughter and the learning it offers.

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