Post No.: 0324
It could be said that jokes fall into or involve a few basic categories or elements. There are exaggerations that create wild mental images, understatements or sarcasm. There are puns such as words twisted out of context, substituting words with similar sounding words and visual puns. There are put-downs or impressions, mimicking or skits, mocks and self-deprecations. There is silliness or incongruity. And then there’s the element of surprise or leading the audience one way in the beginning then taking them totally in an opposite direction right at the very enchilada.
I guess this post follows on from Post No.: 0240 for we’re looking at some research and theories about humour and laughter.
Jokes can come from slapstick, storytelling or wordplay – they can be based on double-entendres or innuendos, be observational humour, parodies, ironic stereotypes about stereotypes, in-joke catchphrases (where life itself provides the setup and the right circumstances for the catchphrase punchline), sharp witticisms or comebacks, teasing, cheekiness or funny sounding names (‘k’s and ‘oo’s are often said to sound funnier).
They can be based on human experiences, funny perspectives on real life, personal life events, satire, or classic or conventional jokes (many jokes are modern interpretations of old ones). They can be sketches (situation jokes), practical jokes, pranks or gags, physical pratfalls, horseplay, messy fun, improv sketches, gags with everyday objects, plain silliness and mischief, acting crazy, playing cute or being deliberately stupid, pulling faces or exaggerated gestures, tickling, clumsiness, (harmless) mistakes or accidents, fart, burp or funny noise jokes, contrasting opposites and misfits, illogic, things not being what they seem, double-take gags, and more!
Regarding put-downs – joking can make us feel better about our (sorry) selves by mocking people or situations that we find ridiculous or secretly hate or fear. Some joking is a power game that tries to play with who’s superior to whom. Jokes can therefore sometimes be a playful act of aggression – equivalent to a tickling attack but more grown-up. With any kind of joke, the joke teller already kind of holds a certain power over the audience because he/she knows the answer or punchline and it cannot be guessed at with conventional logic. But if the audience finds that a particular joke is too offensive or goes too far then it won’t be funny. Humour is about socially connecting people, not alienating people, hence put-downs are usually self-deprecations or for a sense of superiority against the pompous or self-aggrandising rather than the oppressed or unfortunate. (This might be one reason why most popular comedians (in the UK and US at least) tend to be relatively liberal-leaning? It’s also not very big or tasteful to laugh at the oppressed or unfortunate, for which the lower classes tend to be.) So jokes are especially good at pricking pomposity and smugness – the self-anointed great, hypocrites and the arrogant fall better!
Jokes can be a socially-sanctioned way of letting out taboo thoughts and feelings. It can act like a pressure valve; a rebellion against the constraints of rational (adult) behaviour. Jokes are an escapist world where reason does not stand against absurd premises. Laughter is a pleasurable release of the energy we save when our expectations of something effortful are rewarded with a feeling of effortlessness when we ‘get it’. Laughter results from a sudden resolution of mental conflict. However, it can also signal a state of ambivalence – laughter can sometimes be expressed during a wobble of uncertainty, for us not knowing how to react in a particular situation (such as in the case of nervous laughter).
Incongruity is a common feature of jokes – the setup of a joke creates assumptions but the punchline provides quite a different conclusion; one that subverts our previously-held assumptions about the joke scenario. This is often achieved by exploiting an ambiguity in the language of the joke and inverting certain conventions of social behaviour. It’s not only via language though – the mental pictures some jokes paint can also be hilarious by virtue of their incongruity, shock value or sheer plain silliness.
A joke is a tiny world where everything is provisional. Everything can be in two states at once. We laugh at things that are out of place. Madness and fantasy are often just creativity out of context.
But although incongruence is a common feature of jokes, what makes us laugh has got to be more than what is simply incongruent because some incongruent things aren’t funny at all but merely confusing (e.g. seeing a book stuck to the ceiling). Jokes must involve an element of surprise, and they must also involve no real harm done – apart from embarrassment – otherwise empathy kicks in (unless one lacks empathy, at least towards the victim(s) of the joke).
A joke sets up a scenario, builds up in a crescendo and peaks with (hopefully!) a laugh – setup, punchline, laughter. This laughter is a response to a conceptual shift – a change in our perception of the state of the world around us. Jokes can twist our view, then twist it again. We turn something upside-down then laugh at the results. They cause surprise by leading people one way then quickly taking them tangentially in another unexpected direction via a sharp punchline.
Individual jokes rely on conveying details that the audience can identify with. Bear in mind (I’m thinking of Paddington) that those details are firmly anchored in a time, place and language i.e. the joke and audience must inhabit the same world. So jokes cannot be taken in isolation – each instance of the joke’s appearance has a joker, jokee(s), a flavour and a context all of its own.
All jokes must therefore be taken in their context. Albeit if they’re not then will this be the fault of the audience for having a ‘sense of humour failure’ or the fault of the joke teller for misjudging the audience? (I’d personally say that it’s more the fault of the latter, especially if he/she is a professional comedian.) So jokes can date in their settings, context and surface details, although their structure and basic themes or premises will likely be timeless – hence most jokes can be probably adapted to different times and even countries and cultures.
Jokes can revel in their own brevity (e.g. one/two-liners, riddles or anecdotes). ‘Shaggy dog stories’, or anecdotes that feature a long-winded, over-elaborate setup that then end in an anticlimax, however, can still elicit a wry laugh precisely due to their lack of a sharp punchline. These yarns rely entirely on the joke teller’s personality and skill at embellishment and exaggeration, much more than on the punchlines. It’s the art of storytelling and spinning flights of fancy in carefully judged leaps of imagination. Although I thought the dog was Scooby-Doo?
Observational humour views the world awry – bringing us back to the everyday by estranging us from it. A comedian can be somewhat likened to an anthropologist – both deflating and celebrating the minutiae of our everyday lives. Some jokes hold up a mirror that reveals our personal flaws or the foibles of society only too vividly. So look for the ironic and funny angle in everyday situations then transform those ordinary humorous observations into neatly packaged jokes. Observation jokes are often more conversational then one/two-liners.
Jokes lie halfway between fear or pain and ecstasy. Laughter is the release of tension, on discovering that a perceived threat was not in fact a threat at all. There is often a fine line between laughter and tragedy (e.g. witnessing a near miss compared to a serious injury). We like watching videos of and laughing at people who narrowly escape death or take huge risks with their lives, but we don’t like watching or laughing at people who die from the exact same activities. Pain, fear and laughter are therefore all intimately connected, hence why seeing someone fall hard on their arse can be so funny! We empathise with the pain but in the end it’s someone else’s arse.