Afternoon Inqueery

AI: Humor I

Some time ago, I got into an extensive, drawn-out discussion with a group of friends about the nature of humor and what makes something funny.  The first time we talked about it, we just named things we could think of that we found humorous and described what it was about those things that made them funny.  When we were having trouble identifying some unifying factor, we decided to each keep a journal for a week of everything that made us laugh (time consuming, but amusing in its own right, really) and why.  These things could be loosely grouped into categories (sex humor, slapstick, etc) by the end of the week.

There were a lot of aspects to this past conversation, and I’m curious for some more perspectives on the matter, so I’m going to make a short series of the Thursday AIs on this topic.  For this week:

What kind of themes have you noticed, or can you identify, in the things you find funny?  Are there a few very strong factors, or a lot of scattered ones that don’t necessarily hang together?

The Afternoon Inqueery (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Queereka community. Look for it every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 3pm ET.

Featured image is from Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson.

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Dae is a chemical engineering graduate student who aspires to become a mad scientist, but is prepared to settle for being a professor. Her extracurricular academic interests are an ever-shifting list, but currently include temperament psychology, philosophy, transhumanism, and pre-modern literature. She identifies as a bisexual cis-woman, as well as a feminist, humanist, atheist, and roleplaying game enthusiast.


  1. March 14, 2013 at 1:52 pm —

    I can more easily point out what I don’t find humorous: shock “humor,” that screaming goat meme, the new Harlem shake meme, Legally Blonde, and slapstick. Dry humor, dreadful puns, and cultural commentary crack me up, though.

  2. March 14, 2013 at 5:39 pm —

    I actually wrote a paper in college for a Philosophy of Language class on the philosophical language of jokes and why we find things funny (subtitle: “Putting Descartes before the horse.”) This led to a senior project in my new philosophy minor specifically about knock-knock jokes, and why they’re so pervasive in our culture, even though most people can agree that standard knock-knock jokes aren’t really very funny. I tried to take into account two major things: a sudden change in perspective of some kind (most easily demonstrable with puns, where a statement flips from one phonological meaning to another) and shared knowledge (the feeling of being “in on the joke” with certain references, ideas, stereotypes, etc.) A great deal of humor derives form these two factors, in varying ratios.

    So anyway, farts are funny.

    • March 15, 2013 at 4:16 pm —

      That’s the best subtitle for a paper in history. lol!

  3. March 14, 2013 at 10:20 pm —

    Be careful with this sort of thing- as Douglas Adams once said, “A joke is like a frog. When you try to dissect it to see how it works, you immediately find yourself with a hand full of non-working frog.”

    Most of the time, it boils down to “violating expectations”. When you tell a pun, you’re violating the expectation of what a word means. In the above statement about humor, it’s violating the expectation of how we should react emotionally to the concept of “working/non-working” (normally an unemotional analysis), by changing the level of emotionality (here, caused by feeling empathy with the frog). This also explains a lot of conflict over more “questionable” humor- that which concerns itself with gender roles or race relations. One group’s expectations about those subjects may vary wildly from another’s, so some people may find a joke to be humorous while others find it highly offensive, even threatening. MarlowePI does bring up an important point- in order to “get” the joke, you must be able to not only understand the initial expectations, but also the new set of understandings described by the punchline.

  4. March 19, 2013 at 12:41 pm —

    Most of the things I find humourous lately involve revelling in absurdity or exposing pretention, (with a healthy dash of irony thrown in.) Of course, the most pretentious and absurd statements are usually made about subjects of the utmost importance, so it’s a dangerous game.

    ps. Also puns.

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