The range of laughter-provoking experiences is enormous, from physical tickling to mental titillations of the most varied kinds. There is unity in this variety, however, a common denominator of a specific and specifiable pattern that reflects the “logic” or “grammar” of humour, as it were. A few examples will help to unravel that pattern.
1. A masochist is a person who likes a cold shower in the morning so he takes a hot one.
2. An English lady, on being asked by a friend what she thought of her departed husband’s whereabouts: “Well, I suppose the poor soul is enjoying eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant subjects.”
3. A doctor comforts his patient: “You have a very serious disease. Of 10 persons who catch it, only one survives. It is lucky you came to me, for I have recently had nine patients with this disease and they all died of it.”
4. Dialogue in a French film:
“Sir, I would like to ask for your daughter’s hand.”
“Why not? You have already had the rest.”
5. A marquis of the court of Louis XV unexpectedly returned from a journey and, on entering his wife’s boudoir, found her in the arms of a bishop. After a moment’s hesitation, the marquis walked calmly to the window, leaned out, and began going through the motions of blessing the people in the street.
“What are you doing?” cried the anguished wife.
“Monseigneur is performing my functions, so I am performing his.”
Is there a common pattern underlying these five stories? Starting with the last, a little reflection reveals that the marquis’s behaviour is both unexpected and perfectly logical—but of a logic not usually applied to this type of situation. It is the logic of the division of labour, governed by rules as old as human civilization
It compels the listener to perceive the situation in two self-consistent but incompatible frames of reference at the same time; his mind has to operate simultaneously on two different wavelengths. In humour, both the creation of a subtle joke and the re-creative act of perceiving the joke involve the delightful mental jolt of a sudden leap from one plane or associative context to another.
Turning to the other examples, in the French film dialogue, the daughter’s “hand” is perceived first in a metaphorical frame of reference, then suddenly in a literal, bodily context.
The doctor thinks in terms of abstract, statistical probabilities, the rules of which are inapplicable to individual cases; and there is an added twist because, in contrast to what common sense suggests, the patient’s odds of survival are unaffected by whatever happened before; they are still one against 10.
This is one of the profound paradoxes of the theory of probability, and the joke in fact implies a riddle; it pinpoints an absurdity that tends to be taken for granted.
As for the lady who looks upon death as “eternal bliss” and at the same time “an unpleasant subject,” she epitomizes the common human predicament of living in the divided house of faith and reason. Here again the simple joke carries unconscious overtones and undertones, audible to the inner ear alone.
The masochist who punishes himself by depriving himself of his daily punishment is governed by rules that are a reversal of those of
normal logic. “A sadist is a person who is kind to a masochist.”But there is again an added twist. The joker does not really believe that the masochist takes his hot shower as a punishment; he only pretends to believe it.
Irony is the satirist’s most effective weapon; it pretends to adopt the opponent’s ways of reasoning in order to expose their implicit absurdity or viciousness.
The common pattern underlying these stories is the perceiving of a situation in two self-consistent but mutually incompatible frames of reference or associative contexts. This formula can be shown to have a general validity for all forms of humour and wit, some of which will be discussed below. But it covers only one aspect of humour—its intellectual structure.
Another fundamental aspect must be examined—the emotional dynamics that breathe life into that structure and make a person laugh, giggle, or smirk.