One theory to explain humor is that it is the mental state of "flipping" between two or more conceptualizations of the same thing. You find input humorous when it is unexpected and different from your current model of reality, and you are forced to add that new input to your list of expectations. The effect relies on your imagination in knowing what will probably happen, and your confusion when it doesn't happen. Whether or not something is funny depends not only on how unexpected that input is, but on your internal state and thoughts about the input.

Thus when a school bus randomly explodes on the Simpsons, it's funny, whereas when a firework does the same thing in Real Life, it is not. This also explains why a stimulus that is humorous the first time is less so, or not at all, the second. This is most noticeable in very predictable humor like the Three Stooges or TV sitcoms. If a humorous input is sufficiently complex or draws upon concepts that aren't often referenced in daily life, it can be funny more often, as is the case with Monty Python and SOY!. There is a point of diminishing returns with regard to complexity and obscurity, however, as most people just don't find jokes told in Calculus notation or about Millard Fillmore very funny. Dependence upon forethought and imagination also explains why dull people often lack a sense of humor.

Another facet of this theory is that your physiological, emotional, and cognitive states can "block" you from making the associations and preconceptions necessary to find humor in a situation. When you walk into a pole you don't see, you don't laugh because you are busy being in pain, but when you look back on the incident in a week, it's hilarious and you can laugh along with your friends at the memory. Likewise, when you're crying about something, you are probably using the whole of your concentration and emotional depth on that thing, and cannot or are not willing to spend the thought needed to appreciate a funny stimulus. Humor can also be interfered with by a deeply held belief or opinion, which is why the strongly Christian find no humor in jokes about Jesus. Similarly, it's hard to laugh at yourself, because deep down we don't consider ourselves buffoons, and are not willing to examine the possibility that we might be.

It should be noted that under this theory, when we find something funny, we incorporate it to a small degree into our entire thought process. In essence, we learn it. That's why upon reading Hitchhikers Guide the second time, we take almost as much pleasure in anticipating the humorous parts as we do in reading them. That's also why racist/sexist humor is so insidious, because in laughing at it, we incorporate it into our psyche as a plausible (although not necessarily true) fact.

For more on this theory, see:
Belief and the Basis of Humor, Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks, American Philosophical Quarterly, 1993, 329-39
Laughter, Robert R. Provine, American Scientist, 1996 Jan-Feb

Pyromancer's node reminds me of this one-liner:

Why does my nose run and my feet smell?

I remember back in high school, we devoted a day in Humanities class to analyzing what humor was and what made something funny. There were various theories offered, from the silly to the unexpected to others I can't remember.

The one that stuck with me was that humor was something that made you feel superior. This isn't to say everything that makes you feel superior is funny, but that I think much of what we find funny can be interpreted as something that makes you feel superior.

Ethnic jokes are funny as long as they make fun of some other ethnic group. Political jokes are funny as long as they make fun of some other political group.

The problem with jokes like those above is that they can turn away parts of the audience. The more people that you turn away, the less successful the comedian. Many comedians instead find success in self-deprecating humor. They try to get their audience to feel superior to the comedian (thus the comedian does not risk losing "market share").

So what about the joke above about the nose and the feet? One claim is that people feel superior to themselves when they "get the joke" - that is, first they may not understand a pun, then they suddenly realize what it is, and suddenly feel superior to their past selves, when they didn't understand it.

Anyway, that's just conjecture. If you find this helpful in developing your own humorous writing, then I would appreciate an upvote. That will help me feel superior, but I won't think it's funny =]

Hu"mor (?), n. [OE. humour, OF. humor, umor, F. humeur, L. humor, umor, moisture, fluid, fr. humere, umere, to be moist. See Humid.] [Written also humour.]

1.

Moisture, especially, the moisture or fluid of animal bodies, as the chyle, lymph, etc.; as, the humors of the eye, etc.

⇒ The ancient physicians believed that there were four humors (the blood, phlegm, yellow bile or choler, and black bile or melancholy), on the relative proportion of which the temperament and health depended.

2. Med.

A vitiated or morbid animal fluid, such as often causes an eruption on the skin.

"A body full of humors."

Sir W. Temple.

3.

State of mind, whether habitual or temporary (as formerly supposed to depend on the character or combination of the fluids of the body); disposition; temper; mood; as, good humor; ill humor.

Examine how your humor is inclined, And which the ruling passion of your mind. Roscommon.

A prince of a pleasant humor. Bacon.

I like not the humor of lying. Shak.

4. pl.

Changing and uncertain states of mind; caprices; freaks; vagaries; whims.

Is my friend all perfection, all virtue and discretion? Has he not humors to be endured? South.

5.

That quality of the imagination which gives to ideas an incongruous or fantastic turn, and tends to excite laughter or mirth by ludicrous images or representations; a playful fancy; facetiousness.

For thy sake I admit That a Scot may have humor, I'd almost said wit. Goldsmith.

A great deal of excellent humor was expended on the perplexities of mine host. W. Irving.

Aqueous humor, Crystalline humorlens, Vitreous humor. Anat. See Eye. -- Out of humor, dissatisfied; displeased; in an unpleasant frame of mind.

Syn. -- Wit; satire; pleasantry; temper; disposition; mood; frame; whim; fancy; caprice. See Wit.

 

© Webster 1913.


Hu"mor (?), v. t. [imp. & p. p. Humored (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Humoring.]

1.

To comply with the humor of; to adjust matters so as suit the peculiarities, caprices, or exigencies of; to adapt one's self to; to indulge by skillful adaptation; as, to humor the mind.

It is my part to invent, and the musician's to humor that invention. Dryden.

2.

To help on by indulgence or compliant treatment; to soothe; to gratify; to please.

You humor me when I am sick. Pope.

Syn. -- To gratify; to indulge. See Gratify.

 

© Webster 1913.

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