Release Theory

‘The release theory sees jokes as a sort of pressure valve: a socially sanctioned way of letting out taboo thoughts and feelings. Like the superiority theory it assumes that the joke is an aggressive social act, but crucially that it is also a subversive act, a rebellion against the constraints of rational adult behaviour.

It can be a useful way to understand people’s penchant for off-colour jokes, and the frequency with which humour is used to mask hostility or fear. It’s also a good way to explain the popularity of comedy clubs, where people go to ‘let off steam’ by laughing. […]

The pleasure that we get from telling a joke, or from laughing at it, comes from satisfying some element of our libido that we can’t openly reveal, because our society forbids us to do so. […] Every joke that really makes you laugh, according to this reading, is either an act of veiled sexual aggression or a cry for help, stemming from some childhood sexual trauma. On a brighter note, the very act of telling a joke is a sort of pressure valve that relieves some of the build-up libidinal steam we’re all repressing.’

– Carr J., Greeves L. 2006. The Naked Jape – Uncovering The Hidden World Of Jokes London, Great Britain: Penguin Books (2007) p. 95-97

Ambivalence Theory

‘According to this concept of humour, our laughter is the symptom of an internal battle between opposing emotions. In 1653 Louis Joubert sowed the seeds of this theory when he proposed that comic laughter is an emotion located in the heart. When we experience a conflict between joy and sadness, the heart shakes the diaphragm, resulting in laughter.

A century or so later James Beattie wrote that laughter is evoked by ‘an opposition of suitableness and unsuitableness.’ William Hazlitt also contributed to this school of thought, noting in 1819 that ‘the jostling of one feeling against another’ was an essential element of the comical.

In recent years the platform for this debate has been increasingly philosophical rather than psychological – less emphasis on shaky diaphragms and even shakier anatomical knowledge – but for all these theorists, laughter is an outward sign of an inward conflict.

Psychologist J. Y. T. Greig asserts that all humour is based on a conflict between love and fear, while George Milner suggests that the clash between culture and nature is to blame. […]

“Cleanliness is next to impossible.”
– Audrey Austin

According to ambivalence theorists, laughter is essentially a wobble of uncertainty – even, perhaps, a snort of embarrassment, of not knowing how to react.

It’s a nice theory, but its a bit sweeping. For a start, not every ‘jostling of one feeling against another’ results in humour – far from it. Ambivalence about such existential oppositions as love and fear is more likely to result in uncertainty, brow-furrowing, and panic attacks, even though joking about it might help to diminish the angst. You could also argue that the tension between nature and culture defines the human condition, and just the psychology of humour.

As human beings, we are essentially apes aspiring to the condition of angels. The results of this struggle seldom rise above the farcical. So, in effect, all the ambivalence theory tells us is what we think, therefore we laugh.’

– Carr J., Greeves L. 2006. The Naked Jape – Uncovering The Hidden World Of Jokes London, Great Britain: Penguin Books (2007) p. 94-95

Incongruity Theory

‘The incongruity theory was described rather badly by Immanuel Kant in 1790 when he said that laughter ‘is an affectation arising from the sudden transformation of strained expectation into nothing’. His grouchy compatriot Schopenhauer later elaborated on this, defining humour as ‘the incongruity between a concept and the real object to which it was to relate’. And what hilarious gag did Arthur Schopenhauer put forward to support his theory? ‘… for example, the amusing look of the angle formed by the meeting of the tangent and the curve of the circle’. Yes, Frankfurt positively rocked with laughter in the 1840s – the golden age of German comedy.

“Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
– George Burns

The set-up of a joke creates a scenario with an assumed conclusion; the punchline provides quite a different conclusion, which subverts your previously held assumptions about the joke scenario. […] For example:

How do you make a dog drink?
Put him in a blender.

[…] It’s not just the words that make the joke work. The best jokes use language with skill and economy to conjure up mental pictures which are hilarious by virtue of their incongruity, shock value, or just sheer silliness. Here’s a lovely one:

Two monkeys are having a bath. One of them turns to the other and says, ‘Oo oo ah ah!’ The other replies, ‘Well, put the cold tap on, then.’

It’s clear that even the shortest one-liner can be prodded and poked and analysed until an inch of its life […].’

– Carr J., Greeves L. 2006. The Naked Jape – Uncovering The Hidden World Of Jokes London, Great Britain: Penguin Books (2007) p. 92-93

Superiority Theory

‘The superiority theory implies that the point of joking is to feel better about our sorry selves by mocking people or situations we find ridiculous. This is probably the oldest attempt to explain what’s going on when we tell jokes, dating back at least as far as Aristotle, who called humour ‘educated insolence’.

Seventeenth century stand-up Thomas Hobbes thought that laughter was ‘nothing else but a sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others’. Later refinements of the theory suggest that we also gain some psychological comfort from laughing at people who we purport to be ridiculous, but secretly hate and fear.

The superiority idea was revisited by Henri Bergson in his famous 1900 essay ‘Laughter and the meaning of the Comic’. He thought that in making a joke or at laughing at one we are experiencing a spontaneous failure of empathy: the situations which strike us as comic are those that enable us to see a human being as somehow mechanical, as less than human. For Bergson, joking had a social purpose: to ridicule eccentricity, thus brushing aside any untidy idiosyncrasies and weaknesses which might otherwise constitute triphazards on the pathway of society.

More recently, Charles R. Gruner has developed a new superiority theory which reads joking as a playful game, but one with clear winners and losers. Finding the winner and loser isn’t always simple. Often, the joke-teller ‘wins’ and the audience ‘loses’ – for example, in the case of a riddle where the teller’s intention is to leave his audience stumped. Even simple puns can be seen as expressions of superiority according to this reading, since the punner intends to prove himself intellectually superior to his audience.

“I used to think that the brain was the greatest organ in human body, then I realized ‘Hey! Look what’s telling me that!'”
– Emo Philips

Other jokes have a clearer butt – an Irishman, a lawyer or some other hapless (deserving?) victim – and joke-teller and audience both ‘win’ at the expense of the character in the joke.’

“You cannot have everything. I mean, where would you put it?”
– Steve Wright

– Carr J., Greeves L. 2006. The Naked Jape – Uncovering The Hidden World Of Jokes London, Great Britain: Penguin Books (2007) p. 89-90

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