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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