Editor’s Note: We asked UNM’s Philosophy Department if a professor would be interested in commenting on the philosophical implications of humor--why people try to get others to laugh, the purpose of laughter, strategies for getting people to laugh, etc. Prof. Iain Thomson was kind enough to humor us.
The only thing less funny than explaining a joke might be trying to explain joking in general, but, with that qualification in mind, and at your request, I’ll try anyway.
I am a philosopher who specializes in existentialism, so you might not be surprised to hear that I think humor almost always has to do with anxiety. Most jokes make us feel anxious because they violate implicit social norms (that is, norms we share but do not usually pay much attention to, like unwritten rules). If we could experience our reaction to a funny joke in slow motion, I think we would notice that we first feel anxiety and then expel this anxiety through that strange vocal ejaculation we call laughter.
Why does violating social norms provoke anxiety? Because these unwritten rules are what allow us to coexist more or less peacefully most of the time and violating them feels like a threat to our basic social fabric.
Why does it feel good to laugh? I can think of several reasons: First, feeling anxiety is unpleasant, so getting rid of it by laughing feels good. (The more anxiety we build up and release in this way, the “funnier” the joke. If the threat is too great, however, the joke will flop, like Professor Berthold’s notorious “Anyone who bombs the Pentagon gets my vote.”)
Second, being able to laugh at a joke allows us to reconcile ourselves to the joke’s violation of the social order and so re-establish a social order through this community of laughter, those who “get” the joke. (The social order that is re-established by laughter is not always the same one that the joke originally violated, which helps explain the political power of joking.)
Third, violating the typical constrictions of the social order feels good. (Getting free of such restrictions, if only for a moment, is pleasurable as well as anxiety-provoking.)
Some evidence for this view comes from anthropologists, who have noticed that particular types of jokes often circulate through the social body after some threatening or traumatic event. (I still remember the “dead baby” jokes that made the rounds after Roe v. Wade, as well as the e-mail jokes that circulated soon after Sept. 11, the latter less “funny” because the threat to the social order seemed too grave, I suspect.) I’ve noticed that, for a professor, the cheapest way to get a laugh is to insult the intelligence of some third party. Because students are typically anxious to prove their intelligence to their professors, they laugh, expressing their relief at not being the one whose intelligence is being insulted and, if the insult has some kernel of truth, their pleasure at recognizing that and so proving their membership in the not-insulted.
For those of us who find such insulting “jokes” distasteful, however, humor requires a bit more ingenuity. One cannot simply put oneself down, for example, because that puts students in the uncomfortable position of a catch-22, in which they often feel torn between their desire to please an authority figure by laughing at his or her jokes and their implicit recognition that one does not join in denigrating someone one hopes to please.
Irony, Nietzsche taught, is a compromise that keeps youthful idealism from degenerating into impotent cynicism, and I probably use more than my fair share of the laughing-
One might wonder if this theory of jokes applies to subspecies of jokes like puns. I think so; it’s just that a pun is a threat to the implicit norms governing language itself. The response a pun seeks to elicit is not a laugh but a groan (a good pun is called a "groaner"). By groaning, the punster's audience expresses their recognition that language’s semantic rules are being violated and, by identifying with the order the pun violates and so groaning, they reaffirm in a good-natured way the order challenged by the pun. (In this a pun is a bit like teasing, too, but that’s another topic.)
Since all of this makes it sound as if there is something violent or at least aggressive about jokes (which I think there is), let me just reaffirm the importance of joking as a way of drawing our attention to usually unnoticed and so unquestioned norms. Jokes force us, however fleetingly, to confront our own freedom to either affirm or else reject those norms--to laugh or not to laugh. Freedom is good, even if it’s anxiety-provoking. Find that which we cannot joke about, and you’ve located the limits of our freedom.