Theories of Humor

Theories of Humor

Research on the structure of humorous discourse started during the classical philosophy period and remains a critical research area for contemporary researchers. Most theories of humor were advanced by famous philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hobbes (Morreall, 2011). All their theories have been dealing with several questions on why people laugh during certain situations and fail to show any reactions in others. Among the three major theories of humor are the incongruity theory, superiority theories, and relief theories. The theories are contrasting in different ways since they articulate different things. Superiority and relief theories are majorly concerned with mechanisms and concomitant of humorous reactions while incongruity theory purportedly explains the formal object of comic amusement located in specific types of incongruity. There’s Something About Mary is a romantic comedy produced in 1998 that has received positive views since its production due to its humor and character performances (Farreley, 1998). The comedy effectively integrates the three theories of humor in several scenes performed by the characters.

Superiority theory goes back to the early works of Aristotle and Plato and refers to the aggressive and negative side of humor which is majorly used to humiliate and disparage particular opponents (Morreall, 2011). Both philosophers have emphasized that humor is a means of superiority and power when it is directed against other people’s faults which in turn shows their inferiority. In the scene “Take a look at what this numb nut did” in the movie There’s Something About Mary, the main impression is that the scene demonstrates comic reactions through ultimate humiliation. From the viewpoint of superiority theory, people laugh since they experience some eminency in themselves by comparing the inferiority with others. It can also be argued that the scene is humorous since people enjoy what Nietzsche articulates as the guiltiness of pleasure arising from other people’s misfortunes. There’s Something About Mary uses several devices that make the audience feel more superior than Ted. This results from his lady’s sounds when experiencing pain, his appearance, the humiliating experiences he has to endure, and awkwardness evident when he interacts with other characters (Rosenthal, 2019).

Nonetheless, implementing superiority theory to the film, it is correct to conclude that the viewers laugh at and not with the main character when his genitals get stuck in the zipper or when he is beaten up by a disabled man as a result of misunderstanding (Morreall, 2011). However, people laugh at those who fail and fall with their actions since their actions look ridiculous to the viewers. According to Martin and Ford (2018), film comedy is unique because it focuses on the rejection of empathetic identification. This means that the viewers can momentarily laugh since they have been distanced from the comical character. Also, humor does not necessarily depend on the empathy of the characters. this means that viewers who feel sorry for the main character in There’s Something About Mary cannot find it amusing.

The incongruity theory significantly contrasts the superiority theory. The theory is attributed to Kierkegaard, Kant, and Schopenhauer. From the perspective of incongruity theory, the object of comic amusement is better explained as incongruity (Morreall, 2011). The key to comic amusement occurs when a presupposed norm deviates. In There’s Something About Mary the audience does not laugh at Ted due to his embarrassing situations but because the films’ characters view things differently. Ted is shown to the viewers as he watches two pigeons taking off outside the window and the camera is shifted to Mary who is undressed (Farreley, 1998). The viewers may perceive both situations to look like Ted is masturbating while watching Mary but he was just peeing. The contradictions in these situations lead to humor which is concluded by Ted’s accident that causes his genitals to get stick in the zipper. According to incongruity theory, there is humor when situations that do not go together replace familiarity and logic.

Relief theory also significantly contrasts with the incongruity theory. Viewers are likely to find it humorous when Ted is verbally abused by Charlie at the front door (Rosenthal, 2019). However, the laughter of the viewers kicks in after Charlie’s part is revealed as a joke. Superiority theory would explain this as enjoyment of Ted’s misfortunes after Charlie’s joke is revealed. However, the relief theory offers another explanation for this situation. According to Freudian’s explanation, people gain a prohibited pleasure along with the release of psychic energy through laughter (Morreall, 2011). What triggers laughter is the amelioration of a situation that is socially stressful. In this case, the viewers’ laughter is not experienced first-hand but triggered as a result of their engagement with Ted.

From the superiority theory’s perspective, the perception of Ted masturbating is funny due to the reaffirmation of the viewers’ sense of social worth. However, relief theory would perceive this to be not only funny because it belongs to a long-line expression that people often suppress and prohibit but also because it provides a pleasure of guiltiness from Ted’s misfortunes. Relief and relation theory explain why people find the scene’s transgressive humor to be funny (Morreall, 2011). From Freudian’s perspective, the basic assumption is that people use psychic energy in suppressing the actions and thoughts that their primal drives urge them to perform and harbor. Thus, the film There’s Something About Mary is socially and culturally sanctioned as a safe place in which the psychic tension finds an outlet.

From Rod Martin’s book, The Psychology of Humor, we may discuss the different areas of psychology where research on humor is conducted including developmental, social, and cognitive. Also, we may look into recent studies on evolutionary models, brain imaging, and animal research (Martin & Ford, 2018). Other important aspects in this book include applications of humor in workplaces, education, and psychotherapy, contributions from linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and neuroscience, and theories of humor. When it comes to Grice’s Rules of Conversation, we may discuss the different maxims of conversation including maxims of quality, quantity, manner, and relation (Fahmi, 2018). Another important thing is how we can use these maxims as guiding principles during conversations.



















Fahmi, R. (2018). An analysis of Grice’s maxims violation in daily conversation. Journal of Languages and Language Teaching4(2), 91-97.

Farreley, B. (1998). “13 Reasons Why” Stars Break Down Their Worst Auditions. IMDb.

Martin, R. A., & Ford, T. (2018). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach (First Edition). New York: Academic Press.

Morreall, J. (2011). Comic relief: A comprehensive philosophy of humor (Vol. 27). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Rosenthal, D. (2019). There’s Nothing about Mary. Classic Arguments: The Knowledge Argument 2(1), 32-61.

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