In a famous scene from the film, Goodfellas, Joe Pesci’s character, Tommy Devito, shares a humorous anecdote with a group of fellow mobsters over drinks. Everyone laughs, and one person tells him he’s “funny.” Tommy Devito then breaks a bottle over this man’s head.
The incident appears to result from a misunderstanding: the man who makes the unfortunate mistake of complimenting Tommy Devito is using the word “funny” in the sense that refers to a person who produces humor, while Tommy Devito apparently interprets it in the sense that refers to an object of humor. If this seems a rather humorless analysis, then you’re right, and I direct you to a point made by “humorologist” Rod Martin – expecting a discussion of humor to be funny is like expecting a discussion of human sexuality to be arousing; but I also encourage you to view this incident as emphasizing an important point: no one wants to be the object of humor.
What makes something humorous? To varying degrees, we all have a “sense of humor.” Yet, in many ways, this sense escapes our conscious awareness. As with language, each of us abides by a similar set of rules, yet none of us is able to say what exactly those rules are. Philosophers have tried, but it remains a point of controversy whether we have found (or whether there exists) a unified explanation for what we find funny.
Today, most theories ascribe humor to the sudden recognition of a state of the world that is incongruous with our expectations. Variations on this “incongruity theory” have garnered popularity over the past twenty years, but even its advocates acknowledge that it is not entirely satisfactory. One weakness of incongruity theories is that they fail to explain why we are amused by certain instances of incongruity – a man showing up to his job at a real-estate agency with a “kick me” sign on his back – but not others – a man showing up to his job at a real-estate agency with a cure for cancer. The first situation is far more congruous with our expectations about the world, but it is also much funnier.
The superiority theory of humor
In the two thousand-plus years before the rise of incongruity theories, the superiority theory of humor was king. Plato, for instance, believed that we laugh at those who engage in vice, particularly when they lack self-awareness. Humor, he argued, is our taking pleasure in these people’s misfortune – similar to the German concept of schadenfreude.
Later, the superiority theory of humor found its most plausible form in Thomas Hobbes’ Treatise on Human Nature. According to Hobbes, “[T]he passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminence in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.”
Ethnic jokes may offer the paradigm example of humor as superiority. All instances of ethnic humor involve the assertion that members of an out-group exhibit some undesirable characteristic. But aren’t some of the funniest ethnic jokes made by humorists about their own ethnicity? And don’t people enjoy jokes about ethnic groups that they are a part of? How can these two facts be consistent with superiority theory?
Interestingly, laboratory studies suggest that people do actually prefer jokes about out-groups than those about in-groups. And, it is possible that people who make and appreciate jokes about their own ethnicity conceive of themselves as distinct from the sub-group that they are referring to. Or it might also be that they are mocking the type of people who might normally tell that joke.
Other forms of self-deprecating humor may be more difficult to reconcile with superiority theory. Still, Dr. Charles Gruner of The University of Georgia argues that our appreciation of self-deprecating humor is best explained by superiority theory. As Hobbes recognized in 1840, we often joke about versions of ourselves with which we no longer identify. In this case, we may experience humor as the perception of our own superiority to former versions of ourselves. We may also assume aspects of a fictional identity for the purposes of self-deprecating humor. Standup comedians do this often, amusing audiences perhaps by allowing them to perceive their own superiority. Our decreased amusement when a comedian laughs at his own joke may then occur because it suggests that he is not actually that character.
Alternatively, we may believe that the comedian has some infirmity, but his ability to laugh about it suggests that it is not an infirmity at all. Gruner claims that when we find humor in a joke that is at our own expense, the joke often regards some defect that does not actually matter to us. For instance, my inabilities to spell, affect a respectable Spanish accent, or perform a cartwheel without injury are all unimportant to me (and have been since the grueling ages of 6 through 14). For this reason, I may feel a kind of superiority to those for whom being able to do these things does carry significant emotional weight. It is possible, then, that when I exhibit amusement at my own infirmity, I am actually asserting my superiority to that quality.
While I believe that Hobbes’ superiority theory offers the best known explanation for why we find things funny, it does not cast humor in a very flattering light. In fact, it seems to equate this much beloved feature of human nature with the detestable traits of arrogance, indifference, and condescension. Plato argued that humor could drive people to commit atrocities, and suggested in The Republic that books be censored so as not to portray noble figures engaging in humor. Perhaps, then, it is because superiority theory conflicts with our desire to view humor in a positive light that it has fallen out of favor.
In order to determine whether superiority theory has been unfairly dismissed by humor theorists, let us consider a new approach to uncovering the laws that govern our perception of humor.
Humor as an indicator of superiority
It may seem strange to think of humor as a product of our evolutionary psychology. Humor comes to us so naturally that many of us have never considered the question of what makes something funny let alone why that is. But it is precisely because humor is so natural – because it arises spontaneously, in some form, across cultures – that it must be a part of the innate, human psychology. By determining how humor – both the tendency to produce and recognize it – evolved, we may finally come to understand what it is that makes something humorous.
Gruner offers an account of how humor might have arisen, which argues strongly for superiority theory. He posits that whereas our ancestors might normally have resorted to violence in order to assert their status within a social hierarchy, those who instead employed derisive humor would have garnered a significant evolutionary advantage. Since high social status generally entails greater access to resources, it would have been adaptive to be attracted to potential mates who are socially dominant. Sexual selection, in turn, would then have favored men who noisily asserted this dominance through humor.
Additionally, since the struggle to achieve social status through violence would have reaped enormous survival costs, even for victors, Gruner suggests that the individual who began to laugh in response to the recognition of non-violent superiority – “the sight of a compatriot hobbling into sight, nursing a black eye” – would have had a significant reproductive advantage.
This account finds support in the humorous inclinations of modern children, which may be vestiges of the type of humor perceived by our evolutionary ancestors. One study, which asked three-year-olds to “draw something funny,” found almost all of them drew pictures of people with physical deformities. Additionally, Gruner claims that children commonly “delight in finding out who the dumb kids are, and love to demonstrate their mental superiority over them through raucous (and cruel) laughter.” If ontogeny does recapitulate phylogeny, and children can be seen as relics of our evolutionary past, then this evidence provides strong support for the theory that humor evolved as an indicator of social status.
Is humor immoral?
While superiority theory fell out of favor at the beginning of the 20th century, it now, once again, finds support in evolutionary models. If it is the case that what makes something humorous derives, at least in part, from the sudden perception of our own superiority, then the question arises: is humor immoral? And if so, should we, as Plato suggests, attempt to suppress this evolutionarily-endowed instinct?
Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind, contends that this common moral dichotomy between our so-called “animal instincts” and supposedly just, moral reasoning is flawed. After all, our moral prohibition against asserting one’s own superiority may itself be rooted in an evolutionarily-endowed aversion to boastfulness, rather than some, reasoned opinion about how we ought to behave. So, if we were to say that humor is immoral because it conflicts with our instinctive aversion to boastfulness, we might be siding arbitrarily with one unreasoned instinct over the other.
Moreover, we may believe that a person can only be morally accountable for actions that he performs intentionally. So, even if humor does derive from the sudden recognition of our own superiority, the fact that this mechanism lies outside of conscious awareness may free the production and appreciation of humor from moral indictment.
Finally, even once we become aware of humor’s unconscious, immoral roots, we might find – adopting a utilitarian outlook – that engaging in humor results in a preferred state of the world. Perhaps the birthday-party clown does facilitate the experience of humor by allowing partygoers to infer their own superiority to an assumed, fictional character; this seems to be a victimless interaction with a favorable outcome.
Other instances of humor may not be victimless, and perhaps one benefit of considering humor in this way is to alert us to less obvious instances of upsetting humor. As Joe Pesci’s character, Tommy Devito, so forcefully demonstrated in Goodfellas, humor can be hurtful. So, if we are to continue deriving pleasure from the sudden recognition of our own superiority to others, then we should be sure not to do it at their expense. Particularly, if they happen to be holding a bottle.