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While scholars still believe in theories of superiority and hostility and of surprise and incongruity, the twenty-first century's mass media provides the world with so many different kinds of humor that few scholars try to make observations about all humor. Instead, they study humor to gain insights into their particular areas of expertise. For example, in They Used to Call Me Snow White … but I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor (1991), the feminist scholar Regina Barreca uses examples of women's humor to illustrate how a group's humor is shaped as well as evaluated according to the roles that the members play in society. Henry Louis Gates did something similar in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988) by showing how African-American slaves developed double entendre trickster signifiers because they were denied the use of normal and private communication.

For obvious reasons, performers, comedians, public speakers, and advertisers are interested in the features or the characteristics of humor. They want to know what makes people laugh so that they can create and re-create such situations. Rhetoricians and teachers of writing are also interested. Mary Ann Rishel, a professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, teaches a class in comedy writing and has authored a book on the subject. Her idea is not to prepare students to move to Hollywood or New York to join comedy writing teams. Instead, she wants to use the pleasures of humor to help students develop the skills needed for most kinds of writing: originality of vision, a keen eye for observation, the inclusion of telling details, and most importantly, succinctness.

The historian Joseph Boskin collects joke cycles, what he calls comic zeitgeists, and uses their popularity as data for revealing Americans' preoccupations and attitudes. He concludes his book Rebellious Laughter (1997) with "Tattered Dreams," a chapter about how "the roseate years of expansion" (p. 180) that followed World War II collided with such technological failures as the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, the radioactive explosion at Chernobyl, the loss of the Challenger space shuttle, and such oil spills as that of the Exxon Valdez. These catastrophes "overwhelmed sensibilities from the late 1970s into the 1990s," and the jokes were as extreme as the events (Boskin, p. 181). They offered "the specter of a totally irrational universe," where the only defense was to engage in what has been labeled "a hellish laughter" (Boskin, p. 190).

Modern literary critics often focus on this kind of humor as they work with deconstructionism, postmodernism, and magical realism. They have long defined satire (which often includes elements of irony and wit) as humor designed for the specific purpose of convincing readers and viewers of the need for some kind of action or a change in attitude and beliefs. On the other hand, black humor or dark humor (also referred to as gallows humor, absurd humor, existentialism, and film noir) illustrates the futility of looking for easy and neat answers to the tragedies of life. In such humor, the lines between fantasy and reality and between tragedy and comedy keep shifting. People laugh because they do not know what else to do. The laughter is itself a testament to the strength of the human spirit in showing that people can laugh in spite of bewilderment, death, and chaos.

Linguists, especially computer programmers working with artificial intelligence and translation, study jokes because their abbreviated scripts leave listeners to fill in the mundane details that "go without saying." Many jokes provide an even greater challenge for computers because they are designed to lead listeners to interpret the story along mundane lines, but then comes the climax or the punch line, which makes listeners laugh in surprise as they realize they have been led "down the garden path." The linguist Victor Raskin at Purdue University is working to program computers with the ability to bring in a myriad of cultural references while simultaneously testing possible interpretations so as to arrive at the one that is "funny." In his book Semantic Mechanisms of Humor (1985) Raskin distinguishes between what he calls bona fide scripts and joke scripts. Joke scripts differ from stereotypes in that a stereotype is an idea that many people seriously believe in and act on, while joke or comic scripts are more literary than sociological or political. They are amusing ideas that serve as the nucleus for folklore. New Englanders do not really believe that French-speaking Canadians are stupid, nor do the British think that the Irish are dirty, nor does the world at large think that Italians are cowards, yet extensive joke scripts circle around these and many other groups. The fact that joke scripts develop rather haphazardly out of the history of particular countries helps to explain why people from different cultures have a hard time catching on to each other's jokes, many of which are variations on old themes or examples of one's expectations being suddenly violated.

The idea of looking at the creation and reception of humor to trace the intellectual (as opposed to the emotional) paths that humor takes through the brain is fairly new. Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation (1964) claims that for people to think in new and creative ways, they must engage in bisociative thinking so as to bring concepts together in original ways. The "Ah!" kind occurs when people have an emotional reaction as they create or recognize artistic originality. The "Aha!" kind occurs when they bring divergent concepts together into scientific discoveries, while the "Ha Ha!" kind occurs with the comic recognition of ridiculous situations.

As indicated by these examples, the humor research of the future is likely to focus on particular kinds of humor as created and received by individuals in particular situations. And as the world grows smaller and people are forced to communicate with and adapt to people with different customs and beliefs, there will probably be increased interest in understanding both the bonding and the out-bonding as well as the release of frustration that comes when people laugh together.


Barreca, Regina. They Used to Call Me Snow White—but I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor. New York: Viking, 1991.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Translated by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. New York: Macmillan, 1911.

Boskin, Joseph. Rebellious Laughter: People's Humor in American Culture. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Cousins, Norman. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.

Davies, Christie. Ethnic Humor around the World: A Comparative Analysis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Translated and edited by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1960.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro- American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Lederer, Richard. Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults upon Our Language. Charleston, S.C.: Wyrick, 1987.

Morreall, John, ed. The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Humor. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press/Greenwood, 2000.

Raskin, Victor. Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel, 1985.

Rishel, Mary Ann. Writing Humor: Creativity and the Comic Mind. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002.

Simon, John. Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline. New York: Potter/Crown, 1980.

Spalding, Henry D. Joys of Jewish Humor. New York: Jonathan David, 1985.

Alleen Pace Nilsen

Don L. F. Nilsen

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Heterodyne to Hydrazoic acidHumor - Release Or Relief Theory, Superiority Theory, Incongruity Theory, Wit, Or Derisive Humor, Other Views