Identifying the Four Basic Categories of Humor

Numerous scholars and professionals, from both academic and artistic disciplines, specialize in the science and art of humor. They are psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, linguists, writers, comedians, and producers who are interested in how humor “works,” both in theory and in practice.

Unfortunately, I am not among their ranks. I come to humor only as it relates to my main interest: laughter. There are, happily, hundreds of books available espousing the importance of humor to our mental health, the various roles it plays in our social interactions, how it differs among various cultures or periods of history, and even how to become better at creating and presenting it. Humor is a large and complex topic and can be approached from many perspectives. If you are curious about just how deeply one can delve into this topic, take a moment to check out one of the peer-reviewed journals that focus on humor research: EJHR.

Because this is Laughter and Humor 101, I’m going to stick with the basics. My goal in upcoming posts will be to show how a new definition of laughter can help clear away some of the mystery that still plagues our understanding of humor. Why not everything we do or say that inspires laughter is humor; why some of the things we do or say can be considered humor despite not prompting laughter; how it is employed by friends and foes in much the same way, but for entirely different reasons; and why there is so much disagreement over what is and isn’t appropriate humor, to name just a few areas of interest.

There are two initial steps common to most inquiries into this multifaceted phenomenon. The first includes defining one’s terms, and the second is some system of categorization.

For readers who are just joining this series, I’d encourage you to begin by visiting my first post here. It provides an overview of the Mutual Vulnerability Theory of Laughter and its relationship to humor. In brief, I’ve come to understand a laughter as a message that affirmations mutual, or shared, vulnerability—a means of communicating to others that they have shortcomings and limitations just as we do. I suggested that amusement is best described as the emotion that, above a certain threshold, motivates us to express this sentiment, with lower intensities often conveyed by means of a smile. More relevant to this post, I defined humor as the conscious Attempt, by word or action, to inspire a feeling of amusement in oneself or others, in contrast to those things that just spontaneously tickle our funny bone.

Categorizing Humor

There are countless ways of classifying humor (wordplay, slapstick, jokes, dark humor, etc.), and we will get to those groupings in the weeks to come. For now, let’s begin with the four most basic distinctions.

When I first introduced you to my take on laughter, I gave examples of different types of vulnerabilities—physical, emotional, cognitive, and social—that influence virtually every aspect of our lives. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the most fundamental way one might categorize humor is by the type of vulnerability we find most prominently highlighted at the moment we feel the urge to laugh. So, if we find getting accidentally splashed with water funny, then purposefully spraying someone with a hose can be easily understood as humorous, physical play. If being spontaneously started by a large spider is funny, then putting one in someone’s lunchbox should be a humorous, emotionally-themed practical joke. If being inadvertently confused over which of two homonyms is being referred to is funny, then puns should be a simple form of domine humor. And, if inadvertently out a friend’s societal transgression is funny, then an elaborate fictional story accusing him or her of similar misdeeds can be recognized as social humor.

Many examples of humor contain elements from two, three, or sometimes all four of these realms. The practical joke involving the spider, for example, has social, emotional, and physical elements in play all at the same time. If the joke itself is considered a bad idea, or if a simple solution to dealing with the spider wasn’t thought of, there would be a cognitive vulnerability (exhibited by the joker or victim, respectively) highlighted as well. However, depending on the audience’s expectation, or the victim’s reaction, members of the audience may identify one or another vulnerability as most responsible for triggering their laugh response.

In future posts, I will rely heavily on this most elemental categorization scheme. It will help to illuminate how humor is fashioned and why some examples are more successful than others. Of course, there are numerous other factors at play in our perception of humor, ones that I will address down the road, but this is a necessary first step in our exploration of this highly complex behavior.

Copyright John Charles Simon

Leave a Comment