On Humor

Getting a joke and finding it funny are not the same thing

Getting a joke and experiencing a joke as humorous are different things. It’s generally recognized that finding a joke funny means that you got it, and if you don’t get a joke you won’t find it funny. Clash Theory (see below) recognizes that cross-wise examples are also possible. These illustrate that the two experiences are in fact distinct.

Q. What is red and conquers the world?
A. An angry tomato.

Unlike ordinary jokes, here there’s nothing to get. Yet some percentage of observers will find the joke funny. You can find it funny even when you don’t get it.

Q. What is green and conquers the world?
A. Alexander the Grape.

Many will get this. It’s a reference to Greek military general Alexander the Great. Some percentage of observers who do get it will nonetheless not experience it as humorous.

According to Clash Theory (see below, again), the heart of all humor is something called a ‘humor kernel’. The humor kernel is a clash—a cognitive superposition—between a sense element and a nonsense element. The experience of humor only happens when elements clash, meaning they cognitively superimpose. This can happen even when the observer cannot identify the elements consciously. Getting a joke is the ability to consciously identify both elements, regardless of whether they clash(ed).

For the second joke, the nonsense element is ‘Alexander the Grape’ and the sense element is ‘Alexander the Great’. For the first joke, the nonsense element is ‘an angry tomato’, and it’s well-described with the adjective SURREAL. The kernel’s sense element is harder to specify (and when there is no sense element, there is no humor). I propose that the sense element is an abstracted set of expected punchlines—a set which does not include ‘an angry tomato’. A second detectable humor kernel stems from personifying a tomato. For observers who detect this kernel, the sense element is an ordinary tomato and the nonsense element is a tomato that has acquired sentience sufficient to express anger. Observers can further imagine the angry tomato’s harsh words and violent actions and detect additional humor from contemplating this imagery.

The Humor Mechanics Blind Spot

The mechanics of how humor operates is a blind spot. Like our actual ocular blind spots, we don’t even see the area we aren’t seeing. This ‘humor mechanics blind spot’ is something most every human shares, no matter how clever or educated or observant, and no matter the level of comic talent. We know humor exists, we experience humor and create it, we can easily point to examples. What we can’t point to or explain or even see very well is the universal nature of the humor experience. What does all humor have in common? What separates humor from non-humor?

A few questions can help outline where this blind spot is located within our knowledge.

1) What could possibly be universal about humor when every example of humor is not universal? Everything someone finds funny is unfunny to someone else.

2) Why does explaining a joke ruin the joke? And what of seemingly contrary cases where explanation leads to the detection of humor (“Oh, now I get it.”)?

3) What causes some humor examples to be seen as funnier than other examples? What causes some to order examples differently than others?

4) What causes some humor to wither when repeated, and other humor to be timeless?

5) Why do people who find a joke funny and people who don’t find it funny often point to the same adjective as the reason for their reaction? It’s funny because it’s corny, and also it’s not funny because it’s corny (or dumb, sarcastic, crude, awkward, etc.)

Clash Theory answers all of these questions and a great many others.

Clash Theory

Clash Theory is a humor theory presented in the recent book Why Funny Is Funny, paperback | e-book from Amazon. Included in the same volume is the companion book How to Make a Funnier You. The companion book is a collection of twelve humor generation techniques useful for humor creators of any skill level. The main book is theory, the companion book is practice.

A summary of the complete theoretical structure of Clash Theory is also visible at whyfunnyisfunny.com You may wish to grab a pen and notebook. The content is rather voluminous even in summary form out of unfortunate necessity.

Counter-Intuitive Aspects of Clash Theory

Clash Theory is counter-intuitive. It runs counter to the intuitions and assumptions most everyone has about the substance of humor. Short articles describing Clash Theory could easily attract large numbers of well-written, reasonable comments that strenuously object to any or all aspects of it. Here are four of these shared intuitions, and what Clash Theory offers as an alternative.

Intuition 1: Humor is simple

A cow’s favorite movie is The Sound of Moo-sic. Any humor sensed here has to be simple, right? How could it possibly be complex? Clash Theory looks across all observers to consider the full range of reactions, even for simple jokes like this one. It incorporates an unexpectedly large list of distinct causes for humor reaction differences, even for very simple examples.

Intuition 2: Humor is familiar

We know the characters in Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts and the types of comic situations they find themselves in. This familiarity brings an illusion of understanding. We know the humor well, therefore we feel we understand how the humor functions. But Clash Theory points out than much of the mechanics of humor awareness is subconscious or even unconscious, and not something we can at the present moment easily explain.

Intuition 3: Humor is casual

Gray’s Anatomy is a popular medical textbook, and Grey’s Anatomy is the name of a hospital TV show featuring the character Meredith Grey. The TV show name is a low-key pun that many people get and/​or find mildly humorous. But there can’t be any real need to examine the humor. Existing cultural preferences caution against giving the humor anything more than a cursory look. Clash Theory instead proposes that examination of humor can indeed be highly rigorous. A rigorous analysis can lead to remarkable insights in how humor operates in specific examples and also help establish methods for creating high-quality humor more easily and rapidly than previously thought possible.

Intuition 4: Humor is homogeneous

If humor is part of an incident or occasion, then the humor uniformly permeates all aspects of that incident or occasion. Any discussion of the whole is a discussion about humor. In contrast, Clash Theory considers humor to be more like an ingredient that contributes to the situation, much like the food ingredient ‘salt’ helps create dishes and drinks that are salty (pickle) or savory (chicken soup) or sweet (oatmeal cookie) or alcoholic (Bloody Mary). Advice for stand-up comedians is sometimes about humor creation and sometimes about commanding audience attention and encouraging sympathetic audience reaction. According to Clash Theory, these latter aspects are adjacent to humor and not part of humor proper. It’s hard to see this distinction because humor is mixed in so thoroughly.