Humor, or the concept of a joke, is not something that is simple to define. In Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”, humor is reduced to the fact that jokes are funny because an atrocity happens to other people. In a sense, humor is nothing more than “Schadenfreude”, the German word that translates as “harm-joy” and describes pleasure derived from observing something bad happening to others.
Because of the concept introduced in that book I spent a long time finding jokes and funny things that are not based on “Schadenfreude”. There are indeed a few. There are puns and silly stories where nobody gets hurt. They are generally mildly funny, silly, or absurd, but they do exist. Furthermore Germans have words that describe humor, jokes, fun and so on, in addition to the concept of Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is a distinct subset of the general concept, and it has the connotation of not being particularly “nice”. To delight in the bad luck of others is not the sole basis of a sense of humor for Germans, and let’s face it, Germans are not thought of as the most “jolly” of people. (I was born there, so this statement is based on personal observation and comparison, not prejudice). And while there could be the argument made that Schadenfreude is an evolutionary development (I’m glad Gork got eaten by the Sabertooth tiger, not me, haha), it doesn’t convince me. Relief is one thing, but watching someone get maimed is another, and neither is really all that funny.
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So what makes funny, funny? Why do we laugh at a joke? Why do we laugh at all? There is no real biological necessity for laughter that I can think of. One could quite possibly survive without ever having cracked a smile, or giggled, or doubled over in a belly laugh, or having gotten hiccups from laughing, or laughing so hard that tears fell, but I doubt that there are many people in the world who have not had these experiences. Babies laugh, giggle and smile. It is not always just a matter of trapped gas.
Even the most sober people have the occasional attack of laughter. Laughter is infectious. And while we might be embarrassed when we laugh at the wrong time, we can’t prevent it either, almost like a sneeze. When something strikes us as funny, it doesn’t matter that we are at a funeral.
I do not think that a sense of humor is unique to humans. I have known animals that definitely understood the concept of a joke, from dogs to dolphins. Verbal communication is not the sole basis of a sense of humor, although it is most certainly a sophisitcated enhancement. Physical comedy, such as a prattfall in some slapstick performance is funny even when language presents a barrier.
Why would animals need a sense of humor? Is it a good way of relieving stress while signaling good intentions to others? If this is the evolutionary basis for a sense of humor or laughter, then solitary animals should be decidedly grumpy and lacking therein. Come to think of it, I have never seen a badger crack up.