A Sense of Humor

Published by in Humor
19th Feb 2011

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.  

  • B Nelson

    having a good sense of humor can really help a person, and yes, other animals often have senses of humor

  • rappeter13

    Without sense of humor, we couldn’t survive our everydays.

  • Calare

    You are both right, humor is a coping and survival mechanism for men and possibly mice, and even that is pretty funny, when I think about it for a while.

  • Freethinking

    I am so glad we are friends here because I so enjoy your articles. I find humor in almost all aspects of life. “No” it is not funny if a person is injured or hurt, but we are surrounded by so many other things. First of all I laugh at myself more than I do others and I have told people who think I’m picking on them that if I didn’t like them they wouldn’t be worth my time for the joke. Secondly, for me anyway, being silly and having fun is my way of staying childlike, even as I age.

  • Calare

    Freethinking, yes, I think a sense of humor is mandatory when one gets older. I still can’t get used to the old lady in the mirror. What the heck is she doing in the bathroom? And yes, if I don’t like someone, I won’t make fun of them either.

  • nimbleful

    Interesting article :) I recommend reading Melvin Helitzer’s book “Comedy Writing” to better understand humor. I dove into that book one year when my new year resolution was to “be more funny” :D not sure it worked haha but it was a good read! From what I remember, they summarized humor as being down to several ingredients other than Schadenfreude. One of the biggest ones is Surprise. We laugh from the shock of being surprised. Laughter and fear/ crying are very closely linked physiologically. Chimps “laugh” when they are scared. Likewise the smile is the “fear face” in chimps. Not always, but it shows a close link. Another reason for laughing that’s linked with Schadenfreude isnt so much as laughing at another person’s misfortune, but more a case of laughing before it makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s a matter of superiority that feels so good, you smile/ laugh.. something like that anyway :) Very interest topic you chose to write about! And I would *love* to see a badger laugh! ;) must check youtube? :D

  • Calare

    nimbleful, I haven’t checked youtube for a laughing badger… now I am giggling just at the thought. I have to see if I can find that book, I just remembered Heinlein’s statement, because I KNEW right away that it was wrong. Absolutely, surprise is one of the reasons we laugh.
    And the Germans think of Schadenfreude as a ‘bad’ way to get a laugh, not true humor.
    You really resolved to be funnier? That’s funny right there. You can check that one off!