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From what was said in section 2.2.2. (The Aggressive Nature of Humor) we can draw the conclusion that humor is the lot of the strong and aggressive individuals of our race. But hierarchy in our society is not something that is set in stone. The battle for the top is constantly ongoing.

Those who temporarily fall to the bottom, and do not have the opportunity to joke as easily as those who stand above, are forced to use the type humor which we will call “defensive”.

We will limit ourselves to four types of “defensive” humor, in which this function is clearly seen. These types are: military humor, political humor (in countries where freedom of speech is limited), Jewish humor, and that which is known as feast in the time of plague.

An appropriate analogy might be the Japanese martial art Judo, which literally translates to “the gentle way”. The Judoist dodges straight punches; through agility he puts his opponent into an unfavorable position from which it is easier to perform a skillful throw and gain victory over a physically superior opponent.

The types of humor examined in this chapter use the same tactic. For victory in the verbal battle one does not need to have decisive logical arguments or knowledge. The goal of comical opposition is to put the opponent into a psychologically unfavorable position while staying within the frame of safe (permissible) interaction.

Military and political humor arose from the necessity of the majority’s subjection to the minority, that is, to the commanding regiment or to the government.

Jewish humor developed in a national community in one way or another isolated, barred from the ethnic and religious majority by cultural, religious and legal barriers.

A feast in time of plague, clearly, carries in itself the same defensive function of heightening the vital strength of the organism, resistance to extreme conditions.

Humor which fulfills a defensive function is not limited to these examples. We could name such types as gallows humor, corporate humor, hysterical laughter, etc.


3.1. Humor in uniform

Let’s begin with a paradox: it’s impossible to imagine the army without humor, just as it’s impossible to imagine it without strict discipline.

Much of military humor consists of ridiculing and showing in unfavorable light those who military officers must unquestioningly obey. This is not a simple task, but often the ranking officers themselves come to aid. Young officers come to the service armed with present-day knowledge, and frequently fall under the subordination of ancient commanders. This happens especially frequently during boot camp, in which tomorrow’s officers go through under the command of eternal sergeants.

Military jokes are impromptu, but many end up having a long lifespan.

One commanding officer of the Kiev military school, with which the author’s childhood is connected, in an attempt to give a rank of cadets with identical suitcases the uniformity recommended by regulations, once commanded: “if it is standing between the legs, put it to your side.”

The major has long since departed for another world, but this phrase lives.   

Another incident which occurred in the same school cost one of its participants a disciplinary penalty, despite the impeccable logic demonstrated by him.

A young officer was stopped by the school’s commandant, who asked strictly:

    • Why aren’t your boots shiny?
    • Why would they be shiny, Lieutenant-Colonel?
    • What do you mean, why? replied the taken-aback officer.
    • Well, I haven’t shined them in over a month, so why would they be shiny?


   A rather popular hero of military humor, Gallant Soldier Joseph Shvejk, might be regarded not as an absolute negation of the particular situation - the army (the sociological aspect), and not as a “merciless criticism of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy” (the political aspect), but as the usual internal opposition of a simpler person to the “heroic” standards of behavior ascribed to him. The biggest effect is produced by the discordance of a small, comical man and a strict organization.

The heroes of military humor walk the thin line of interactions permitted by regulations. Thus, great resourcefulness needed to gain advantage under unequal conditions.

- Whose cigar-butt is lying on the ground over there?!

- No one’s, sir! Smoke it at your leisure!

While hunting:

-Hey sergeant, did I kill the rabbit?

-No sir! You granted it a pardon.

3.2. Political humor

It’s quite obvious that political humor is a reaction (sometimes inadequate) to an overly strong concentration of power in society. It serves as an example of relatively safe liberation of pent-up aggression in regard to the authorities. Power creates institutions which aim to place various prohibitions and limitations on society. People seek any forms of resisting the authoritarian impulses, and, obviously, humor is one of the most effective forms of such resistance.

Two Russians are sitting in a café. One of them is reading a magazine, on the cover of which are depicted a Rolls-Royce and an old model of a Muscovite. The other asks:

- Which car do you like better?

- The Muscovite, obviously.

- So you know nothing about cars!

- No, cars I know a lot about. It’s about you that I know nothing.

Against the background of universal torpor, which seized Russian society during the period of coup of the Committee of the State of Emergency GKCP suddenly appeared a felling quip, calling to resistance:

“I had my cannon toaded light.”

The author clearly remembers hearing these words a few days before the then-minister of internal affairs shot himself.

3.3. Jewish humor

In Victor Raskin’s book (Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. – Dordrecht: Reidel, 1985) an entire section (9, chapter 6) is dedicated to this form of humor, while the entire book contains a large amount of purely Jewish jokes and anecdotes.

But first let us provide two examples, gotten from his book.

1. The Russian ruler is inspecting the troops. He approaches a short soldier on the left flank, and demands to know his name.

-Muhameddinnov, Your Majesty!!!

- Alright, Muhameddinnov, tell me, would you be able to kill the Tsar?

- Hoooraaay!!! shouts the poor Turk, having poor command of the Russian language.

The irritated tsar approaches the tallest soldier on the right flank.


-Ivanov, Your Majesty!!!

- Tell me, Ivanov, would you be able to kill your Tsar?

-Never, Your Majesty. I’d sooner deprive myself of life; kill my parents, than ever endanger my beloved ruler, for whom each of us would be willing to lay down his life!!!

-Good man, Ivanov, - says the tsar, and moves on to the next group.



-Tell me, Rabinovich, would you be able to kill the tsar?

-What, with a drum?

(Russia, 1900’)

2. - I told my son to marry a shiksa. If he marries a nice Jewish girl and she gets pregnant, he’s going to worry like hell about her health. If she becomes fat or gets sick, he will be upset.

-  But a shiksa also might get pregnant, or gain weight, or…

- Sure, but who’d care?  

(USSR, 1930)

As we can see, defensive humor under certain conditions may lose its main function and bare “fangs and talons”. Raskin, despite all this, considers Jewish humor self-deprecating. “Jewish humor includes all ethnic jokes which have the Jews for the targeted ethnic group”. According to Raskin, “the especially mentioned ethnic characteristics ridiculed in Jewish jokes are: sarcasm, wiliness, intelligence, cowardice, untidiness, Jewish logic, attraction to money, paradoxical relation to things, family relations (Jewish mothers and wives, and also JAP – Jewish American Princesses – that is, Jewish daughters). Also mentioned are anti-Semitism, relations with non-Jews (the goyim) and even the pogrom.

Avner Ziv (1988) determined the purpose of Jewish humor as an aggressive-defensive mechanism. This view may be disseminated to all forms of defensive humor. A good illustration of how a defenseless person might receive an advantage from an unfavorable position could be seen in this episode of the “Gallant Soldier Joseph Švejk.

“They awoke a Jew in the tavern, who began to tear his hair in regret that he cannot serve the gentlemen soldiers, and eventually began to beg them to buy his ancient, hundred year old cow, an emaciated thing, all skin and bones. He asked a fantastic sum of money for it and swore that a cow like that could not be found in all of Galicia, in all of Austria and Germany, in all of Europe, and in all the world. He howled, cried, and swore that this was the fattest cow that by Jehovah’s will ever set foot on the earth. He swore by his ancestors that people came all the way from Volochinsk to see this cow; that rumors ran through the entire realm that this was not a cow, but a fairy tale, that this wasn’t even a cow, but the fattest buffalo. Finally he fell before them and hugging their knees, one after another, wailed: “Kill this old unfortunate Jew, but don’t leave without the cow”. His wailing brought the clerk and the cook into complete confusion, and eventually they hauled off the dying beast, which no butcher would have taken a second glance at, to the field kitchen. And long after the money was in his pocket, the Jew wept that he was ruined, destroyed, robbed, having sold such a splendid cow so cheaply. He begged them to hang him for making such a mistake in his old age, for which his forefathers will be turning over in their graves. After rolling round for a little bit more in the dust, he suddenly got up, shook off all his grief, went back to his shack and told his wife: “Elsa, my life, the soldiers are idiots, and your Nathan is wise!”

As we can see, all forms of defensive humor, including the self-deprecating, carry powerful aggressive ammunition, and serve as a weapon in the battle with a superior opponent.


3.4. Feast in time of plague

“The earthquake in Armenia greatly shook up all the soviet people”.

“Time” TV program, 20 Dec. 1988

We know that it is characteristic for man to make jokes in critical and dangerous situations. Classic examples are the jokes with which famous Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov encouraged his soldiers. We might argue about their propriety on the battlefield, except that the great general had never in his life lost a single battle.

Academician Dmitry Lihachev even suggested that “encouragement through laughter at the most pathetic moment of a deadly threat was always a purely Russian national phenomenon.”

It is well known fact that the soldiers who spent a long time in entrenchments, in dampness, and in freezing weather seldom fell victim to catarrhal diseases. They sneezed, coughed, but almost no one landed in a hospital with influenza or an acute respiratory condition. Clearly, in extreme conditions, the subconscious defense mechanisms turn on, including humor. In dangerous situations this defense mechanism turns on automatically, subconsciously.

The author had to survive an event, the scale of which might be compared to the Black Plague. The event in question is the accident at the atomic station near Chernobyl.

When on the morning of April 26, 1986 we heard about the “explosion” at the Chernobyl reactor, the first reaction was, as it is imprinted in memory, a laughter. Horror, fear of the uncertainty came later, but in the beginning, there was laughter. And it didn’t stop for many months in the entire city of Kiev (50 miles from Chernobyl), which was covered by a radioactive cloud on the eve of First of May Day. This was an unforgettable time. Conversations, discussions, arguments on the bus, in a subway, at work, in companies, in bed all revolved around the same subject. Everything else stopped existing. The situation was made more difficult by the fact that the government found nothing better to do than to kill all sources of information and even ban the sale of instruments to measure levels of radioactivity, previously held in the Civil Defense divisions of any significantly large enterprise.

In response, multiple anecdotes, jokes, and ditties appeared, most of them dedicated to one of two themes: the expected reduction of potency in men, and the undoubted role of alcohol in suppressing the effects of radiation.

Two weeks after the explosion, on May 8th 1986 the author was coming off the plane in the Litovian airport, the first phrase he heard from the crowd of those meeting him was the ditty:

A “Zaporojetz” is no car
A Kievian is no man.

Zaporozhets ne mashina,
Kievlyanin – ne muzshina.

The men of Kiev did not remain in debt, and tried with all their might to prove the falsity of this accusation. The sexual aggression in the city drastically increased. But the amount of laughter increased even more. In the Institute hallways, one could hear peals, even explosions of laughter constantly emanating from behind the closed doors of laboratories and offices.

The city laughed!!! And we survived.



The first attempts to classify wit go back to hoar antiquity: they were undertaken by Cicero and Quintillian.

Cicero relied on his experience as a public speaker. In his treatise “The Orator” he grouped all forms of wit into two different types:  

1. Funniness that comes of the nature of the object itself.

2. The verbal form of wit, which includes:

  • absurdity
  • ambiguity
  • unexpected conclusions
  • puns
  • allegory
  • contrast
  • apparent simplicity
  • caricature
  • comparison (similarity)
  • contradiction (contrast)
  • unresolved expectation
  • evasiveness
  • irony
  • metaphor
  • mockery
  • tall tales
  • sayings
  • light mockery
  • unexpectedness
  • underestimation
  • literal understanding of words
  • unusual interpretation of proper nouns

This is the first formal classification of wit. You can imagine with what mastery and, apparently, practical results the great orator used these methods.

Quintillian also examined wit in relation to rhetoric. He separated witticisms from mere funny statements more clearly than did Cicero. He understood that people laugh not only at witticisms, but also at stupidity, cowardice, lack of restraint, and so forth.

Quintillian divided all of the reasons which cause smiling and laughter into six groups:

    1. Refinement (urbalitas).
    2. Grace (venustum).
    3. Piquancy (salsum).
    4. Joke (facetum)
    5. Witticism (jocus)
    6. Good-natured teasing (decacitas).

Alexander Luk classified the methods of wit known to him as follows:

    1. False contrast
    2. False strengthening
    3. Driving to absurdity:
      1. Exaggeration (hyperbole)
      2. Understatement or softening (euphemism)
    4. Witticism of absurdity:
      1. The connection of two logically incompatible statements
      2. Paralogistic conclusion
    5. Mixing of styles or “combination of plans”:
      1. Mixing of vocal styles
      2. Metaphorical terminology
      3. Incompatibility of style and content
      4. Incompatibility of the style of speech and the situation in which it’s uttered
      5. Pseudo-profundity
    6. A hint, or a precise chain of associations
    7. Double meaning
      1. Play on words
      2. Ambiguity
    8. Irony
    9. Backward comparison
      1. “Pure” backward comparison
      2. Literalization of a metaphor
    10. Comparison through a random or secondary characteristic, the enumeration of incompatible subjects in the same list.
    11. Repetition
      1. “Pure” repetition
      2. Repetition with a change in grammatical construction
      3. Repetition with a change in meaning.
    12. Paradox

Victor Raskin differentiates the verbal forms of the funny in the following manner (incomplete list):

1. Ridicule

-Who was that gentleman that I saw you with last evening?

- He’s not a gentleman, he’s a senator!

2. Self-mockery

A man condemned to the firing squad on Monday: “What a way to start the week”.

3. Self-disparaging humor

4. Riddle

5. Word play

-What is the first thing a person runs into when he gets to New York for the first time?

-An automobile.

Thomas C. Veatch in his “A Theory of Humor” gives the following (also incomplete) list of the types of the funny:

    1. Driving to absurdity
    2. Satire
    3. Literal interpretation of a metaphor
    4. Irony
    5. Double meaning
    6. Contradiction
    7. Incompatibility
    8. Withdrawal from danger
    9. Establishment of superiority
    10. Excessive rationality
    11. Excessive rationality
    12. Deviation from the commonplace
    13. Others

Miroslav Voinarovsky (http://psi-logic.narod.ru/steb/steb.htm, in Russian) divides the funny into the following categories:

    1. Anix (term introduced by Voinarovsky)
    2. Pun
    3. The grotesque
    4. Double meaning
    5. Reversing
    6. Association
    7. Transferring
    8. Omission
    9. Repetition
    10. Reduction
    11. Interpretation
    12. Hint
    13. Incompleteness
    14. Euphemism
    15. Rhyme (with a hint at impropriety).

A common thread in these interpretations is that they don’t track internal, fundamental differences clearly enough. They don’t pretend to scientific nature. A scientific classification of the forms of humor must be based not on a list of the forms, but on the grouping of the methods or forms by general essential characteristics. The deeper we can penetrate the essence of the funny, the more logical, and, as a rule, the simpler the classification will be. Ideally, the scientific classification will consist of only two divisions.

One such classification exists and belongs to Sigmund Freud, who differentiated jokes and the comic in the following way: “A joke is invented; the comic happens”.

Raskin similarly differentiated intentional and unintentional humor, which is close to the conclusion of Freud.

The author of the present investigation thinks that there are more than enough arguments in favor of the aggressive nature of humor, the point of view that humor is always used as an intellectual weapon in the fight for increasing one’s social status, or as preparation for intellectual combat; training of a sort, a warm-up. Social status is not measured in absolute units. It is the position of a person relative to other individuals. An increase of social status can come about in only two ways: an increase of one’s own status, or the decreasing of the social status of those surrounding. On the basis of this view, a universal classification of the funny might go as follows:

  1. Humor of deprecation. We are gladdened; we think it’s funny when someone gets into a compromising position.
  2. Humor of elevation. We receive pleasure when we are elevated in our own eyes or in the eyes of others.
  3. Mixed humor. This is a combination of the previous two.

It’s not hard to see that all three types of the funny can be used for advancement up the social ladder, fixation of reached positions, or for training our abilities to combat others. This mental training seems harmless, and has led many scholars to the conclusion about the existence of inoffensive jokes, not causing anyone harm. Similarly, fencing lessons, archery, and boxer training might all seem inoffensive; everything depends on the point of view and realization of the knowledge received at these lessons.

It is interesting that the aggressive nature of three out of the four known types of the funny: satire, sarcasm, irony and humor, is not doubted. And it’s only apropos humor do opinions diverge. Many believe that there exists a harmless form of humor, not targeted at anyone’s deprecation or elevation. We will try and show that there exists a different viewpoint on this form of the funny.

Let us provide a few examples.

4.1. Humor of deprecation

A pure example of the humor of deprecation is mockery of a person who got into an awkward position or who possesses physical deficiencies. For example, “'Oh, look at that hair! Has it gone all rusty? Did your parents leave you out in the rain?” Such humor was used by clowns on the arena. The white-haired clown smacks the red-haired clown on the head, he trips, spills a bucket of water on himself, gets into a pickle. Situational comedy, especially silent movies, over which we laughed ourselves to tears, almost entirely consists of such humor. Here’s an example:

D. Minaev

A mongrel loped down Nevsky Avenue
Behind, Burenin quietly ran
Oh, guard the dog, monsignor policeman
From the menace of the biting man!

Po Nevskomu bezhit sobaka,
Za ney Burenin, tih I mil…
Gorodovoy, smotri, odnako,
Chtob on eyo ne ukusil!

In this epigram, there is almost nothing of the riddles inherent to humor, no “shining contradiction”, except perhaps for a small exaggeration that a case of man biting dog is improbable. This is a typical example of depreciating humor. Notice, however, that without this small contradiction, this epigram would have been flat and simply fall out of the category of humor.

4.2. Humor of elevation

Alexander Ivanov to Maya Plisetskaya (famous Bolshoi Theater ballerina)

Of you, I’ll always speak enthralled,
Impromptu, and with charm;
Your legs to keep, the Bolshoi’s halls
Would give up their right arms.

Ya govorit’ o vas bi mog
Ekspromtom I ne vdrug;
Bol’shoy teatr bez vashih nog
Bukval’no kak bez ruk.

It would seem that aggression is nowhere to be found in this epigram. It is certainly flattering to the woman addressed. But aggression is indeed present here. The brilliantly written epigram elevates simultaneously the author, the reader, and the great ballerina. The image of Maya Plisetskaya is elevated through refined flattery. The author secures his position as leader of national parody and epigram. The reader’s status rises as well, though to a lesser degree. All this becomes evident with a simple alteration of the text. Let us remove the element of humor from this epigram. For instance:

Of you, I’ll always speak enthralled,
Impromptu, and with charm;
For you, the Bolshoi’s vaulted halls
Would give up their right arms.

Ya govorit’ mogu seychas
Ekspromtom I ne vdrug;
Boyus’, Bol’shoy teatr bez vas
Bukval’no, kak bez ruk.

The meaning of the epigram is the same; the same amount of flatter and admiration is present. But the play on words “legs-arms” has disappeared – and the reader literally feels duped. He has nothing to think about; nothing to puzzle out. The element of mental gymnastics is no longer present. The author is automatically cast into the set of tedious rhymes. And the readers don’t get the same impulse of elevation or self-delight that they do from the classic epigram of Alexander Ivanov. The cited epigram is a classis case of the humor of elevation. It allows the reader to feel himself “on the level”, and sometimes even above the level if we happen to hear this epigram in the presence of someone who didn’t get it.

Another example of pure elevating wit is the following couplet by Alexander Pope:

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;

God said 'Let Newton be' and all was light.

to which Sir John Collings Squire later added:

It did not last: the devil, shouting 'Ho.

Let Einstein be' restored the status quo.

4.3. Mixed humor

Lord Alfred Tennyson began a “To E. L. on his Travels in Greece” as follows:

Illyrian woodlands, echoing falls
Of water, sheets of summer glass,
The long divine Peneian pass,
The vast Akrokeraunian walls,

Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair,
With such a pencil, such a pen,
You shadow forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there:

The recipient of the tribute, the great parodist Edward Lear wrote his own version of the poem:

Delirious Bulldogs; -- echoing calls
My daughter, -- green as summer grass; --
The long supine Plebeian ass,
The nasty crockery boring falls; --

Tom-Moory Pathos; -- all things bare, --
With such a turkey! such a hen!
And scrambling forms of distant men,
O! ain't you glad you were not there!

In this parody, not only is the author of the poem lightly mocking the original poem, but also himself (as the beneficiary of the original). At the same time, the status of the author is elevated through his clever manipulation of words and meaning. The reader’s status is similarly elevated through solving the simple mapping between the parody and the original. This is humor of the mixed type; a multi-dimensional parody comprised of both deprecation (of the parodied author) and elevation (of the author and the reader).



The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter

Mark Twain

In the previous chapters we accumulated enough evidence to allow us to make clear the state of present-day investigations in the field of the funny. We have everything we need in order to embark on an orderly and systematic search for the answer to the main question: “Why does a person laugh?” We won’t concern ourselves with the question “when?” or “under what conditions”, but merely “why?” And also: “what for?”

For we have not encountered answers to these basic questions.

In chapter 2 we came to the following conclusions:

    • Humor exists as an objective phenomenon.
    • Humor has an aggressive nature. A person laughs not only at “innocent” jokes, but also at the misfortunes of others.
    • The percentage of natural jokers and natural leaders is approximately the same.
    • A sense of humor is something vitally important to a human being.
    • Humor can be divided into two basic types: the humor of elevation, and the humor of deprecation. If these two types are both present, we get mixed humor.

To find the answer, we need the following statements, which we call - 13 Theses. The reader won’t find anything new in them. These theses are, as a matter of fact, borrowed from existing works and have undergone only the slightest rephrasing. An overwhelming majority of the scholars would agree with them:

    1. Humor is an innate phenomenon, and plays an essential role in the survival of the species.
    2. Humor is not the most complex, but one of the most primitive of emotions. There are evidences that humor is innate in primates and other animals.
    3. Smiles, laughter, exploding with mirth, brought by a wit, are all expressions of pleasure.
    4. Any joke is characterized by certain illogicality, a “shining contradiction”, a riddle, separating it from the usual logical thought.
    5. Pleasure from humor is reached from gaining either
      1. superiority over another, or
      2. intellectual triumph from solving the riddle, thus…
    6. “A keen word said twice becomes dull.” (Alexander Pushkin)
    7. An audience reacts more enthusiastically to jokes if it is in a good mood.
    8. An orator laughs at a joke he knows well with greater pleasure than the audience.
    9. Humor is perceived differently (frequently with opposite signs) by the joker and the audience, and the person or persons being ridiculed; by the “aggressor” and his listeners on one side, and the “object of aggression” on the other.
    10. A well-done joke can elevate or offend a person to whom it’s addressed more so than a flat joke.
    11. Humor is a social phenomenon, an intellectual weapon. It doesn’t exist outside of the human factor. Humor is a weapon of aggression in the strong, and fulfills a defensive function in the weak.
    12. The greatest effect is reached if the time spent solving the “riddle” is small.
    13. For the best apprehension of the joke, the listener should be prepared (forewarned).

Humor is a primitive phenomenon (theses 1 and 2). It is accessible to everyone, even to children and savages. Its nature has, most likely, a similarly simple, primitive explanation. It is this very sort of explanation that we are to arrive at, not even arrive at: not overlook. As it will be shown below, this solution has already been located by our predecessors. They had one additional small step to make; the last stride to the finish line.

Laughter is an expression of pleasure (thesis 3). A pure instance of the laughter of deprecation is free from riddles, from the “shining contradiction”. This primitive, rough humor presents no mystery to us. This laughter manifests from the satisfaction of purely aggressive, low feelings, self-elevation at the price of the humiliation of others. We could pretend that we are not subject to such humor, that misfortunes that happen to our enemies leave us with discomfort and entirely unpleasant feelings. Of course, in that case we would have to ignore a couple of things. Ignore the thunderous laughter of the audience while watching slapstick silent films; forget our childish glee at the site of clowns on the circus arena, who got into funny situations with falling and spilling water on themselves. We’ll forget these things as a distant dream, and move on to the more refined forms of the funny. According to our classification system, there are only two: the humor of elevation, and mixed humor.

Every joke of the humor of elevation contains an intellectual “riddle” (thesis 4) which we must solve. Laughter testifies of the pleasure we gain from successfully accomplishing the mental task – the solving of the “riddle” (thesis 5 b). For instance, the simple reversal of words or their incorrect usage frequently becomes funny, as we are offered the mental challenge: restore the logical order of the words and understand their intended meaning. If there is no riddle, or the answer to it is known ahead of time, we have nothing to solve. The joke stops being funny (thesis 6). Regular jokers frequently use this method. They simply switch around the words in a phrase or place unexpected synonyms in well-known idioms. If a person replaces just one word in a heavily used phrase: “Make a mountain out of a molehill” and instead says “make a mountain out of a brass farthing” he might pass as a comedian.

Thesis 4 is considered to be correct by a majority of investigators. Quintillian wrote “And by Hercules, the entire purpose of a joke is to express reality in a different way: this is done by warping one’s own or someone else’s convictions or by saying something impossible”.

And this is how Arthur Schopenhauer expressed the same idea in his book “The World as Will and Representation”, (1819): “Laughter always signifies the sudden apprehension of an incongruity between a concept and the real object thought through it, and represents a mere expression of this incongruity.” The key word here is “unexpected” or “sudden”. It will be explained below why.

Let us label the value which designates the level of Pleasure received from Solving the Riddle with the abbreviation PSR. This pleasure may be strong, weak, or entirely nonexistent. The value of PSR may be expressed as several variables. We will formalize these variables below.

The listeners’ mood elevates the effect of humor (thesis 7). When in a good mood, people laugh more willingly; it’s easier to make them laugh. The level of the mood can also be expressed as a variable. We shall call this value the Background Mood (BM). The Pleasure received from Solving the Riddle is superimposed on the Background Mood. The Effect of Humor is the sum of these two values. This gives us the basis for constructing the initial expression for the Effect of Humor (EH).

EH = PSR + BM, (1)

where EH = the effect of humor,

PSR = the pleasure gained from solving the riddle, and

BM = the background mood.

For the formula to make sense, we must assign some (even conditional) values for evaluating its components and designate their value ranges. Fortunately for us, an anonymous Russian folk had already done this work before us, having established the unit of EH. This unit he labeled as “laughter”, and gave it a quantitative value of one arbitrary unit. This unit is mentioned in V. I. Dal’s Russian Language Dictionary: “Laughter for all, but not even a half-laugh for us”.

Let us also designate the maximum possible pleasure received from the apprehension of a joke as 1 Laugh, or 1 L for short. A value of 1.0 L will correspond to the largest possible value of EH, which in plain speak is called a horse-laugh or “rolling on the floor laughing”. It’s not hard to see that the values of PSR and BM must have the same units (L). Let us set an arbitrary maximum for PSR equal to the maximum value of BM, that is, at 0.5 L. Such a value of BM corresponds to a very joyous state of the soul, such that it’s very easy to make the person laugh. To do this it is enough to use the ancient folk method of adding a slight value of +1.0 F (one finger) to the level of BM. As a limitation, let us assume that this finger is not the middle one. When this happens, the value of EH will exceed the ground state; that is, the conditions for laughter will have been created.

The maximum value of PSR, equal to +0.5 L, corresponds to the first-rate joke, such as a fresh, timely, and well-told anecdote.

The minimal value of PSR = -0.5 L (a blasphemous, offensive joke). The minimum value of BM = -0.5L, which corresponds to such deep depression that even a dose of +2.0 F won’t raise the mood to a sufficient laughter. In such depression, even the most successful joke with a value of PSR = +0.5L won’t cause more than a slight sad movement of the lips. The total value of EH will be close to zero (0.0 L).

The maximal possible value of EH equals 1.0 L, and the minimal is -1.0 L. Despite the arbitrariness of the values adopted by us, this approach will allow us to avoid vague judgments and will enable us to compare conclusions.

Formula (1) introduces nothing new into our understanding of the nature of the funny; it is simply a conditional mathematical illustration of known positions. Despite its inevitable subjectivity, it gives us the opportunity for numerical analysis. However, this formula did not put us any closer to the answer to the following important questions:

    1. Why does the orator, for whom the pleasure gained from solving the riddle (thesis 6) presents no effort (PSR = 0), receives a greater pleasure from his joke than the audience (thesis 8)? At the same time, the listener who is well acquainted with the joke and has already solved this riddle receives no pleasure (EH = 0).
    2. For the object of aggression or mockery, solving the riddle comprising the salt of the joke brings no pleasure at all (EH < 0, thesis 9). On the contrary, a well-aimed joke is capable of causing a stronger negative or positive reaction than a weak joke (thesis 10). How can we explain why a successful jibe that hit the target causes a stronger negative reaction from the ridiculed than an unsuccessful, flat mockery?
    3. Why do we obtain pleasure from solving the elementary, simple riddles and contradictions that comprise the salt of the jokes? Why does this simple intellectual exercise bring about an influx of happiness, accompanied by laughter, and the solution of other more complex and prestigious problems rarely call laughter forth?

The answers to these three questions will lead us to the solution of the eternal riddle: Why we laugh.

We notice that the information included in the three questions highlighted by us is not the fruit of our conclusions or imagination. Anyone can recognize its validity from his experience. But a convincing, logical answer to these questions has not yet been given.

Answer to the First question

We have arrived at the conclusion that humor has as its goal obtaining or maintaining a certain advantage in society (theses 5.a and 11). Most researchers are in agreement on this point.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) maintained that laughter is caused by a feeling of superiority over some subject. He used the term “sudden triumph”. We turn the reader’s attention to the word “triumph”, and note its accompanying word “sudden”. Four centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes had been very close to the solution of humor.

His predecessor Giangorno Trissino (1478-1550) wrote in his theses “Poetica”: “this (humor) brings pleasure thanks to the fact that man is by nature envious and malevolent”.

If Thomas Hobbes and his numerous followers were right, then we must part with one strongly rooted illusion: namely that humor serves merely to bring pleasure and entertainment. In fact, the value of EH, the effect of humor, is expressed by none other than the success in one’s advancement up the social ladder. This success may be evinced through receiving a certain status in society, signs of approval and admiration, attentions of the opposite sex and other things which are so valued by people in this life. The purpose of humor as a phenomenon consists precisely of this and none other.

The Effect of Humor = A Change in Social Status.

This is the answer to the first of the questions we are facing. Humor serves not only to cheer up an audience or to spend time merrily. The value of EH will be maximal not when a joke is elegantly and skillfully composed, not when anecdote is masterfully told, but only in that case when the narrator and the listener receive as a result some sort of an advantage over others; advance up the social ladder of the group, collective, or family, or if they maintain their position.

A regular joker, a skillful teller of anecdotes, a person whose speech is sprinkled with skillful turns, a speaker who gives color to the content of his speech with jokes all have a greater chance of attracting attention to themselves and gaining success than a person who presents his thoughts flatly, “without a raisin”. It is the orator who gets the applause.

The listeners increase their status by demonstrating their ability to solve intellectual problems (thesis 5.b) and erudition, the ability to easily orient themselves in the sea of information necessary for solving the problem. Therefore, as experimental studies testify and everyday experience backs up, the teller receives greater enjoyment and laughs more merrily and infectiously than the listeners.

We are participants in an ongoing competition with others like ourselves for a place under the sun. A successful witticism or a positive reaction to a joke is equivalent to scoring a point in a tennis match or a well-cued billiard ball. These humble sportive achievements are the straight analogies of a successful joke. Each point and each ball scored elevates us in our own eyes, and in the eyes of those surrounding.

Each joke does the same with us.

And nothing more!

The process of apprehending a joke or anecdote could be imagined in the following way. The narrator throws certain objects to the audience: balls, or Frisbees, which listeners try to catch. Some participants catch the objects quickly and with skill, some clumsily, and some miss the objects entirely or drop them on the floor. Is this light, easy entertainment? Sure, but it’s a competitive entertainment. The participants try to not land with their face in the mud, and to show off their skill to others.

Even a friendly match on the tennis court almost always turns into a scored game, and not just a simple tossing of the ball back and forth. A gained point always generates pleasure, while a skillfully returned ball – not always. For this reason the number of tennis lovers who play with their partners is much greater than the number of people who like bouncing the balls against a wall.

Let us look at the following example:

Yuriy Tynyanov

Pushkin willed us “Liberty”
And Gogol thumbed his “Nose”
Turgenev wrote back, “Uberty!”
“Good-s”, Mayakovsky goes.

Ostavil Pushkin odu “Vol’nost’”,
A Gogol’ natyanul nam “Nos”.
Turgenev napisal “Dovol’no”,
A Mayakovskiy – “Horosho-s”.

Let’s imagine that this epigram was read in English speaking company, where not everyone has read Mayakovsky or studied for exams based on his poem “Good!” Will they understand the meaning of the last line of the epigram? We can probably assume that the classic epigram won’t seem funny to this audience. On the other hand, those who are well familiar with Mayakovsky’s and Tynyanov’s writing and their complex biographies will get a great deal to think about from these four lines: comparisons, the propriety of the suffix –“s”. These listeners will get a positive psychological impulse, elevating them in their own eyes and over those in the audience who did not understand the epigram.

For those readers already familiar with Tynyanov’s epigram, this won’t call forth a smile. But even they would have felt pleasure from hearing it in diverse company because they would have felt themselves on top, having remembered all of its nuances, and having exchanged auguring smiles with the other such knowledgeable listeners, would have added themselves to the highest part of those present. But the greatest success falls to the part of the author of the epigram. Can he hold back his pleasure of success, even if this epigram has been told multiple times?

The purpose of the humoristic process as we’ve defined it (the elevation of social status) gives us an answer to the first of the questions set before us.

Answer to the Second question

In accordance to what has been said, and relying on thesis 9, it would be logical to modify Formula (1). According to the ideas of Henri Bergson and other researchers, (“the funny is connected either to something human or to something related or able to be ascribed to humanity”) humor does not exist separately from the human factor. Indeed, let us imagine the following situations. The first: Charlie Chaplin swings the ladder that he’s carrying on his shoulder at a negative character, and the latter falls into a bucket of gunk. This is funny. Situation the second: the same swing lands on the head of a blind girl from the movie “City Lights”. Is this funny? No, it’s more likely that the audience won’t like this and get angry. Finally, the third situation: Chaplin strikes a brick wall with that same ladder. How does the audience respond? They don’t, really; they don’t care. Three of the same actions, and three entirely different reactions from the audience.

To obtain the effect of the funny, the listener must be personally involved in the experience. A person who is obviously deformed or a lame soccer player chasing a ball calls forth laughter. But a crooked brick, or a brick with a chipped off corner isn’t funny. Nothing that happens to the brick can cause the comic effect. The comic effect can only be reached if the brick falls on someone’s head, or if the anecdote begins with the words: “Two bricks are crawling along…” In these cases we get a connection with humans, or analogy with human behavior.

But the bricks that lie there without motion and don’t crawl anywhere cannot cause a comic effect. Why? Simply because we can’t morally rise above the bricks. But if we’re told that a brick lies on top of another, this might call forth a well-known analogy, and could become the start of an anecdote or caricature.

To reach the effect of the funny, it is necessary for the listener to feel empathy towards the subjects of the joke.

The listener feels emotions due to Personal Empathy (PE) to these subjects. The listener can feel superior over the heroes of the joke or anecdote. This elevates him in his own eyes. On the other hand, the listener (as in the example of Maya Plisetskaya) may feel empathy towards a favorite ballerina, and become elevated along with her. In both cases, empathy increases the effect of the joke. The value of PE in this case will be positive. If the joke offends the listener, rubs him the wrong way or insults his close ones (like the honor of his wife), the value of PE will be negative. In those cases where the listener feels no empathy towards the subject of the joke, the value of PE will be equal to zero, and the joke won’t seem funny. For example, in the nineties, a popular joke in America was the following, heard on the Johnny Carson radio show: “Why did the vice-president go to Panama?” “Because the shooting there had stopped.” We understand the salt of the joke. It’s not hard to guess that the cowardice of the vice president is being ridiculed. But someone who wasn’t living in America at that time might have trouble remembering who the vice-president was; the personal qualities of that vice-president affect the person about as much as the behavior of a stationary brick. As a result, the joke isn’t funny for this person. But Americans of the time loved it.

It would be logical therefore to add in the term reflecting Personal Empathy into Formula (1):

EH = PE + PSR + BM, (2)

However, according to thesis 10, the value of PE depends on the success of the joke. A keen joke can rub us the wrong or right way, whereas a flat joke can neither cheer us up nor offend us. It would be quite logical therefore to express the first two terms in Formula (2) not as a sum, but as a product. The formula of the funny then takes on the following form:

EH = PE * PSR + BM, (3)

where * is the multiplication sign, and PE becomes unitless.

To maintain the value boundaries set by us for EH (±1.0 L), let us give PE a maximal value of +1.0, and a minimal of -1.0. Notice that the minimal value of PSR is now equal to zero (a flat joke) and the maximum remains 0.5 L as before. The maximum value of EH, 1.0L, can be reached under the following conditions:

  • The joke is successful. PSR = +0.5 L.
  • The narrator received the maximal possible benefits from the related (or conceived) joke: Homeric laughter, applause, shouts of “bravo”, amorous smiles of beautiful women, etc. PE = +1.0. The listeners have gotten a healthy amount of malicious rejoicing over the unlucky hero of the joke (for them PE also = +1.0).
  • The mood of the audience is most favorable. The narrator is well-known and beloved by the audience; the listeners expect humor of the highest class from him. They are “warmed up” by the setting or by alcoholic substances. The value of BM = +0.5 L.

In this case, EH = PE * PSR + BM = +1.0 * (+0.5L) + 0.5 L = +1.0 L.

The minimal value of EH, equal to -1.0 L might be reached under the following conditions:

  • The joke is quite astute; it hit the mark. PSR = +0.5 L.
  • With his joke, the narrator has managed to awaken quite unpleasant associations. For instance, maybe he told an anecdote about a rope in the house of a man who hung himself. Perhaps religious or nationalistic beliefs were infringed upon. The value of PE = -1.0.
  • The mood of the audience was very low. Something very unpleasant had just happened (BM = -0.5 L).

The value of EH = PE + PSR + BM = -1.0 * (+0.5 L) – 0.5 L = -1.0 L

The result of a negative EH might be silent disapproval, or in extreme cases, expulsion from the room, with a strict order never to return. Cries of “boo!”, “shame on you!”, “out!”, “never come back, you asshole!” accompany the expulsion.

Note that in the case of a flat joke (PSR = 0), the minimal value of EH is only

- 0.5 L:

EH = PE * PSR + BM = -1.0 * (0.0 L) – 0.5 L = -0.5 L.

An EH value of zero (0.0 L) might be achieved as a result of a combination of different circumstances. For example, the joke might be quite successful; the narrator received the acknowledgement of the audience, but the general mood (BM < 0) is not favorable for laughter.

EH = PE * PSR + BM = 1.0 * (0.5 L) – 0.5 L = 0.0 L.

The readers can mentally reproduce a familiar life situation, a successful or unsuccessful attempt to joke, and get an estimation of the EH for themselves using the proposed procedure. Formula (3) shows that laughter is produced only when the object of the joke is not indifferent to us. This formula expresses the idea of A. Bergson mathematically. It gives a simplified visual approximation of the interdependence between the quality of the joke and the effect caused by it. It also gives a quantitative relationship, illustrating the answer to the second of the questions posed by us.

In the majority of the cases, the value PE has a negative value for the object of the joke. The overall EH of the person being ridiculed will be the lower, the better the joke, and the more hostile is the mood of the audience. A typical audience is predisposed to dislike unpleasant people, people who undeservedly achieved success such as aristocrats; and some audience simply dislikes wealthy people. Such an audience gleefully reacts to situations in which a similar character gets into an awkward situation. To express ourselves mathematically, the value PE for the listeners will always be greater than zero. Thus, the same joke can either have a positive or a negative effect, depending on whether the social status of the persons attending this joke is elevated or deprecated.

As an illustration, let us examine the following anecdote:

The newest computer model, able to answer any question, was demonstrated to a skeptical British lord.

The lord asked: “What is my father doing right now?”

Computer: “Right now your father is fishing on the shores of the Thames.”

The lord triumphantly takes a telegram out of the pocket of his secretary: “Lord Bartell left yesterday for a resort in Nice.”

The computer answers: “Lord Bartell left yesterday for a resort in Nice. And your father is catching fish on the shores of the Thames.”

How successful is this anecdote? Clearly, the value PSR will be high for most listeners. Let us give it a value of +0.3 L. The values of PE and EH, on the other hand, will heavily depend on the audience to which the joke is told. In democratic circles, the value of PE will be close to 1.0 and the value of EH might reach almost maximal parameters: +0.8 L. But if the narrator had the stupidity to tell this joke in aristocratic circles, the anecdote might seem tactless (no kidding!) and the narrator will be expelled. The minimal value of EH may reach

EH = PE * PSR + BM = -1.0 * (+0.3 L) – 0.5 L = -0.8 L

In this case, the aristocratic circle becomes the object of aggression, as well as the very principle of the inheritance of aristocratic titles. In the closets of all, even the most aristocratic family, is at least one skeleton, and the goal of aggression aimed at the degradation if their social status will have been reached. And the EH will be higher, the more successful the anecdote. It is noteworthy that the negative value of EH of the aristocrats will be achieved through a positive characteristic of the joke (PSR > 0).

More about defensive humor, or the skill of changing the sign

We have postulated above that for the object of ridicule, the value PE is always negative. Such a person is the object of aggression, and if the joke at his expense causes the laughter of others, his social status decreases (EH < 0). But there are exceptions. A person able to laugh at himself, and who does this naturally, can elevate his social status and change the sign of PE to the opposite. In this case, the impression is created in those surrounding that the teasing is only tribute to the popularity of the person, and he himself is far above the small digs contained in the jibe.

   If the anecdote examined above is told in a family of aristocrats who have adhered to conservative traditions since the beginning of time and are absolutely convinced of the uprightness of their genealogical tree, this anecdote might have some success. In this case, the attack directed at the family will ricochet and even bring the members a good deal of pleasure if it happens to land on the neighbors. Their social status will be elevated even higher- over their aristocrat-neighbors. Then the maximal value of EH will be the same as it was in the democratic circles:

EH = PE * PSR + BM = 1.0 * (+0.3 L) +0.5 L = 0.8 L

This effect (changing the sign of PE) is a characteristic property of the “defensive humor” examined in Chapter 3. A narrator who uses such humor intentionally lowers his status to get the audience on his side, to allow it to feel superior over him. The pleasure received by the audience calls up sympathy towards the narrator, since it’s pleasant for the listeners to be in the company of a person who elevates their social status. As a result, the gained sympathy can be used by the skillful orator for his own means.

Let us give an example, which we scooped up from the September issue of Reader’s Digest (2004, pg. 105). A real estate agent, and a Manhattan multimillionaire, Barbara Corcoran is obliged to both her intelligence, and a well-timed joke for her success. Many years ago, when Barbara managed to get an interview with the rich and powerful Donald Trump, she told the latter: “My husband is a pale imitation of you.Reader’s Digest doesn’t mention what exactly gave her the basis for this conclusion, but the joke was successful. Mr. Trump was so delighted that he remembered this phrase and quoted it publicly after a conference with other businessmen, two years after the memorable meeting. Soon after this, Mr. Trump entrusted Ms. Corcoran with selling 8 blocks of real estate constructed by him. The commissions from the sales totaled two million dollars. Afterwards, Barbara sold her company for 66 million, while managing to remain on as president. She expressed the lesson learned as follows: “If you laugh at others, you are pushing people away from you. But if you laugh at yourself, people have the immediate urge to come to your aid.

From the point of view of our theory, the clever Barbara merely learned to flip the sign of PE to the opposite. This comes as no surprise: her childhood was passed in a poor Irish family, and all of life’s lessons she absorbed in along with her mother’s milk who managed to raise ten children and teach them the everyday wisdom of flipping the sign.

It’s quite clear that even the simplified approach expressed in Formula (3) is convenient for illustrating basic positions, and quite successfully addresses the second of the posed questions. Thesis 11 becomes completely clear.

Answer to the Third question

For finding the answer to the third and final question, we need nothing more than simple logical thought. For it was here that our predecessors, without exception, have stopped. We know (thesis 4) that each joke contains a certain intellectual riddle which the listener is offered to solve. The presence of the riddle separates the funny from the non-funny. This is a necessary condition. Laughter is caused by pleasure from having solved the riddle (thesis 5.b). We also know (thesis 12) that the time spent on solving the riddle should be small. But we don’t know why. The answer to this question is simple and… almost obvious, but its understanding demands a prior explanation.

Let us remember a few examples from elementary physics.

  1. Someone is stroking your hand, or is giving you a massage, or (if you’re a woman) is gently squeezing your breast. In the majority of cases, such touch gives you pleasant sensations. But if someone applies equal force to a needle whose point is resting on your flesh, the sensation becomes painful and unpleasant. The same force F is pressing on a much smaller area A. Pressure P, that is, the quotient resulting from dividing the force by the area is equal to:
  2. P = F/A (4)

    The smaller the area A, the larger the pressure P, and the more unpleasant the sensation will be. The area of the needle’s point is much smaller than the area of the palm, and the value of the pressure will be large even with a small applied force.

  3. Everyone knows the natural phenomena known as lightning, and the destructive consequences which it can lead to. Lighting has colossal power. With a voltage which can reach up ten million volts, and a current up to twenty thousand amperes, the power Pp of a lightning strike exceeds 200 thousand million watts. This is equal to the power of 400 legendary Dnieper Dam in the Ukraine.
  4. Lightning appears as a result of an accumulation of charges in the upper atmosphere. These charges rise there from the lower atmosphere. Electric current which delivers the chargers to the upper levels of the atmosphere flows without interruption. What is the value of the current directed upwards from the entire surface of the Earth, from all its 450 million square kilometers? It’s surprising, but the value of the current from this entire area is only around 1000 amperes, that is, 20 times less than the amplitude of the current flowing down the narrow channel of a single lighting bolt. And Earth gets about 16 million thunderstorms each year.

    Such a great difference between the unimaginable power Pp of the atmospheric charge and the modest value Pa of the accumulated charge is explained by a relationship reminiscent of Formula (4). Only now we are dealing with the time intervals Tp and Ta, spent respectively on discharge and accumulation of charge; in other words, the interval of time between lightning bolts and the duration of the bolt:

    Pp = Pa * Ta/Tp (5)

    The smaller the time Tp of discharge, the greater the power Pp will be generated during this discharge. Such power is called impulse power. Impulse power is large because the time of the discharge is about 0.01 second.

  5. Artificial impulse devices are also able to generate colossal power for a short period of time. For example, a medium-sized radar can store energy in a special impulse capacitor for approximately half a second (0.5 sec), and discharge it in a matter of 30 microseconds (30* 10-6 sec). If the average power is 10 kilowatts, then the impulse power reaches the imposing value

Pp = Pa * Ta/Tp = 10,000 (w) * 0.5/30*10-6 = 167 million watts.


  This is almost a third of the Dnieper Dam. And what a colossal construction that was? Radar only takes up the volume of a writing table.

The impulse power of laser devices, developed for the waging of the so-called “star wars” is much higher.

But even such modest and humorless creatures as electric eels (rays, catfish, and blackheads) can generate strong impulse power through gradually storing up energy in tens of thousands of special membranes located in their bodies. The electric fish slowly and undetectably grows energy in its membranes, waiting for its prey. The discharge of this energy is enough to knock a grown man off his feet. In the Brockhaus and Efron encyclopedia it is noted that “the discharge current from a large, strong ray reaches 8 amperes, with a voltage of 300 volts. This is enough power to light twenty four 100-watt light bulbs!

Doubtless, the liberation of psychic energy of living things in a short time brings about a greater emotional reaction than a gradual discharge. If a frog is thrown into boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But if the water starts off cold, and gradually gets heated to boiling, the frog won’t experience painful shock, and will remain in the water until it cooks. The reaction of the frog to the impulse of administered pain differs from its reaction to a gradual administration of the same force.

One of the greatest pleasures accessible to humans is the sexual act. Its culmination, the orgasm, lasts in men for no longer than 1-3 seconds. But the shortness of this “impulsive” pleasure does not stop anyone. Men can court a woman and try to win her goodwill for a long time to experience this three-second pleasure and to cap off the process of courtship with a traditional conclusive phrase – rolling over and turning their back to their partner.

A sudden scare, as well as sudden joy is much a greater source of emotion than that same event spread out over a long time. It’s logical to expect that the greatest pleasure from intellectual work will be reached at the moments of greatest emotional impulse. This pleasure is, as a rule, short-term. For this reason, the maximal value of PSR the humor of elevation is proportional not to the complexity C contained in the riddle of the joke, but to the magnitude of the impulse, the splash of emotion. This maximal value may be defined as the ratio of complexity C of the riddle to the time Tp spent on its solution:

PSR = C/Tp (6)

Formula (6) is the representation of a known phenomenon: a prolonged meditation over a difficult problem brings us far less pleasure than an immediate discovery of the answer.

The outstanding Russian philosopher G. A. Golitzin in his book “Information and the Laws of Aesthetic Perception. – Knowledge, 1980” came to the same conclusion  (as the author was infomed by Victor Shekotihin):

Usually there exist various limitations which restrict immediate and full realization of this equilibrium, so that the push to the minimum J in reality turns into the subject’s push for receiving the maximal influx of information:

E = J/t = max

where J = informativeness of the stimulus (comical), and

t = its duration

An approach towards the target of perception, a decrease of J is accompanied by positive emotions, and a retreat from the target, by negative emotions. For this reason, E is an expression for emotions.”

A good joke must contain the maximal complexity which the listener can solve in a short period of time.

Then the ratio of complexity to duration (intellectual pleasure, PSR) will be maximal. An impulsive, short-termed elevation of the mood causes a strong positive emotion. Externally this emotion is expressed through a smile or laughter. This then is the riddle of the funny. As we expected, it proved to be elementary and even primitive.

The final, seventh (that magic number 7!) formula, which dots all the ‘i’s, looks as follows:

EH = PE * C/Tp + BM, (7)

where C is the complexity of the riddle, and

Tp is the time spent on its solution.

This is the formula of laughter.

We found it!

Notice that C has the units of L*sec, and Tr is a measure of time (seconds). We have to agree that with any values of C and Tp, their quotient will be within the limits of 0.0 L to +0.5 L. This limitation will prove useful in the following analysis.

Formula (7) is simple but not obvious. Its simplicity calls up an internal protestation. Can it be that the solution of a simple riddle of the type contained in the following epigram by Dorothy Parker:

Life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong
And I am Marie of Roumania

brings greater pleasure than completing a crossword puzzle or solving a mate-in-three chess puzzle?

To answer this question, let us conduct an elementary numerical analysis.

Let’s compare the emotional effect of two intellectual problems: one difficult, and one simple. The first demands a strong concentrated mental effort; the second is far more trivial. For the first task, let’s choose the composition of some funny poem, for example a parody or an epigram. Like solving a chess puzzle or taking a non-trivial integral, this problem is difficult. Not everyone can grasp it. We will evaluate its difficulty C1 as an arbitrarily chosen 1.0L * sec. As the second task, let’s use the reading or apprehension of this same epigram by the reader. Anyone can handle this. The complexity C2 of this intellectual exercise we will evaluate more modestly. Let C2 = +0.01 L * sec, that is 100 times less than C1. According to the famous poet-parodist Igor Yuzhanin (http://www.lebed.com/uzhanin/uzhanin-parodii.htm, in Russian), the time he spends composing an epigram is anywhere between 2 minutes and 2 hours. The level of satisfaction he has from composing a successful epigram, Yuzhanin evaluates as quite high.

An epigram dedicated to one of the more arrogant participants of the particular chat room was composed in T1 = 15 minutes:

As to the toilet, I’ll dash to the forum

Where I’ve already raised a formidable stench.

Like a purga, I’ll disturb the decorum

As though with a purger, if you pardon my French.

Kak v tualet, na forum zabegu,

gde mnoy uzhe ispisani vse steni

i, vipuchiv glaza, gonyu purgu.

Prichem, vse tchastche –s pomost’yu purgena.

Reading this epigram takes 8-10 seconds, and the time T2 spent on solving the riddle contained in it, the finding of the pun “purga-purger” and the non-correspondence of those words is no more than one second.

Let us evaluate the PSR for these two cases:

Case 1:

PSR2 = +Ñ1 / Ò1 = +1.0 / 900 = +0.0011 (L).


Case 2:

PSR2 = +Ñ2 / Ò2 = +0.01 / 1 = +0.01 (L).

We see that with an incomparable complexity of the problems under question, the apex of intellectual pleasure from reading the epigram is about 9 times higher than the pleasure received from composing it. Therefore, while reading, our mood has much greater chances of rising past the level which brings about a burst of laughter, or at least a smile. This conclusion is confirmed by experience. Many of us have written successful bits of poetry and/or prose. But how often does the author laugh, composing his piece? On the other hand, people easily laugh at simple jokes.

At the same time, the character to whom the present epigram was dedicated received no pleasure from its reading. The hero of the epigram let loose a flood of profanity on the author, accusing of worthlessness, calling him naught else but Pidar’ Govlyanin (Peer Turdicus). The PE of the epigram’s hero was obviously close to -1.0. Soon after, he left the chat room.

The provided explanation and the reverse proportionality of the intensity of pleasure of the time spent solving the “riddle” might seem simplified and mechanical. But this position is well confirmed by everyday practice. Even extremely pleasant information conveyed over the course of 10 minutes causes a smaller reaction than a small but sudden surprise.

A similar phenomenon is known to us from physiology. It is an established fact that the reaction of a nerve to an irritation is maximal in the initial period. In a short time, the nerve gets tired, and ceases reacting to the excitation.

It is entirely probable that people are endowed with humor as a mental ability of using this physiological phenomenon. Physiology gives one more confirmation that humor is a nearly reflexive, primitive feeling.

   Let us continue the analogy between the processes of the apprehension of humor and the physical processes in impulsive systems.

Every impulsive process includes three phases:

      1. an accumulation of energy;
      2. a signal to discharge;
      3. the discharge of the stored energy.

To develop the necessary impulse power in the process of discharge, it must first be accumulated.

In storm clouds, the accumulation of energy, as we mentioned above, happens gradually, through a slow migration of charge into the upper atmosphere. This is the first phase.

When the cloud has gathered the necessary, critical amount of energy, phase two begins. At the base of the storm cloud, a luminous discharge appears – a leader. It travels to the earth with enormous speed and blazes the way (creates a channel).

The third phase: The main body of the discharge – the lightning – travels down the created channel.

In impulse-based devices, the same things happen. During the first, the longest phase, a gradual accumulation of energy in special capacitors or magnetic spools, solenoids, occurs. In the second phase, a special device, a magnetron or klystron, is keyed with a short signal, and opens a path for discharging the stored energy. In the third phase, the stored energy discharges through the “opened” device.

If the second phase – the process of opening the discharge device – is lengthened, the discharged energy will be generated more slowly, and the maximal value of the power of the charge will be comparatively small. If the second phase happens before the end of the first phase, that is, the unlocking signal will come through when the energy has not yet been built up, then the maximal impulse power will be even less. If the first and second phases coincide, and the discharging device remains open during the charging process, then there won’t be any accumulation of energy at all.

Every joke or anecdote are made and work completely analogously to impulse devices. The processes of the apprehension of humor include the same phases as the charge-discharge process.

This is how a typical narration of an anecdote and its apprehension by the listeners looks:

    1. The listeners are told that they are about to hear something funny (thesis 13). This announcement causes a subconscious expectation of the forthcoming riddle, and the need for its solution. If the listener is not warned, the process of accumulation (in this case of information) might not happen. He will let the “salt” of the joke go in one ear, and out the other.
    2. In the process of the narration, the listeners are told information formulating the “riddle”. The listener takes in and stores this information. The accumulation of information corresponds to the first phase: the process of the accumulation of energy in impulse devices.
    3. A signal that the process of accumulation of information is complete follows; everything that the listener needs for solving the riddle has been conveyed to him, and the time has come to start on the “solution”. This second phase is key. The signal to start the process is sometimes a word or a phrase; sometimes a pause. Humor researchers use the (quite technical) term “trigger” to designate this signal. As in impulse devices, this phase must be short. It must complete the process of accumulation.

Salvatore Attardo noted this fact, but did not follow it up with a convincing explanation. He analyzed 600 humorous passages (anecdotes, jokes) in Italian and English, dividing them into two categories: those relating to objects, and lingual (verbal) jokes. As can be seen from the table taken from his book (1994), jokes, in which the key word does not appear at the end, comprise no more than 4% of the total. We have only to guess whether this 4% corresponds to the unsuccessful models or to the category of the so-called “soft humor”.

Table 2.9. Study A: Position of the key word (Disjunctor)


Object-based joke

Verbal joke



At the end

In the middle

At the end

In the middle




















4. The next, third phase consists of the listeners’ trying to solve the “riddle” which comprises the subject of the anecdote. As we already know, the time Tp allocated for the solution should be short. The correlation of the complexity C of the “riddle” to the estimated time Tp of its solution should be maximal. If the joke is told in a group of people, it is necessary that everyone or at least the majority of the people comprehend it simultaneously. In this case, a cumulative effect is achieved, and the effect from the narration of the anecdote increases by many times. A competition of a sort occurs in which the winners are those who laugh first, and the losers - those who get it a bit later. This competition plays a big part in the elevation or degradation of the social status of the listeners, expressed by the value EH. The biggest EH is gained by those with a good sense of humor, and the smallest by those who didn’t understand the anecdote at all.

From formula (7) it follows that the time Tp is a critical element of any joke or anecdote. A skilled narrator constructs his jokes in such a manner that this time be as short as possible.

For this, we need to observe two conditions:

  1. The key word (trigger, disjunctor, punch line) or the concluding pause must be located as closely as possible to the end of the joke. Then the listeners understand that the joke is finished, the “riddle” is formulated, and it’s time to start the process of solution. If the key word is separated from the end of the joke by a few words, one of the following happens:
    1. the listener is at a loss as to what exactly the “riddle” is; which parts relate to its conditions, and which parts can be safely ignored.
    2. the time spent solving the riddle increases, and the effect of the joke is reduced.

An overly simple joke has a low level of complexity, and thus a small impulse of pleasure, or burst of PE, over the base level of the mood. Such a joke is quite justly called flat. An overly complex joke has a level C which can lead to a disproportional increase in Tp. The time Tp of a complex joke is hard to predict, and we cannot rely on its success with assurance. In this case, the level of PE may turn out to be low.

Moreover, overly complex jokes inevitably lead to a lack of synchronicity in their apprehension by the audience. Some are already beginning to laugh while others are opening and shutting their eyes in confusion, or straining their foreheads in concentration. This leads to a decrease of the level of BM. As a simple, so an overly complex joke has a value of EH smaller than optimal. The levels of PSR and BM, which are part of Formula (7), decrease. The value of PSR decreases due to an increase in time Tp. The BM decreases because there is no simultaneous group apprehension of the joke. All of this follows from Formula (7).

The time spent on solving the problem is usually 1-2 seconds. For simplified analysis, let’s hold this value constant. Then the success of the joke depends on the correct choice of value for C.

A successful joke contains a maximally complex problem which can be solved in a matter of 1-2 seconds.

From our determination, it is evident that the effect EH from any joke is subjective. It is determined by the prior knowledge base of the listeners, their ability to solve mental problems, but is expressed at the end with an elevation or a deprecation of the social status of the participants of the humoristic process: the narrator and his audience.

The skill of the narrator, the writer, the humorist consists in choosing the optimal complexity appropriate for the majority of his audience. Humor, like other art forms, is targeted at different groups, which can solve concrete riddles and uncertainties: plain folks, professionals, national groups, the elite, scholars, children, etc.

The graph shown below illustrates the process of apprehension of a one dimensional joke. By one-dimensional we mean a joke which contains only one “riddle” the solution of which brings us pleasure.

A multilevel joke may include several layers of one or two forms of humor. Let us look at an example:


At the zoo:

- Dad, is this monkey a man or a woman?

- That’s a male.

At the next cage:

- Dad, is this one a man?

- Remember son: a man is someone with money! That one’s a male!

This anecdote is apprehended differently by different people. A “Nouvo Riche” will see it as a one-dimensional anecdote; he will deem himself a “man” and this will elevate his sense of superiority over others. The value of his PE will be high. Someone who is not a “Nouvo Riche” feels hostility towards them. Educated people will understand the bi- or even the multi-layeredness of the anecdote. Their PE will also have a high value. In the first place, they will laugh at the nonconformity of the “scientific” determination of the sex of the monkey. In the second place, they will feel intellectually superior over the boorish hero of the joke. In the third place, the listener might develop associations that in “Nouvo Riche” impotence is nearly a professional disease. And so forth.

A graphical apprehension of this joke is shown on the graph below. Here you can see several bursts of pleasure.



And here is how we can illustrate the apprehension of a one-dimensional joke by the narrator, the audience, and the person who is ridiculed:


The author is grateful to Miroslav Voinarovsky and Valentin Mamishev for the fruitful discussion which allowed him to direct his attentions to a significant obstacle. Very frequently the reader laughs at a joke which touches on his religious or political persuasions. However, according to our prior reasoning, this should not happen. We have arrived at the conclusion that any joke with a negative value of PE should lead to a negative reaction. One of the reasons why a positive reaction happens anyway lies on the surface. By ways of experimentation and observation, it was determined that a person laughs at those “blasphemous” jokes which don’t seriously offend him.

But it also happens that a joke of that sort both causes laughter and at the same time offends the listener.

The author conducted a special study, trying different, including borderline jokes with various audiences. Here is what was established. The first reaction – laughter – happens before the listener understands what the joke he just heard really means. At first he laughs at the pleasure of having solved the “riddle”. And only moments later does he “get” the real meaning. After this, his mood quickly worsens. This “bipolar” process may be illustrated with the following graph:


Before we begin the detailed deconstruction of the following examples, we will allow ourselves to remind the reader that all of the conclusions arrived at were based on either experimental data, or on prior conclusions with which the majority of researchers agree. The suggested theory does not factually contradict any of the existing theories of humor, and instead unites them, makes peace among them. In its derivation, the methods and approaches of the natural sciences were used to the greatest degree. We think that we have not left a single question unanswered.

The conclusions drawn in this work are easily checkable. To do this, one will not need expensive equipment or powerful computers. The subject of study is accessible to all.   

Before we embark upon the experimental check of the theory, let us answer the following question, of interest to many:

Is it necessary for a person to have a sense of humor?

The answer to this question is ambiguous. Humor is a competition. A person who is not interested in this competition does not need a sense of humor. At this, he might be not stupider that his peers, but sometime much wiser. If a person doesn’t understand humor, he is probably somewhat dull-witted. If he is not interested in humor, he is doubtlessly very wise or holds a high position which is difficult to shake.

   The hero of the novel by Somerset MaughamThe Moon and Sixpence”, the brilliant painter Charles Strickland reached extraordinary heights of craftsmanship. Such great heights, that the opinion of those surrounding him were no longer of interest to him. He did not send his paintings to art shows or galleries, and at the end of his life, simply destroyed them. For Strickland, the knowledge of his own genius and understanding of the secrets of mastery of the arts was enough. But how many among us don’t need daily supplements for our egos? Not very many at all. And that means, dear readers, that you and I are foredestined to humor, to jokes, teasing, anecdotes, cartoons and parodies.

Let’s try to make our peace with this.

And let’s move on to checking the theory. This will be a numerical verification, the first attempt in history to check the harmony of humor with algebra.


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