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Let us begin the experimental verification of the proposed theory. In this chapter we will numerically analyze examples of humoristic texts, jokes, and anecdotes. The selected texts will be changed for the purpose of decreasing or increasing the components in Formula (7). To simplify the analysis, let us simplify Formula (7) by holding the value of Tp accepted in the previous chapter constant. Let it be equal one second. That is we will analyze the riddles that the reader can solve in about 1 second. The value of BM we shall set to zero, as the only our audience is the reader. We get:

EH = PE * C, (8)

All of the selected texts have undergone the test of time and are either currently considered funny or were funny in the past. Almost all of them have been borrowed from humoristic anthologies.

Example # 1

Let us analyze a political anecdote. In this example, we will change only one constituent of formula (8) – the PE, leaving the value C constant:

C = const. PE = var.

“What is the difference between Jesus and the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party L. I. Brezhnev?”

“Jesus heals the dumb and the GenSec is as dumb as a heel.”

Let us analyze the value of EH of this anecdote. During Brezhnev’s lifetime, the PE of the reader was obviously not equal to zero. The powerlessness of the old GenSec affected the life not only of every Russian, but of most Americans. Soviet people were irritated that such a great country was ruled by a sick man with obvious speech defects. For an initial evaluation of PE let us imagine that we are Soviet Union citizens during Brezhnev’s epoch, whom we actively dislike. Any ridicule of him carries a probable risk, but decreases his social status, thereby increasing our own. For the sake of the discussion let PE = +0.6. The value C also is not equal to zero. To understand the pun in the joke, one must not only be familiar with common idioms, but also have political and biblical knowledge. It would be reasonable to therefore take a value of C = +0.3 L * t. The overall evaluation of the quality of this anecdote will be equal to

EH = PE * C = +0.6 * 0.3 = + 0.18 L

We remind our readers that the maximum possible evaluation is equal to +0.5 L. We however have evaluated this anecdote at 1/3 of the maximal value. The mark is quite high. The reader may think that even this mark is too high. The modern reader doesn’t find it funny. Why? We made the admission above that we live in the Soviet Union during Brezhnev’s epoch. But Brezhnev has been dead for 23 years, ever since according to the expression of Andrew Knishevfive golden ones were buried on the field of miracles in the land of fools.

   Therefore the PE for the modern reader or a foreigner never can rise to the nearly maximal level of +0.6. More likely, its value will only be a reflexion upon our past dislike towards the Soviet leaders, and will equal about +0.3.

The EH for us will be equal about +0.09 L, that is almost 6 times lower than the maximum value. And so we’re not laughing; the joke was weak.

But let us continue our exercise. Let’s exchange the name of the GenSec for the name of another political leader:

“What is the difference between Jesus and the chairman of the GDR Erich Honecker?”

“Jesus heals the dumb and the chairman is as dumb as a heel.”

The “salt” of the anecdote is fully preserved, and C continues to be 0.3 L * t, but the joke is now completely unfunny. The PE in this anecdote is equal to zero. We care absolutely nothing about Honecker or his mental capabilities. The EH of this anecdote is inevitably equal to zero, despite its obvious linguistic, semantic, semiotic, and other characteristics.

And currently this is a perfect time to revive the funniness of this joke by replacing the name of the anecdote’s hero to George W. Bush.

Example #2

In this example, we will change the other part of Formula (8) – C – leaving the value of PE constant.

C = var. PE = const.

An officer, seeing a cloth dyer at work, jeeringly asked him, pointing at his snow-white horse: “Can you dye it too?” “Sure can,” the dyer answered, “if it survives the boiling.”

Let us evaluate the EH of this anecdote. The PE depends on whose side the listener is: the officer’s, or the clever dyer’s. The content of the anecdote assumes that the positive character here is the dyer, and therefore, in democratic circles, for which this anecdote was created (not for an Officer’s Club, after all!), the PE will be high. For the sake of the discussion, let PE = + 0.6. The value of C here isn’t very high; it’s not too hard to guess that the horse won’t be able to survive the boiling temperature of 100oC. Let us assume C = 0.3 L * t. The EH will be equal to +0.18 L, almost three times smaller than the maximal value.

Though in the society of dyers this anecdote might have received a higher rating, especially if there was a regiment of cavalry staying next door.

Now let’s try to change the text a little:

An officer, seeing a cloth dyer at work, jeeringly asked him, pointing at his snow-white horse: “Can you dye it too?” “Sure can,” the dyer answered, “but why does the Officer need a cooked dyed horse?”

We only changed a part of the last phrase. But the task became more complicated. The hint (the word “boiling”) has disappeared. Now in order to evaluate the “riddle”, the incongruity contained in this anecdote, the reader must have certain knowledge in the field of cloth dying. Otherwise, he’ll have to quickly (very quickly!) understand that cloths are dyed at a high temperature. A clever listener will proceed with the assumption that the anecdote makes sense and that it is funny, and will convulsively search for the answer. This follows from thesis 13, chapter 5: For best effect of the joke, the listener should be prepared (forewarned).

If the listener is not acquainted with the technology of cloth dying, and is not forewarned that the story being told is a joke, he might simply not react. But if the listener is sure that there is a riddle and he can quickly come to a solution, then his reward in the form of intellectual triumph will be greater than in the prior case. We shall evaluate C at 0.4 L * t in this case. The effect of the joke will rise to EH = +0.24 L, assuming that PE remains the same. Read both of the variants over again. Which would you prefer to tell in a circle of friends?

Now let’s try to do the opposite operation and decrease the value of C:

An officer, seeing a cloth dyer at work, jeeringly asked him, pointing at his snow-white horse: “Can you dye it too?” “Sure can,” the dyer answered, “but only the hooves; my basin is small.”

Oho! We’ve removed the riddle and decreased the value of C almost to zero. We still have a small incongruity, since the dying of the hooves presents no interest to the officer. We also have a sense of enmity towards the officer, a clear lack of desire to help him. But assuming the PE is still equal to +0.6, and giving C a value of 0.1 L*t, we get an anecdote with a completely insignificant effect (EH = +0.06 L), appropriate for telling only perhaps to an audience of children.

We can continue our work of simplifying the text, for example:

An officer, seeing a cloth dyer at work, jeeringly asked him, pointing at his snow-white horse: “Can you dye it too?” “Sure can,” the dyer answered, “but only if it can survive a temperature of 40o at which I usually dye cloth.”

There is no riddle here at all; C = 0 L*t. The story has flatlined.

Notice that first we increased the level of EH and then decreased it to zero with the same level of aggression or value of PE, that is performed the opposite operation of what we did with Example #1.

Now it will be simple for us to analyze a more refined story cited by Sigmund Freud in his work.

Example #3

A prince was riding past his holdings and noticed a man standing in a field who looked a great deal like him. The prince stopped and asked:

“Did your mother ever serve in residency?”

“No, but my father did.”

We shall give the brilliant analysis of the anecdote by A. Luk its due:

The questioned man would have liked, of course, to put the insolent person who dared insult the memory of his beloved mother in his place – but the brazen individual was a prince who he didn’t dare put down or offend if he didn’t want to pay with his life for this vengeance. This might have meant stifling the offence internally, but luckily, a joke paved the way to take his revenge without risk, accepting this implication with the help of a technical unification move, and addressing it to the attacking prince. The effect of the joke is so determined here by tendency that in the presence of a witty answer we are inclined to forget that the question of the attacker is itself witty, due to the implication contained therein.

In the cited analysis by A. Luk we can see the same factors as in ours. We have a positive value PE (revenge without risk), a non-zero value C (the implication in the answer). We have almost everything. The only things we lack are a consideration of the time factor (the impulse action) and the product of PE and C.   

From the point of view of our theory, the analysis is completely different. The value PE for the average listener will be quite high. The story punishes the arrogance of the aristocrat and reveals the unjustness of the social divide, based on primogeniture.

The inequality of the positions of the participants of the verbal skirmish, the humiliation of the strong and his inability to punish the offender give us the opportunity to visually imagine the entire scene: the smirking of the retainers, the powerless fury of the prince, and the quiet triumph of the respectfully bowing subject. For the listener, the value of PE will be close to +1.0. The difficulty of the joke is also at the highest level. We have to know the ways of life of noblemen, their high-society hoodlumism in order to solve the problem in a short time. The value of C will be no less than 0.5 L * t. The value of EH will also be equal to the maximal value: +0.5L.

Example # 4

Let us compare an analysis of a “medical anecdote” conducted by Victor Raskin and Salvatore Attardo with the approach of the already well known to us theory:

Someone who was previously treated for some illness inquires about the presence of a doctor at the doctor's place of residence, with the purpose of being treated for a disease which manifests itself by a whispering voice. The doctor's wife (who is young and pretty) answers (whispering, as the patient) that the doctor is not at home, and invites the inquirer to enter in the house.

From the point of view of Victor Raskin’s theory, this text fits under the heading of the funny. It satisfies the “necessary and sufficient conditions” of the semantic theory of humor, specifically:

  1. The text possesses an incompatibility, partial or full (in the given case: doctor/lover);
  2. The two parts of the text are opposite in a certain sense (here: the presence or absence of sex).

But is this text funny? Clearly not. Why? Previous theories were not able to answer this question. Our theory does. Let us try to evaluate the values of the coefficients in Formula (7). First let’s determine the value of PE. The listener of the above story does not get a sufficient impression of the personalities of the doctor and the patient. He can guess that the doctor is much older than his wife and doesn’t satisfy her physically. But the listener is uncertain whose side to take: the cuckolded husband or the patient who unexpectedly got lucky, or maybe even, with a touch of maliciousness, the side of the flighty wife? The layout of the anecdote doesn’t form a preference in the reader.

Most importantly, the anecdote is told unskillfully; the “punch line” is practically nonexistent. Because of that, the time Tp is prolonged, the riddle’s resolution is spread over a long period of time, and the burst of emotions doesn’t happen. For these reasons, the values of PE and PSR of this text are small. Their product, EH, is also small.

   Let’s change the text:

A patient goes into the residence of a doctor, who practices from home. The patient suffers from bronchitis. He talks in a whisper. He rings the doorbell. The doctor’s wife, pretty and young, well known for her easy behavior opens the door. The patient whispers: “Is the doctor home?” The doctor’s wife thinks that one of her young men has come to her, hoping for her favor. She takes his whisper as conspiratorial. She whispers in return: “Fortunately the doctor isn’t home; come in quickly, and I’ll give myself to you.”

All of the “scripts” determining according to Raskin the presence of the funny remain in place. But something is missing here. The riddle here is toned down to be very simple (C ≈ 0), and the time Tp, allowed for the solution, is stretched out over the whole text of the anecdote. We may as well stop expecting a burst of emotions, it’s not going to happen.

Now we admit to the reader that we have tricked him a little, and analyzed not the “medical anecdote” itself, but its semantic analogy given by Salvatore Attardo. Here is how the anecdote really sounds:

   "Is the doctor at home?" the patient asked in his bronchial whisper. "No," the doctor's young and pretty wife whispered in reply. "Come right in."

In this text, the complexity of the riddle rises to the maximum. The key to its solution is stated at the end, and expressed with a minimal amount of words. Thus the Pleasure of Solving the Riddle (PSR) here is much higher than in the texts cited above, equal in semantics and informativeness. This anecdote is doubtlessly funny.

The reader has the opportunity to independently vary the text of Example #3 so as to change the values of PE, C, and Tp. Try to tell the obtained variants in different social groups, and compare the effects of each.

As an exercise and simultaneous verification of the theory, we will allow ourselves to provide a few relatively little-known comic opuses. We remind our readers that the values EH, PE, and C are always subjective, they are marks presented by you personally. Let’s try to produce a qualitative evaluation of the coefficients which comprise Formula (8), and then to compare the chosen value of EH with the product of C times PE. To do this is not difficult; the entire analysis will take only several minutes. We will use a procedure consisting of three steps.

  1. Let us evaluate the quality of the anecdote (the value of Effect of Humor (EH) by choosing one of 15 possible values provided in Table 1:

Table 1

Highest class

+0.4 or 0.5

I’ll call my best friend immediately and tell him this joke


I’ll tell this joke tomorrow at work


I’ll have to remember this and tell it at an opportune moment


A pleasant anecdote; I laughed


It made me smile

+0.12 or 0.15


+0.09 or 0.1

Childish joke

+0.03 or 0.06

This isn’t humor


Stupid anecdote

-0.05 or -0.1

Idiotic anecdote

-0.15, -0.2, or -0.25

Why do they print this garbage?

-0.3, -0.4, or -0.5

Let’s evaluate Personal Empathy (PE) using Table 2:

Table 2

The character(s) in the anecdote have a direct relation to me

I could have been in their place

I actively dislike such people, or one of the characters is my hero.


I understand the actions and motivations of the characters well.


I understand the psychology of the characters, but don’t think I could have been in their place.

Everything here has little to do with me.


I don’t care about the characters in the anecdote

I don’t understand their actions.


The anecdote caused unpleasant associations.

One shouldn’t joke like that about good people.


An insulting, blasphemous anecdote.



Let’s evaluate the value of Complexity of the riddle (C) , using values from Table 3:




Not bad



Flat joke







Let’s compare the product PE* C the reader came up with against your value of EH.

Example #5

A young actor is subbing for a sick partner in a play. He had no time to learn the part, so the director told him to follow the cues of the prompter.

The prompter cues: (Sits in the chair!)

The actor sits.

Prompter: Should I marry, perhaps?

Actor: Should I marry, perhaps?

Prompter: No, I suppose not.

Actor: No, I suppose not.

Prompter: (rises with difficulty).

Actor: It rises with difficulty!

The below two examples bear our marks which serve as our personal opinion.

EH = +0.15

PE = +0.3

C = 0.4

PE * C = +0.12

EH/ (PE * C) = 1.25



Example #6

   A young lieutenant sees a drunken major in a restaurant, who is ineffectually trying to pick apart a chicken drumstick with a knife and a fork.

“Major,” snidely says the lieutenant, a bird is eaten with the hands.

The major raises his head:

“And snot is wiped up with a sleeve!”


EH = +0.2

PE = +0.3

C = 0.5

PE * C = +0.15

EH/ (PE * C) = 1.33


We now move on to the most interesting part: practical exercises. The reader has the opportunity to conduct his own evaluation, based either on his tastes or on those of an imaginary audience. You can at least perform these calculations on jokes that appealed to you.

Example #7

“Why doesn’t Margaret Thatcher wear mini skirts?”

“So that nobody sees her balls.”

EH =

PE =

C =

PE * C =

EH/ (PE * C) =


Example #8

Nancy Reagan was an adherent of free distribution of oil to the poor population. She said: “Even poor people should have something to dip lobster tails into”. (From the Johnny Carson show, February 1982).


EH =

PE =

C =

PE * C =

EH/ (PE * C) =



Example #9

A man and a woman on a first date:

“I’m from Texas, ma’am. In Texas, everything is bigger than anywhere else. We have the biggest buffalos, the tallest corn in the world. We have the most oil.”

A little later, when they are in the bedroom the man continues: “And now you’ll see what else Texans have that’s bigger than anywhere else.”

A minute later (in a wounded voice): “You should have warned me that you’re from Texas too”.


EH =

PE =

C =

PE * C =

EH/ (PE * C) =


Example #10

Ivan Krylov (Russian poet) had a sore on his leg which long prevented him from walking. With difficulty, he came out onto Nevsky Prospekt in San-Petersberg. A tactless friend was riding by, who could find nothing better than to yell: “What, did the sore pass?” “Just now,” unhesitatingly replied Ivan Andreevich.

EH =

PE =

C =

PE * C =

EH/ (PE * C) =


Example #11

The first earthly expedition landed on Mars. Martians surrounded their ship, and a lively exchange of information was begun. After some fundamental notions were discussed, a question about reproduction arose. A Martian male and female coupled immediately and a baby Martian appeared. After that, a human man and woman took off their spacesuits and showed how this is done on Earth. When they again put on their suits, the Martians couldn’t hold back their confusion: “Where is the little human?” They were explained that the baby will appear in 9 months. The Martians: “So why was he in such a hurry towards the end?”


EH =

PE =

C =

PE * C =

EH/ (PE * C) =

Example #12

At one party, a pretty female crab saw an unusual male. He walked not like other crabs – sideways – but straight. “What an unusual crab,” the female thought, “I mustn’t let this opportunity go by.” She went up to him and offered to get married. The crab immediately agreed. In the morning, the new wife saw her spouse moving around just like all the other crabs. “Beloved,” she asked through tears, “why do you walk today not like yesterday, but like all of the others?” “But my dear,” answered the newlywed, “I can’t get that drunk every day.”

EH =

PE =

C =

PE * C =

EH/ (PE * C) =


Example #13

A husband and wife, both passionate golfers are chatting over a cup of tea. “Tell me, love, if I die, will you marry another woman?” “Well, to be honest, that’s entirely possible.” “What, and she will sleep in our bed?” “My dear, what is so unusual in that? Yes, she will sleep in our bed; where else would she sleep?” “And she will drive my car?!” “That’s also not impossible. I don’t rule out that she may drive your car.” “And will she play with my golf clubs?!!” “Oh, no!!! She’s left-handed.”


EH =

PE =

C =

PE * C =

EH/ (PE * C) =


Example #14

   Tiger Woods stopped his Mercedes at a remote gas station for refueling. An old man helped him to fill the tank. When Tiger leaned toward the nozzle, two tees fell out of his pocket. "What are those?" - asked the old man. "I place my balls on them when I drive" - answered Tiger. "Whoa! Those people at Mercedes think of everything".


EH =

PE =

C =

PE * C =

EH/ (PE * C) =



Example #15


Magister: Enumera pronomina duo!

Discipulus: Quis, ego?  

EH =

PE =

C =

PE * C =

EH/ (PE * C) =



Example #16

“Do you know what NIS of former Soviet Union stands for? Network of Ineffectual Schmucks.”

(from comic show in Israel).

EH =

PE =

C =

PE * C =

EH/ (PE * C) =

   Find the average value of EH/ (PE*C) that you analyzed. To do this, divide the sum of all the EH/ (PE*C) values by the number of problems analyzed. If the average value is significantly different from one, try to analyze why this happened: a) you’re not sure that you were able to evaluate these examples objectively, b) you made your decisions too hastily, or c) you were guided by a subconscious desire to discredit the proposed theory.

The author has gone through this process with examples ##5-16 and received an average value of EH/ (PE*C) = 1.25 L. The maximum deviation was 1.33, and the minimum was 0.7. Taking into account the subjective character of the coefficients in Formula (8), the obtained average divergence should be recognized as satisfactory.

The author would be grateful to those readers who would take it upon themselves to do these simple exercises and share their results. Your input will help refine the proposed theory.



Abstract anecdotes appeared relatively recently and are probably a Russian phenomenon. When these anecdotes first appeared, they produced a dual impression, at first seeming completely non-witty. But with time, this type of humor became more common and used to cause the same collective laughter as traditional anecdotes. And still a feeling of awkwardness has never left the author. He laughed but has never completely understood why. What’s funny about the following anecdotes?

Example #17

Two cabinet makers in a bath. One says "Pass the soap", and the other says,

"What am I, a bowling ball?"

Example #18

A worm is riding his bicycle in the winter; he looks and sees: on the electric cables between two posts there’s a cow swinging. He gets off the bicycle, feels his tires, and says: “spring is coming.”

We must acknowledge that the developed theory was not immediately capable to explain why these abstract anecdotes are funny. They did not have the characteristic that’s inherent in the funny. They lack the riddle, the uncertainty, the “shining contradiction” which is to be resolved in the usual anecdote so as to receive pleasure from this mental concentration, which leads to bursts of laughter. But these anecdotes are laughed at, laughed at genuinely; which means that there’s something to them. And this something needs explanation; otherwise our theory will be hung out to dry.

Let’s analyze the following anecdote:

Example #19

A brick crawls along the wall and sees a calendar.

“What’s the time?” asks the brick.

“Wednesday,” replies the calendar.

“Hooray!” rejoiced the brick.

“Summer’s coming soon!”

In a regular anecdote, the confusion caused by a dialog between a brick and a calendar would have been deciphered in the last phrase, and deciphered logically. All of the ends would have come together. Here, all of the threads remain loose. There is no reason or logic.

We will try to approach the analysis of this class of anecdotes like we have before. Generalizing the facts:

    • The abstract anecdote exists. This is a reality.
    • It brings its listeners pleasure. Genuine pleasure.
    • This class of anecdotes is for the prepared listener.

We might suppose that the listeners tired of the usual anecdotes, and there was demand for something new, something extravagant, as it happened in poetry, art, and music.

Innovations in the arts are created initially for the elite, the experts “oversated” with the customary forms. If an unprepared reader flips open a compilation of futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, he will very soon… shut it. Iambic tetrameter is so much more agreeable.

If a person wishing to become an enthusiast of paintings begins his career with the canvases of Picasso or Gauguin, he will hardly find in their works repose for his soul. He will be drawn to Shishkin, Repin, and Raphael. Likewise with contemporary forms of classical music. The reader who’s been to at least one concert of modern music will agree that this is perhaps the only thing that can’t be termed a “quiet horror.” Wagner and Tchaikovsky are incomparably better.

But the professionals and real enthusiasts may have “surpassed” the traditional arts; they have exhausted the classics, they are bored. They aren’t interested in Rafael or W. Shakespeare. They are sated with Rafael’s “Madonna”, “Romeo and Juliet”, and “The Nutcracker”. They want new forms.

In humor, the abstract anecdote became such a form. It would be easiest of all to define the abstract anecdote as a meaningless anecdote.

But such a definition won’t help explain why people laugh at these anecdotes and laugh in the right place, that is, simultaneously. It is precisely in this simultaneity that we will search for the key to their understanding.

As we saw in Chapter 5, all anecdotes are built according to a standard scheme. In each one there’s a moment that the listeners await, afraid to miss it. This is the denouement, the concluding phrase or word. This is followed by a short pause, during which the listeners search for an answer to the “riddle”, the salt of the anecdote.

The abstract anecdote has all these elements except one: there is no solution. But the experienced listener knows that there must be a solution, and that he can find it in 1-2 seconds. But he doesn’t find it. And then… he understands that there is no solution; that he was slipped a cleverly fabricated surrogate. And he laughs. At what, at himself, that he was so cleverly fooled? Let’s go back two phrases: “the listener understands” – there it is! The riddle is not that it doesn’t exist at all, but that it doesn’t exist there where it should have been in a real anecdote. The listener finds an empty space and gleefully points: “Here it is, here is where the salt of the anecdote should be! I recognized the spot! I’m a real expert in humor!”

We’ll believe this listener that anecdotal art for the sake of art has a right to exist. The author candidly admits that abstract anecdotes don’t hold a special place in his heart.

Now we can give a deeper explanation. “The salt of an abstract anecdote consists of the lack of meaning there where in regular anecdotes the meaning is found.”

Abstract anecdotes are humor built upon humor. For military anecdotes the foundation is the life and work of soldiers; for salacious jokes – sex, in all of its manifestations. The nourishment source for abstract anecdotes is humor itself. They are built on humor, and on humor, it may be said, they parasite.

But not all authors and users of abstract anecdotes share this point of view. With chagrin we have to admit that under the headings of abstract anecdotes regular ones are seen more and more frequently. They are connected to abstract anecdotes not through structure, but through secondary characteristics: bricks, hippopotami, cows, irons, and so on.

We have not investigated abstract anecdotes in our prior analysis. The basics of our theory was developed before the birth of abstract anecdotes. But the theory proved to be capable of explaining even that which at first had not been a subject of analysis. It proved to be more universal than the object of investigations. And this inspires optimism.

8. Conclusion

Let us draw to a close. Already in the first pieces of writing left by our hoar ancestors we could see evidence that humor has been with us forever.

Humanity evolved, the sciences appeared, fields of knowledge: first the natural and then the engineering, and later, the philosophical. With the appearance of philosophy, the study of humor began. Not all of the ancient documents have reached us today, but those that have survived leave no doubt that the funny has always occupied the great minds of the founders and leading figures of knowledge of humans and societies.

Society moved forward; scholarly minds penetrated the secret depths of the human soul more and more. But concurrently with the development of the sciences about mankind, we saw the development of humor. The rough comedies of Aristophanes, which entertained the ancient Greeks turned into a refined art, behind whose clever veil it became harder and harder to discern the truth; the deeply rooted sources of our habit of laughing at those like ourselves. Many researchers thought that they unraveled the riddle of laughter, that they opened the curtain of the eternal and mystical art. But new researchers appeared and posed questions to which these prior theories could not give an answer.

Why does a person laugh? What does he laugh for? How do we formally define the difference between the funny and the unfunny? All these questions remained unanswered.

For an objective evaluation of the developed theory, let’s remember what state the theory of humor was in prior to the present work. We’ll entrust ourselves to the opinion of Salvatore Attardo as a most competent authority in the given question. Moreover, Dr. Attardo is the editor of the International Journal of Humor Research, and through his hands pass all of the publications for this highly representative publishing organization.

According to S. Attardo (1994), there are three groups of theories of the funny, specifically:

Table 1.2. Three groups of theories





















It will be completely apparent to those who have taken it upon themselves to become acquainted with the conclusions presented in this work and the conducted analysis that not one of these theories can answer the questions of interest to us due to the limitation in its scope. Answers can be found only if we look at all of the theories together, by finding their uniting beginning.

Salvatore Attardo, having taken it upon himself to learn all of the existing theories of humor has justly concluded that “the theories examined in this book are either a partial development or an intuitive direction of research, and the analysis and conclusions drawn from these studies are little more than anecdotal.” At the same time, Attardo distinguishes the semantic theory (SSTH) of V. Raskin as a “formal theory, which predicts and may be tested with the help of “hard facts”; therefore, a sort of consensus exists that SSTH is the most epistemologically powerful and promising theory that exists in the field of the linguistic study of humor.”

But at the same time he notes that V. Raskin himself evaluates his theory more conservatively. He thinks that a theory based on semantic differences is unable to give a qualitative evaluation to the subject of humor. We saw based on the example of the “medical anecdote” that this assertion is quite just.

Moreover, this theory does not even pose the task of answering the question: “why do people laugh?” In this sense the comparison of the semantic theory with the “theory” of magnets as bodies with poles seems quite natural.

The presented theory of humor gives an answer to all, as far as we can see, of the imaginable questions. The mystery of humor became simple and almost obvious. The concept developed doesn’t contradict any of the existing theories. On the contrary, a unifying foundation had been found for everything written up to this point. The theory of humor rather unites the more obvious concepts and sciences into a simple and ordered logical system. Moreover, it is in agreement with the experimental data, information and facts from such exact sciences as genetics and physiology.

  In the presented theory, the purpose of humor is formulated. A person’s reaction to a joke or anecdote is determined not by the elegance of the phrasing a text, and not by its presentation, but only by that elevation of his social status within the group in which the joke is told.

Humor is a bloodless, contact-less intellectual weapon, given to mankind for elevating one’s social status relative to his peers. This weapon can be used in direct intellectual combat when the goal is attaining superiority over the opponent; his degradation; victory in an intellectual duel. This same weapon can be used for more subdued mobility up the social ladder: attainment of attention and authority in the group. Finally it serves for attracting the attentions of the opposite sex which, as we saw, is inherent in the quite concrete genetic algorithm of human development.

When the purpose of humor is formulated, the mechanism of the affect of humor became quite specific. The narrator or author jokes to increase his own social status. The joke must be constructed and presented in such a way that the status of the listener also increases, and the status of the object of ridicule decreases. Any example of humor is either a jibe, with intent to demean its target and elevate the status of the others at his cost, or an intellectual riddle, elevating the status of those who solved it.

A riddle, comprising the foundation of any example of the humor of elevation, must have an optimal complexity so as to be solved in a short period of time. In this case, the impulse of emotions reaches a maximal value. The pleasure gained from solving an intellectual riddle, which is connected to the elevation in social status, leads to a burst of emotions expressed through smiles, laughter, or howling.

An unconditional merit of the proffered theory is the fact that it doesn’t introduce new terminology, and does without value conceptualizations. Humor is a primitive emotion, and its nature is explained with the simple-most means. An elementary mathematical apparatus has been created, allowing us to perform a quantitative assessment of the effect of humor.


9. To Be Continued…

So what’s next? It would seem that there are no more unanswered questions, and the veil comprising the mystery of humor has been lifted forever.

It turns out that the basic tenets of the present work have broader applications.

In the first place, this relates to such fine arts as humoristic prose. While reading humoristic novels, narratives, or short stories, the reader bursts into laughter rarely. However while reading, he receives pleasure different from the sort that he receives while reading serious literary works. The developed theory allows us to conduct a detailed examination of humoristic works with a quantitative analysis of each episode in which the Effect of Humor (EH) is non-zero.

Clearly, many episodes of soft humor have a cumulative effect targeted at a gradual elevation of the overall level of emotions. A constant solution of simple riddles sprinkled through the text of a humorous work; the juxtaposition of the reader’s ego with the bumbliness of the characters of the story contribute to an Increase of the Social Status of the reader and his self-image. It is evident that such an analysis of existing humoristic texts is the natural next step for the presented theory.

In the second place, it would be natural to apply this theory to the art of versification. How is poetry different from prose? Only in two ways: rhyme and rhythm. Neither of these characteristics bears an inherent substantive load. But the perception of poetry is strikingly different from the perception of prosaic texts. Why?

Vitaliy Bernstein in his eminent article “What is Poetry” (www.Lebed.com, N390, in Russian) wrote: “If in prose, as Alexander Pushkin correctly noted, the most important distinctions are precision and clarity, then a lyrical poem is frequently characterized by a certain mystery; an incompleteness. And this gives it additional charm.

But what is this charm?

Let’s take an example. Are the following words capable of touching the reader:

In Israel, performances of Wagner’s works are not welcomed, but you and I will go off on our own and listen to his operas, despite the fact that somewhere nearby there are class earth-sky rockets standing at ready, and someone is preparing an armored attack.

   Touching, but…it doesn’t touch. The same words by meaning, having been re-written in verse are perceived entirely differently:

Let Stingers be aimed at the sky,

Let tanks be in prelusion,

To the Nuremberg Mast’rs you and I

Will listen in seclusion.

Pust’ v nebo napravleni “stingeri”

I kto-to sidit na brone,

Mi “Bremenskie meistenzingeri”

Poslushaem naedine.

Let’s remember the quotation of Leibniz cited in the second half, that “music is the rejoicing of the soul, which calculates, without knowing it itself.” Could the same thing be happening at the apprehension of poetry? Certainly.

Poetical lines are apprehended by our brain just like jokes. The brain calculates the rhythm of the poem, thus performing a simple intellectual task. We compare the rhythm, the size of every line with the corresponding one, repeating this rhythm. We catch rhymes at the end of the lines and relate them to rhymes in the corresponding lines. The measures and rhymes may be simple, but the level of intellectual work in the apprehension of poetry is much higher than it is at the apprehension of prose. This happens not because of the difficulty of the mental labor, but because of its rapidity. While reading prosaic works, this labor doesn’t occur at all. But when reading the simplest iamb or chorea, we demand constant concentration of our brain. A successful apprehension of poetry, the comparison of stresses and rhymes dome in a short time brings us additional pleasure. It would be quite logical to allow that the pleasure from the apprehension of poetical rhythms and measures is not added but is multiplied by the pleasure of apprehension of the meaning of the poem. Formula (3), suggested in Chapter 5, may be used for illustrating the process of apprehending poetry:

EP = PMR * PM, (9)

Where EP is the Effect from the apprehension of the Poem,

PMR- the Pleasure from the apprehension of Measures and Rhymes

and PM – Pleasure from apprehending the Meaning.


We’ll note that the multiplication sign explains the manifold strengthening effect of the poem in comparison to prose where PMR is equal to zero. Therefore even a simple poetical rhythm and an unassuming rhyme can bring us pleasure. That’s why, as Valeriy Lebedev said in the article “What to the Cicadas Sing About” (Lebed, #388, www.lebed.com, in Russian), “poetry may permit itself to be a little stupid, even completely dumb, and be limited to syllabic graces.” High value of PMR compensates for the low value of PM.

If we become acquainted with a large number of poetical works, the intellectual work of perceiving rhyme and rhythm becomes automatic. The recognition of simple measures no longer brings us such pleasure. Banal rhymes such as “cat” –“mat” are easily anticipated by the trained mind and begin to irritate the reader, not bringing him the expected pleasure. The oversated reader demands more complex mental exercises. He gets bored with iambic tetrameter. In response to this demand, more complex poetical forms crop up; fresh, more unexpected rhymes are sought, following the first and recognition of the second increases the complexity of that intellectual riddle which the reader constantly solves while reading poetry. This is what comprises the “magic words” of poetry, which are frequently ascribed mysterious characteristics. They are indeed mysterious, but only until an explanation for them is found. And the essence of the explanation is contained in Formula (9). The magic didn’t disappear, though it became apparent.

   It is clear that a creation of a logical theory of versification can be started with Formula (9) and finished with it, too. But in between these steps lies an immense world of work.

We quote another phrase by Vitaliy Bernstein: “On the map of various forms of human creations, the ocean of poetry lies somewhere in the space between the continent of prose on one side, and of music on the other.

   Is our theory of humor applicable to the second continent, to music? What is music and how is it different from a disconnected set of sounds created by the same instruments? What distinguishes music from cacophony?

As Valeriy Lebedev wrote in that same article: “The element of music is sounds, organized according to their own laws of harmony, counterpoint, and other disciplines.”

Let us turn our attention to the words “organized according to the laws”. Music theory will tell us that a musical composition is built according to a “vertical” combination of sounds (the most important of which is the chord) and to a “horizontal” combination (melody, chord sequence, etc.).

From music theory we can glean much information about what laws the two kinds of combinations are built according to, about the principles of harmonic constructions (chords) and melodic (melodies) intervals. For example, we can learn that “intervals, which divide sounds into chords can be consonant (octave, perfect fifth, perfect fourth, major third, minor third, sixth), dissonant (second, seventh, alteration of the consonants –i.e. an alteration of the tones of consonant intervals.)” But most importantly, what music theory tells us about chords is that “although a simultaneous sound of two tones of different pitches can also be viewed as a chord (double-stop), a normal chord should contain no less than three tones, and consequently, more than one interval.

We see in this the key to understanding the harmonic construction and its apprehension by the listener. The sounds in a chord are separated by certain intervals. The human brain can catch these intervals and, most importantly, the relationship between them. If the human ear catches two tones, sounding simultaneously, it doesn’t pick up on a pattern. But when a second tone is added, the brain has the opportunity to compare the intervals between the first and second tone, and the interval between the second and third tone and determine whether these intervals are equal or proportional. If the relationship between the intervals is logical and recognizable, the brain obtains pleasure from finding this logical ratio that sounds like a harmony. The pleasure from solving this tiny mental riddle is that same pleasure which we receive from a well-constructed chord.

We now modify Formula (9) to use in connection with a musical composition, such as a song:

ES = PRI * PMR * PM, (10)

where ES is the Effect from apprehending the Song, and

PRI is the Pleasure received from Recognizing musical Intervals.

If we assume that this formula adequately reflects the value of emotional elevation from listening to a song, we can see that the same multiplication sign explains why music, even with mediocre lyrics can bring great pleasure.

Of course, we can’t explain the whole spectrum of the effects of music with Formula (10). We imagine that the developed approach will be a powerful instrument in the understanding of musical compositions. We’d like to hope that the developed approach will find followers capable of understanding the connection between musical tones, describing them mathematically, and developing a scientific (not descriptive) theory of music.

As for the study of humor itself, it seems quite evident that further formalization may provide the key to computer generation of humor as well as numerical evaluation of the quality of jokes and anecdotes. Of course, the latter is considered only as it pertains to a specific person, taking into account all of his knowledge, preferences and talents. A complete model of a person is unlikely and unjustifiably difficult, but a creation of a psychological cognitive profile of a person is entirely possible on the basis of a set of data comprised of a few hundred questions and answers of the type: “What was the name of the Apostle Paul prior to his conversion?” or “what is your favorite sport?”.

The book of Alexander LukOn the Sense of Humor and Wit” caused in its time a very negative reaction of professional humorists. A well-known writer-satirist Leonid Likhodeev dedicated an annihilating article to it in the “Literaturnaya Gazeta”. People who loved and valued humor were bothered by the fact that a scientific study of the phenomenon of laughter will deprive it of its mysterious flair, and will eventually lead to a decline of the skill of making people laugh. The same fear was voiced by famous Russian comic writer Michael Zhvanetsky.

In the present work it was shown that humor has a primitive, almost reflexive nature. Knowledge of the patellar reflex won’t help us simulate a nervous disease. Many men know well how the female body works, but this by no means decreases the number of those eager to possess it. The fears of L. Likhodeev and M. Zhvanetsky are, fortunately, needless.

On this note we conclude our narrative.

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