Professor Glenn Wilson, Gresham College, London
The earliest recorded joke is a riddle found
among the hieroglyphics in the tomb of
Pharaoh Snefru (2613-2589 BC). Attributed
to an impertinent architect who may have
risked execution (Lowis, 2013).
Q. How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?
A. You sail a boatload of young women
down the Nile, dressed only in fishing nets,
and invite the pharaoh to go catch a fish.
Apparently little has changed in 4500 years.
Humour is a safety valve.
Emotional power often
derives from an instinctive,
libidinal element (e.g., sex,
aggression, fear of death).
Tension is relieved by some
trick or twist that makes
clear it is all “just in fun”,
what Freud (1905) called the
joke technique.
If people are sexually
aroused (e.g., by viewing
In The Meaning of Life John Cleese is a
erotic movies) they find
schoolmaster attempting to give a sex education
most jokes funnier.
lesson to a typically bored and disruptive
classroom of boys.
One form of hostility is disparagement
(assertion of superiority against a
background of shortcomings in others).
May be directed against an individual or
type of person (e.g., ethnic and sexist
My mother-in-law has more chins than the
Beijing telephone directory (Les
Put-downs are enjoyed by the in-group
(those who “get the joke” share the
stereotype) but are usually unfunny or
offensive to the victims (Ferguson & Ford,
We also smile at the misfortune of others
(schadenfreude), esp. when victim is
disliked, high-status and envied, e.g.,
bankers (Cikara &Fiske, 2013).
Some jokes are neither libidinous
nor targeted at out-groups but focus
on intellectual conceits, word-play,
juxtaposition and surprise.
Hurley et al (2011) consider this
cognitive puzzle-solving aspect is
central to humour.
The mind is constantly engaged in
anticipation of events and
correction of presumptions. Mirth
arises from a sudden debunking of
expectation or restructuring of
perception (a reward for exercising
an important survival skill).
How do you stop an elephant
charging? – Take away its credit
A theory covering many types
of joke is that humour depends
on an overlap between what is a
violation of normal and what is
benign (McGraw & Warren,
It applies to intellectual
violations (e.g., absurdities and
non-sequiturs) as well as
immoral and embarrassing
An example is play fighting,
which is simultaneously
threatening and harmless.
A joke is not funny when it is
either too tame or too risqué (a
boundary that is constantly
Jokes may be funny because we
recognise truth in them (Lynch,
Stand-ups like Jo Brand or
Michael McIntyre work with
stereotypes but also detail the
little hassles of everyday life (e.g.,
public transport, shopping
trolleys, ill-fitting clothes, dating
Pleasure derives from familiarity
with the plight of the characters.
They reassure us that others
experience similar frustrations to
our own. We are “all in the same
Some comedy focuses on social
awkwardness and violations of
political correctness.
Often takes the form of
mockumentaries, e.g., The Office
(Ricky Gervais), or Summer Heights
High (Chris Lilley), with characters
unaware of how excruciating they are.
In others the embarrassment is shared
(Extras, Curb Your Enthusiasm).
Fear of social stigma or exclusion is a
major source of anxiety in humans
(Clegg, 2012), hence shyness and stage
At a funeral, most people would rather David Brent (Ricky Gervais) is a
self-important , yet insecure, office
be the guy in the coffin than the guy
delivering the eulogy (Jerry Seinfeld) . manager lacking self-insight.
Satire mocks people and institutions that
are too rigid and pompous. It points up
stupidity, hypocrisy and social injustice
(hoping to promote change).
Moliere’s Tartuffe is a pious fraud who
infiltrates a man’s home, exploits his
hospitality and tries to seduce his wife.
The play lasted one night in 1667 before
being banned by Church authorities.
Gilbert & Sullivan’s characters include a
senile judge, an admiral who has never
been to sea, a queen with the hots for a
sentry and a man who is “half a fairy”
commissioned to make the House of
Lords sit through the grouse and salmon
season and be opened to competitive
Like modern court jesters, comedians
represent our eccentric and subversive
nature and seek to knock down sacred
When first released in 1979, The Life of
Brian was declared blasphemous in
many parts of the world. Some Christians
saw it as making fun of Jesus. In fact, it
was aimed at blind faith and the quest for
gurus. In 2006 it was rated “the greatest
comedy film of all time” (Ch. 4 poll).
The cognitive aspects of humour (“getting” the joke) and
emotional (“enjoying” the joke) have discrete neural correlates.
Moran et al (2004) recorded fMRI responses to full episodes of
Seinfeld and The Simpsons.
Humour detection was associated with activity in the left inferior
frontal brain (A and B) = verbal processing.
Humour appreciation went with bilateral activity in the insular cortex
(C) and amygdala (D) = emotional areas.
Children with focal epilepsy find
jokes less funny than controls (Suits
et al, 2012).
Damage to the corpus callosum
impairs narrative jokes but cartoons
are still enjoyed (Brown et al, 2005).
Lesions in the right hemisphere affect
humour appreciation more than left
damage (Stammi & Stuss, 1999).
Autistic individuals and
schizophrenics have difficulty with
jokes that involve inference of mental
states in others (Samson & Hegenloh, This joke used by Bartolo et al (2006)
2010; Marjoram et al, 2005).
requires an inference of altruistic
intent in Picture A, reversed in B.
Children generate humour from an
early age (Hoicka & Akhtar,
During their first year they copy
jokes (e.g., peekaboo, chasing).
By age 2/3 novel jokes are
produced, including deliberate
conceptual errors (e.g., pig says
“moo”), comic acts (e.g.,
underpants on head) and
breaching taboos (e.g., spitting
Parents signal joke-mode with
special speech styles. Children
share humour with them by
smiling, laughing and looking for
a reaction.
Tickling is prototypic of
humour (Provine 2004):
1. Occurs in many nonhumans (producing sounds
similar to laughter).
2. Is playful, teasing and
usually pleasurable (with
sexual overtones).
3. Involves stimulation of
vulnerable parts of the
body (requiring trust).
5. Cannot effectively be done
to oneself (hence socially
6. Humour may be considered
“a mind tickle”.
Humour inhabits the overlap
between laughing and
smiling. These have separate,
almost opposite, origins.
Laughter signals triumph and
dominance, smiling conveys
appeasement and submission
(closed teeth are harmless).
Women smile more than men
(even when on trial for
murder). When boxers square
up before a fight the one who
smiles tends to lose (Klaus &
Chen, 2013).
Laughter is a primitive, pre-verbal
from of emotional expression,
seen in many animals from
rodents to primates.
Signals intent to play, not attack.
A contagious social activity,
occurring mostly in face-to-face
interaction among friends. We are
30x more likely to laugh with
others than on our own (Scott,
Confirms membership of a group
(joyful bonding) but can also be
used to exclude an individual from
a group (taunting laughter).
A volcanic, yet endearing
form of laughter occurs when
a person knows it is
inappropriate to laugh but
can’t contain it. Attempts to
suppress giggles turn to
uncontrollable, highly
contagious, fits of laughter.
Said to derive from actors on
stage attempting to make the
“corpse” laugh, but could
refer to the helpless, corpselike state of the victim.
Peter Cook was expert at
getting Dudley Moore to
laugh in the middle of their
live sketches by ad libbing.
A famous case of corpsing occurred in a BBC
cricket commentary when Jonathan Agnew
(Aggers) observed that Ian Botham was out,
having “failed to get his leg over”. His cocommentator Brian Johnston (Jonners)
struggled some minutes to regain self-control.
Humour preferences
relate to personality
and social attitudes.
Liberals like sexual,
aggressive &
disparaging cartoons;
conservatives prefer
“safe”, word-based,
intellectual jokes,
especially those that
provide “incongruity
resolution” (feelings
of closure).
(Wilson, 1990)
Overall, men and women find
the world equally funny (Azim
et al, 2005) but they differ in
what they laugh at. Men are
more drawn to libidinous and
competitive themes; women to
clever word-play.
Despite a recent spate of
advertisements in which men
are depicted as incompetent
fools, both men and women
often prefer femaledisparaging humour.
This interacts with attitudes:
those with less traditional
views of women’s role show
reduced preference for sexist
humour (Moore et al, 1987).
Although sexually explicit humour is
often regarded as sexist, there are
interesting variations within women as
to which jokes they prefer.
Women who were physically less
attractive, as rated by external (male)
judges, were more religious & antihedonistic than attractive women on an
attitude questionnaire. However, their
ratings of seaside postcards revealed a
preference for those depicting
“shapely” women as the focus of
lecherous male attention. Wilson &
Brazendale (1973) interpreted this
vicarious gratification deriving from
deprivation. Attractive women
favoured more anatomical, femaleassertive cartoons.
Humour has mating value – signalling
intelligence and creativity (good genes).
Attractive people are seen as funnier
and humour boosts attractiveness
(Cowan & Little, 2013), particularly
for short-term flings.
Women are 3x more likely to give their
phone number to a suitor they have just
heard tell a joke to a friend (Gueguen,
Women want a partner who is both
receptive to humour and funny; men
just want a partner who will laugh at
their jokes (Bressler, et al, 2006).
Humour style relates to marital
satisfaction and divorce
(Saraglou et al, 2010).
Constructive , affiliative and selfenhancing humour went with
happy and stable marriages.
Antisocial , sarcastic and vulgar
humour went with poor
relationships and divorce.
Insecure, self-depreciating
humour in women went with
relationship satisfaction in their
husband but an also an increased
likelihood of divorce.
Humour is used in advertising to
gain attention and to build warm,
playful associations with a product.
It is effective in increasing sales but
only when the ad is likeable, not
irritating. It operates to combat
people’s natural resistance to
aggressive marketing through a
process of distraction.
Viewers of funny ads do not
necessarily remember the brand
afterwards but make the positive
association with the right product
once in the store (Strick et al, 2013).
A sense of humour can operate as a defence
against adverse, inescapable circumstances,
e.g., disability or mortality (Moran, 2003). It
helps screen out negative aspects of reality and
promotes optimism.
Two recurrent themes in the comedy of
Woody Allen, encapsulated in the title of film
Love and Death, seem to reflect personal
He seems to have an unhappy, “jaundiced”
view of the world, with particular anxiety
concerning his perceived unattractiveness to
women. In many of his films Allen seems
engaged in self-therapy, playing “the geek that
gets the girl” by dint of his wit (which he also
achieves in real life).
A defensive form in which people
make witticisms in the face of
hopeless adversity.
Sir Thomas More, ascending the
scaffold: I pray you Mr Lieutenant,
see me up safe.
Sick humour may seem insensitive in
the wake of major tragedies like
9/11, yet clearly functions as a
coping strategy.
Widely used by undertakers, medical
and emergency workers for catharsis
and distancing from intolerable
situations but danger of fostering
disrespectful attitudes to clients
(Sullivan, 2013).
Always Look on the Bright Side is
currently among the most popular
funeral songs in the UK.
According to Force (2011)
many comedians suffered
unhappy, abusive childhoods
and developed humour as a way
of overcoming personal trauma.
If you can find humour in
anything you can survive it
(Bill Cosby).
Clowns are experts at reframing
tragic circumstances into funny
ones, hence serve as “social
therapists”. They directly
address fears and concerns that
most people prefer to deny or
Glaswegian comedian Billy
Connolly says he was physically
and sexually abused by his
alcoholic father from ages 10-15.
Despite some famous instances (e.g.
Tony Hancock) the idea that
comedians are especially prone to
depression and suicide is not
empirically supported.
Stand-up comedians are not
distinguished by high neuroticism,
and their parents were no less
caring than comparison groups
(Greengross et al, 2012).
An elevated suicide rate in comics
might have been expected because
some suffer bipolar mood disorder
(Spike Milligan, Ruby Wax) but
these high profile cases may have
led to an exaggerated estimate of
psychopathology in comics.
Comedian David Walliams has
suffered depression all his life, with
several attempts at suicide. However,
he is not typical.
Numerous health benefits have been cited
for humour and laughter, including mood
improvement, stress relief, muscle
relaxation, lowered blood pressure and
strengthening of the heart. Most are
intuitively plausible and findings are
generally positive, though seldom meeting
scientific criteria (Martin, 2002; MoraRipoll, 2010)).
Widely held that humour and laughter
bolster immune capability, but there are
various measures and evidence is mixed
and inconclusive (Bennett & Lengacher,
More persuasive, are reports that laughing
releases endorphins, which have
painkilling and social bonding effects
(Dunbar et al, 2012).
The ultimate health benefit might be an
increased life expectation. Svebak et al
(2010): sense of humour correlates
with subjective health and
independently improves survival, at
least up until age 65.
Longevity studies of professional
comedians come from the premise that
if laughter is “good medicine” clowns
ought to live longer.
Despite one or two famous examples
(Bob Hope and George Burns)
comedians, and other performers,
actually die younger than comparable
professions (Friedman, 2013).
Suggests that health benefits of humour
may apply more to audience than the
George Burns: “The secret of
longevity is to live to 100.
You don’t hear of too many
people dying after that”
There are many different types
of humour and no single
theory seems adequate to
account for them all.
Psychological investigations
of jokes and how they help us
to release tensions and cope
with life’s problems are
interesting and informative but
of little help to comedians in
honing their skills and
generating funny material.
Comedians make better
psychologists than
psychologists make
Ken Dodd: The trouble with Freud is that
he never played second house at the
Glasgow Empire on a wet Tuesday.

Having a Laugh? Comedy and Comedians