Humor and comedy

Humor and comedy
• Humor can be seen as anything that makes us
laugh or is amusing, or the ability to recognize
what is funny about a situation or person
• Comedy has taken different definitions
through the ages
– Aristotle defined comedy as one of two main
forms of drama—comedy and tragedy
• Most contemporary views see comedy as a
form of humorous text
Why are we amused?
• Relief theory
– Reducing physiological tension caused by the selfcensoring of the baser instincts (Freud)
• Sexual humor, bad behavior
• Gross-out humor
• Superiority theory
– People feel superior or gain a victory over the victims
• Cut-down humor, satire
• Incongruity theory
– Violation of an expected pattern “provokes humor in the
mind of the receiver”
– (Buijzen & Valkenburg)
• Puns, irony, surprise
High comedy
• Some scholars retain a distinction between
high and low comedy
– High comedy provides a critique, often quite
stinging, of human foibles and customs, social
structure and power, etc.
• Satire and irony
– The Importance of Being Earnest
• Dark comedy
– Humor relating to subjects normally treated as very serious or
Low comedy
• Low comedy does not imply any social critique
and is based on a wide range of topics
– Romantic comedy
• Sexual innuendo
• Battle of the sexes
– Sitcoms
• Stupidity/Naiveté
• Cut-downs (physical appearance, power differential)
– Slapstick
• The great majority of comedy in US mass media
would be considered low comedy
What makes a TV show or film funny?
• Text must be perceived as funny by the
audience member.
• Unlike horror, action or tragedy, reaction to
comedy/humor varies widely among
audiences and audience members
• The same content may be hilarious or disgusting
depending upon the characteristics and personality
of the audience member, the circumstances of
exposure or the cultural milieu
– Men like more aggressive/meaner humor
– The older you get, the more sophisticated your
tastes for humor
– Viewing context:
• “You had to be there”
• After tragedies, certain events, certain stories,
narratives and comedies are cancelled because they are
considered inappropriate
Types of humor
• Buijzen & Valkenburg’s (2004) Seven Categories of
comedy used in advertising
– Slapstick
– Surprise
– Irony
– Clownish behavior
– Satire
– Misunderstanding
– Parody
• Physical humor
– Delight in the misfortunes of others
• Unless it appears that really serious damage has been
– However, note dark (black) comedy
– Physical incongruities
Tim Conway
• Nearly all humor can be said to have some
element of surprise/incongruity
• Expectations are not met, interpreted by
audience members as ‘funny’
• Various forms of incongruity
– Puns
– Unexpected twists of fate
– Strange or fantastic situations
• Aliens on Earth
• The audience member is led to expect a
certain behavior, statement, chain of events
and then is surprised
• Figuring out what the misperception or
unrecognized meaning was and making a new
connection is said to be the source of humor
– The “Aha!” is the source of the Ha! Ha!
• There is some argument about what qualifies as
ironic, but all senses of irony revolve around the
perceived notion of an incongruity between what
is said and what is meant; or between an
understanding of reality, or an expectation of a
reality, and what actually happens.
– Wikipedia
• Dependent entirely upon symbolic incongruity,
– More demanding of the audience member
– High comedy/adult comedy
Clownish behavior
• Simple foolishness
• The difference between a situation and the ideal
or between what is claimed to be true and what
is actually true provide the comic tension
– Protagonists may either be those that challenge the
hypocrisy or are hypocrites themselves
• May not be aware of the incongruity between values and
behavior, etc.
• May be critical of individuals or of society as a
• May attack deviants or may attack the system
(neither necessarily conservative nor progressive)
Dr. Strangelove/Some Like it Hot
• Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?”
• A parody (also called send-up or spoof), in
contemporary usage, is a work created to mock,
comment on, or poke fun at an original work, its
subject, or author, or some other target, by means of
humorous, satiric or ironic imitation. Parody is not
necessarily critical—it may be a loving parody.
• For parody to work, the audience must understand the
source material being parodied
– Spaceballs
• Often aimed at a genre rather than a single artifact
– Young Frankenstein
– Daily Show, Colbert Report, Onion
Situation comedy
• The great majority of television comedy is
situation comedy
– Sketch comedy, variety shows that were common
at the outset of television gradually disappeared,
with a few examples remaining
• Saturday Night Live
• Early examples were imported from radio
• I Love Lucy
– Developed the studio audience, three-camera format
• Make Room for Daddy
– Importance of children to domestic comedy
• Andy Griffith
– Rural setting
– No studio audience (on-location filming)
• The Dick Van Dyke Show
– Work-based setting mixed with domestic
• Mary Tyler Moore show
– Single adult female
• All in the Family
– First significant discussion of social issues, especially in the
sitcom genre
• Spin-offs with social bite (Maude, The Jeffersons)
• The Cosby Show
– Successful, professional black parents
• Happy Days
• The dysfunctional family show
– Married with Children
– The Simpsons
Longest running comedies
• By number of seasons:
• 20 The Simpsons (Spring 2009)
14 (The Adventures Of) Ozzie And Harriet
13 King Of The Hill (Spring 2009), South Park (Spring 2009)
12 My Three Sons
11 M*A*S*H, Cheers, The Danny Thomas Show / Make Room For
Daddy, Happy Days, The Jeffersons, Married ... With Children,
10 Murphy Brown, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Friends
9 The Beverly Hillbillies, The Love Boat, Alice, Roseanne, Family
Matters, Coach, All In The Family, One Day At A Time, Night Court,
The Drew Carey Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, The King Of
– Dr. Andrew Nestler, Associate Professor in the Department of
Mathematics at Santa Monica College.
Longest running comedies
By number of episodes:
435 (The Adventures Of) Ozzie & Harriet 430+ The Simpsons (Spring 2009)
380 My Three Sons
336 The Danny Thomas Show / Make Room For Daddy
275 The Donna Reed Show, Cheers 274 The Beverly Hillbillies 264 Frasier
259 Married ... With Children
256 M*A*S*H
255 Happy Days
253 The Jeffersons
252 Bewitched
249 The Andy Griffith Show
247 Murphy Brown 245 The Love Boat
244+ King Of The Hill (Spring 2009) 238 Friends
234 Leave It To Beaver 233 The Drew Carey Show
222 Roseanne
214 Family Matters
210 All In The Family
209 One Day At A Time, The Facts Of Life, Everybody Loves Raymond
207 The King Of Queens
204 Home Improvement
202 Alice
201 The Cosby Show
200 Coach 193 Night Court, Will & Grace
Dr. Andrew Nestler, Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics at Santa Monica College.
• Racial and ethnic minority shows
– Good Times
– Chico and the Man
– Sanford and Son
– Family Matters
– Diff’rent Strokes
• Dramedy
– M*A*S*H*
Major sitcoms
Home Improvement
That 70s Show
The Office
Features of the sitcom
• Ensemble casts
– At least a couple, usually several characters
• Contemporary settings/realistic
• Simple, flat characters
– Don’t develop
– Often a clownish character
• Simple plots
– Often driven by misunderstandings
• Bad behavior, often punished
– Cut-down humor is common
– Often sexual
• Happy resolutions
Romantic comedy
• Usually two attractive protagonists face a
number of challenges in their quest (usually
true love) and are able to overcome those
challenges to reach a happy ending
– It is the continued development of new obstacles
and the actions of the protagonists or of fate to
overcome those obstacles that provides the
• Class differences
• Bad luck
Dark side of humor
• Use of humor to assert dominance, superiority
– The bully cuts the little kid down and everyone laughs
– We snicker as someone makes a fool of himself or is
publicly humiliated
• Norm-breaking behavior seen as inherently funny
– Someone engages in ‘inappropriate’ behavior
• Sarah Silverman
• Delight in the misfortune of others
Factors often are combined
• For example, surprise and ‘bad behavior’ may
be mixed together
• Humor does not ‘travel well’ compared to
other types of content
– Action/adventure, etc. are more likely to be
successful in foreign markets
• The more sophisticated the humor, the larger
the portion of the audience that won’t ‘get it’
– This often leads to disappointment or upset