Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Nothing kills a joke faster than overanalyzing it, so let’s do that

Illustration for article titled Nothing kills a joke faster than overanalyzing it, so let’s do that
Screenshot: The Simpsons (AreaEightyNine [YouTube])
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,079,214-week series, Wiki Wormhole.


This week’s entry: Theories Of Humor

What it’s about: Overexplaining the joke. Laughter is a near-universal human experience, and one as old as time. Yet we don’t really understand why we find funny what we find funny, or why some people find a joke hilarious that leaves others cold. About the only thing we can agree on is the surest way to kill a joke is to overexplain it, so let’s do exactly that.

Biggest controversy: Apparently a sense of humor actually isn’t what women are looking for in a man. Killjoy evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller declared that humor serves no evolutionary purpose, and that it “would have had no survival value to early humans living in the savannas of Africa.” Personally, we feel like someone who could do a tight five on what the deal is with hunting and gathering would have been raking in the rudimentary stone tools.

Strangest fact: Another theory says humor is a crucial evolutionary trait. In 2011, the research team of Hurley, Dennett, and Adams published a theory that humor is central to human intelligence because it “strengthens the ability of the brain to find mistakes in active belief structures,” or mistaken reasoning, which is the key to problem-solving. Like most theories of humor, however, this only explains some forms of humor. The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns saying “Have the Rolling Stones killed” is funny because our expectations are subverted by someone drawing an incorrect conclusion. Football in the groin is funny because it has a football in the groin.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Nelson Muntz is in some esteemed company. No less than Aristotle, Plato, and Thomas Hobbes ascribed to the Superiority Theory, which says that we laugh at the misfortune of others because we enjoy feeling superior by comparison. Or as Mel Brooks astutely put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die” (and again, we refer you to man getting hit with a football in the groin).

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The people who overanalyze jokes really overanalyze jokes. Victor Raskin and Salvatore Attardo’s “General Theory Of Verbal Humor” was first elucidated in the academic paper, “Script Theory Revis(it)ed: Joke Similarity And Joke Representation Model.” In case that wasn’t hilarious enough, it maps six levels of “Independent Knowledge Resources,” including “Script Opposition,” “Logical Mechanism,” and “Narrative Strategy.”


There are also laugh-a-minute theories out there like “Script-based Semantic Theory Of Humor,” “Computational-Neural Theory Of Humor,” and the “Ontic-Epistemic Theory Of Humor,” which posits that laughter is the result of “a momentary epistemological difficulty, in which the subject perceives that Social Being itself suddenly appears no longer to be real in any factual or normative sense.” The authors of the Ontic-Epistemic Theory urge you to try the veal.

Also noteworthy: The theory on the list that seems to hold the most water is A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren’s “Benign Violation Theory.” It holds that we laugh when the regular order of things is threatened, but in a benign way that isn’t literally threatening. Hence, a loss of dignity is funny because no real harm is done, while lying to and stealing from children isn’t funny unless you’re Jimmy Kimmel. The theory is also broad enough to encompass wordplay, as “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!” and “Let that be a lesson to you boy, never try,” upend typical grammar and reasoning, respectively, but with no real ill consequences.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Wikipedia has even taken the time to overanalyze individual jokes, as the lightbulb joke has its own page, which considers how many Esperantists, flies, and psychiatrists it takes to screw in a bulb. While the basic structure of the joke is sturdy, the target and punchline are both variable enough that the lightbulb joke can encompass myriad types of humor, ranging from crude stereotyping to puns to subverted expectations to political satire.

Further Down the Wormhole: One of the most popular theories of humor is that of “Incongruous Juxtaposition,” which can involve either a quick shift in expectations, (“Look! Behind that lemon-shaped rock!” or “I’m seein’ double! Four Krustys!”) or a familiar thing placed in an unfamiliar context (every “totally random” lazy pop culture reference on Family Guy). The theory’s best-known proponent was Immanuel Kant, Enlightenment philosopher and reliable Good Place culture reference. Kant was influential in many schools of thought, including epistemology, ethics, political theory; among his greatest hits is the concept of separation of church and state. America’s founders revered Enlightenment thinkers like Kant, and enshrined separation of church and state as one of our bedrock principles. But nowhere is that principle taken more seriously in Andorra, a tiny country that’s nonetheless big enough for two co-equal rulers, one religious and one secular. We’ll look at the Co-Princes Of Andorra next week, while spending the intervening time trying not to get the Spin Doctors’ ubiquitous 1993 hit “Two Princes” stuck in our hea—ah, crap, too late.


Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in fall 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.