Craig White's Literature Courses

Critical Sources


Theories of Comedy

Selections below from a comic-theory anthology emphasize several recurring identifiers, techniques, or dynamics.

1. Incongruity (related to irony)—mismatches like tall and short couple, country mouse & city mouse, fish out of water

2. Superiority—psychologically, an audience enjoys seeing others suffer without consequences, with momentary satisfaction that pain isn't happening to audience, or audience hasn't made comparable foolish mistakes like comic characters. ("They're so dumb!")

Thomas Hobbes: "the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly" (Human Nature, ch. 8).

3. Excess or absurd repetition; inflation or reduction to extremes.

4. Wit and humor: differences and relations

4a. High comedy & low comedy may correspond with wit and humor.

High comedy features higher-class characters; emphasizes wit or wordplay; speakers are sophisticated, sometimes physically delicate or stand-offish

Low comedy features lower-class characters with exaggerated or excessive physical qualities like obesity or horse-face; emphasizes humor, especially visual or physical humor and slapstick; instead of wordplay, low characters may speak incorrectly and use malapropisms.

High & low comedy may meet. (In Lysistrata, the Magistrate is mostly high comedy since he's a high official and talks wittily, but one low-comic climax is when the women throw water on him (physical humor), and another is when he becomes sexually excited.

5. Inflation and deflation: Comic characters inflate or swell to point where bubble bursts, or they're reduced to level of lower animals in terms of appetites or appearances.

6. Comedy is essentially conservative: comedy laughs away people who act out, reinforcing social norms. The conclusion of a comedy narrative (marriage, dance, reunion) restores pre-existing, threatened unity. (In contrast, tragedy may be liberal or progressive in terms of learning from past.)

from The Comic in Theory and Practice.  Ed. John J. Enck, Elizabeth T. Forter, and Alvin Whitley.  NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1960.

E. B. White, "Some Remarks on Humor," in The Second Tree from the Corner (1954)

Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind. . . .  It has a certain fragility, an evasiveness, which one had best respect.  Essentially, it is a complete mystery. . . .

            Whatever else an American believes or disbelieves about himself, he is absolutely sure he has a sense of humor. . . .

William Hazlitt, "On Wit and Humour" (1819)

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.  We weep at what thwarts or exceeds our desires in serious matters: we laugh at what only disappoints our expectations in trifles. . . .

            The essence of the laughable then is the incongruous, the disconnecting of one idea from another, or the jostling of one feeling against another. . . .  The ludicrous is where there is the same contradiction between the object and our expectations, heightened by some deformity or inconvenience . . . .

            You cannot force people to laugh: you cannot give a reason why they should laugh: they must laugh of themselves, or not at all.  As we laugh from a spontaneous impulse, we laugh the more at any restraint upon this impulse.  We laugh at a thing merely because we ought not.  If we think we must not laugh, this perverse impediment makes our temptation to laugh the greater . . . .

            Misunderstandings . . . , where one person means one thing, and another is aiming at something else, are another great source of comic humor, on the same principle of ambiguity and contrast. . . .  Again, unconsciousness in the person himself of what he is about, or of what others think of him, is also a great heightener of the sense of absurdity. . . .

            Humor is the describing of the ludicrous as it is in itself; wit is the exposing it, by comparing or contrasting it with something else.  Humor is, as it were, the growth of nature and accident; wit is the product of art and fancy.  Humour . . . is an imitation of the natural or acquired absurdities of mankind, or of the ludicrous in accident, situation, and character: wit is the illustrating and heightening of the sense of that absurdity by some sudden and unexpected likeness or opposition of one thing to another, which sets off the quality we laugh at or despise in a still more contemptible or striking point of view.

Oliver Goldsmith, "A Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy." (1765)

            If we apply to authorities, all the great masters in the dramatic art have but one opinion.  Their rule is, that as tragedy displays the calamities of the great, so comedy should excite our laughter, by ridiculously exhibiting the follies of the lower part of mankind.  Boileau, one of the best of modern critics, asserts that comedy will not admit of tragic distress. . . .

            When tragedy exhibits to us some great man fallen from his height, and struggling with want and adversity, we feel his situation in the same manner as we suppose he himself must feel, and our pity is increased in proportion to the height from whence he fell.  On the contrary, we do not so strongly sympathize with one born in humbler circumstances, and encountering accidental distress . . . .  The one has our pity; the other our contempt.  Distress, therefore, is the proper object of tragedy, since the great excite our pity by their fall; but not equally so of comedy, since the actors employed in it are originally so mean [i. e., low or foolish], that they sink but little by their fall. . . .

            Yet notwithstanding this weight of authority, and the universal practice of former ages, a new species of dramatic composition has been introduced under the name of sentimental comedy [compare to TV "situation comedies" or "sitcoms"], in which the virtues of private life are exhibited, rather than the vices exposed, and the distresses rather than the faults of mankind make our interest in the piece.  These comedies have had of late great success, perhaps from their novelty, and also from their flattering every man in his favourite foible.  In these plays almost all the characters are good, and exceedingly generous; . . . [they] have abundance of sentiment and feeling.  If they happen to have faults or foibles, the spectator is taught not only to pardon, but to applaud them, in consideration of the goodness of their hearts . . . .

Sigmund Freud, Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious (1905) -- idea of "comic excess"

The child's motions do not appear to us comical, even if he jumps and fidgets, but it is comical to see a little boy or girl follow with the tongue the movement of his pen-holder when he is trying to master the art of writing; we see in these additional motions a superfluous [excessive] expenditure of energy which under similar conditions we save.  In the same way we find it comical to see unnecessary motions or even marked exaggeration of expressive motions in adults.  Among the genuinely comic cases we might mention the motions made by the bowler after he has released the ball while he is following its course as though he were still able to control it.  All grimaces which exaggerate the normal expression of the emotions are comical . . . .

Henri Bergson, "Laughter." (1900)

[T]he comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human.  A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable.  You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. . . .

            Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the absence of feeling which usually accompanies laughter.  It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and unruffled.  Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion. . . . [I]n a word, give your sympathy its widest expansion: as though at the touch of a fairy wand you will see the flimsiest of objects assume importance, and a gloomy hue spread over everything.  Now step aside, look upon life as a disinterested spectator: many a drama will turn into a comedy.

             . . . Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo.  Listen to it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined sound; it is something which would fain be prolonged by reverberating from one to another . . . .  Our laughter is always the laughter of a group. . . .

            [Society] is not satisfied with simply living, it insists on living well.  What it now has to dread is that each one of us, content with paying attention to what affects the essentials of life, will, so far as the rest is concerned, give way to the easy automatism of acquired habits. . . .  This rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective. . . .

            The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine. . . .

            Something mechanical encrusted on the living . . . .

George Meredith, An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit (1877)

[C]ultivated women [must] recognize that the Comic Muse is one of their best friends.  They are blind to their interests in swelling the ranks of sentimentalists.  Let them look with their clearest vision abroad and at home.  They will see that where they have no social freedom, Comedy is absent . . . .

            You must . . . believe that our state of society is founded in common-sense, otherwise you will not be struck by the contrasts the Comic Spirit perceives . . . .

Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872)

Joy, when intense, leads to various purposeless movements--to dancing about, clapping the hands, stamping, &c., and to loud laughter a less distasteful word or phrase used as a substitute for something harsher or more offensive.  Laughter seems primarily to be the expression of mere joy or happiness.  We clearly see this in children at play, who are almost incessantly laughing.  With young persons past childhood, when they are in high spirits, there is always much meaningless laughter. . . .

            With grown-up persons laughter is excited by causes considerably different from those which suffice during childhood; but this remark hardly applies to smiling.  Laughter in this respect is analogous with weeping, which with adults is almost confined to mental distress, whilst with children it is excited by bodily pain or any suffering, as well as by fear or rage.  Many curious discussions have been written on the causes of laughter with grown-up persons.  The subject is extremely complex.  Something incongruous or unaccountable, exciting surprise and some sense of superiority in the laugher, who must be in a happy frame of mind, seems to be the commonest cause.  The circumstances must not be of a momentous nature . . . .

Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957) (comedy as narrative genre)

Comedy usually moves toward a happy ending [comic narrative], and the normal response of the audience to a happy ending is "this should be," which sounds like a moral judgment.  So it is, except that it is not moral in the restricted sense, but social.  Its opposite is not the villainous but the absurd . . . .

            The principle of the humor is the principle that unincremental repetition, the literary imitation of ritual bondage, is funny.  In a tragedy--Oedipus Tyrannus is the stock example--repetition leads logically to catastrophe.  Repetition overdone or not going anywhere belongs to comedy [comic excess], for laughter is partly a reflex, and like other reflexes it can be conditioned by a simple repeated pattern. . . .

            The humor in comedy is usually someone with a good deal of social prestige and power, who is able to force much of the play's society into line with his obsession. . . .

            The society emerging at the conclusion of comedy represents a kind of moral norm . . . .  Its ideals are seldom defined or formulated: definition and formulation belong to the humors, who want predictable activity.  We are simply given to understand that the newly-married couple will live happily ever after, or that at any rate they will get along in a relatively unhumorous and clear-sighted manner.  That is one reason why the character of the successful hero is so often left undeveloped: his real life begins at the end of the play, and we have to believe him to be potentially a more interesting character than he appears to be. . . .

            Illusion is whatever is fixed or definable, and reality is best understood as its negation: whatever reality is, it's not that.

from Andrew O'Hehir, "I'll Tell You What's Funny." Salon.com 2 March 2013.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Almost every major figure in the history of philosophy has proposed a theory, but after 2500 years of discussion there has been little consensus about what constitutes humor."

Broadly speaking, most humor is either about expressing superiority over others, relieving tension and expressing forbidden thoughts, or expressing a surprising incongruity, as between expectations and reality. [cf. irony]

 . . . The "superiority theory" of humor . .  . , which can involve using jokes as weapons against the less powerful, goes back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle, who both saw laughter as essentially malicious. As Thomas Hobbes put it, laughter "arises from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others." Racial, ethnic, or regional jokes often rest on the listener's presumed superiority to blondes or Poles or Texans or whomever. . . .

But no one who thinks or writes about comedy would argue that the "superiority theory" is the only strain of humor or even the dominant one. Humor is just as often, or more often, used as a subversive tool by the relatively powerless, a weapon of symbolic rebellion. . . .

Mark Twain: "Only laughter can blow [a colossal humbug] to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."