PWP321: Week 1

Introduction to Humour.


  • Zinsser, William. “Humor” – a more ‘sensible’ look at humour, without any wittiness per se but with adequate attempts at explaining why it is important to us.
  • Katz, Danny. “Humour” in Dork Geek Jew – a baseless attempt at humour that fails where it instead should enlighten and derives it’s entire core from the ridiculing of others.


Theory of Humour.

A lot of humour is underpinned by serious issues. Humour and writing humour is not as simple as one may think. Because it’s light means that it is undervalued for the amount of work that goes into it. There is a lot of discipline involved in writing humour.

A joke explained is a joke misunderstood…

“a joke is meant to be a play on words, or a witticism, or a comic juxtaposition of disparate ideas to provoke a spontaneous explosion of laughter. So what you told me can’t have been a joke, because I didn’t laugh.” (The Vicar of Dibley)

So then we watched a clip of end jokes of the Vicar of Dibley which weren’t funny and really just took the mickey out of the stupidity of one character (who actually isn’t stupid as she’s the one who said the line above – indicating an acute understanding of what makes something funny.)

smile_signThe 3 dominant theories of humour involve

  • the superiority theory
  • The relief theory
  • the incongruity theory

The superiority theory relates to people laughing because we feel superior over other people or over our own shortcomings. Self mockery also forms part of this theory. It is very relevant to satire and irony. Cultural criticism also utilises the superiority theory. It bolsters your own ego by ridiculing others.

“Some instances of humour that attack a target can be seen as cruel mockery of already oppressed groups by the insecure, but there is a long history of satire where the follies of those in power are exposed.” – Alison Ross.

Examples of Superiority Theory:

  • The Thick of It – BBC TV Series
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • The Vicar of Dibley – British TV Series

The relief theory is explained as a release of pent up nervous energy that is discharged in laughter and provides pleasuer because it relieves energy that would be used to repress psychic activity. (yep, I kid you not, that’s what it says!) It is laughter as a biological mechanism.

Relief theory is strongly influenced by Freud, Breton and then in more recent times Monty Python, Woody Allen etc.

Examples of Relief Theory

  • Slipping on the banana skin,
  • fart jokes.
  • Vicar of Dibley: we are meant to laugh when the Vicar (conventionally seen as serious and traditionally) breaks stereotype and taboo by telling a ribald ‘haughty’ joke about Santa’s mince pie up the bottom whilst Alice the ‘prude’ doesn’t approve.

The incongruity theory is when we experience incongruity between what we know or expect to be the case, and what actually takes place in the joke. This is an important theory as it is the central to the mechanism of writing humour. It is currently the most influential of these theories in  regard to works focused on the study of humour as a creative practice.

‘Humor is playful incongruity that contains a tension between two levels of meaning followed by a clash of sufficient complexity that surprises and delights and that leads to a resolution of that meaning.’ Michelle Rishel

Examples of Incongruity Theory

  • Verbal puns
  • play on the double meanings of words
  • juxtaposition of serious and silly, foolish and semi literate.
  • Noted for often using double acts – Morecombe and Wise, Laurel and Hardy, French and Saunders, Kath and Kim, Abbott and Costello, The Odd Couple, etc

“The playful incongruity must be understood and appreciated by the intellect, and it must be accepted by the social, cultural, psychological, individual and momentary contexts.” – Rishel.

Wittgenstein on Humour

Humour is a language game. Players need to the know and agree on the rules to be meaningful.

People without the same sense of humour do not react properly to each other. It’s as though there was a custom amongst certain people for one person to throw a ball which is supposed to catch and throw back; but some people instead of throwing it back put it in their pocket.

This is related to cross-cultural disconnect. A poor misjudgement by the addresser and what the addressee will understand as funny. (example: Karl Stefanovich tries and fails to tell a joke to the Dalai Lama).

Principles of good humour writing = principles of good writing.

  • Even the best jokes will fail if poorly told.
  • The basics of good writing apply.
  • Audience
  • Purpose
  • Content
  • Understanding of genre and technique
  • Style
  • Structure
  • Pacing/timing
  • Proofing
  • Punchline!

The type of humour explored this SP.

  • Domestic Humour
  • Comedy
  • Irony
  • satire
  • Sarcasm
  • Parody
  • Grotesque
  • Absurd
  • Nonsense
  • Jokes
  • Wit
  • Whimsy
  • Anecdote
  • Yarn

the Issues explored in this SP

  • Humour and Creativity
  • Popularity of stand up comedy
  • Satire as investigative journalism
  • The Carnivalesque
  • Gender and Humour
  • Humour and Rhetoric
  • Aussie Humour/ the notion of a national humour
  • Humour and telling true stories
  • Humour and characterisation
  • Cross-cultural and Ethical issues
    • Humour in the workplace
  • Humour and social media.

Week One Participation:

I’ve been thinking about the question: To what extent does culture, age or gender impact one’s sense of humour?

I have friends that are half my age, and double my age. Some live close by and others live continents away and I believe that all of these things are crucial for impacting humour. Just recently I invited some girlfriends to come to place to have a giggle at my husband’s expense who had very lovingly gone to the shops to buy me sanitary products. The items he returned with may have been hysterical but if he had been a girl buying them, it would not have been nearly as funny.

Again, my bestie is 20 years younger than me and we often say to each other “How are we friends???” Whilst it is said in jest, it underlines the core differences to our natures, tastes, backgrounds and essentially, our sense of humour.

Culturally, humour is very specific to its audience and the cultural expectations that surround that. I can call an American a ‘seppo’ and many older Aussies will know what I mean and grin. Whilst in Canada and the US, they have no idea what I mean, and when they find out it’s heritage, are often offended.

Particularly nowadays, when we live in a cotton-wool nanny state and political correctness is seen as the only appropriate way to express yourself, it is becoming more and more difficult to not offend others. This is even more tenuous now that we live in such a globalised world with enormous amounts of access and cross-cultural diversity via the Internet.

I feel that these demographic factors have a huge impact on not only what we perceive as humourous but also on what we deem to be acceptable to society.







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