I got round to reading the short article below last week.   From the October issue of Prospect magazine. 

I’ve been thinking about it off and on since. I was feeling slightly guilty about posting the YouTube Prank Call clip … I mean, it’s only funny because we’re laughing at Mrs Palin, and I’m not sure how nice that is …

Heard the one about the three theories of humour? Jokes are about humiliation, the release of inhibitions, or absurdity. The end of the world itself has the logical form of a joke. Geddit?

Jim Holt

Hobbes, Freud, and Kant walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Hey, which of you guys can tell me why humans laugh?”

Let me back up a bit. There are three classic theories of humour. The “superiority” theory—that’s Hobbes (also Plato, Bergson)—locates the essence of humour in the “sudden glory” we feel at the humiliation of others. It suits jokes about cuckolds, racist jokes and put-downs, like:

Angry guy walks into a bar, says to the bartender, “All agents are assholes.”

The guy sitting at the end of the bar says, “Just a minute, I resent that.”

“Why? You an agent?”

“No. I’m an asshole.”

The “relief” theory of humour—that’s Freud (also Spencer)—says that humour allows us to get around our inhibitions. The set-up fools our inner censor, and the punchline liberates repressed impulses. It suits naughty jokes—like this one, told to me by one of my students at a Catholic girls’ school. “Mr Holt, what’s better than roses on a piano? Tulips on an organ.”

And the “incongruity” theory—that’s Kant (also Pascal, Schopenhauer)—says humour is a matter of the logical abruptly dissolving into the absurd. “Do you believe in clubs for children?” WC Fields was asked. “Only when kindness fails,” he said.

A theory of humour must also account for laughter—a very weird thing. As Arthur Koestler said, “Humour is the only domain of creative activity where a stimulus on a high level of complexity [a joke] produces a… sharply defined response on the level of physiological reflexes.” Why the spasmodic chest-heaving, the strangulated respiratory gasps; so pleasant when issuing from oneself, so annoying when coming from the next table?

The superiority theory doesn’t really answer this question. The relief theory at least gives it a try. According to Freud, keeping forbidden impulses down takes an expenditure of nervous energy; when those impulses are liberated by a joke, this now-superfluous energy gets discharged through the facial and respiratory muscles. Not bad in theory, but there’s a problem. If Freud is right, the most inhibited people should be the ones who laugh the hardest at a raunchy joke, since they have the most repressed energy to discharge. In reality it’s the least repressed who guffaw the loudest.

The incongruity theory of humour, being the most intellectual of the three, should have the toughest time with physical laughter. Koestler called laughter a “luxury reflex,” since it doesn’t seem to serve any evolutionary purpose. But he did not live to see the advent of evolutionary psychology, which can find an explanation for anything. The neuroscientist VS Ramachandran offers this one for the origins of laughter. Imagine you’re ranging through the jungle with your hominid pals. Suddenly a threat appears: you hear another hominid band rustling around nearby. You and your comrades tense up into fight-or-flight mode. But then you spot that the enemy “hominids” are actually monkeys. To communicate that the threat is spurious, you emit a stereotyped vocalisation—one that is amplified as it contagiously passes through the band, so everyone gets the message. At the core of this evolutionary rationale for laughter—call it the “false alarm” hypothesis—is incongruity: a seemingly grave threat revealing itself to be trivial. For Kant, that’s also the essence of a joke.

The threat trivialised by a joke is often a very real one—thus jokes about sickness and death, Jewish jokes about the Holocaust or the charge of deicide that Christian persecutors historically brought against Jews because of the crucifixion (“What’s the big deal? We only killed him for a few days”). Pretending that such things are of no consequence makes them bearable. The same applies to metaphysical mysteries, like the one Heidegger made heavy weather of: why is there something rather than nothing? When an earnest student put this question to Sidney Morgenbesser, a waggish Columbia philosophy professor, he replied, “Even if there was nothing you still wouldn’t be satisfied!”

The cruel jokes explained by the Hobbesian superiority theory and the lewd ones explained by the Freudian relief theory must contain some sort of incongruous twist if they are to work. A look at the history of jokes reveals that the mix of ingredients shifts over time, with meanness and lewdness gradually giving way to intellectual pleasure in incongruity. That’s progress! Or is it? Chimpanzees, who separated from humans about 5m years ago, also laugh and grasp simple incongruity jokes.

In fact, only with civilisation do you get humour based on forbidden impulses and contempt for out-groups. But civilisation—which can be defined as cities plus writing plus sexual repression—goes back only 6,000 years or so. Here, then, is my bold prediction: in the fullness of time, humour will shed these low elements and revert to its original essence: delight in incongruity for its own sake. And our most remote descendants will laugh hardest at the thought that what appears to be the ultimate something—the universe itself—will eventually wink out in a Big Crunch or expand into trivial nothingness. Yes, the end of the world has the logical form of a joke.

I had a prank call once.  At least I thought it was a prank call.  I was at home with the children, several years after abandoning my legal career.  A woman phoned to say that she had been given my name by some of the people I’d worked with on the Tina Turner concert all those years ago.  They’d said what a good lawyer I was, just the woman for the job.  Was I interested in doing the legal work?

I asked what the work was about.  She said that she wanted to start a lap-dancing club in our home town, and would need to get all the permissions and licences in order for it to function.  Permissions and licences had been a bit of a speciality for me, but I began to smell a rat.  I am one of the people least likely to voluntarily have anything to do with a lap-dancing club, and I suspected that those who had worked with me previously had a pretty shrewd idea that that would be so.

I asked if the phone call was a joke.  She insisted it wasn’t.  But I was finding the whole idea so ridiculous, so incongruous that I just could not stop laughing.  I wanted to stop, but I just couldn’t.  I corpsed, slid down the wall with the phone in my hand, and my ears running with tears.  I could not speak for laughing.  Me, be the lawyer for a lap-dancing club … Oh, it still makes me laugh, but you probably had to be there. 

I can remember other similar bouts of uncontrollable laughter.  On the school bus, when the bus conductor got his wooden leg stuck in the strap of my leather satchel.  On a bus in Oxford when a enormously fat lady slid off one of the sideways facing benches at the back onto the floor.  In St Aldate’s Church, Oxford, when I was a student and one of the Bible readings included the immortal command to “delight in fatness”.  At two separate school concerts at my daughters’ school when two different novice trumpeters couldn’t hit their notes.  At a Burn’s Night Feast when I had to make a speech in reply to the toast, from the ladies, and found my own puns on Robert Burns (London’s Burning, Burn’s Unit, and so on) so funny that I was bent double under the table.  Not everybody behaves like this, which is slightly worrying.

Much more here

Sacha Baron Cohen