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Why humour?

Article by Ian Hassall, 21 January 2015

Killing your best jokes by explaining them

The Charlie Hebdo killings have made us think about the nature and place of humour. It is obviously innate in our species. To me it is a reality check that frees us intellectually and emotionally from false imaginings. In this it hasn’t strayed far from its original evolutionary purpose as a recognition of and response to discrepancies in our surroundings that might signal danger.

Humour is a funny thing. It is a commonplace human experience but its purpose is obscure and it eludes description. The words we use for it convey this obscurity. They tend to have dual meanings as if we need to anchor the idea of humour in another experience that is more substantial. The word humour itself may mean a mood rather than something experienced as funny. In using the word funny we may feel the need to distinguish between funny peculiar and funny ha-ha. Amusing is a word that can describe something that is either funny or diverting.

There are many words to describe variants of humour. Comical, hilarious, amusing, humorous are some. Similarly there are many words for the things that trigger humour - ridiculous, absurd, farcical, and its expression - laugh, guffaw, chuckle, chortle, giggle and snigger. If the grip it has on our language is an indication of the grip it has on our heads and hearts, humour is an important element in our lives.

If the concept of humour is not easy to grasp then consideration of its observable manifestations such as smiling and laughter may help. Laughter is the most characteristic and readily observed behaviour associated with humour and tracing its origins and meaning may lead us to an understanding of the likely meaning and evolutionary origins of the more personal experience that is humour.

Laughter as a social signal

Evolution treats behaviour as raw material to be put to use in rendering the organism more fit to survive. New purposes develop for a behaviour which then continues to be modified so that earlier purposes are obscured. Human laughter and its accompanying feelings which are variously described as mirth, fun, delight and so on is a case in point.

It is said that laughter and a sense of humour are peculiar to our species and of mysterious provenance. The same is said of many human attributes, speech, imagination and foresight for example but caution is needed in reaching such a conclusion. In our pride we are tempted into such human exceptionalism without exploring their evolutionary origins or understanding how equivalent behaviours are manifested in other species. We cannot escape the fact that behaviour must come from somewhere in the course of evolution no matter how different it seems from that of other species.

It seems likely that laughter originated as a social signal. It does, after all, use all of our means of communication, voice, facial expression and sometimes gesticulation and postural changes. These are also exaggerated suggesting urgency in gaining attention. They are, to a degree, involuntary, which would suggest they are of long-standing in our evolutionary history and served a purpose that was important to survival.

I propose to categorise sense of humour as a processed or derivative attribute. That is, it has developed from the more basic survival qualities of recognition of danger and group solidarity in the face of threat.[1]

My hypothesis is that human laughter is an elaboration and diversification of what was once a warning signal triggered by a sudden recognition of a change in the appearance of the surroundings. The phenomenon of humour is a feeling that has elements of the original warning signal and continues to be triggered by recognition of a discrepancy between a familiar, safe scene or idea and a disturbed version.

In tracing its origins and understanding the meaning of laughter it might be helpful to look for its equivalents in other species. 

Clues from animal behaviour

Animals are alert to changes in their environment and the threat they might represent. Anyone who has laid a trap or poison for rats knows that it is not until the third day or later that the bait is taken. When something new appears in their territory animals first behave with caution but in time are moved to test and explore the new item looking for the opportunities it may provide. It is reasonable to suppose that the accompanying emotions are fear and then curiosity. So it must have been with humans during the evolution of humour.

How is this connected to laughter? Primates produce sounds similar to laughter in that they are loud, repetitive, exuberant and set off a group response. The hooting of chimpanzees, barking of baboons and whooping of gibbons are examples. Like these, laughter in humans is, or at least once was, intended to be seen and heard. It is or was a signal. What did it signal and how can that be related to its present human function?

The hooting, barking and whooping sounds of other primates taken together fulfil a considerable range of functions. They can signal a warning of danger, be a rallying cry for the troop, let others know who and where they are, intimidate an enemy, initiate and maintain bonding among the group, be an alerting mechanism and whip the group into action. They can be a form of sexual or hierarchical display, signalling dominance and potency. Each of these can be examined as a possible function of human laughter as it was in the past and as it has evolved. We need not try to single out one of them as a sole or prime function. If the initial reason for the appearance of its predecessor was uncomplicated, say as a danger signal, laughter today is likely to have acquired multiple functions in the course of human evolution and its original purpose is likely to have been obscured. Evolution turns any attribute to new purposes.

It is sometimes said humans are the only creatures who have a sense of humour. “Man is an ape who tells jokes”, it is said. I am personally cautious about any idea of this kind that exceptionalises human beings. We once flattered ourselves that we were the only toolmakers but it is now clear that other creatures, including birds as well as our primate relatives, fashion and use tools. Elements of speech and imagination once thought to be the preserve of humanity are to be found in other animals.

What we observe as frolicking and play in juvenile animals and in some intelligent adult creatures such as dolphins seems to have some of the elements of humour, including the core element of experiencing pleasure from projection of a made up reality and its sudden challenge to expectations as well as the expression of joy and exuberance.  Humour may have come to occupy such an important place in the lives of humans because of our propensity to create alternative realities, in particular, to imagine what might be done and to plan accordingly. Thus, humour is integral to one of humanity’s central advantages in the evolutionary struggle to survive and prevail, that is, the ability to imagine future possibilities, both as instant images (visions and dreams) and as considered plans.     

Remote human origins of humour

We may find clues to the multiple functions of laughter in the range of expressions we use to describe it, from guffaw to grin. The joyous shout; the bitter laugh; the nervous titter and the companionable giggle are among the expressions that refer to various kinds of laughter and their emotional accompaniments. Let us see how consistent these functions are with the hypothesis that laughter originated as an alarm signal and that humour is a development of the emotional accompaniments of that signal until we arrive at that peculiar mix of uncertainty, fear, relief and exhilaration that in differing proportions are the emotions of humour.

Picture this. A band of proto-humans is returning from a foraging expedition. Something not quite right in the scene they encounter causes an immediate alarm call by one of the troop. It is taken up by others and a clamour ensues. The leopard which was lying in ambush is flushed out and the heightened alertness of the troop enables its members to either flee or confront the beast which is confused by the melee and departs. The band continues the clamour which takes on notes of defiance and triumph. As this subsides there is a sense of relief at danger averted and a warmth between members of the group.

The trigger for this sequence was the instant recognition of a discrepancy between a remembered familiar scene and the scene that confronted the band. A ‘spot-the-difference’ if you like, an ability of considerable survival value and common to many creatures.    

Fast-forward from this scene some tens or hundreds of thousands of years. A group of tribal people are re-living a similar episode, talking about and enacting the parts they played.[2] The pivotal point in the story is the moment when the individual and the group recognised the hidden danger. They re-live the fear and the triumph. The vocalisation part is broadened out to cover the various roles that were played with an emphasis on the most dramatic parts, the discomfiture of the one placed most at risk, the narrow escape of another, all the time reinforcing for future use the inherent survival quality at the heart of the episode, instant recognition of discrepancy between the familiar scene and the intrusive element.

The emotional accompaniments of the event will also be re-lived particularly the positive feelings of relief at a danger averted and warmth at the band standing together. Perhaps a member of the group embellishes the story or makes one up just to evoke these feelings. If successful he is rewarded by the others’ appreciation.

Fast forward a little more to a modern setting where someone is making other people laugh, a group of friends, a meeting, a stand-up comic before an audience. The components are similar. There is a story. It has a pivot or twist where something familiar or expected is slightly displaced. The audience appreciates the displacement and joins the storyteller in laughter. In this scenario the point has become the twist or joke rather than the story because it is a direct route to the laughter and good feeling that goes with it. Nevertheless it is most successful if it has some of the other elements of the ancestral laughter-inducing experience. The sense of danger or fear that is common in the ‘risky’ funny story; the embarrassment; the lucky escape; the group audience, willing to go along with the story and experience and share the psychological lift at the moment of recognition of the discrepancy and its resolution.

The process of evoking laughter is represented in the following table. It is divided into four stages from recognition of discrepancy to aftermath.

Original response

1. Recognition of discrepancy

Associated emotions

Fear, alarm

Associated actions

Fight, flight, freeze readiness. First alarm sound. 

Modern equivalents

Infant laughter in fright (Boo!). Punch line.

2. Organised individual response



Aggressive humour.
Practical jokes

3. Group response

Solidarity. Bonding. Confidence. 
Contempt toward Threat. 
Creation of confusion.

Group hooting

Shared laughter.
Infectiousness of laughter.
Jeering humour.

4. Aftermath


Enhanced relationships.
Physical contact.

Enjoyment of humour.
Associated conviviality.

Table 1: The Evocation of Laughter: The Humour Sequence.

All the components of this sequence are not necessarily present in the experience of laughter and humour as we find it today. Stages three and four exist independently. The hooting and feeling of exaltation as expressions of exuberance, relief and group solidarity no doubt originated independently and were co-opted into the above sequence. Likewise, stages one and two are not necessarily followed by stages three and four. Sometimes stages three and four follow only after re-enactment in a place of safety of stages one and two.   

The authenticity of the connection between the right and left hand columns can be considered further in relation to certain aspects and types of humour.

Simple displacement

The pun and the caricature are examples of displacement alone being funny. They tend to be privately rather than publicly enjoyed and are not usually accompanied by laughter.

We understand that discrepancy is at the heart of laughter. We refer to a proposition that is grossly discrepant with reality as laughable. The discrepancy could be on either the inadequate or excessive side of normal. The words ridiculous and absurd convey something similar. It is the juxtaposition of an image that is not right with one that is expected that invokes mirth.

The least sophisticated and most universal humour is based on the exaggeration of familiar human form and function. Children say, "Look at the funny man", when they see someone unusual and may laugh if they haven't learned not to. We find achondroplastic people comical until we become familiar with them as people. The poos, wees and fart humour of children (and adults) is based on the discrepancy between the expectation that these matters are unmentionable and reference to their all-too-obvious existence.  The appeal of clowns lies in their exaggeration of physical features, expressions and movements. At a more sophisticated level we find the absence of expected responses in deadpan funny, but the basic mechanism of contrast between the familiar and a variant is the same.

Aggressive humour

Jokes about people of different ethnicity, gender and sexual preference can be hostile but the hostility is not essential to the humour, as politically correct commentators assume. It is the other group’s differentness in appearance, speech, understanding, behaviour and values. That differentness creates or enhances the displacement from the joke-teller’s norm which he shares with his audience which is the essence of humour. Of course the addition of hostility can provide a double displacement not only from the in-group norm of appearance etc but from the norm of decent conversation and behaviour.

Overt denigration is one example of humour grounded in the outrageous whose displacement effect depends upon offending against polite norms. Fart jokes, sex jokes, religious jokes and so on belong to this genre.

If recognition of small differences between like situations is the basis of humour, perhaps it has similar origins in the human psyche to our tendency to classify which may be the basis for our advancement toward self-awareness.

There is a particular kind of humour that is based on jeering, which is an aggressive expression of contempt by one group toward another. The celebrity roast is an example. It is based mainly on Stage 3 of the original response, i.e. a group response directed at a common threat. Laughter associated with ridicule is based more overtly on discrepancy, i.e. Stage 1, as well as Stages 2 and 3. 

Laughter and mock threat

How has the recognition of discrepancy, originally associated with fear and vigilance, come to be associated with fun? The transformation can be seen as one aspect of the phenomenon of play. In play, we enjoy practicing dealing with the things that have serious implications when we encounter them in reality. Along with other animals we enjoy play-fighting, play-caregiving and play-hunting.

One aspect of play as preparation for life is that we deliberately place ourselves in circumstances that frighten us. We create situations of danger in our imagination and in safe, simulated form so that when we encounter them in real life they are familiar and less frightening and we have practiced coping with them. This mock-danger is one of the ingredients of fun as we can see by the experience of scary fair-ground rides.  

The recognition of discrepancy that alerts us to danger that is the basis of humour has been subject to this evolution of pretend danger as an enjoyable experience. We recognise humour in other intelligent animals such as chimpanzees and dolphins when we see them setting up and responding to a simulated real life situation, possibly a threatening one, ‘just for fun’. The discrepancy between the mock situation and the real life one is a source of humour and a part of the experience of fun. 

The commonest of this form is the laughter of a person being chased in fun. The laughter of children is commonly of one child being chased by another. Adults, in their playful moments, like to reproduce this effect.

Humour in human development

A game played by parents with infants is making them laugh by hiding and reappearing suddenly and saying, ‘Boo!’ or some such. Infants are first able to play this game at around eight or nine months of age. According to Piaget this is because at this age they have just acquired the ability to understand that something is still present although out of sight. That is, they appreciate object permanence. In the displacement hypothesis of humour the explanation of ‘the ‘Boo’ response is that the innate ability to recognise and respond to the threat posed by a sudden change from the familiar has emerged.

It is my observation that when this game is first tried the infant may cry in fright but after it is repeated a number of times something like a laugh appears which still looks like an expression of nervousness or fear. After a time as the infant gains confidence there is a more full-bodied laugh. It may be that this sequence is rehearsing the response to a displacement within the familiar followed by alerting to danger as described.

The infant response to ‘Boo’ as a prototype illustrates the important element of suddenness in humour, of the surprise and of the reaction to it. The punch-line at the end of a joke and the witty rejoinder are the adult equivalent of ‘Boo’.

Something should also be said about two infant behaviours that are probably not primarily connected with humour although they may at first appear to be. They are the laughter induced by tickling and smiling


Not all laughter is connected to humour. The laughter induced by tickling is an example. It may have originated separately as a warning noise to the person doing the tickling. It is not accompanied by the same largely pleasant feelings of humour. Even so, such is the infectiousness of laughter, originally the taking up by the group of the danger alert, that the person tickling and others hearing the laughter may themselves join in and the sensations of humour may develop as an accustomed association with the laughter. The tickling seems at least sometimes to be initiated to trigger pleasurable laughter in the tickler as well as in the tickled 

Tickling is an ancient form of social interaction as indicated by its presence in apes. It has elements of grooming and play-fighting both of which are even more ancient social forms. It produces simultaneously both pleasure and discomfort. It reliably produces laughter, not necessarily the laughter of unalloyed pleasure or hilarity. This ancient social interaction might give a clue to the reinforcement in infants of laughter as a social signal. Is it a stimulus and reward system between mother and infant that serves also as an initiation into a mildly unpleasant sensation provoking an alerting/warning response, the warning being a valuable survival mechanism?

Why do we laugh when we are tickled? Or, in terms of this discussion, what is the common physiological, behavioural and evolutionary path followed by tickling and discrepancy recognition that leads to laughter. Is tickling recognised not only as grooming/ stroking for which the appropriate response is an expression of pleasure but also mild intrusion into the body's integrity for which the appropriate response is mild alarm and protest?  Chimpanzees show a response to tickling that looks human. They open their mouths and bare their teeth and wriggle in what seems to be a mix of pleasure and discomfort.


A smile at its first appearance at around six weeks of age is a signal of shared intimacy between mother and infant. It is a part of the inherent repertoire of mirroring of facial expressions, head movements and attitudes between mother (and father and others) and infant that contributes to bonding. The smile remains after infancy as a gentle but powerful indication of shared intimacy between lovers, friends and others and as is to be expected with such a strong signal has been recruited through evolution to serve other functions. The social smile aims to lessen tension between strangers and disarm potential enemies. The smile of complicity cements a shared experience. Its service as an expression of humour - the smile of amusement and merriment – seems likely to have come about through the overlap of its original function of bonding with stages three and four of the evocation of laughter (Table 1).

The origins and meaning of smiling as a human behaviour are to a large degree separate from and at least as complex as those of laughter[3]    

Humour that prick’s pomposity

There is a kind of humour, popular in Britain, in which someone of ordinary background and talent pretends to be more important. Tony Hancock in the radio series, Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe’s son in the television series, Steptoe and Son, and Ricky Gervais in television’s, The Office are examples. The displacement here is from the behaviour of their betters, that British people look up to or feel they ought to, to a slightly different version that is recognised as not quite right but near enough to be funny.

Mixed in with the enjoyment of this humour is the pleasure of recognition and complicity, of being able to identify the allusions. This winking to the audience is often a part of sophisticated humour. Sometimes this recognition is itself displaced by the comedian who catches the viewer out by indicating a different frame of reference.

Distorting the mundane

A standard routine of stand-up comics is to take something familiar to everyone but not ordinarily discussed because it is private and talk about it in some detail. It might be an unspoken response to a universal situation of frustration and annoyance or it may be an aspect of personal grooming or hygiene. Two displacements occur here. One is of something familiar displaced by coming in slightly altered form from the imagination of someone else. The other is the displacement of something which we believe should be private into the public realm. 

Social laughter

Laughter is infectious as is often said. In this respect it is like other social signals such as yawning and no doubt serves to align groups in a common mood that contributes to social order. There is a desire to laugh along with others even when there is no apparent cause for mirth. An example was a popular recording on the Sunday morning request programme on national radio in our childhood. It was called the laughing policeman and consisted mostly of feigned laughter set to a simple tune. Artificial though it was, it tended to cause listeners to laugh. The urge to laugh socially is strong. Someone laughing alone or someone not laughing when others are arouses concern.

Part of the range of genuine feeling expressed by laughter is reflected in the uses of the social laugh. It usually expresses good will and conviviality but it can also be a signal of nervousness and submissiveness in the social simper or giggle. A loud laugh can signal confidence or dominance. There is the sly laughter to cement complicity between co-conspirators and the giggling among people enjoying one another’s company. These are all bonding signals shared within a group.

Giggling is a particular kind of laughter, a shared expression of effervescence of spirit usually among young people, particularly girls. 

Humour that creates confidence and mastery

The nervous joke or quip in relation to something threatening is a reassurance to the person making it that they can not only recognise the terrain but have some control of it. They are able to invent alternatives against which to match what they see and so can believe they are able to master and manipulate it.

The ability to imagine alternative futures, which is a key human survival attribute may at least in part have common origins with humour in recognition of displacement and the ability to match the displaced vision with the original so as to identify the difference and act accordingly.

Tourette's Syndrome may be a disorder of displacement recognition. Perhaps it is an excessive response to it. The immediate out-of-place tic of Tourette’s has similarities to the instant vision of an alternative reality that underlies humour. Some people, at least, with the syndrome are sardonically humorous.

Dealing with adversity

Humour is an expression of the recognition of displacement. It can be used to maintain equilibrium by seeking to displace adversity and loss. We can come to terms with adversity by laughing at it, seeing the funny side or at least viewing it wryly or ironically, that is, seeing it in a slightly displaced form or context which evokes humour rather than sadness or anger.

Evolution constantly adapts physical and behavioural features to new purposes. The ability to deliberately displace experience to examine new possibilities is itself an adaptation that might be derived from humour.

Performance humour

Humour can be unconscious or situational but much of humour is presented as or within a performance as in telling a joke, putting on a comedy routine or spicing a speech or a play with humour. What is in it for the performer and the audience? The answer may lie in the evolutionary origins of performance itself.

Social creatures generally maintain dominance hierarchies. Humans are no exception. In many species dominance is established and reinforced principally by force and the threat of force. It is by this means that the more dominant members of the group keep the attention and maintain “leadership” of the less dominant, a socio-mental mode known as agonic[4]. Among primates the outstanding example of this behaviour is found among baboons. In other species attention is gained and maintained predominantly by performance or display, a mode known as hedonic. The great apes, chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans come into this category as does humankind. Both agonic and hedonic modes operate in human societies but a person presenting themselves in a credibly confident and commanding manner is likely to be the one who assumes leadership.

If we refer back to the campfire storytelling scenario, we have members of the group recounting a dramatised version of the dangerous episode of the recent past. No doubt only leading members entitle themselves to perform. The better the display the greater the kudos, just as in today’s speech-making. The first task of a performer is to gain his audience’s attention. What better way than causing them to relive the sudden danger alert they experienced while out and about. In a comedy routine the performer doesn’t move beyond the attention-getting stage but in other kinds of speech-making the purpose and effect are more complex. Impact, memorability and kudos are enhanced by humour. Humour in its primitive form, is reliving the fear and relief of the encounter with danger and although in modern times it takes a multiplicity of forms it has a similar function of briefly pulling the rug of expectation from under the audience and allowing them to recover, all the while demonstrating the confidence and command of the performer.

The humour in speech-making not only enhances the display and leadership potential of the presenter but subtly brings the audience along with him as he builds his alternative reality and away from what might have been the view of a rival (see the subversive nature of humour below).

The discovery element

To find something funny we must ourselves recognise the discrepancy that is at the heart of humour. There must be a discovery made, an ‘Aha!’ moment. A joke falls flat if it has to be explained or is laboriously laid out. The less we are led by the nose and the more we use our own imagination to see the joke the funnier it is. 

Funny people

To become a leader in changing times a person must be a non-conformist. Rather than taking the expected course socially and expressing the popular view the leader must have a view of himself as extraordinary and a desire to follow his own course. In presenting himself to his peers he must be both recognisable as one of them and distinct as a person with imagination and gusto. Such a person is attractive as a leader and perhaps the evolutionary explanation for this is that he has a better chance of enabling his society to adapt to changing circumstances.

The successful humourist of modern times is in some respects an extreme version of this type of person. He must also be a non-conformist so as to put to his audience a discrepant view . To develop a consistently off-centre view of the world it is helpful to have avoided, during childhood the natural alignment with the common view that comes from the company of peers and the need to get along with them. Success as a comedian is often founded on a lone and sheltered childhood in which the parents have indulged the child’s distinctive behaviour and allowed the child’s private world to flourish. Some of the great comedians of my generation who had such a childhood are Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Peter Ustinov.  

Such a person, distanced from the comfort of conformity is also prone to self-doubt and depression as the history of sad clowns attests. Tony Hancock and Robin Williams who eventually committed suicide are examples.

Variations in sense of humour

What they find funny differs among individuals, groups and nations. To some extent this is dependent on what they find shocking and alarming. There is a current vogue which I believe has passed its peak for stand-up comics to use swearing for comic effect. As the audiences have over the years stopped being shocked or even embarrassed by the swearing it has stopped being funny. 

National variations in taste in humour seem to be based on challenges to those matters that are important to them. As we have already seen British humour has a strong streak of ridicule of people intent on keeping up appearances, something important in British society.

In countries with highly ritualised social behaviour such as the United States and Japan, a popular brand of humour is one in which the rituals are transgressed. Where the audience is one which still adheres strictly to the rituals, more subtle discrepant offences such as the nouveau riche or bumpkins might commit, are funny. Audiences who have themselves departed from strict ritual appreciate more outrageous offences against it. The discrepancy in this case is not so much between the ritual and the failure to conform as between the audience's limit of what is permitted and the performer's.

On the other hand in New Zealand which prides itself on its lack of social pretence such humour can fall flat. Nevertheless the common belief in a handiness in dealing with all contingencies, makes the humour of Fred Dagg funny as he presents incompetence in a frame of blithe confidence funny. The humour of Billy T James had a similar element and was as well a caricature of a common narrative of Maori differentness.

The contemporary meaning of humour

We enjoy laughing and most of us seek out and create situations that make us laugh. It is not clear why we should enjoy laughing. It does not appear to satisfy any of the fundamental drives. If we examine its origins, though, it becomes clear why we enjoy it so much. The original trigger for laughter was recognition of a discrepancy in an otherwise familiar scene. Having identified (and presumably thought of some way of dealing with) the potential danger we feel safe, confident and clever and these are feelings that are still associated with the aftermath of laughter. In addition, the warning signal and creation of hubbub, the original purposes of laughter are associated with a sense of solidarity among the group which reinforces the sense of confidence and strength. Again these are feelings that continue to be associated with laughter.

An interesting point is that it appears to be the laughter itself rather than what is making us laugh that makes us feel good. This may be a reflection of the feelgood factor being derived from the later rather than the earlier stages of the original process.

Humour may have originated as a response to danger but its contemporary meaning and utility have largely left that purpose behind. It has become an expression of human happiness, freedom and solidarity.

Happy laughter is a powerful expression of freedom and wonderfully enjoyable. The laughter of children is often invoked as an expression of pure, carefree joy in existence. Unrestrained, unselfconscious  laughter can express the same feeling at any age. This feeling of happiness is much sought after and humour is a reliable route to experiencing it. Hence the present day popularity of humour and the evolutionary reinforcement of the humour sequence (Table 1). In this respect, stages one and two are the trigger. Stages three and four are the payoff.   

The subversiveness of humour

In one sense humour is a private feeling. It comes from within the individual as an interpretation of what they observe. It cannot be created or ordered from without. It is this aspect of humour that is one of the best protections we have against oppression. The absurdity of the posturing of those who would control us evokes the desire to laugh although it might not always be safe to show any sign of such a response.  Nevertheless there is a long history of ridicule and satire putting people in their place.

Humour is subversive because it arises from a view that is alternative to the standard presentation of any situation. It is often an instant alternative image that springs to mind when we are confronted with an imposed reality that is not to our liking because it is dull, dangerous, unjust, or oppressive. Authoritarians do not take kindly to these alternative images and do their best to extinguish them. Television has lately shown reality programmes sponsored by the police and customs, in which non-compliers with the law are harassed and embarrassed. They are aimed, presumably, at intimidating the public into compliance with their directives. It is notable how severely officials react to any hint of humour from their subjects. This response can be institutionalised as in the warning notices at airports that jokes about illicit items in baggage will not be tolerated.

Historically, clever kings employed a court jester who relieved the pomposity that might otherwise have invited more dangerous suppressed mockery.   

On 7 January, 2015 two men shouting Allahu Akbar invaded the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris and killed the editor and staff who were gathered there. It appears the reason was the cartoonists’ mockery in their publication of the behaviour and attitudes of some of the followers of Islam. Corporate media and politicians rushed to defend the right of Charlie Hebdo and satirists more generally to go about their work. The defence was most commonly framed as support for freedom of speech, a ‘Western’ value held dear. 

Ed Vulliamy[5] tells of his time spent after the murders with surviving contributors to the magazine and their friends. They have of course been thinking about their place in the world and why they pursue their occupation. They see themselves in the tradition of king’s fools laughing at the absurdity of pretension. They believe they have a well-developed sense of the absurd which makes it impossible to take seriously those who wish to be taken seriously. They think many among the rich and powerful do not have this faculty. These targets of their humour fear being mocked not only for the injury to their self-importance but because they don’t get it.

As for the value of humour in this respect, it is to be hoped that it is a reality check for both the governors and the governed although it is no guarantee. Peter Cook is said to have remarked that the flourishing satirical club scene in Weimar Germany in the nineteen-thirties did not prevent the rise of Hitler.   

Even in the face of death defiance can be expressed in the form of gallows humour. That it arises in such dire circumstances is testimony to its important place in the human psyche.

This class of humour, like others is infectious, harking back to its origins in the hubbub mechanism for confusing and intimidating the enemy and rallying the group. Shared ridicule and scorn can strengthen the victims and weaken the tyrant to the point where his position becomes untenable.

This rallying effect against a supposed enemy is not necessarily always benign. It is reflected in the coarse laughter of the mob as they share the pleasure of watching a victim suffer humiliation and pain. The victim may simply be unfortunate or non-conforming in attracting this kind of attention or a real enemy being taunted and jeered at.

Laughter can be considered an offence against seriousness, signalling inattention or superficiality. This seems unwarranted in relation to its original functions but not its later function of defusing tension and connecting socially. Laughter can itself be considered out of place (as at a funeral say or the triumphant parade of an important person). For the very reason it is out of place laughter can be induced by the seriousness of funerals and state occasions. The story of the emperor’s new clothes relies on this feeling.


To be able to laugh is to see possibilities in parallel with the matter to hand. In simple form they are alternative linguistic possibilities or punning but there are also alternative possibilities of realm, concept, process, conclusion and so on. Along with this recognition of possibilities is a freeing up of the spirit. This is a precious part of our human heritage.

[1] Greig,  J.Y.T. (1923) The Psychology of Comedy and Laughter. London: George Allen & Unwin or NY: Dodd, Mead.

[2] Constant talking about aspects of their lives is a feature of small scale societies. See for example. Diamond, J. (2012) The world until yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? Penguin Group: Australia. Pp 273-5.

[3] LaFrance, M. (2011) Why smile? The science behind facial expressions.New York: Norton.

[4] Chance, M. (1998) Towards the derivation of a scientific basis for ethics. Evolution and Cognition, 4, 1, 2-10.


Why humour?

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