Across history from Aristotle2 to Freud, and across all the intellectual disciplines of the humanities and human sciences, thoughtful people have sought a satisfactory understanding of the problem of humor. Humor includes an apparent paradox, as we will see; it is emotionally compelling; and it pervades human life. Thus it is inherently both mysterious and interesting. Indeed, the serious study of humor is ``part of the field'' (if only marginally) in a great many academic disciplines, including at least anthropology, classics, communications, education, linguistics, literature, medicine, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, and sociology.
Theories of humor do not tend to respect disciplinary boundaries, though writers often address themselves to the concerns of disciplinarily-restricted audiences. Further, no particular theory or disciplinary perspective so far appears to have fully succeeded, and in fact many consider that a single, simple theory of humor is impossible. It would seem that with so many theories and approaches, all with their own useful perspectives, none monopolizes the truth, and always another wrinkle on the elephant of humor awaits discovery. This is a wise view, which has held true through long experience and scholarship.
However, if only for the sake of the intellectual's faith that full understanding is indeed possible, students of humor still strive for the goal, a scientifically adequate theory of humor. Such a theory should capture the valid insights of previous thinkers, be falsifiable, accurate, complete, and insightful, and if possible, both simple and useful. This paper is one of many3 attempts to develop such a theory of humor.
The theory is given in the form of three necessary and (jointly) sufficient conditions for humor perception. The claimed properties of necessity and of sufficiency give the theory the strongest possible force: it specifies both what is funny and what is not funny. The conditions themselves are shown here to explain and predict a wide variety of facts. The theory makes strong, testable empirical predictions, and provides useful and integrated insight into previously mysterious and unrelated phenomena. This research has encountered no case of either perceived humor or lack of perceived humor which the theory does not explain. The theory leads one to think in ways that repeatedly seem to generate insight and satisfying explanations. It can be used to gain insight into other people's thoughts and feelings on the basis of their humor perceptions -- even on the spot, as humor understanding and misunderstanding occurs between people in everyday situations. While aspects of the theory may be improved upon, I believe it presently forms the most useful available framework for understanding humor and the minds and feelings of laughing people. After defining humor, the theory, the terms used in the theory, and the logical consequences of it, this paper describes and uses the theory to explain the widest possible variety of properties of humor and humor-related phenomena.