Veatch's Theory of Humor (Short version)

Thomas C. Veatch (1998) "A Theory of Humor". In the International Journal of Humor Research, Mouton de Gruyter, May 1998. On-line HTML version here.

Introduction

Veatch (1998) presents an ambitious, and supposedly complete, theory of humor. It says that three conditions are, individually, necessary and, jointly, sufficient for humor to occur. The conditions are these
1)V Something is wrong. That is, the perceiver thinks that
things in the situation ought to be a certain way -- and
cares about it -- and that is Violated.
2)N The situation is actually okay. That is, the perceiver has
in mind a predominating view of the situation as being Normal.
3) Simultaneity Both occur at the same time. That is, the N and V understandings
are present in the mind of the perceiver at the same instant.
So humor is emotional pain that doesn't actually hurt. Or a violation that you care about, overlaid with the conviction that everything is normal (either good or neutral, but not bad).

This theory is supposed to rule out every occasion when humor is not perceived, and rule in every occasion when it does occur. That's a big claim, can you find a counterexample?

An Example

My favorite example is peekaboo. I think the initial, intrinsic humor in peekaboo is relief laughter. Let me explain relief laughter with an example, and then peekaboo.

Relief Laughter

One day I opened the refrigerator, and a milk carton felt onto the floor. When I realized the carton was new and unopened, and that no milk was being spilt, I laughed. Why? Because at the instant of realization that this minor tragedy was really okay, I had in my mind both the trauma of mess and breakage and the predominating view that nothing bad had really happened. So both a painful view and a predominating normal view of the situation were simultaneously in my mind, and therefore (following the theory) I laughed.

Peekaboo

It's universal: Why?

Peekaboo is a game in every culture around the world. It seems that all children, around the age of 8 months or so, pass through a phase in which reappearance after hiding seems intrinsically funny. In many cultures, perhaps most, this initial humor perception is elaborated into a variety of games and play, such as hide-and-seek. I'm talking about that first intrinsic humor that babies have when they first discover this.

All babies learn object permanence, the ability to know that objects which one can no longer see still exist even when they no longer visible. There are three phases here. In the beginning, if you can't see it, it doesn't exist -- in fact, it never existed. At the end, if you saw it before but don't see it now, it (probably) still exists. But in between these phases, objects that you see at first, which then leave your field of view, are now things that DID exist but NO LONGER exist, because you have memory but no current evidence of them. This is the phase where peekaboo is funny.

So in phase one, Mommy leaves the room and it's no big deal, because once she's gone, it's as if she never existed. In phase two, Mommy leaves the room and, suddenly, that is grounds for crying and despair, because the Mommy that I care so much about has blinked out of the universe. But if one leaves and then comes back into view, one has come back into existence, making everything whole. Just like discovering to my relief that the milk wasn't spilt, babies are so relieved to find that you haven't been erased from the universe that they laugh with relief laughter.

Then later on, as object permanence is established, grownups, whom the baby has now trained to play peekaboo, begin to elaborate it with further play in which the thrill of mutual attention and the teasing (i.e., painful and hostile) action of withdrawing one's attention are alternated in increasingly complex ways, all to shrieks of laughter timed simultaneously with the everything-is-okay events. By then the baby has lost that initial intrinsic humor perception, of being relieved that you haven't actually been wiped out of existence.

True and Useful?

So that's the idea. Humor occurs when something is wrong that you care about, but everything is actually okay, and only occurs if you see (and feel) both views at the same time.

Now you can take any joke, and analyse it by figuring out what is the emotional violation, and what is the normal interpretation. I find I can do this for every joke that I actually find funny, but it often takes a while to do it for one that I don't see the humor in. Fortunately, thinking about it doesn't prevent me from laughing in the first place -- but it may be part of the reason I'm such a bad joke-teller. No problem, those who can't do, do research.

The long version

``A Theory of Humor'' is a detailed and comprehensive academic discussion of Veatch's theory and it explains everything from the laughter of chimps to the ability to make a room of tense people in conflict suddenly relax and realize their common ground, from puns to group giggle-fests to nervous laughter to tickling. You are invited to click your way around in it and read the parts that interest you. Don't miss the section on society and communication, which is what matters most to social animals (like yourself).

Conclusion

The fundamental idea of this theory is that humor is really a form of pain (it even has repeated, loud exhalations similar at some level to gasping in pain or crying). But it is a cognitively complex form of pain where you don't really feel it as pain, but you really believe that things are truly just fine. If you make this insight your own then you can see how teasing is hostility between (true) friends, and how negative and painful experiences are an essential part of even the happiest human lives. A life full of laughter is a happy life, not because one avoids pain but because we have the power to enjoy life even with pain all through it.

If you think about the theory anytime you encounter humor you should be able to identify some view where the situation is okay and another one where it's not. If you do you can tell your friends you understand humor, and even better, if you don't understand your friends' humor, you have here a way to try to figure out what they're laughing at, by looking for the okay and not-okay interpretations they must be perceiving.

Future work:

 

Copyright © 1999-2001 Thomas C. Veatch All rights reserved.
Last Modified: May 31, 2001
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