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
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
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).
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.
The situation is actually okay. That is, the perceiver has|
in mind a predominating view of the situation as being Normal.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
- Joke analysis, not! Sorry, I don't think this is very
interesting. It's more interesting to understand really different
kinds of actual phenomena, than to take apart yet another set-piece
presentation of a false world described dramatically for peer
entertainment and approval in order to find what's N and what's V
about it. Been there, done that, let's move on already.
- Can we generate jokes by machine? Yes, if the machine has the
ability to reason about N and V interpretations, and to concoct
situations encoding both interpretations simultaneously. There is no
intrinsic reason this cannot be done, if artificial intelligence can
provide the infrastructure of a reasoning machine. The humorless
android character, Data, of Star Trek TNG, represents a false
prediction about the future; I tell you that computers will both seem
to laugh and make us laugh in the not-too-distant future.
- Relate and distinguish laughter and crying. Crying
may be the same as laughter but where the V interpretation is
predominant. One cries when in a painful relationship the other
person says I love you (the pain is predominant, but the
things-are-really-okay view is there also).
- Use humor perception studies to understand the emotional and
moral differences between people of different political leanings,
ethnicities, ages, cultures, different gender, etc. At
http://www.tomveatch.com/else/humor/intro.html we are presently
exploring whether a humor profile can be created, and if anything in
it correlates with various social dimensions.
- Clarify whether the N/V distinction is (a) a structuralist
distinction between relatively more or less okay and not-okay, or (b)
an absolute distinction between non-relativistic cognitive categories
of normal and not-normal, divided by an unmoving line separating the
normal from the unacceptable. This theory can be interpreted in
either way. There are of course many elements of subjective
interpretation in humor; two people may differ relativistically on how
bad some violation is. However, one wonders if there is a
qualitative, discrete difference, anchored to non-relativistic
underlying cognitive elements, which have an independent existence
separate from the contrast between them. If the perception of a
violation is neurologically hardwired to an aversive reaction, then
even if the intensity of the violation varies relativistically and can
shift across the line between normalcy and pain, still if the mental
category must be evoked first and separately from the hardwired
aversive reaction, then at the point of evoking that discrete category
there is an absolute and independent psychological basis for the
violation interpretation. A layer of structural relativism on top of
this might not necessarily rule out the possible underlying presence
of a non-relativistic process of mental categorization. This needs to
be explored, perhaps through brain imaging studies, which in principle
might distinguish among relativistic and absolutist interpretive
processing and the pleasure or pain or laughter responses thereto.
Copyright © 1999-2001 Thomas
C. Veatch All rights reserved.
Last Modified: May 31, 2001
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