Humor Theory

and Irrational Emotion

inset text is to be made into powerpoint slide text.
remainder a draft of the words to be spoken

[Hello, Thanks, Introduction]
Thanks Otto. Hi everyone. So I'm Otto's friend and colleague from Penn, we both got our PhD's there, just like Noam Chomsky did a couple decades before us. Penn linguistics seems to let you have your own obnoxious ideas, and we are indeed independent minded. Well, Otto has had a beautiful academic career, whereas I have gone on different paths into the worlds of technology sales and speech software and, hey, a plumbing career and then rental real estate, and now rent is my favorite word, and I finally have time to be an independent intellectual again.

Free intellectual curiosity is itself the prime mover, I think. Your time as a student is super precious because you get to have your own inquiry, and not just try to do things that you can get funding for or bring in grants to keep your research assistants fed. Freedom is so valuable. I had a do-anything-you-want postdoc for a couple years when I really explored far past my dissertation area and worked out the N+V Humor Theory. I didn't care it wasn't in my field because I was free to follow what interested me, so I encourage you to make the most of your free time.

So Otto, thanks for giving me a chance to come perform my duties as the avatar of the N+V humor theory. It's like meme capture, you know since the discovery in 1992 or so this theory is like a meme that has captured me. It has been my master and me the servant. So I have served in this role of arguing against false or partial countertheories and giving analyses of alleged counterexamples.

But it's a strange kind of capture because I'm also fighting on the other side in this war of ideas. Your job as a scientist is to find the strongest counterarguments and try to break the theory, and find any way where it's not true, if at all possible. Well, that's how you get a really tough theory, or else you do break it and make some actual forward progress. So let's try to do that together today. So far it's maybe 30 years, and no luck, but science means we believe it for now but we keep trying to break it forever.

[Link to previous theories: superiority incongruity relief]

How does humor work? Why do we laugh? By now you all have some exposure to humor theories, from the first lecture which discussed superiority, relief, and incongruity. Aggression, did you touch on that? Did you think they got it? Did they figure it all out?

[Humor Theory belongs to you]

So it seems like everyone has a theory, and it's true nobody owns it: laughter and humor perception is sincerely your own and if you are open to thinking about it, then your thoughts are your own and your own humor theory belongs to you too. So your job is not to agree with me, but to have your own opinion. I'm not the God of humor. although I did discover myself to be the first infected individual, so the first educator for N+V, and I hope you will dive into it with me.

[Naturally fascinating => many theories]

Now isn't humor just naturally fascinating? As we will see, it is self-contradictory, or at least paradoxical, and it grabs us by our own true and powerful emotions, and it gives us unexpected, irrational joy -- well also can cause lifetime humiliation. So it's super interesting, and if you're a thinker, and then you're laughing and thinking you might think about laughing, so it's a sort of natural environment for intellectual exploration. So it seems like everyone has a theory. So we have Aristotle's Comedy, and Hobbes with superiority in the 1500s, and Freud trying to distinguish between vulgar and socially acceptable humor. You guys have seen superiority, incongruity, relief, maybe aggression, some linguists have language-specific script-consistency theories. Otto gave you quite a list on Day One of this class. I didn't even know them all.

[Ockham's Razor, Lisker Against Lies]

So how can we approach this. Leigh Lisker was my old phonetics teacher, and he told me once, the less you say, the less you lie. I used to think he meant all speech was lies but no, not so. The idea is to minimize, reduce strip down, say as little as possible, and see if that is enough to be useful. So humor, well, we know it has to do with the emotions, it's an emotional response to laugh and to find things funny. So if we want to minimize, well what is the minimal first thing you have to say in the world of emotion? I'm going to say the first, least, tiniest minimum bit of information about anything emotional is just the difference between negative and non-negative.

Frowny face versus smiley face and neutral face.

Can we do something with that? Well, yes, actually. That's the essence of it already. I have been calling it the N+V Humor Theory. The name is N and V and the plus sign together are a certain kind of notation that expresses the whole theory.

N+V: N: the perceiver sees the situation as Normal (neutral or positive but not negative). V: the perceiver sees the situation as a Violation (negative). +: N & V occur at the same Time.

Let's say that again

N: Normal or beNigN. Smiley or neutral. Good, or unremarkable. Desireable, or at least not repellant. Everything is OK.

V: Violation: frowny. Bad, repellant, negative, painful. A Subjective Moral Violation. Let's elaborate on that: you are the the perceiver, YOU think in THIS situation things OUGHT to be a certain way, you CARE about it, and it is NOT. So it's a Violation. There is no innocent humor, no pure and pain-free humor, according to N+V. This is the claim that humor is like a form of pain.

The plus sign is actually like a "t" as in Time, and it's short for T_V = T_N. So we have SIMULTANEITY: Both N and V AT THE SAME TIME. One following the other is good news or bad news, not funny.

    Necessary: without it, you die.
    Sufficient: with it, you live.

For example, food is necessary, but not sufficient. Air and water too. Sleep too. Food, water, air, sleep together, is that sufficient for life?

Okay people notice that the theory is not itself funny. True. It's just logic. So I am saying that humans are actually logical, even in their irrational emotions. And the logic is, if all three of these components are there, N and V and their being at the same time in your head, then humor is there, and if any of these components are not there, then humor will not be there. So that's a testable empirical prediction, and it could very easily be wrong.

Machinery generates output.
Does the output always meet spec? Was it sufficient? If not, it Overgenerates.
Does anything come another way? Was it necessary? If not, it Undergenerates.

It could overgenerate where you have a case, and yes all the conditions are there, so it goes through your machine's logic and the machine says Yes I generate this output, but humor, something funny, didn't actually come out.

Or it could undergenerate because something's missing so it does NOT go through the machine and yet there it is legitimately funny. That would be a counterexample. Make sense?

Logic uses necessary conditions, sufficient conditions, we go back to Plato and Aristotle and the basics of pure logic, and that's what we can use to find counterexamples to disprove the theory.

Whenever I get to this part of the talk my throat rises and I get a little light feeling in my stomach, because if this theory is kind of like my baby, then it is Extremely Vulnerable at this point, and you know that story of how Abraham went up on the mountain and offered his baby boy Isaac as a sacrifice to Jehovah, I feel like I offer up my baby here as a sacrifice to science. Of course Abraham got Isaac back right away because Jehovah got on it and he spoke to Abraham right away out of a burning bush and said No I'm kidding, don't kill your baby for me. But me, I'm still holding my baby out there, 30 years later, in case someone can just find the right sacrificial knife and stick it in there. It's a bit fraught, don't you think? But that's the job, truth is heartless, we are followers of Francis Bacon and therefore we can't just believe because we want to. Okay so heartlessly we continue. And counterexamples are these two kinds: (O) not-funny where N and V and + all do apply, and (U) funny where N or V or + does not apply. Make sense?

Let me just check in if you got the point or not. Sometimes people read Veatch and go off to talk about benign violations. Like a medium level violation which isn't that bad, it's only bad enough for you to laugh at it. That was my first theory of humor and it's wrong, or it's a special case. What you actually need, well according to N+V, is two distinct interpretations of the situation, and maybe you could adjust the parameters of the situation gradually so the violation gradually appears or disappears, or the normal interpretation gradually appears or disappears, and there have been lots and lots of experiments like that and yes the right thing happens. But if you hammer your toe just not very hard, it's only one thing, either a violation, or not a violation, but not two things, not both. N+V says humor is where there are two interpretations, N and V.

Okay now I don't think any of that was funny, do you? You'd think that humor theory would eventually get to the funny part.

Jokes? Please no, or ask me at the end.

First, though, do we need to do jokes? I can do jokes all day and if I don't get the joke, then I often don't have an analysis right away, which actually makes sense according to the theory because if I don't see the N and the V then I won't find it funny, which means I also won't be able to tell you what the N and the V are. If I puzzle over it so far I've always been able to find an N+V story for everything. Jokes are infinitely many and there's typologies that are consistent with N+V and nothing much is new about them, so I personally prefer to talk about non-joke types of phenomena.

Phenomena: Dismay laughter. Disbelief. Relief laughter. Peekaboo. Sober presentation. Satire. Aggression. Ridicule. Humiliation. Communication. Humor IS N+V. Humor COMMUNICATES N+V.

Whole classes of humor behavior, or situations, which might be naturalistic events in the wild, and not staged concoctions, and perhaps therefore more real and interesting.

Relief laughter.
So let's do relief laughter.

Milk out of the fridge. 1.25 seconds of laughter and a sharp stop. Relief laughter. Only as long as I still think the first thought and the second thought hasn't completely wiped it out, can I have both N and V in my mind at the same time. Something is wrong (V), oh but I begin to see how everything is okay (N), and laugh hard until I'm picking it up and nothing is wrong any more, I'm just putting the milk in the door again. So it's during the simultaneity of the two interpretations, that the laughter occurs. It starts right away when there's two, and it stops right away when there's one again. Or that would be the analysis. Make sense? I think this is the strongest prediction of N+V, because none of the other theories that I know of are time-bound like this. They say oh this circumstance has a resolution or a transition, or a state of being a certain complex way, well that doesn't say turn on at this instant and turn off at this other instant, but N+V does say so. So just go try to beat that.


Now let's do peekaboo. A baby at a certain age, Mommy leaves the room, Daddy comes in, happy baby, oh there's Mommy, that's great, there's nobody, that's nice, there's Daddy, that's nice. This is called lack of object permanence. If you're not there, you don't exist. If I'm getting enough food and love, I'm good. Then a few months later, the transition is around 8 months I think, well after it, Mommy leaves the room, and oh, that's fine, because Mommy is a permanent object. Just because I can't see her, she still exists. But in between these times, there's a transition where Mommy leaves the room, and now she sort of exists, actually she did exist before but now because you can't see her at the moment, now she doesn't exist, and can you imagine the baby freaks out and cries and oh my god mommy isn't in the room, it's not that mommy the permanent object isn't in the room, it's that mommy that I care about, Mommy that should be a permanent object is impermanent, and has blinked out of existence. So is this a subjective moral violation to a baby? The baby think the world should be a certain way, like With a Mommy, and cares about it, how else am I going to survive, at the least, and it's NOT that way. So yes it's a subjective moral violation. Okay then Mommy out of the room hears the crying baby and turns around and comes back, and Wow, holy cow, Mommy Exists Again! The world is once again the way it is supposed to be. So that's N. So I will argue that intrinsic humor of peekaboo is relief laughter, when the traumatized baby is coming to the improved, partly soothed, and better understanding that things are actually okay, but while it still feels the moral violation, that's V, and while it truly believes that things are now actually okay, that's N, then it will laugh. Just like the milk from the fridge door. Laugh during the recalculation moment or the still-in-the-middle-of-experiencing-surprise period.

Surprise and Ambiguity enable a mind to contain two views
So you see how surprise is this kind of a a moment where two views hold at the same time. Remember Shakespeare said Brevity is the Soul of Wit. A slow surprise isn't much of a surprise. But since people figure things out pretty quickly, and you have to get the transition fast enough that they are actually surprised and not just gradually learning more about something, for simultaneity to occur.

There's also ambiguity, or you might say the possibility of framing some facts in at least a couple different ways.

I invite you to explore every kind of phenomenon or joke, it's not assigned reading but you are welcome to read whatever you are interested in.

My purpose here is that you should know and be able to teach and use the N+V theory yourself, and to contribute to science, with counterexamples and counterexplanations. So any questions, like what's exactly an N or a V? Ask away.

Okay, so far I'm still looking for counterexamples. So now let's do a few cases, and we'll have a poll, you can say whether you see an N, or a V, or both, or neither, and then we'll talk about them.

Fishing laughter video. Is there fear? Is there joy?
Dismay or denial laughter (escorted prisoner)

Aggressive or cruel laughter (cavanaugh hearing testimony)

What's the TV vampire laughing about? You will die (V), but I will eat (N).

Gad Saad #decolonizing the bookshelf

Jesse: Mexican Martial Arts Is it satire?

What is the N, what is the V, put it into words please.

Partial, fragmented, and don't measure up, thus the historians and humanists have rejected them out of hand.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<< Notes from Otto:

Pose the question: why how does humor work, why do people laugh. See his PDFs on Chapter 1 or 2, European humor, greeks and stuff.

Conditions, and response. THey have looked at superiority incongruity and relief but those are inadequate, now rejected by humanist classicist historians as theories that don't work and are complementary, thus I went an evolutionary route.

Raskin lifted his theory from a philosopher that he doesn't cite. It's a puzzle, self-contradictory, everyone is interested in it. Think like a philosopher not a sociologist. Give it some drama THEN give it away. Elephant. Nobody got it, everyone has a partial theory.

All the traditional philosophical issues in brief.

Santana said this is what you learned already... All these big boys have been at it, but partially.

Perfectly good impossible question. How can something simple be... Some simple examples, jokes that work. Incongruity is insufficient, expectation violation is insufficient, superiority, aggression is insufficient.

Words like superiority and aggression are quite complicated, there are parties in volved, each has this and that and there s a relationship, ... Let's simplify. It's emotional, and whats the least bit of something emotionality that.

gradation versus two categories.

Preface with other theories, then go to simplification.

Bring it from simple jokes to large ideas about our deep human nature.

Bad Bunny. PRican. Yo perreo sola, 8B youtube hits. Violates everything. Anti macho, pro-feminist, Slutty but let them twerk by themselves. These are morals of comportment currently in controversy. And a political statement that hey this is okay. Humor from powerful to the weak. Trump joking about women. Hegemonic and anti-hegemonic humor. Many examples. Counter-hegemonic humor. The current social spectrum is shown by whether its funny or not. Check out Lud-a-cris. This is provocative but with a story. Momentary reactions to the election results Bad jokes coming across or not.

Do multiple choices. a) I see N & V, b) I see V but not N, c) I see N but not V, d) neither. Model it. Type in: What is the N or the V, then. Explain the implications. Especially pre-med kids for whom every answer must be is a fact. They may have Graduate-student-osis where you must never say anything until you know everything.


Counter examples discussion.

Okay I wanted you to feel like this theory is your theory, and now it is. Humor theory doesn't belong to me, any more than humor belongs to me. You have it, just as much as I do, and you can figure it out yourself now. You can go look at situations and try to figure out why they are funny or not funny, and see what you can learn about people's perspectives based on what they laugh at or don't laugh at. Okay?

So I bless you and send you forth into the world. Go!


Now, I wanted to steal a few minutes at the end to expand on this, as if it wasn't already expansive enough.

What I'd like to do is present a theory of not just humor but more generally of unregulated emotional flow which also includes bliss, serenity, transcendent emotion, and generally what you might call irrational or unregulated emotion.

If we start from humor theory, we have to assume that there is a system or a process inside everyone's heads which is looking at the facts and circumstances and figuring out whether things are good, bad, or indifferent. Otherwise it couldn't say that there is a Violation because the existence of a Violation in someone's head means that some system in there has done that. Let's give that a name and call it the Inner Judge, and say the Inner Judge is what Judges circumstances for the feelings that are appropriate to those circumstances. Some might call it the limbic system or the heart, or whatever, but I'll talk about it in terms of logic, because I think the system is pretty logical.

Now I say the system is very logical, because in humor it is blocked on the contradiction between V and not-V, or V and N, and only when it it blocks does the unregulated irrational flow occur, your top flies off, your face looses control of how it looks, your muscles go weak, time and memory stop being constructed, you might roll on the floor laughing.

So I'm saying laughter is when the light shines through, the downregulating work of the inner judge IS NOT DONE. Which means that the light is always shining unless it is covered up but some judgement of the inner judge that says here's how we should be feeling now.

So we should look for other cases when the inner judge is NOT OPERATING and maybe we will find other cases with unregulated emotion, bliss, transcendence. Let me offer six.

Humility. Forgiveness. Service. Trust. Meditative stillness. Transactional Transcendence. Michael Jordan with the World Championship.

Let's do the religions, too.

Christianity: contemplate your sinful nature: you also become humble. A door to bliss.

Islam: submission. Anything else?

Judaism: Shma Israel Adonai Ekhad: god is one. Meaning emotionally one, meaning avoiding the differences of emotional judgement. Meaning not making emotional judgements. Meaning the inner judge is OFF.

Buddhism: meditative stillness. OFF(IJ).

Hinduism: Submission to the guru namo namah and the guru's feet in the heart

Finally I offer Veatch's Razor;

If mental activity involves judgement of how to feel, moral judgement of self or others (which also judges self in relation to others), then it removes the state of bliss.

So moral judgement should be no part of true religion.

And all religions, however they bring inner judgement to a halt, bring bliss, serenity, letting go. and the natural state of being is itself the transcendent state of being.

So I say Go practice that.

Copyright © 2000-2020, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Modified: June 12, 2020.