People laugh together

What makes a joke funny?

By BBC Maestro

How do I know if people will find a joke funny? That’s a question that comedians and comedy writers ask themselves every time they step up to the mic or put pen to paper. 

Obviously, you have to know your audience and choose a subject that they’ll find amusing. However, knowing a bit more about the theory of humour can help you structure a joke so the laugh is more likely to land.

There are several theories as to why we humans find certain things funny. In this article, we’ll take a look at what makes people laugh, and how this knowledge can help us better construct our jokes.

What makes people laugh?

Humour is universal, but it’s still cultural: what makes one group of people laugh might leave another group looking perplexed or clutching their pearls. Age, upbringing, occupation, nationality… all these things have a bearing on what we do and don’t find funny.

As with all forms of entertainment, we enjoy different things. Some people have a dark sense of humour while others laugh more at scatological jokes. However, a shared sense of humour is an instant bond between friends, colleagues and even potential partners, with laughter as an important means of social communication.

But while we all laugh at and bond over different things, according to comedy theory, the mechanics behind the jokes are remarkably similar. Whether the subject is a politician or a flatulent donkey, the theory behind what makes a joke funny is the same.

As a comedian, understanding the social and psychological theories behind humour can be helpful. Sir Billy Connolly comments:

“There’s nothing I know nicer than saying something and people bursting out laughing.”

We’ll take a closer look at the best-known theories of comedy, which explain what triggers that laughter.

Why do we find jokes funny?

Humour isn’t yet completely understood by psychology; however, there are several theories that seek to explain why we find jokes funny. With certain elements in place, we’re more likely to laugh.

Here’s a quick walk-through of some of the most famous theories of humour, which seek to explain why we find certain things funny.

Superiority

The Superiority Theory of humour has been around since the days of Plato, and assumes that we find something funny because it makes us feel better about ourselves. If we feel superior to the subject of the joke, we enjoy the joke more. Like the German term Schadenfreude, we delight in the misfortune of others.

The 17th-century philosopher Hobbes expanded on this theory in his work Leviathan. Humour comes from competition, and the realisation that (jokes-wise at least) we are better than the competition. To use a standard joke set-up, we’re more sensible than the man who walks into the bar, which makes us feel superior to him so we can relax and laugh.

This theory feels like a rather uncomfortable way of looking at humour. After all, aren’t we always told not to “punch down” when writing comedy material? Superiority Theory falls down massively in a lot of British humour – there’s no room for self-deprecation. At the risk of sounding slightly contradictory, no-one beats the Brits at self-deprecation, and this plays a part in their collective sense of humour.

There are also instances of humour when we’re not superior to the comic figure: could we honestly extract ourselves from danger the way that Harold Lloyd does in the old slapstick movies? Unlikely, but we still find his physical gags funny. And that leads us onto the next big theory of humour: Relief Theory.

Relief

Now it’s time for some comic relief – literally. Humour theory now gets Freudian, as we look at the Relief Theory and how laughter releases “psychic energy”. According to this theory, all humour comes from tension, which is released when we find something funny.

So during the set-up of the joke, tension builds as we near the punchline. The punchline releases that tension and we laugh. So far, so straightforward. But, as you’d expect from Freudian theory, this goes deeper into our psyches than the mere structure of a joke.

Were we not releasing our psychic energy through humour and laughter, it would be channelled instead towards repressing emotions. According to Freud, the emotions we most repress are to do with sex and hostility, which could account for why taboo-breaking comedy is so important. Likewise, difficult and divisive subjects are also tackled through comedy, as a positive outlet for releasing hostility.

Watch this clip from Guz Khan Live at the Apollo talking about Muslim stereotyping and terrorism. By hitting this head on, he’s raising a difficult topic through humour.

Incongruity

We love unexpected and incompatible things in humour, and a lot of comedy is found in the difference between expectation and reality. The Incongruity-Resolution Theory looks at the humour of juxtaposition.

In comedic juxtaposition, two unrelated things are put together simply for the sake of a joke. It’s always fun to send an animal or religious figure into a bar, as they’re not things we’d automatically put together. Unexpected pairings are naturally funny because they’re not natural (much like Melchett’s surprising comedy fake breasts in Blackadder II).

Think of the amount of ‘odd couples’ you come across in films, movies, books and jokes, and you’ll realise just how well-used incongruity is in humour. Give yourself some comedy homework by creating a scenario, chucking in a couple of mismatched characters and simply seeing where it takes you. Random word generator apps can be a great help for this.

Here’s what happens when Catherine Tate’s “posh family” meets a northern nanny in this culture-clash clip.

Benign violations

According to linguist Thomas Veatch, humour happens when three conditions are met: a violation, a benign (safe) situation, and these two things occuring at the same time.

Breaking this down, a ‘violation’ in this context is when something just doesn’t seem right, but because the situation is benign, it’s unthreatening and can be found funny. These two points have to happen at the same time, otherwise there’s no humour. Playfighting is often used as an explanatory example of a benign violation, because it’s physically threatening but ultimately harmless.

For the comedian, the skill lies in getting the balance between benign and violation just right. Too threatening, and the joke is uncomfortable and runs the risk of “crossing the line” as Billy Connolly phrases it. Conversely, if the situation is too benign, it’s also not funny because there’s no tension and the joke is therefore too tame.

What if a joke isn’t funny?

With the knowledge behind you of how to write and perform a joke, there’s a very good chance indeed that your audience will find it funny. However, what do you do if you don’t get the laugh you expected? Sir Billy, as ever, has some wise words for new comedians:

“Sometimes the things you say won’t go down as well as you thought they would, and it’s a wee disappointment. Move on. Say something else. You will win eventually.”

Billy goes on to advise that you learn from these experiences. Make a note of what didn’t work, and don’t repeat the same mistake.

Based on what we’ve learned about comedy theory, you can mark a poor gig as an example of incongruous humour (expectation vs reality) and write it down as a joke one day. After all, there’s humour to be found in every situation.

Learn how to write and perform a joke from the best in stand-up, Sir Billy Connolly. In his BBC Maestro comedy course, Sir Billy covers everything from starting out in comedy to the psychological benefits of comedy, looking at stage fright, hecklers and life on the road along the way. 

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