Laughter and Comedy: Humour Us

This is an excerpt from my paper ‘How Effective is Laughter and Comedy in Creating an Atmosphere of Positive Peace?

Humour indeed creates a safety value for society to let off steam and a channel for freedom.


From the early 1970s there have been only a few researchers conducting humour studies. Psychologists have considered humour important, humour is evident wherever there is social interaction. The fact that we feel good after we laugh suggests that laughter is important for health and well-being. Humour is an elusive concept, there is no agreement by sociologists on how it should be determined.15 It is accepted that humour involves communication amongst at least two people and is determined by social forces. Sociologists are in agreement that jokes only become jokes because of the social responses to them. Psychoanalysts assert that humour expresses underlying issues that cannot be expressed directly.16

Many sociologists have argued that humour services two social functions: social conflict and social control. The outcome of humour depends on the way it is interpreted. If perceived positively it is a tool for social control or unity. However, if negatively perceived as an affront, then it creates conflict.17 Conflictual humour is conveyed as: irony, satire, sarcasm, burlesque, caricature and parody. This produces a form of indirect aggression aimed at the separation of the group from the object of irritation.  Disparaging humour fosters demoralisation and social disintegration inducing hostile attitudes. In totalitarian countries humour can be viewed as subversive in its intent. The social control function of humour and laughter is exemplified by the kidding amongst friends. This type of humour is considered esteeming. Moreover, social regulation occurs through the roles people play, joking relations between them, the rules for public joking and how jokes are constructed and the interaction of groups.18

Humour is by its nature an indication of a discontinuity in the social system. This gives humour its power and indeed, humour. Humour separates its seamless joints making them visible or contrasting two incomparable views or images giving distorted logic.19 Freud depicts the joke as a kind of psychic shorthand which links two entities previously thought to be separate e.g. puns.20

Kant and Schopenahauer explain humour in terms of the incongruity model which expresses the laughable as incongruous. Bergson accepts incongruity and adds evolution, he indicates that it is a social and evolutionary function used as a tool by which society corrects aberrant behaviour. Laughter restrains eccenticity and corrects rigidity of the mind, body or character. 21

The most common alternative models for humour involve the notion of superiority.22 Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) theorises that laughter is surprise and superiority and is more cruel than violence. Freud argues that it is aggressive and emphasises superiority over the object. Plato attributes laughter to the malicious gloating over other’s misfortunes. Aristotle interprets it as a subdivision of the ugly, a defect not sufficient to cause pain.23

All of the early theorists have focussed on the negative aspects of humour. The positive idea of playfulness is ommitted by Hobbes, Bergson and Freud and other theorists. The connection between humour, games and play is very close. Play arises out of the sheer joy of living and has no function other than pleasure giving. It is considered a self-rewarding activity. Humour and laughter can emerge from high spirits, laughing in sympathy, laughing with old friends and a playfulness which generates a sense of freedom.24


Mohandas Gandhi

“God has no religion”


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