Why We Laugh

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Humour is a subject that has attracted the attention and interest of some of our greatest minds, from Aristotle and Kant to Freud. It has also fascinated and played an important part in the work of some of the greatest writers such as Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.

However, curiously, after thousands of years spent trying to understand humour, there is still a great deal of controversy about what humour is or why something is funny. There are some interesting theories, though, on this matter.

For Aristotle, comedy is based on “an imitation of men worse than the average,” of people who are “ridiculous”. Hobbes carried the same idea a bit further. He said, “the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.”

There is another theory that is probably the most important and most widely accepted of the explanations of humour. This theory argues that all humour involves some kind of a difference between what one expects and what one gets.

One of the more interesting and controversial theories of humour stems from the work of Freud. The psychoanalytic theory of humour argues that humour is essentially masked aggression which gives us gratifications we desperately crave. As Freud wrote in his classic book—Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious— “and here at last we can understand what it is that jokes achieve in the service of their purpose. They make possible the satisfaction of an instinct (whether lustful or hostile) in the face of an obstacle that stands in its way.”

Freud also recounts a number of wonderful Jewish jokes in his book and alludes to the remarkable amount of self-criticism found in jokes which all Jews tell about themselves. “Incidentally,’ he wrote, “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun of such a degree of its own character”. His use of the word “fun” is...
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