This piece was first published in SR in 2009
Entries in the dating pages of newspapers and magazines (I speak from hearsay of course) use abbreviations, not all of which I claim to understand. But one is 'GSOH', which stands for 'good sense of humour'. Everyone seems either to have it or to want it in a partner. And certainly there is nothing more dismaying than to say something one thinks is really funny and to be greeted by a blank look. Over the breakfast table that would be intolerable, but perhaps attempted jokes over the breakfast table are not a good idea anyway.
Sometimes, of course, the blank look means that the joke is disapproved of. As we say, 'That's just not funny', meaning that actually it is but we ought not to laugh. So perhaps laughter is not entirely spontaneous but can be inhibited. Certainly, it can sound false and artificial, as for example the loud laughter from groups having their annual night out. But, alcohol aside, what makes us laugh?
The theory put forward by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century is that what he calls the 'passion of laughter' is a 'sudden glory' which arises when we suddenly see ourselves as eminent in comparison with the 'infirmity' of others. This is what we might think of as the 'banana skin' view of laughter. It clearly covers many cases where we feel superior, or just relieved, when we realise that a lot of people are even stupider than we are ourselves. Hence, the term 'sudden glory' is apt for this sort of situation. But it doesn't fit many other types of case.
Francis Hutcheson, who was professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University (1730-46), argues that Hobbes' account does not fit burlesque or parody, and also that there are 'superiority' situations which do not produce laughter, as when a healthy man sees a sick one, or a rich man (we might think of a banker with a bonus) sees a poor man (a bank employee made redundant).
Hutcheson's own view is that laughter is produced by the perception of incongruity. This view will cover many more cases than the 'sudden glory' view. It can cover, say, the common kind of humour when the language used is incongruous. For example, the high theological debate as to whether women should be admitted to the church as priests was summed up in a tabloid headline as 'Vicars in knickers!' The incongruity theory can accommodate the 'sudden glory' of banana skin situations, seeing them as a set of specific cases, as when, for example, the Vice-Chancellor trips over his gown at the graduation ceremony. Here we have the incongruity between the dignified occasion and the undignified behaviour, but also a 'banana-skin' situation.
Hutcheson makes the further point that humour can have a moral purpose. This is often behind political satire. But to be effective as a moral critique, incongruity must be almost plausible. Good examples of this can be found in the mock interviews between John Bird and John Fortune in the Rory Bremner shows. When one of the two plays the interviewer and the other the banker speaking with a complacent self-satisfaction about his 'golden hellos' and 'golden handshakes', we laugh but are chillingly aware of the plausible reality behind it all.
Sometimes, the point of view behind humour is neither morally good nor bad but simply cultural, regional or national. I once had a mature postgraduate student who did not show up for a month or two. When he finally appeared, he apologised for his absence saying that his mother-in-law had recently died of cancer. I made appropriate responses of commiseration. But he went straight on to add, 'My wife has just died too' and before I could say anything he continued, 'There's been quite a clear out!' There is incongruity between language and events here, but the language is also expressing an attitude to death which some might say is Scottish. It is sometimes called 'black humour' and it is a common type of Scottish humour, not always intentionally funny.
This kind of incongruity between language and situation can have a psychological point, perhaps as a way of coping with grief, stress or anxiety. In this context, black humour (as with my student) merges with the 'sick joke'. Medical students are notorious for making sick jokes about diseases, and this may well be a way of coping with psychological stress.
Jokes can get you into trouble these days. Jokes about an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman going into a pub are just about okay still, but substitute other nationalities or races and you might be in serious trouble. You can still get away with jokes about bishops or ministers (provided they are not sectarian jokes) but jokes about non-Christian religions are absolutely out of bounds, unless you want hate-mail or a policeman at your door. Why are such jokes prohibited? The answer is that some people find them offensive, and being 'offensive' nowadays carries much moral condemnation.
The best kind of humour works if it implies a broad perspective. It is a means of stopping us taking ourselves and our problems too seriously. It can cut the pompous down to size and also bring out the comic absurdity of misunderstandings in language and situation.
Doctor, did you say that the victim was shot in the woods?
No, I said he was shot in the lumbar region.
Enjoy your crackers!