OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895


4:00 P.M.

APRIL 13, 1989

The Anatomy of Humor

by George E. Riday Ph.D.

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library


A brief analysis of humor which begins with the etymology of the word. It stems from Galen's belief that four "humors" or fluids are responsible for the various personality types among human beings. The most typical response to humor is laughter, which is a Physiological reflex. It differs from other physiological reflexes in that it does not have a stimulus that is physical in nature.

Of the many theories of humor only two rather obvious ones are mentioned. {1) that humor is hostile, aggressive, degrading, etc., and (2)that it is pleasant, Joyful, playful, etc. Humor comes in various shapes and sizes and the making thereof is not a simple matter. The writer believes the ability to be humorous is learned rather than inherited.

The paper includes a number of examples of certain types of humor and a section on the making of humor. There is also a section dealing with the therapeutic values of humor. The final pages state Arthur Koestler's view that humor is kin to creativity'. The relationship of humor to the Christian faith is also mentioned at the close of the paper.


George E. Riday is a retired American Baptist minister, college dean and professor of Psychology' and in his retirement years, fairly active as a watercolor painter. He is married to Phyllis C. Riday. The Ridays have four children and ten grandchildren.

The Anatomy of Humor

The anatomy of humor in this paper will most assuredly be that of gross anatomy. No attempt to present a definitive, microscopic examination will be made since I will be dissecting and analyzing only a few of the larger specimens of the subject. In fact, there have been anxious moments when I wondered why in the world I would choose the subject of humor to present to this serious and august body. Writing about humor is not as much fun as I thought it would be, yet there have been a few brief moments of delight. On more than one occasion while jotting down notes, I was interrupted by my thoughtful wife asking me if I would like a cup of tea or a sandwich. My immediate caustic response was, "Don't bother me, woman. I'm writing a paper on humor!" At one point I entertained the idea of freeing myself of all anguish by handing in my resignation to the Fortnightly Club the day before this paper was due. This cowardly thought was short-lived because if there is anything I've learned as a member of Fortnightly it's the meaning of the word valor. I just checked the dictionary and I was right¾ I have learned the meaning of valor.

Let's take a look at the word humor. The word is used in a variety of ways. It can suggest a temporary mood or frame of mind: "He's in a bad humor today." To indulge or accommodate oneself to another person is referred to as "humoring" a person.One's mental disposition or temperament can be described as his or her "humor." In the biological sciences an animal or plant fluid such as blood or lymph is defined by the word "humor." Early medicine and physiology followed Galen's theory that there were four basic elements within the human body that accounted for the various types of personality found among individuals. These elements he called "humors," from the Latin word meaning "fluid or moist." A person possessing an excess of these fluids or humors would develop a personality that corresponded to these humors. The four humors were blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile. An excess of blood would result in a sanguine temperament, which was characterized by warmth, happiness, optimism. One having an excess of phlegm was phlegmatic and therefore, slow-moving and apathetic. A preponderance of yellow bile produced a choleric temperament with characteristics of irascibility, hate, and fits of temper. Black bile in excess made a person melancholic, depressed, sad, and suicidal. These humors did funny things to people. By further extension, "humor" in the 16th century came to denote usually an unbalanced mental condition, a mood of unreasonable caprice, or a fixed folly or vice.

As far back as Plato and Aristotle, laughter was considered the proper corrective of the excessive, the ridiculous, and the ludicrous. The individual who possessed an excess of any bodily humor became a "humorist," and hence an object of laughter.From "humorist" signifying an individual subject to humors, it was but a short step to "humorist" meaning someone who was amusing and facetious, an individual skilled in the literary or artistic expression of humor. Indeed, the former definition tended to disappear, especially after the 18th century.

In its many-splendored varieties, humor can simply be defined as a type of stimulation that tends to elicit the laughter reflex. The Encyclopedia Britannica expands the definition by stating, "Humor is the only form of communication in which a stimulus on a high level of complexity produces a stereotyped, predictable response on the physiological reflex level." This response, laughter, is an indicator of the elusive quality that is called humor.

Events or situations that produce laughter are numerous, from the physical act of tickling to mental titillations of the most varied kinds. Yet with all this variety there appears to be a pattern that reflects the structure of much humor. Let's look for this pattern in a few examples.

1. A tall, husky man entered a produce store and asked a young employee for a half of a head of lettuce. The youth explained that lettuce is sold only by the entire head. The customer insisted that he wanted just a half of a head of lettuce. The intimidated lad said he would talk to the manager about the request. In the back room, the situation was explained to the boss, "Some big, stupid guy who looks like a gorilla wants half a head of lettuce." Then turning his head and noticing that the huge customer had followed him to the back room he quickly added, "And this gentleman behind me wants the other half.''

2. Henny Youngman, the stand up comedian who frequently carries a violin under his arm and a violin bow in his right hand, but never plays the instrument, informed an audience that he had recently performed in a theatre where his dressing room was next to the dressing room of the chorus girls. There was a small hole in the wall that separated the two rooms. Henny said that it was no big deal to him, let 'em look if they want to.

3. A TV executive's wife was ill so a doctor was called to see her. Shaking his head sadly the physician said, "I don't like her looks." ''That's all right, Doc," remarked the husband, "I haven’t liked her looks for a long time myself."

Is there a common pattern in these stories? In each one there is a certain amount of tension that is created but it never reaches its expected climax. In the first story we are presented with the tension of a hulk of a man towering over a young fellow who has just insulted him. What's going to happen? In the second story we wonder what is going to occur when Henny Youngman looks through the hole in the wall. The final episode presents us with the critical physical condition of the TV executive's wife. But then, our tension is relieved by the introduction of the unexpected. We are compelled to perceive the situation in two self-consistent, but incompatible frames of reference at the same time. We have to operate simultaneously on two different wavelengths.

This scanty analysis of humor examines the intellectual dimensions of humorous stories or incidents. There are also the emotional dynamics that cause us to laugh, giggle, or smile. The tension that develops in a funny story is not released by intellectual recognition of the situation. It must somehow be worked off along physiological channels of least resistance. The function of laughter provides these channels.

Laughter has been called the "luxury reflex." It is a reflex unlike the other reflexes found in human beings. Motor reflexes, usually exemplified in textbooks as knee-jerk or papillary contractions, are relatively simple, direct responses to equally simple stimuli which, under normal circumstances, function autonomously, without the enlisting of services of higher mental processes. These responses represent practical arrangements employed in the service of survival. But what is the survival value of the involuntary, simultaneous contraction of fifteen facial muscles associated with certain noises which are often irrepressible? Laughter is a reflex, but unique in that it serves no apparent biological purpose. Perhaps that is why it is referred to as a luxury reflex. Its only utilitarian function, as far as one can see, is to provide temporary relief from built-up tension. It seems perfectly logical that a bright light shone into the eye results in the contraction of the pupil, or that a pin stuck into one's hand causes instant withdrawal¾ because both the stimulus and the response are on the same physiological level. But that the complicated mental activity like the reading of a page of Thurber should cause a specific motor response on the reflex level is a lopsided phenomenon which has puzzled philosophers since antiquity. The effects on the nervous system of reading Shakespeare, working on a mathematical problem, or listening to Mozart are diffuse and indefinable. There is no observable response to indicate whether a painting in an art gallery strikes another visitor as beautiful; but there is a predictable facial contraction which tells us whether a caricature strikes him as comic.

If laughter is not a reflex that has survival value it most assuredly comes close to it. Laughter possesses therapeutic power. Even in the Old Testament it is stated, "A merry heart doeth good like medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones." (Proverbs 17:22). We are familiar with the testimony of Norman Cousins who suffered from a serious collagen illness¾ a disease of the connective tissue. He writes in his book, "The Anatomy of An Illness," that nothing is less funny than being on one's back with all of the bones in one's joints and spine hurting. He had read in Hans Selye's book, "The Stress of Life,' about the effects of negative emotions on body chemistry. Cousins thought, 'what about positive emotions? Is it possible that love, hope, faith, laughter, confidence and the will to live have therapeutic value?" He gave substance to his query by viewing a few Candid Camera episodes and old Marx Brothers movies. "It worked," he exclaimed, "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me about two hours of pain-free sleep." After a period of time during which Norman Cousins followed a regimen of dosages of laughter, his sedimentation rate which registers the amount of ., infection was significantly lower. He was greatly elated by the discovery that there is a physiological basis for the ancient theory that laughter is good medicine. The Cardiac Unit at Loma Linda Medical Center, as well as numerous other healing institutions employ humor as a therapeutic measure. Following a traumatic experience a comic situation may arise. When it does, unless it contains inappropriate elements, it frequently contributes relief to the one affected by the trauma.

Theories of humor are numerous. Even though they disagree, there are many areas where they overlap to some extent. Two major viewpoints are (1) that humor and laughter are sinister, hostile, aggressive, and degrading, and (2) humor is innocent, harmless, and joyful. As one thinks of the many jokes and situations considered as genuinely humorous, it is much easier to find negative, hostile, and aggressive elements than innocent, harmless ones. In many humorous stories or jokes, the hostile, aggressive, or degrading aspects are subtle yet nonetheless present. Aristotle said that comedy was found in ''the ridiculous, which is a species of the ugly. The ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity." Quintilian felt that "laughter is never far removed from derision." When Francis Bacon compiled a list of laughable objects, he placed "deformity" first, and Rene Descartes thought that the joy which causes laughter frequently has a tinge of "hatred." Thomas Hobbes concluded that the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by some comparison with the infirmity of others." Henri Bergson argues that we feel superior when we see the "mechanical encrusted upon the living." In almost Hobbesian vein he says, "In laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate and consequently to correct our neighbor.

Let's look at a few stories. Two men of questionable character had amassed a fortune at the expense of others. To give some style to their palatial home and elevate their own social position they had a well-known portrait artist paint a picture of each of them. The two pictures were hung next to each other in the spacious drawing room. Then a number of prominent persons were invited to attend the unveiling of the portraits. Following the ceremony one of the guests who was viewing the display of vanity, pointed the space between the portraits and inquired, "Where's the Savior?"

A story that comes from Freud's essay on the comic illustrates the point. Chamfort tells of a marquis at the Court of Louis XIV who, on entering his wife's boudoir and finding her in the arms of a bishop, walked calmly to the window and went through the motions of blessing the people in the street. "What are you doing?" cried the anguished wife. "Monsignor is performing my functions," replied the marquis, "so I am performing his." One does not have to search diligently to find the intention to humiliate and consequently to correct one's neighbor. Even puns which so often are simply delightful plays on words on occasion shoot barbs. At a party someone spoke disparagingly of a certain play and said, "It was so poor the first act had to be rewritten." "And now it is rerotten," added the punster.

In order to be fair to humor, there are occasions when a funny story or a humorous incident is not vitriolic and here are a couple to demonstrate the unhostile side of humor. When Harley Tillitt presented his esoteric paper to our group he illustrated the manner in which electric impulses produced certain results by having four of our members act as elements through which the impulses passed. A series of physical impulses and responses were relayed from one man to the next. The last person in succession was Fritz Bromberger. At the close of the demonstration, you will recall that Harold Hill informed Harley that the transmission of impulses would not work because the last one was on the "fritz." Perhaps an orthodox psychoanalyst may be able to find hostility and degradation in Harold's comment, but I detect nothing but a witty remark devoid of anything negative. What about this one? I one time visited a restaurant in Chicago which was called The House of a Thousand Sandwiches . On the menu was this statement, "If any of our patrons order a sandwich we cannot serve, the proprietor will, in the name of the customer, write a check for $25." When the waiter appeared to take our order my friend wanted a common, garden variety sandwich but feeling a bit puckish, I ordered an elephant steak sandwich on rye bread. The waiter rapidly made his notes and walked away before I could tell him what kind of a sandwich I really wanted. He soon placed my friend's sandwich on our table, and turning to me asked my name so he could write it on a check resting on his order pad. I explained that I was only kidding and I couldn't possibly accept a check for $25. He therefore told me that the restaurant firmly adhered to its policy. "I have been a waiter here for 12 years and this is the first time we have ever run out of rye bread," he replied. Is there any endeavor on the part of any of the actors in this story to degrade, to assume a position of superiority or to ridicule? The only reasonable attitude to adopt with stories in the category of this one is to sit back and enjoy its unexpectedness and its incongruity.

Humor rests on a continuum. It must be admitted that at one end we find rancor, bitterness, hostility, degradation and a host of other despicable characteristics. Yet on the other there is joy, happiness, fun of a wholesome variety, delight, pleasantness and an array of qualities that refresh the mind and soul. Humor is in the service of producing the whole person. In all generations there have been attempts at humor. Through the centuries it has come in assorted shapes and sizes. In one culture that which produces laughter gets no such response in a different culture. Incidents that are funny to children may not elicit the same response in adults. A parent or a grandparent recites a humorous experience in which their child or grandchild was the chief actor. But the non-family member has difficulty understanding what was so funny about the child's behavior. Practical jokes, pratfalls, slamming a pie in a person's face are considered extremely funny to some observers and an abomination to others.

Arthur Koestler in his book, "The Act of Creation," gives humor an exalted position. On the frontispiece of his book is a rounded triptych, each panel indicating one of three domains of creativity which shade into each other without sharp boundaries¾ humor, discovery, and art. Koestler admits that this is a seemingly perverse order of arrangement¾ the sage flanked by the jester and the artist on opposite sides. The author explains, "That the jester should be brother to the sage may sound like blasphemy, yet our language reflects the close relationship; the word 'witticisms is derived from 'wit' in its original sense of ingenuity, inventiveness. Jester and savant must both 'live on their wits;' and we shall see that the jester's riddles provide a useful backdoor entry, as it were, into the inner workshop of creative originality."

The next area of consideration concerning our anatomy of humor is an excursion into the realm of the making of humor. Not everyone is funny. Some intend to be but are not; others do not intend to be but are. I suspect that the ability to be humorous is not hereditary. If the problem has been investigated, I am not aware of the findings. It is my guess that humor is learned. There may be some ingredients of humor, those related to the intellectual side of humor, that have been inherited as part of intelligence in general, but it would surprise me if most genuinely funny writers have not had a fair amount of contact in their growing years with family members or close friends who see the humorous in most of life's experiences. However, I must be quick to add that there have been siblings of comics who do not exhibit the skill of being humorous. Being funny requires a sensitive awareness of the various forms funniness can take and an understanding of some of the simple techniques for eliciting laughter from others. Similar to the learning of most skills, it is possible to become more humorous by reading books by famous comedy writers and by observing professional comedians at work. Steve Allen states that when his son, Bill, was about two years old, Steve's mother came for a visit. She hadn't seen Bill for about four months and thought perhaps he might have forgotten her. She arrived after Bill had been put to bed for the night. Tiptoeing into his room to see if he were still awake, she found him sitting up in bed and whispered to him, "Hello, Sweetheart. Do you know who I am?" "Why?" he asked perfectly seriously. 'don't you know who you are?" The story sounds a bit apocryphal to me, but who knows what living with Steve Allen for a few years might do to a kid?

In view of the fact that humor is multi-faceted, it is not surprising that some humorists display their wares as mimes, clowns, writers, standup comics, cartoonists or caricaturists, etc. There is the occasional funny man such as Victor Borge, the pianist, who not only has humorous lines he utters but in addition exhibits physical actions that make people laugh. One of his pantomimes is that of placing a thick telephone book on his piano bench in order to give him proper height seated at the piano. He sits on the book, but through gestures indicates that the telephone book gives him too much height. He then opens the book, tears out a single page, sits upon judo test its height minus one page, and gives a big smile of satisfaction. In addition to his words and antics, Victor Borge makes humor out of his music. He will play a lovely piano number which everyone has seriously settled down to enjoy. And then it comes, a crucial note is played either flat or sharp and dissonance destroys the solo. If the same discordant note were to be played by Horowitz, Rubenstein, or Cliburn, the audience would feel most uncomfortable and sympathetic. These artists have not "set the stage" for anything except technical excellence and exquisite interpretation. Lovers of music would feel empathy for the pianist and consternation because of the error. In gorge's instance there is no discomfort at hearing the wrong note¾ only laughter and delight.

Perhaps it is the unexpected in humor that keeps the humorist from prefacing a funny story with the comment, "Have I got a funny story to tell you? Wait 'til you hear this one. You '11 die laughing!" Only the amateur funny person is likely to do damage to his story with such an introduction. Since everyone has his or her own brand of humor, we do well to permit the listener to make up his or her own mind as to quality and degree of humor a story contains. Is there the possibility that when someone tells us we are about to hear a hilarious story that we resent being told how we are supposed to respond? It's like being told, "If you've got a keen sense of humor you'll really like this one." But maybe we won't! In addition to taking the edge off expectation, we may find the listener inwardly saying, "Come on, it can't be that funny. I dare you to make me laugh.

Expectation is also maimed by laughter on the part of the one telling a joke The laughter indicates that this is really going to be a great story from the viewpoint of the one telling it. And we are supposed to respond to it in like manner. So, we expect a terrifically humorous story and, as is the case with many expectations, reality misses the mark and we are disappointed. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were masters at surprising us with their humor. They seldom, if ever, "telegraphed their blows." The denouement of their funniness came unannounced and thus was very effective. Even a smile on the face of a storyteller immediately preceding the punchline softens the impact.

Some humorists take advantage of the obvious or expected in their presentations of humor. This is evident in stories about various ethnic groups and stereotypes that surround them. These stories can be unfair, insensitive or racist in character or they can take obvious traits and incorporate them into their humor inoffensively. For example, the pride and solicitude of Jewish mothers for their children is a stereotype which, like most stereotypes has some roots in the soil of reality. This characteristic must be understood if the following story is to make its point. A young engineer had been having therapy with a Jewish woman who was a very competent psychiatrist. The therapy lasted long enough for the psychiatrist to suggest termination. The patient expressed apprehension about stopping the sessions, but the therapist said it was time for him to "go it on his own." Reluctantly, be agreed but after three weeks, early one morning be calls the psychiatrist at her home and pleads with her to resume sessions because be needs her. She reminds him that be is an adult and that she is his therapist, not his mother. "What are you doing rift now?" she inquires. "I'm buying breakfast," was his answer. "And what are you eating?" "Toast and coffee," came the reply. "You call THAT breakfast?" she demands. If this story were told about a non-Jewish woman who happened to be a psychiatrist, it would be emaciated.

Speaking of Jewish humor suggests the advantage of telling a Story about any particular nationality using the accent and . gestures of that group. However, there is a caveat to-be observed. A poor accent and clumsy, overworked gestures can sound the death knell of a story. Here's one that is given an added flavor when told with an accent. Rose reminded her husband that their wedding anniversary was just a week away. She said, "Harry, for our wedding anniversary I want to get a nice new gown." Harry replied, "So get one." The following day Rose came home with her new gown which She put on and modeled for her husband. "You like it?" she inquired. Harry looked in amazement. "Rose, what are you doing? Lock at bow low the gown is in the front. It's a disgrace! But Rose explained that it was the latest style and it was what all the women were wearing. In spite of Harry's objection She wears the low-cut gown to the restaurant where they have their celebration dinner. While they are eating their soup Rose suddenly stops eating and says, "Harry, I've got 'hot boin'." "You don't have 'hot boin,' Rose. Eat your soup." After a few spoonsful she again utters her complaint, "Harry, I can't stand it, I really have ‘hot boin.’ " Harry again tries to tell her she doesn't, but after a third complaint, he exasperatedly explains, "You don't have 'hot boin' it's your left one¾ it's in the soup." The humor of this story is greatly enhanced by using a Yiddish accent and a few appropriate gestures.

Funny man A. J. Perelman reminds us of another point to be recognized in the making of humor. "Whenever you endeavor to be funny in every line, you place an intolerable burden not only on yourself but on the reader. You have to allow the reader to breathe. Whenever George S. Kaufman saw three straight funny lines in a play that he was directing, he cut the first two. It must be true that brevity is the soul of wit."

When I began collecting material for this paper, I was not sure I could find enough to write on the subject. Now I have faced the problem of what to delete. As a final comment, I've decided to call our attention to the Christian faith and comedy. They do seem to be strange bedfellows Yet how often have we found the injection of a humorous story in a sermon to be a refreshing moment and a didactic aid? Thomas G. Long, Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Princeton Seminary, has a sermon in the current issue of the Princeton Seminary Bulletin. In his homily he asks the question of beginning seminary students, "Why have you chosen the ministry as a career?" In his junior year of college he decided not to go into medicine, but into the Christian ministry. He writes, "When I came home at Thanksgiving I told my parents of my vocational change. My father simply nodded, calmly and judiciously, but my mother broke into tears of anguish. At the time I thought she did that because she was the more fragile of the two, but now I suspect she had a better grasp on the issue. She has come now to celebrate the decision, but she went around the house for days . ~. wringing her hands. Finally a friend of hers at our church wrote her a note which said, "I know that you are worried end upset by your son's plans to become a minister, but remember what Jesus said in Matthew 21:2, "The Lord hath need of him. Loose him and let him go." Well, that gave her some comfort, at least until she actually looked up the verse in Matthew and discovered that Jesus had said that about an ass."

Harvey Cox, the Harvard Divinity School professor wrote a book entitled, "The Feast of Fools.' He opens the book with a description of a celebration that took place in medieval Europe. On that occasion, usually celebrated about January first, even ordinary pious priests, and serious townsfolk donned bawdy masks, sang outrageous ditties, and generally kept the whole world awake with revelry and satire. Minor clerics painted their faces, strutted about in the robes of their superiors and mocked the stately rituals of the church and court. It was the Feast of Fools, during which time, no convention or custom was immune to ridicule and even the highest personages of the realm could expect to be lampooned. In 1431, the Council of Basel condemned the Feast of Fools, but it survived until the 16th century. Then in the age of Reformation and Counter-Reformation it gradually died out. Dr. Cox claims that its death was a loss. The Feast of Fools had demonstrated that a culture could periodically make sport of its most sacred royal and religious practices. It could imagine a wholly different kind of world¾ one where the last was first, accepted values were inverted, fools became kings and choirboys were prelates. The demise of the Feast of Fools signaled a significant change in the Western cultural mood; an enfeeblement of our civilization's capacity for festivity and fantasy.

Nathan Scott in his book, "The Broken Center," states that in comedy we learn to see and love man¾ "warts and all." Comedy plays in the mud and gumminess of life. It has no pretensions. It saves us from being angels, and allows us to say with no apology, "I'm only human." Scott's is an incarnational view of the comic ingredient in Christianity. To this view Harvey Cox subscribes. Near the end of his book we read, "Laughter enables us to live with the future. It can mask our true feelings. But where it is real, laughter is the voice of faith. It is the expression not only of our ironic confidence and our strange joy, but also of our recognition that there is no 'factual' basis for either. Perhaps that is why Dante reports that when be finally arrived in Paradise after his arduous climb from the Inferno, be heard choirs of angels singing praises to the Trinity and he says, 'it Seemed like the laughter of the universe.'" The laughter of the universe in heaven? Of course. In hell there is no hope and no laughter, according to Dante. In purgatory there is hope. In heaven hope is no longer necessary and laughter reigns.


Allen, Steve. How to Be Funny. New York: McGraw-Hill Co. 1987

Cousins, Norman. Anatomy of An Illness. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Cox, Harvey. The Feast of Fools. New York: Harper & Row 1964

Freud Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, W. W. Norton & Co. (Translated by James Strachey) 1960

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1984

Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Inc. Connecticut: 1987

Princeton seminary Bulletin. Volume X, Number 1, New Series. 1989. Princeton, New Jersey

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