What Makes Something Funny?

by | Mar 21, 2018


Why do we laugh?  Many scientists and philosophers theorize that humor and laughter evolved as a way for humans to bond socially and that bonding led to a survival advantage. Similarly, it is proposed that humor developed to allow us to attract mates. Others theorize that religion and humor are different, and perhaps competing, ways for people to accept death and the burden that comes with being a mortal human (relief theory discussed below).  An additional survival advantage may arise from the health benefits as laughter lowers blood pressure, increases blood circulation, reduces muscle tension and pain, and boosts the immune system.

But what makes something funny?  For example, why is this funny:  Two muffins were sitting in the oven and one said to the other, “It sure is getting hot in here.” The other replied back, “Whoa! A talking muffin!!!”

Philosophers have been developing theories about what constitutes humor for thousands of years but have had difficulty pinning down exactly what makes something funny.  These thousands of years of pondering humor have produced three major theories of humor: (1) the superiority theory, (2) the relief theory and (3) the incongruity theory. 

The superiority theory states that humor arises from the “sudden glory” we feel when we recognize our superiority over others. Jokes or comments that make fun of other people are examples of this theory.

The relief theory proposes that all humor and laughter results from a release of tension. This theory doesn’t as much explain why various comments or situations are funny but rather suggests why we are predisposed to laugh or think something is funny.

The dominant theory is the incongruity theory which states that in order for something to be funny there must be something incongruous.  The talking muffin joke above is an example of incongruity being funny.  If you don’t think the muffin joke is funny, these jokes were all found to be funny by researchers at various universities:


Joke One: Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and dials 911. He gasps: “My friend has collapsed and I think he is dead! What should I do?” The operator says: “Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard by the 911 operator. Back on the phone, the guy says: “OK, now what?”


Joke Two: A guy is sitting at home when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door and sees a snail on the porch. He picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. Three years later there’s a knock on the door. He opens it and sees the same snail. The snail says: ‘What the hell was that all about?’

Joke Three: Three guys stranded on a desert island find a magic lantern containing a genie, who grants them each one wish. The first guy wishes he was off the island and back home. The second guy wishes the same. The third guy says: ‘I’m lonely. I wish my friends were back here.’


Joke Four: Jack and Max are walking from religious service. Jack wonders whether it would be all right to smoke while praying. Max replies, “Why don’t you ask the Priest?”
So Jack goes up to the Priest and asks, “Father, may I smoke while I pray?”
The Priest replies, “No, my son, you may not! That’s utter disrespect to our religion.”
Jack goes back to his friend and tells him what the good Priest told him.
Max says, “I’m not surprised. You asked the wrong question. Let me try.”
And so Max goes up to the Priest and asks, “Father, may I pray while I smoke?”
To which the Priest eagerly replies, “By all means, my son. By all means. You can always pray whenever you want to.”

A bonus fact: conservatives may like jokes more than liberals. A study about ten years ago surveyed 140 self-described liberals and 145 self-described conservatives by telling them 22 jokes. Participants were asked to rank the jokes on a scale from 1 (not funny) to 9 (hilarious).  As it turned out the conservatives, on average, ended up thinking the jokes were much funnier than the liberals.


  1. A great and brave article. Humor is not easily defined…most of know it when we see it. Or something like that.
    There are those out there who don’t know how to laugh at anything, especially themselves.
    One thing that I find interesting is the skill of a great joke teller. Rodney Dangerfield was a highly practiced and effective stand up comedian. He did something that I have no skill for…he could tell the same joke a thousand times, and with minor differences, get it across and nail the “punch line”. This is very hard to do.
    While I can make people laugh, its never with a joke, its self deprecating humor. I feel most comfortable making fun of myself.
    Of course, I’m not sure if people are laughing “with me” or “at me” when they do, but who cares…they are laughing…
    …”so I got that going for me….which is nice.”

  2. On late night TV the majority (all?) of comedians are liberal. Among comics in general I think humor is often found in the humility to laugh at yourself

  3. I think liberals take themselves too seriously most of the time so the survey results you cited make sense to me.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe To The IFOD

Get the Interesting Fact of the Day delivered twice a week. Plus, sign up today and get Chapter 2 of John's book The Uncertainty Solution to not only Think Better, but Live Better. Don't miss a single post!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This