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Timing: brevity and surprise

The present theory says that situations in which the two views, N and V, are not simultaneously juxtaposed in the mind of the perceiver are not funny. So for example, if the two affective interpretations enter and leave the mind one after the other, and are not present at the same time, humor does not occur. This is why timing is so important in humor, because the simultaneous juxtaposition of contrary ideas in the mind -- that is, condition 3 of the theory -- must be accomplished in some way. The engineering of this effect is often accomplished through timing, which has long been said to be crucial in humor.

``[B]revity is the soul of wit''(Hamlet, Act II, Scene II)

Polonius' much quoted comment in Hamlet may be explained neatly: if the elements of a funny situation are presented quickly, then it is more likely that both the N and V interpretations will occur with some temporal overlap in the mind of the perceiver.

Surprise, which has also long been said to be an important element in humor, has its proper role here.

But first, qualification: Not all surprises are funny. ``Your mother is dead'', when heard as truth for the first time, is not funny, though it might certainly be a surprise. And not all humor involves surprise. Surprise is not a necessary element of humor or laughter. Really good jokes can bear repetition; some people watch particular comedy shows over and over again. Repeated jokes can sometimes remain funny, and ticklishness doesn't go away after one tickle. The surprise isn't the essential feature, rather it is the simultaneous juxtaposition of two interpretations, according to this theory.

Even so, the clearly important role of surprise should be explained in a theory of humor. So second, explanation: Surprise is when, all of a sudden, something is perceived or understood that was not expected or predictable from the situation as understood up to the moment of surprise. One interpretation of a situation is suddenly juxtaposed with and then replaced by another one. If the computer metaphor is taken seriously (too seriously, in the present view), one may consider that the mind makes instantaneous transitions from one state of knowing to another, but this view seems unnatural and improbable, indeed, biologically implausible given the non-instantaneous and highly parallel processing in the brain. Students that have just ``gotten it'' in class, if immediately challenged by the teacher to go through it again, may decide again that they didn't really get it.

So if there is a gradient between not knowing and knowing, at least a few instants of transition, then in a surprise, just before the initial view is gone, both views may be simultaneously present. In this view, then, surprise functions to create the simultaneous juxtaposition of two understandings of a situation that is essential in humor. The structure of surprise makes it an enabling factor in generating humorous situations. So while surprise need not be an essential feature of humor, it is present in many instances, and it has an important role.

A deep question11 is, Why does lack of surprise make a joke less funny the second time around? This is one of the most reliable facts about humor-related behavior, and it deserves an explanation. I propose one here. The second time around, the entire course and the outcome of a joke is known in advance and throughout. In most jokes, the setup has but one salient affective interpretation on the surface. And the punch-line is capable of sustaining that interpretation while at the same time introducing an affectively opposite interpretation that also makes sense given the setup. However, the setup itself may not be capable of sustaining the two interpretations throughout, if they are both known in advance, and if so the listener may, while still listening to the setup, settle on a single affective interpretation of the whole joke including the punch-line. Settling on a single interpretation prevents the possibility of simultaneously feeling the force of the second interpretation, and this eliminates two essential conditions for humor perception.

So it is clear that a temporally precise engineering of the mental state of the perceiver is necessary to produce humor. Both brevity and surprise have properties that enable these temporal manipulations to occur, but as we see, neither is essential, and both can be explained by the elements of the present theory.

next up previous
Next: Comprehension difficulty Up: Competing theoretical views Previous: Superiority
Tom Veatch