Humor Theory

and Irrational Emotion

Inset text is to be made into powerpoint slide text.
Remainder is a draft of the words to be spoken

       Tom Veatch
       BA Stanford Linguistics and Cognitive Science
       PhD U Penn Linguistics, \"English Vowels\" (Chapter 8, Chicano English).
       Visiting Assistant Professor Stanford Linguistics 1991-93.
       Sprex Inc Founder/CEO 1995-2005
       Union Plumber 2005-2018
       Landlord 2015-
       Independent thinker

       texts: 206-858-2633
       essays and projects: 

Thanks Otto. Hi everyone. So I'm Otto's friend and colleague from Penn, we both got our PhD's there, just like Noam Chomsky did 4 decades before us. Penn's culture gives you permission to have your own ideas, if you can make a good case. We are independent minded.

So, What's your central motivation? I'm all about curiosity. I believe, or act as if, you and I and everyone can do anything, and the way you get there is with curiosity. So I tolerate my interests, and won't allow myself to be limited by having a PhD in English Vowels. I let myself dive deep into the unknown. You can too. My advice is to think freely, be willing to go where it takes you, keep writing as you go, and don't let fear slow you down.

My postdoc gave me that freedom for two years, do anything you want, and that's when I explored far past my dissertation area and worked out the N+V Humor Theory. I didn't care it wasn't in my field because I was free to follow what interested me. So I encourage you, use your opportunities energetically; pursue new abilities; study what is most meaningful to you.

Here you come studying humor, a sharp blade to cut, a gentle balm to heal. This class might help you become a comedian, a diplomat, or a psychologist, parts of a well-rounded and capable human being. We will try to think clearly about this aspect of diplomacy, of disarming or destroying your enemies, and binding to you your friends. Humor is the language of modern politics; outrage is increasingly a failure. I'm glad you came to study humor theory.

Let me say one thing. My aspiration is for all my people to succeed. If you're in this class, that makes you my people now. Anyone in this class is qualified to talk about almost anything with me. So put my number and email in your phone and don't be bashful. If you need someone to bounce ideas off of, or give a different perspective, try me. It would be my pleasure to get to know you, to listen and talk, to be of use. Not just for the term of this class or your time at UCLA, but any time in the future, please remember, Tom Veatch's door is open. Okay? Okay.

N+V and Irrational Emotion

A talk by Tom Veatch 11/24/2020

So Otto, thanks for giving me a chance to come perform my duties as the avatar of the N+V humor theory.

Since the discovery occurred in 1992 or so this theory has been like a meme that has captured me, although I struggle agzinst it also. It's been my job to serve it by showing what it means and what it's good for and what it's like and by arguing against false or partial countertheories, and giving analyses of alleged counterexamples. It has been my master and me the servant. It's like being Abraham himself on the mountain.

But I struggle too, that's also part of it, because I'm a scientist. I'm not just captured, but I'm also sincerely trying to fight on the side of its enemies in this war of ideas. Your job as a scientist is to find the strongest counterarguments and try to break your own theory, and find any way it's not true, if you can. If you can't break it, well, that's how you get a really tough theory, or else you do break it and that's actually forward progress. A bad idea expressed clearly and clearly disproved, constitutes progress! So I hope we will try to do that together today. I have to warn you it's almost 30 years, and no luck, but science means we only believe it temporarily, for now, while we keep on trying to break our theories forever.

Previous Theories: superiority incongruity relief aggression expectation violation linguistic theories of linguistic humor moral theory ...
By now you all have some exposure to humor theories, from your first class which discussed superiority, relief, and incongruity. Aggression, did you touch on that? Did you think they got it? Did they figure it all out?

Well incongruity is insufficient, expectation violation is insufficient, relief is unnecessary and insufficient, superiority and aggression are unnecessary and insufficient. Language is unnecessary and insufficient.

"humor is a nicely impossible object for a philosopher" Critchley, "On Humour" p2.


So is it impossible? Are there actual universals and is a solid general theory actually possible? Are these humanists right to just say everybody, every culture, every person are all different and everyone is unique and special so there's no point in theorizing, just curating? Or do we actually as humans all share something and that thing is actually a real thing and can we analyse it more deeply?

Can you think like a logician or only like a museum curator?

Otto wants you to have a sense of the intellectual drama that's going on here. All these great thinkers up to the bat, everybody striking out. Everyone has a partial theory, but nobody actually got it.

You know the story of the elephant and the blind philosophers? They all stand up to it and touch a part, and one says oh, it's like a big wall, and another no it's like a tree trunk, and one says like a hose, and one says it's like a broom. And all of them are right and all of them are wrong, and there's always another wrinkle on the elephant.

Is humor an elephant? What really makes something funny?

"In 1998 Thomas Veatch made a conceptual leap in our understanding of the cognitive mechanics of humour". Joseph Polimeni 2016, European Journal of Humor 4(2) 70-81.


I talked with Joe Polimeni a couple years ago and he told me he believes, and has published this opinion, that Veatch 1998 is the one that finally cracked the secret eternal code, and while others have gone and run with the ideas there, sometimes without attribution, it's me, let's say it's him, that's the actual source of the idea that finally solved the great mystery. I don't say this for ego, but I want you to have a sense that it's not just being colleagues at Penn that made Otto invite me, and that what I'm about to say is worth trying to understand as you develop your own opinion. Because ultimately:

Humor Theory belongs to you.
Nobody else owns humor: your laughter and humor perception are sincerely your own and if you are open to thinking about it, then your thoughts are your own and your own idea of what makes something funny belongs to you too. So yes you have the right to have your own theory. Your job is not to agree with me, but to have your own opinion. I'm humbled by this; I just discovered this particular way of thinking, this N+V thing, and found myself to be the first infected individual, so the first educator for N+V. I'm just hoping you will dive into it with me. I want you to feel intellectual responsibility. If you make it your own question, you will get to figure out your own answer. And that's what it's all about.

Naturally fascinating => many theories.
I will say Humor is naturally fascinating. As we will see, it is self-contradictory, or at least paradoxical, and it grabs us by our own true and powerful emotions, and it gives us unexpected, irrational joy -- and can cause lifetime humiliation. So it's super powerful, significant and interesting, and if you're a thinker, and then if you're laughing and thinking you might think about laughing. It's a sort of natural environment for intellectual exploration.

That might explain why everyone has a theory. So we have Aristotle's Comedy, and Hobbes with superiority in the 1500s, and Freud trying to distinguish between vulgar and socially acceptable humor. These are some of the great thinkers of history, and it IS humbling to be playing in the same sandbox with them.

(Or perhaps VERY pretentious, but as Nietzsche said, "Of what is great one must either be silent or speak with greatness. With greatness — that means cynically and with innocence." Cynically because one doesn't believe anything anyone else says, you think about it your own self. Innocently because you have wide eyes in looking at the thing. And obviously humor IS great.)

You guys have seen superiority, incongruity, relief, maybe aggression, some linguists have language-specific script-consistency theories. Otto gave you quite a list on Day One of this class. I didn't even know them all. There's a lot of drama.

[Ockham's Razor, (Mark) Liberman's Great Day]
So how can we approach this. Words like superiority and aggression are quite complicated, there are multiple parties involved, each has this or that degree of power or character or intention and there's some relationship between the parties, that's what superiority means, that's what aggression means. It's not simple. So I say let's simplify.

(Leigh Lisker was my old phonetics teacher, and he told me once, the less you say, the less you lie. I used to think he meant all speech was lies but no, not so. Then)

My great teacher Mark Liberman said, if you can take what seems like two things and show they are actually one thing, then that is a great day for science.

So to take that to the extreme, my idea is to minimize, reduce, strip down, and say just as little as possible, and see if that is enough to be useful.

Chris Rock: First responders


Answer the Poll.

The applause, that's not laughter, that's praise, you're great, we're great, they're great.

When was the laughter? When people started dying.

Something bad happening. So everyone is great, and people are dying. Good, and Bad, at the same time, from two different angles. So is that simple enough?

Minimize your theoretical machinery
The least amount of machinery is None.

Tautology is a statement which says Nothing.

A distinction says almost nothing, it's just one bit, but it says a lot.

From a distinction you can derive a lot using logic.

But we are scientists, and we want a theory that is true, not just simple? A true theory's terms are "necessary" and "sufficient".

Consider Vitamin research, they'd feed mice stuff and see if they die.

Necessary means the mouse dies without it. Because it was necessary.

Sufficient means the mouse can lives on nothing else. Because it was sufficient.

A distinction is empirical: does it capture everything in and out of the category.

So humor, well, we know it happens inside of people and it has to do with the emotions, it's an emotional response to laugh and to find things funny. So if we want to minimize, well what is the least thing you really can't avoid saying in the world of emotion? I'm going to say it is just the difference between negative and non-negative.

[Frowny face (V) versus smiley face and neutral face (N).]


Chat: Any questions?
       .... negative | nonnegative ....
... ----- ---  --  -   0 + ++ +++ ++++ ...
      	             | cut here.
------- decompensation
------ panic
----- terror
---- fight-or-flight
--- shame
-- fear, disgust, embarrassment
- discomfort
0 neutrality, disinterest, unreactiveness, calmness, steadiness
+ attraction admiration
++ satisfaction
+++ delight
++++ ecstasy exaltation transcendence


What is the least we can say in the world of emotions? I'm a linguist and so I deal in categories, which are not actually categories alone but differences, differences between categories, so what's the most basic and fundamental category difference in the universe of emotion?

I'm going to say forget about the difference between shame versus embarrassment, or even just neutral versus positive, let's put the line in the sand between negative on one side and neutral and positive on the other.

Can you feel that difference in your own emotional reactions to things? Do you know when you authentically truly actually have a negative response as opposed to a neutral or positive one? This has to work for you, too, you know, and if you can't label cases, you can't do much.


But if anyone has any theory of emotion it has to at least include - vs 0 & +. Aversion versus non-aversion. So can we do something with that? Well, yes, actually. That's the essence of it already.

Kumail Nanjiani: Sikh joke


Is it neutral or is it positive that Kumail's sikh victim should avoid being killed by these attackers?

Good question. I'm going to say it doesn't matter, because we just need something on the non-negative side and something on the negative side.

Did you notice the huge laughter when he pointed to the muslim on the side? Was that good, bad, or indifferent? Bad that the muslim should be killed, bad that the sikh should betray him, but good or at least neutral from the sikh's perspective to not be killed. I don't care if it's neutral or positive. Survival is non-negative, that's the key. Okay if we can now rely on this minimal emotional category difference, we can define the whole theory, which I call the N+V Humor Theory.

Of course a theory of humor is a psychological theory, meaning that it's not about the facts and circumstances in the external world but about what's in the mind of a person who is sincerely laughing, and perceiving humor in some situation:

Make the following slide into a Background Image with a photo of the N&V plastic 3D printed object.
N+V Theory of Humor

The perceiver sees the situation...:

V: as a subjective moral violation: negative.

N: as NOT a subjective moral violation: that is as normal or benign, neutral or positive, but not negative.

+: N & V occur at the same Time.


I want to be really abstract here, and not confuse everything because of English lexical semantics. I don't want to use words like superiority or aggression because those evoke complex situations and multiple people with various relationships, and instead I want to simplify simplify simplify. So I use these three symbols, N and V, and +, as a certain kind of abstract notation that expresses the whole theory. What's the theory? It's N + V.

V means Violation, that is, the perceiver has a view of the situation which has an emotional significance that lands anywhere on the negative side of the spectrum, I call it a subjective moral violation. I don't mean that you're in your head and being defensive and intellectually judgemental, no, I just mean that you somehow, emotionally, have some kind of a negative reaction to the situation. It feels like it ought to be different, according to you, according to your feelings.

N is for Normal, NoN-Negative, beNigN, Neutral-or-positive, or a Non-violation. N means the perceiver has a view of the situation which has an emotional significance that lands anywhere on the neutral-to-positive side of the spectrum, normal or benign, not negative, not a violation.

+, the plus sign, is like a T as in time, and here it means "at the same time as".

Sometimes we just talk about the situation as "actually" being benign or normal but we actually mean that the laughing person sees that situation from their own subjective perspective as normal.

Let's have another example.

This is Richard Pryor in character as Mudbone. If anybody doesn't know Richard Pryor he is an extremely transgressive and groundbreaking comic of the 60's, 70's and 80's. He's amazing.

Go look up the documentary movie about him. Dave Chappelle and all these guys, they say things like if you're a comic alive today and you're not funny, you're not stealing from Richard Pryor.

He has the courage to be shocking, it's aggressive, it's sexual, it relies on stereotypes, it's so offensive that because of this skit NBC ended his contract which meant that this skit basically was him throwing his career away for the sake of art, of his true comedy and he has to reinvent himself again later as a screen actor.

So it's important to know Richard Pryor as Mudbone.

This character, Mudbone, is a country boy from the deep south that moves up to Illinois in the 1930's or so. It's hard to understand him at first, but he's talking about reading Zane Grey western novels. Here you go.

Richard Pryor as Mudbone: Zane Gray


Otto's Questions

Otto wanted me to answer three questions, what makes something funny, why do we laugh, and how does humor work?

So was it Funny? Yes, No. Please write in the chat all the N and V interpretations that you see.

N: He wants to read. He learns to read. He wants to connect with Mahalia. Mahalia is clever. Mahalia finds a way to motivate Mudbone to learn to read despite having to take two years to do it. It is right that a person of low motivation be disappointed. His anger is righteous.

V: He can't read. He still can't read at the age of sexual desire. He doesn't like the message he reads. He has been deceived. His desire is frustrated. Mahalia is dead. Aggression toward Mahalia. Anger. Cursing.


Did I miss anything?

So Otto's first question, What made this funny? Well the N+V theory says it's funny because it's N and V and both at the same time.

So there are lots of N elements and lots of V elements. So you have N, and V, and simultaneity, make sense? Is there a right answer? (No), or will any combination of these do? (Yes)

Second question: Otto asks, Why do we laugh? Because it's pain but it doesn't hurt. Because it's pain because you think something ought to be a certain way and you care about it but it's not, so there's a kind of a bite there, it's a kind of pain.

Death, aggression, illiteracy, these are subjective moral violations. You think things ought to be a certain way, like people should be alive, not be aggressive, be able to read, and you care about it, and it's not that way. It's not innocent that the facts don't match these commitments, it's a sort of emotional or moral pain. And these are violations, according to you, because it's a subjective moral violation.

But at the same time it's a pain that doesn't hurt because you think everything is neutral or positive in that same situation, it's normal or it's benign so how can you believe that it hurts when everything is okay? If you can hang on to the N interpretations, then you don't quite have to feel the bad feelings that come from the V interpretations. So it's a kind of pain that doesn't hurt. That's why we laugh, because when we feel pain we also gasp in pain or we cry and we get this repeated exhalatory vocalization and we can't pay attention to anything else and it just holds us, because laughing is a lot like gasping in pain. Because humor perception is a kind of pain. That's why we laugh.

Otto's third question, How does humor work? In the mind or in society? Let's do those separately.

N+V requires the ability to simultaneously consider multiple perspectives and each of their emotional consequences:

A complex mind.

In cognition it works because you are a complex creature considering how you should respond to things all the time so you know what to do, this is part of our job to survive, and there are lots of options, and some are better than others, some are neutral some are negative and so on, and things are changing and news comes in that you didn't know before, and you have to re-evaluate whether this is the right plan or idea or perspective or emotional interpretation, all the time. And since we're actually able to consider more possibilities than just one in our mind at a time, because we're so smart, at least compared with dogs and chickens, we might have different interpretations going at the same time, and be busy evaluation what is most persuasive. So N & V can occur at the same time in a complex mind like that, and that's how in cognition it works.

Tautology N+V communicates N+V.
In communication it works because, everyone knows it not just for themselves but also for others. It is what it is and everyone knows it. So this is even simpler than you might have imagined. Listen: It is N+V so it communicates N+V. The basic evidence that someone is experiencing an N+V perception is laughter itself. Laughter communicates that their perception includes N+V.

Or in other words, if the N+V theory says perceiving humor means having N & V in your mind, then if the theory is not just true but shared, if it's part of us being able to understand each other, then N+V also says when someone else sees you laughing that they can pick up the message that you have N & V in your mind.

After all we are all humans, we all have this in our heads, if the theory is true, and why can't we all use it too, to understand each other. So if you don't laugh but someone else does, and obviously there's a violation, V, then they must think there is another interpretation where everything is okay, N. All the combinations work, of you and them and yes and no, and everyone can and does use the theory to understand each other, if the theory is true.

Differences in humor perception reveal social change, history, what is in controversy, can be political, can reveal the contest of ideas, the evolution of morality. Comportment: how you present yourself in public.
Let's also include historical change. You know Bad Bunny, Yo perreo sola? Lots of violations. But he's representing, he's asserting, that they are not violations not for him, not now, not any more. It's an attempt to push our morals in a certain direction, and it seems successful. So these are some of the morals of proper comportment currently in controversy. And he is specifically making a political statement that hey this is okay. You know what comportment means? How you hold yourself in public, keeping a straight face, not laughing out of control, that's losing comportment. It's not okay to represent in public without comportment is the rule, but what is proper comportment changes over history. Used to be everyone needed a hat, not any more.

The current social spectrum of moral universes are revealed by what people are laughing at and no longer laughing at. Some used to think it was okay to laugh at an illiterate Mudbone character, but it's not that okay anymore. A social critic can prove or at least illustrate change by showing people laughing here and not laughing there.

Evolutionarily: so N+V has this communicative function, it performs social lubrication when we laugh together, and moral communication when we laugh and recognize we share the same sense of what's a violation and what's okay, and it does group alignment in case someone needs to learn what everyone else's moral systems are, and it gives shared joy, shared pain, shared moral vision. In all these ways it is evolutionarily valuable to a gregarious species like humans.

If evolution were to select the funniest members of a funny species, it would be selecting for social intelligence and intelligence generally. Don't we know at least nowadays that girls seem to like funny boys as mating partners. Ovulating women in a UCLA study preferred creative but poor partners over non-creative but wealthy partners, whereas non-ovulating women didn't have that preference.

Here's a line of speculation that I like: If this effect is universal, and then if it is biological, and then if it has been true for evolutionary time (which we could prove by finding it in bonobos, though if not in bonobos than it means we evolved it in our branch and it is a potentially sufficient cause of intelligence evolution), then likely as not humor has been the accelerator of the evolution of human intelligence, because the funny males are the ones that get to reproduce and the females get to have a more socially and emotionally intelligent home life and incidentally smarter kids too, for is it 50,000 generations probably since we domesticated fire and made everyone sit around it in the evenings to be part of the in-group which we're going to all work together to keep us all alive, probably we did a lot of joking and laughing around the fire. That's my vision of human evolution, anyway, the positive side.

So that's how humor works cognitively, communicatively, and evolutionarily, according to N+V.

So what's a violation? I use the term, Subjective Moral Violation.

For me, morality is just emotional attitude. It is not the objective truth, there is no right answer, it is always coming from someone's personal subjective view. Maybe they are the buddha and life is all suffering so he's laughing all day long in his perception of both nirvana and the pervasiveness of suffering. It doesn't have to make sense to anyone else.

Let's have another example, not a standup case here.

Mop and Dog.

Play Mop and Dog in class

Poll after Mop and Dog:

Was the Mop and Dog video funny?

* Offensive
* Cruel
* Mean
* Laughed out loud * Very Funny
* Funny
* Slightly funny
* No point
* None of the above (write on chat, "Mop and Dog was XX". )


Okay some people thought this was funny, others not. You know everything is okay, there's music, it's fun, nobody is being hurt here. But Dog thinks something is badly wrong.

You've heard and you know everything I'm about to say, I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know now, but now it's time to transfer the power to you. I'm talking about the power of knowledge, which is how you can conquer and change the world, and the way you can receive it is for me to make it simple and memorable. So if I can state the theory simply, and you can capture it, and hold on to it, not just understand it but be able to bring it back to mind and apply it, then you will have it and it will be yours and you can run with it and do anything you like with it. Ready?

Three conditions are necessary and sufficient to perceive humor in a situation. One sees it (1) as a subjective moral violation, (2) as normal, neutral or positive, (3) both at the same time.


If you have all those, you have humor.
If you have humor, then you have all of them.
If it's not funny, then something is missing.
If any is missing, it's not funny.

Let's do some logic. Logic is about has to be, or can't be. Truth and Falsehood.

N+V is an example of how politics and truth relate to each other. The superordinate structure is logic, but the elements inside the logical structure are actually emotional/moral/subjective/political... So YES you can believe anything you want call it N or call it V whatever works for you, it's subjective. But if it is or is not funny, then the logic of humor becomes the boss, whatever you believe it's got to be an N and/or a V for you, but then you MUST, NO OPTION, HAVE TO, have N and V views, for humor to apply. You can prove things with logic, like Yes or No or All or None or Very simple, very powerful.

Two words I want you to be comfortable with.

The Power of Logic

Consider as an example the logic of conditions that support life:

    Necessary: without it, you die.
    Sufficient: with it, you live.
For example, food is necessary, but not sufficient.  Air and water
too.  Sleep too.  Food, water, air, sleep together, is that sufficient
for life?

If you don't have the logic, the necessary and sufficient conditions,
then you don't really understand it.

Have you noticed that N+V is not itself a funny theory? True. It's just logic. So I am saying that humans are actually logical, even in their irrational emotions. And the logic is, if all three of these components are there, N and V and their being at the same time in your head, then humor is there, and if any of these components are not there, then humor will not be there. So that's a testable empirical prediction, and it could very easily be wrong.

Let me just check in if you got the point or not. Sometimes people read Veatch and go off to talk about benign violations. Like a medium level violation which isn't that bad, it's only bad enough for you to laugh at it. That was my first theory of humor and it's not entirely wrong but it's a special case. What you actually need, according to N+V, is two distinct interpretations of the situation, and maybe you could adjust the parameters of the situation gradually so the violation gradually appears or disappears, or the normal interpretation gradually appears or disappears, and there have been lots and lots of experiments like that and yes the right thing happens. But if you hammer your toe just not very hard, it's only one thing, either a violation, or not a violation, but not two things, not both. N+V says humor is where there are two interpretations, N and V, not something in between. It's not a linear scale, it's a logical structure of multiple perspectives. Both are necessary, if both present simultaneously it's sufficient. Being a mild violation helps with the coexistence of the two views because they are fighting each other and it's easier to hold onto the thought that it's N if the V isn't that bad, but it's not the essence of humor.

Insert graphic: Four celled table. Columns: All 3 conditions present, not all present. Rows: Humor perceived, humor not percieved. Green checkmarks in the top left and bottom right. Red X's in the bottom left and top right.
There are two ways for the theory to be wrong.

If something is funny and the conditions are not all there, then the theory is wrong.

If something is not funny and the conditions are all there, then the theory is wrong.

So that's two kinds of counterexamples.

The X's are the counter examples.

[Insert a drawing of Abraham with a knife over Isaac tied to a rock.]
Whenever I get to this part of the talk my throat rises and I get a little light feeling in my stomach, because if this theory is kind of like my baby, then it is Extremely Vulnerable at this point.

The story goes, Abraham went up on the mountain and offered his baby boy Isaac as a sacrifice to Jehovah. I feel like I offer up my baby here as a sacrifice to science. Abraham got Isaac back right away because Jehovah got on it and he spoke to Abraham right away out of a burning bush and said No I didn't mean it, Don't kill your boy for me. Whereas me, I'm still holding my baby out there, 30 years later, in case someone can just find the right sacrificial knife, which is a good counterexample, and stick it in there. It's a bit fraught, don't you think? But that's the job, truth is heartless, we are followers of Francis Bacon and therefore we can't just believe because we want to. Okay so, not heartlessly, but bravely, with an iron will to do the right thing, we continue. And counterexamples are these two kinds: (O) not-funny where N and V and + all do apply, and (U) funny where N or V or + does not apply. Make sense?

Okay now I don't think any of that was funny, do you? You'd think that humor theory would eventually get to the funny part.

If I don't get the joke, then I often don't have an analysis right away, which actually makes sense according to the theory because if I don't see the N and the V then I won't find it funny, which means I also won't be able to tell you what the N and the V are. If I puzzle over it so far I've always been able to find an N+V story for everything.

People say doing joke analysis takes the humor away. Omit the Logic is actually the title of that Richard Pryor documentary. I disagree, at least for me. If I do get the joke, then I have no trouble saying what the violation is. It doesn't stop being funny when I bring the violation up from my emotional system's reaction to a verbal expression of it, or the N view either. I can keep those views in my mind and keep my sense that something is funny when I'm expressing those views, why shouldn't I? Maybe others change their emotional experience when they are trying to talk about their feelings. That would explain the other side of this argument. But no, I don't see why we need to omit the logic.


Relief laughter. Peekaboo.
Dismay laughter. Disbelief.
Aggression. Ridicule. Humiliation.
Sober presentation. Satire.
Communication. Humor IS N+V. Humor COMMUNICATES N+V.


Shall we go over some of the different classes of humor phenomena, or kinds of situations? We did some jokes already and we could do them all day, just find the N and the V that make it funny for you, or maybe you have a counterexample, in which case please please send me an email! But off stage in the real world, there are also a bunch of natural event types that you might come across in the real world, which might be as or more real and interesting.

Relief and Dismay/denial laughter.

[insert two graphs: horizontal dimension is Time, vertical line has two levels V, and N.

One horizontal line on the V level overlapping another horizontal line on the N level.]

First graph has the V line without N then both then N only.
Second graph has the N line without V then both then V only.

So let's do relief laughter.

Milk out of the fridge. 1.25 seconds of laughter and a sharp stop. Relief laughter. Only as long as I still think the first thought and the second thought hasn't completely wiped it out, can I have both N and V in my mind at the same time. Something is wrong (V), oh but I begin to see how everything is okay (N), and laugh hard until I'm picking it up and nothing is wrong any more, I'm just putting the milk in the door again. So it's during the simultaneity of the two interpretations, that the laughter occurs. It starts right away when there's two, and it stops right away when there's one again. Or that would be the analysis. Make sense? I think this is the strongest prediction of N+V, because none of the other theories that I know of are time-bound like this. They say oh this circumstance has a resolution or a transition, or a state of being a certain complex way, well that doesn't say turn on at this instant and turn off at this other instant, but N+V does say so. So just go try to beat that.

Now let's do peekaboo. A baby at a certain age, Mommy leaves the room, Daddy comes in, happy baby, oh there's Mommy, that's great, there's nobody, that's nice, there's Daddy, that's nice. This is called lack of object permanence. If you're not there, you don't exist. If I'm the baby and I'm getting enough food and love, I'm good.

Then a few months later, the transition is around 8 months I think, well after it, Mommy leaves the room, and oh, that's fine, because Mommy is a permanent object. Just because I can't see her, she still exists.

But in between the before and the after, during a certain transition, there's a time when Mommy leaves the room, and now she sort of exists, actually she did exist before but now because you can't see her at the moment, now she doesn't exist, and can you imagine the baby freaks out and cries and oh my god mommy isn't in the room, it's not that Mommy the permanent object isn't in the room, it's that Mommy that I care about, Mommy that should be a permanent object is actually impermanent, and has blinked out of existence, because she's gone.

So is this a subjective moral violation to a baby? The baby think the world should be a certain way, like With a Mommy, and cares about it, how else am I going to survive, at the least, and it's NOT that way. So yes it's a subjective moral violation.

Okay then Mommy out of the room hears the crying baby and turns around and comes back, and Wow, holy cow, Mommy Exists Again! The world is once again the way it is supposed to be. So that's N. So I will argue that intrinsic humor of peekaboo is relief laughter, when the traumatized baby is coming to the improved, partly soothed, and better understanding that things are actually okay, but while it still feels the moral violation, that's V, and once it truly believes that things are now actually okay, that's N, then it will laugh. Just like the milk from the fridge door. Laugh during the recalculation moment or the still-in-the-middle-of-experiencing-surprise period.

Surprise and Ambiguity enable a mind to contain two views
So you see how surprise is this kind of a moment where two views hold at the same time. Remember Shakespeare said Brevity is the Soul of Wit. A slow surprise isn't much of a surprise. But since people figure things out pretty quickly, and you have to get the transition fast enough that they are actually surprised and not just gradually stepwise learning more about something, for simultaneity to occur.

There's also ambiguity, or you might say the possibility of framing some facts in at least a couple different ways. If you look at it from this side it's a V, from that side it's an N.

I invite you to explore every kind of phenomenon or joke, it's not assigned reading but you are welcome to read whatever you are interested in.

My purpose here is that you should know and be able to teach and use the N+V theory yourself, and to contribute to science, with counterexamples and counterexplanations. So any questions, like what's exactly an N or a V? Ask away.

Okay, I'm still looking for counterexamples. So now let's do a few cases, and we'll have a poll, you can say whether you see an N, or a V, or both, or neither, and then we'll talk about them.

Example: Q-tips.
What did Covid nurse find putting a Q-Tip up your nose? Fingerprints.

V: (1) Covid. (2) Q-tip up nose. (3) Nosepicking.

N: (1) Somebody wants it. or (2) The violation is not about us, we can laugh at THEM. (3) There's no Covid in there. (4) Nosepicking.

Superiority, you feel superior which is good, so their violation is okay by you.

Hangings used to be a big public spectacle, let's talk lunch and go to the hanging. And everyone laughs super hard at the hanging, watch the feet running in the air, hahaha. So Hobbes in 1500 would say that's about superiority, there by the grace of God it's not me. Maybe that's relief too.

Insanity defense perp walk

Dismay or denial laughter. (These cases are hard to find.)

It seemed like he didn't really believe his situation. So V in chains, N disbelief of V. Both. Therefore laughter. He might think of his mother's love, and be unable to reconcile, so he laughs because the love means he couldn't be in this position.

Aggressive or cruel laughter.

What's the TV vampire laughing about? You will die (V), but I will eat (N). Mwahahaha.

Ford on Cavanaugh.


Obviously V for everyone, but also N for the Cavanaugh and his friend. But it's not actually okay. Time has changed, and men don't own women's bodies any fucking more. Those boys thought everything was dandy, but now nobody thinks that's okay at all. Or at least it is deeply contested. So here the differences in humor perception reveal the moral contest going on in social history.

Satire (1): Saad on Descartes

Gad Saad #decolonizing the bookshelf

Descartes, Bacon, I'm going to make one helluva big bonfire.


Gad Saad is a Lebanese Jewish refugee and scientist. Here he's talking about an NPR article which said we need to decolonize our bookshelves, and get rid of the white man science part. So he's bringing up Descartes, who invented Cartesian coordinates that we use for geometry, and Francis Bacon. Does everyone know about Francis Bacon? This is a guy who worked for Queen Elizabeth during the Renaissance after the middle ages and he said hey let's stop limiting ourselves to Aristotle and the Bible as the sum total of all knowledge and instead let's do experiments and carefully look at nature itself, and be openminded about what things are like, not just what the ancient Greeks and Hebrews happened to write down. Bacon is considered the founder of modern science.

So that's a satire, to burn those books. Were you persuaded?
Did you already agree?

In satire the presenting character is straight, does not see the violation s/he embodies, and there's an implied audience which is also straight and doesn't see the violation in the "straight man"'s behavior.

So dog with mop, that's not satire, because the character is the dog and the dog sees the violation. In satire the presenter represents as having one view, and you have to independently realize there's another view, and if you're deeply persuaded that the presenter's view is itself a shocking violation, then the straight man's lack of acknowledgement makes for the N perspective to produce great humor.

Satire (2): Jesse: MMA

Jesse: Mexican Martial Arts 0:00-0:20


Is this satire? Who are the implied straight-man and his straight-man audience? What do they believe?

N: BJJ is great.

V: BJJ is not great.

What is the N, what is the V, put it into words please.

Not funny to most, only if you really see the violation. Like if you care about BJJ vs MMA.

Satire is a genius kind of rhetoric, but it also fails to hit home if the audience actually doesn't get it. Gruner in 1978 did a study and found that almost nobody actually gets almost all satire.

Still it's a miracle when you can do it.

Okay, any counter examples to propose?

So I wanted you to feel like this theory is your theory, and now it is. You own it, just as much as I do, and you can figure it out yourself now. You can go look at situations and try to figure out why they are funny or not funny, and see what you can learn about people's perspectives based on what they laugh at or don't laugh at. Okay?

So I bless you and send you forth into the world. Go!

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Copyright © 2000-2020, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Modified: November 24, 2020.