What is Humor?

A Good Humor vendor
A Good Humor vendor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is humor? Isn’t that an interesting question.

Picture this: a man stands on the stage and flaps his arms as if he has wings.

What joke did this man just tell in order to use this pantomime to demonstrate the punch-line?

Answer: “I just flew in from Chicago“…then a drum beat or two….”And boy, are my arms tired!”

Would you say that this scenario is an example of humor? Or would you describe it as what is commonly referred to as a ‘groaner’? Was this humorous when it first made the comedy rounds (Vaudeville era, maybe?), but perhaps no longer causes our humor synapses to fire? What do you think?

Which leads me back to the two million dollar question (this used to be the ‘million dollar question’, but due to inflation we’ve had to up its value): What is humor? Who decides what is humorous and what isn’t? Is humor subjective or is there a united ‘funny bone’ out there that world populations share?

Writer's Block 1
Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: OkayCityNate)

Good questions, I think, and especially relevant to any writer trying to write and publish humor that appeals to the huddled masses, or at the very least appeals to a collection of  enough people to round out a cocktail reception.

Humor is tricky. The comedian onstage partly relies on audience feedback–groans or guffaws–to hone his or her routine to perfection. That story got exactly the reaction I thought it would; that anecdote bombed, so I either need to chalk it up to the fact that the audience doesn’t know what is funny or else they do know what is funny and that story isn’t it. 

But a writer, clicking away on computer keys, imagining humorous conversations that would be sure to have mom and grandma rolling on the floor with tears running down their wizened cheeks, has very little to go by to gauge whether or not their humor efforts will appeal to anyone not related to the writer.

The Free Dictionary defines humor as:  ‘The quality that makes something laughable or amusing; funniness.’, ‘That which is intended to induce laughter or amusement’, and The ability to perceive, enjoy, or express what is amusing, comical, incongruous, or absurd.’

But even these definitions are subjective. ‘…that makes something laughable or amusing’…for whom, exactly?

As a writer who enjoys playing with words in an attempt to elicit emotion from readers, I’m always wondering how close I get to hitting the mark. What works? What doesn’t work? How will I know? And the bigger question–is it courage or is it downright foolhardy for a writer to even attempt to pen prose that will cause a reader (a stranger, after all), to smile or giggle or double over with laughter?

Some time ago I wrote a post titled,  “What I Plan To Do Now Than I’m Mature” where I attempted to figure out who exactly my audience is–who should I be trying to humor? I thought about that problem, long and hard, and ruled out a wide variety of people, but still didn’t arrive at a definitive answer.

And I’m not sure that I have an answer yet, so have decided that for now I will write, first and foremost, for myself; if I catch a glimmer of humor in what I have to say, perhaps at least a few other people will, too. Maybe that’s all a writer can hope for.

English: David Letterman hosting President Bar...
English: David Letterman hosting President Barack Obama at Late Show with David Letterman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, that and performing a stand-up comedy routine on the ‘Letterman’ show…

“Good evening, ladies and germs. Glad to see you all here tonight–what happened, did the Wal-Mart shut down early?”

“What do you mean, my time is over? I just began….wait…I’m not ready to leave….put that hook down…ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

What tickles your funny-bone? What makes you chuckle or laugh out loud? Is there a secret to finding that ‘humor erogenous zone’? I’d love to know.

Thanks for helping me out–and don’t be a stranger.

131 thoughts on “What is Humor?

  1. humor seems to take many forms, sense of the rediculous, observations with which one agrees, relief at it not being you, a play on words, situation missunderstanding – persons reacting inadvertingly to different situations unknown from each other, the skill of a comic in befriending his audience against them being the object of the joke is comforting and allows one a sense of well being. there are possibly many other forms of humor with which i am either not familiar or can not recall. they all make one smile and give a sense of well being. wiith the exception of the person on whom the joke is paid. perhaps humor has something to do with feeling safe – being part of the pack – togetherness – belonging – not an outsider – being accepted
    i am an admirer of the humour exploited by comedy script writers wherein the subjects are at cross purposes and only the observer knows the full story, one has privi to but is not part of the situation, this allows one the safety and comfort afforded to an observer

  2. simple yet an interesting question! Anything that makes me smile, laugh or uplifts or puts me in good humor (hmm, did I just use a ploce?) 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on thewordpressghost and commented:
    Friends & Sylvia,

    I think this blog post was a great start on humor.

    But, and this is a critique I have of most literature on humor, I feel it placed emphasis upon humor and laughter as being the same thing.

    So, again, I felt this was a great blog. But, I have always looked for something a little bit more; I don’t know, maybe deeper into human psychology.

    I will use a common example.

    You are watching your friend walk on ice. He falls down and everyone laughs.


    Actually, slap-stick, or vaudeville might be appropriate as well.

    Let us go back to the ice. This time your old bully is trying to walk across, you help him.

    He falls, breaks his arm, his neck, punctures a lung, and is frothing blood at the mouth.

    Tragic? Should we cry?

    Or, do we laugh.

    Realize, my friends & Sylvia, there are several different factors here. First, the mechanism of humor and tragedy. And they are related. Both ‘shock us’ a little. One leads to lightheartedness and the other to heavy hearts. But, the mechanism is surprise after suspense.

    Secondly, and this is where I could use the help of a Psychiatrist or a hundred.

    What is the difference between humor, funny, and laughter, hilarious?

    And lastly, this is where Sylvia was going – and I LOVE THIS.

    What makes humor universal?

    And everyone can help us answer that.


    1. Hi Ghost–thanks for your great comments on my post. Apparently the question I posed is one that many people have pondered. Thanks so much for putting your spin on it–your comments make a lot of sense to me.

  4. Love the post. Humor is totally subjective even though others have tried to qualify and quantify it.

    Crazy stuff makes me laugh and I do love “wordplay” the Crazy Chick way … here’s one:

    What do you call a sleazy chick who jumps up and down when she dances?

    A trampoline

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I like word play, too, and tend to use it in my daily life–I think it’s a family trait in my case, as my siblings also use word play a fair bit.

  5. I’d say a turn of phrase at just the right time is the ticket. Most would say it’s not “punny”, or perhaps merely “clever”, but I find if you can make it work, and then repeat it later in another form, hilarity ensues. Great pondering! ~Regards, Dan

    1. Hi Dan–thanks for commenting. I agree with you that using a ‘turn of phrase’ is one of the keys to humor–I think the problem comes with finding just the right time to use it, and that is something a lot of us struggle with. When it works, though, it’s great! 🙂

  6. Hello Sylvia, congratulations on being freshly pressed, I hope it didn’t hurt too much! Humour is a great subject with lots to talk about. From reading some of the comments I can see that you have got a lot of people thinking which is great. Personally I love humour, especially when people find themselves in a grave situation and are forced to wrestle with keeping the humour inside them from spilling out. I am new here and sampling the many blogs out there, but when i can i shall pop round for another read. keep the kettle boiling!

    1. Haha–great play on words using ‘freshly pressed’…we will get along just fine, I think. 🙂 Hope you manage to pop back here again and I’ll certainly be over to read your posts soon, too.

    1. Hi Rutabaga–isn’t it strange how we all react differently to ‘humor’. And I agree with you that humor is a wonderful tool to use when trying to hold on to sanity! 🙂

      1. Totally- it always annoys me when talented comedic actors feel like they are not validated as ‘artists’ unless they do some ‘serious drama’ – being funny is not always ‘easy’ and takes a special kind of talent and timing that is underappreciated.

  7. Good questions, yes! For me personally, I have very little patience for people telling “jokes” (most of them just aren’t funny and are WAY overused), however, I enjoy a dry sense of humor. Things make me laugh that I can relate to. It can’t be obviously scripted and it can’t be overdone or it gets lame. That’s my ten cents! 😛

    1. Hi Sarah–thanks for sharing your ten cents worth–and I’m glad you adjusted the amount to take inflation into account…two cents doesn’t go very far these days but with ten cents…well, actually that doesn’t go very far these days, either, but saying ‘100 cents worth’ just doesn’t sound right, does it? 🙂

  8. I think humor comes in different flavors. Some people prefer clever use of words, while others like an earthier humor.

    Some humor is based on what I call The Perception Gap. In a movie scene, one character will make a statement and then in the next scene, the character will completely contradict what he/she just said. Being able to perceive that humorous contradiction is why a joke works or not.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    1. Thanks, Eagle-Eyed Editor. Your comment makes me wonder what percentage of people prefer clever word use versus earthy humor…perhaps that could be a PhD study sometime, and all of us will get credit for our comments and for helping that person become famous and well-respected…yay for us! 🙂

    1. Some of her episodes are classic–love the one when she’s on an assembly line and gets behind the amount of chocolates going through…still hilarious after all these years!

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