Humor: A Unit for Gifted 8th Graders

Three Theories of Humor

The Punchline Theory of Humor graphic

While there is no agreement about what is funny, researchers have identified three theories about what we find funny: incongruity theory, superiority theory, and relief theory.

The first theory, Incongruity theory, is when logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don’t normally go together. This is one of the most basic elements of humor. Surprise your audience via an unexpected event, unlikely connection, inappropriate or unexpected role performance, or bizarre viewpoint.

”If one tells the truth, one is certain sooner or later to be found out......” Oscar Wilde

Superiority theory describes when we laugh at others’ misfortune, mistakes, or stupidity because of detachment. Falling down the stairs can be painful and embarrassing when it happens to you, but when it happens to someone else, preferably on a late-night comedy show, it can be quite funny.

Relief theory explains how laughter helps to release tension during emotional moments. This happens all the time in movies where tension is high, and importantly, laughter can help people cope with stressful situations. Truly the best medicine?

A fourth theory, Benign Violation Theory, is discussed on a separate page.


How Laughter Works

Read How Laughter Works and answer the following questions on looseleaf.

  1. For what purpose does philosopher Morreall propose laughter first evolved?
  2. What do researchers believe is the purpose of laughter?
  3. List three other functions that laughter provides socially.
  4. What is the name for the scientific study of laughter?
  5. How are emotional responses different from laughter in the brain?
  6. Explain incongruity theory.
  7. Explain superiority theory.
  8. Explain relief theory.
  9. Explain how children, adolescents, and adults experience humor differently.
  10. What are the psychological benefits of laughter and humor?

For more information, you may find this article interesting, and it's from Harvard, so that's really fancy.

Harvard Medical Society article on Humor

Chuckles Bites the Dust

Watch “Chuckles Bites the Dust” from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and identify how different characters display the different types of laughter on this document:

Chuckles Bites the Dust

Austin Powers: Dr. Evil

Watch the following clip from the movie Austin Powers, and note the how the characters’ laughter demonstrates all three types of laughter: incongruity, superiority, and relief.