Funny. What makes things humorous?

We’ve all got a funny bone

Actually it isn’t a bone. It’s the ulnar nerve. So why do we call it the funny bone?

There are two main ideas about that. One says it’s a pun on anatomy because the nerve runs along the humerus, which sounds like “humorous.” The other claims the nerve got its nickname because of the  odd (funny peculiar) feeling you experience after you hit it.

funny bone

funny ‘bone’

But humour hasn’t anything to do with your elbow unless when you bang it you make other people laugh. So . . .

What makes things funny?

Where do we register humour in our brains? Scott Weems tells us there’s been plenty of research into laughter.

His book Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why explains in detail. But what about studying what it is that makes us laugh? Why do some of us find certain kinds of comedy funny but others don’t?

funny for life

humour is life enhancing

Humour appreciation appears to be based in the lower frontal lobes of the brain, a location associated with social and emotional judgment and planning according to imaging research. That might explain why people who have suffered strokes involving the lower frontal lobes of the brain may have alterations of personality which include loss of their sense of humour. Also why psychopaths whose brains are wired differently tend to have an infantile sense of humour.

Different types of funny

There are different kinds of humour including the following:

Affiliative humour – the style of humour used to enhance one’s relationships with others in a benevolent, positive manner. This style of humor is typically used in a benevolent, self accepting way. Individuals often use this kind of humour as a way to charm and amuse others, ease tension and improve relationships.

Self-enhancing humour is a style related to having a good-natured attitude toward life, having the ability to laugh at yourself, your circumstances and the idiosyncrasies of life in a constructive, non-detrimental manner.

Aggressive humour is a style potentially detrimental towards others. This type of humour is characterized by the use of sarcasm, put-downs, teasing, criticism, ridicule used at the expense of others. Aggressive humour often disregards the impact it might have on others. Prejudices such as racism & sexism are considered to be  aggressive humour.  At times it may seem like playful fun but sometimes the underlying intent is to harm or belittle others.

Self-defeating humour is characterised by the use of potentially detrimental humour towards the self in order to gain approval from others. Individuals high in this dimension engage in self-disparaging remarks where laughter is often at their own expense. Self-defeating humour often comes in the form of pleasing others by being the “butt” of the joke.

Does funny have a reason for being?

So what is the purpose of humour?

we need funny

what would life be without something funny?


Airing social taboos

If we can laugh at difficult subjects might we make it easier to discuss them? In my first collection of short stories Arsed End(s) I wrote about sexual harassment, boring relationships, funerals, infuriating hobbies and the end of the world. I’m a fan of dark humour. I think it has its place in this sub-category.

Social criticism

We can take a poke at local and national government, even specific ministers or presidents, corporations and institutions like Big Pharma or the police. George Orwell set his social criticism novel in a farmyard in Animal Farm. We could laugh at Napoleon the pig whereas in 1984 I don’t remember there being anything funny.

Consolidation of group membership

Jokes about one political party to confirm your allegiance to another. Humour based on the ‘easy’ life of a hospital consultant to establish membership of the junior doctor group. One football team against another. You get the picture.

Defence against fear and anxiety

Turning fears and anxiety into something to laugh about makes them less frightening: death, funerals, impotence, fear of flying, bad drivers etc.

Intellectual play

Clever sayings, puns and other plays on words. Witty reposts and dry one-liners. As Einstein said, creativity is intelligence having fun.

And that’s where I’d like us to leave it. Having fun. All this analysis of what makes things funny and how we assimilate that humorous information takes the shine off the fun, in my opinion. You have to wonder what the ancients laughed at. When some young blood cut his finger on his own sword in the Bronze Age you can bet the others didn’t sit around analysing what kind of funny they were sniggering at.

The oldest recorded joke in the history of mankind dates back to 1900 BC Sumeria:

“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap”

It seems even the ancient Sumerians had a lavatorial sense of humour. I don’t get this ancient quip. I don’t find it at all funny. But I don’t know why. It doesn’t matter why. I obviously haven’t found all the answers yet to my questions about humour.

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Cheers! Have fun. Laugh a lot.

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