What is Funny?
What is funny?
Why is something “funny”?
What makes us laugh?
In the most general of terms, humor is a way for humans to release tension in an uncomfortable situation. Peace, contentment, and joy are wonderful states of being; but they aren’t funny.
Humor comes from the things that go wrong: puzzlement, embarrassment, confusion, irritation, fear, disgust, anger, disappointment, mishaps – need I go on? Heaven might be blissful, but I suspect that it isn’t very funny.
On the other hand, life on Earth provides us an ample supply of raw material for humor. As long as we’re here, we might as well make the best use of it that we can, don’t you think?
So what is it that turns something from being irritating to being funny? I believe that there is one thing that all humor has in common. The one essential element of humor is surprise. A sudden and abrupt surprise. Let’s consider an example.
I Wasn’t Trying to be Funny
When I was about 4 years old my folks wanted to try Chinese food at a new restaurant in town, and they wanted to take me with them. I had never been to a restaurant and none of us had ever eaten anything as exotic as Chinese food.
My mom got me ready for the experience, “We’re going to a restaurant tonight to eat dinner. We need to be very polite, because other people are going to cook the food for us, and we don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
“These people come from a country called, China that is very, very far away. It is so far away that you couldn’t drive there even if you drove for four days. Not even if you drove all night too.”
Wow! Who could imagine a place that far away?
“Everything is different there. They dress differently and they talk differently and they eat a different kind of food.”
“Tonight they are going to cook their kind of food for us, so we can try it. Everything that they serve us tonight is going to be from China.”
“So the food is going to be strange. You might not like it. You just need to try a little bit of each thing. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat the rest of it. But don’t say that you don’t like it, out loud. Okay? Because they are going to work hard to cook this for us, and we don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
I was fascinated by the thought of everything being different. I thought about it all day. I asked my mother if our food and clothes and words seemed strange to them. She assured me that they did.
I thought that maybe they felt uncomfortable here, because everything was so different, all of the plants and animals and even the words we use. Maybe they felt lonely. Maybe they missed their friends at home.
I thought about it and thought about it and decided that I was going to do my best to make them feel welcome here. I committed myself to eating their food and being polite; so that they would feel appreciated after traveling all that way just to cook a special dinner for us.
The big moment came and we sat down together in the restaurant. The Chinese lady brought menus and glasses of water to our table. My parents chatted with her, and I sipped the water.
I was determined to say something nice to her right then. So when there was a pause in the conversation, I spoke up. I told her most earnestly, “This is very good Chinese water.”
An Unexpected and Funny Surprise
Did you see it coming? I hope not. What makes the story funny is the sudden, abrupt surprise at the end. My parents, the restaurateur, and perhaps you too experienced momentary confusion before you and they understood my mistake.
Notice that the story didn’t offer any hint of my misunderstanding before the last phrase of the story. That’s critical. If someone can guess the punch line in advance, the surprise won’t be sudden enough for the story to be funny.
Fortunately I was too young to be embarrassed. I didn’t know why they were laughing, but I could see that the Chinese lady was smiling at me and looking pleased. So I felt that somehow I had achieved my goal.
The food was great too!