Three Theories of Humor: Relief, Superiority, and… Surprise!

This lesson is part of a free, six week mini-course on humor writing that you can sign up for here. If you’re a teacher who would like to teach a humor-writing unit in your classroom, you can find the classroom-ready version of this course here. In this post, you’ll find an overview of three popular theories of humor: relief theory, superiority theory, and surprise theory. These theories are useful for understanding what makes things funny. Some of them date back to early philosophers. You’ll also find examples of each theory as well as a quick writing exercise to help you put them into practice.

Relief Theory of Humor: We laugh when something relieves psychological tension by allowing us to face our fears, release nervous energy, and overcome inhibitions.

Example from standup comic Jim Gaffigan: “The worst is when you ask someone on a date and they turn you down. ‘Cause what they’re really saying is, ‘you know what? I don’t even feel like eating a free meal around you.’”

Superiority Theory of Humor: We laugh at the misfortunes and shortcomings of others because it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Example: Any “yo momma” joke you can think of fits this description.

Example from comic Kevin Hart: This story about being chased by an ostrich. (The version linked here is the clean version you can use with students if you’re teaching the unit in class.) Unlike “yo momma” jokes, Kevin Hart is using self-deprecating humor here and offering his audience a chance to laugh directly at him. Hart often does this, and it even shows in the names of his comedy specials. This clip is from a special called I’m a Grown Little Man. Another of Hart’s specials is entitled Laugh at my Pain.

Surprise Theory of Humor (also called Incongruity Theory): We laugh when our perception of a situation suddenly changes.

Example from Greg Dean’s Step-by-Step to Standup, which breaks down how to write this type of joke: ”My grandfather died peacefully in his sleep. But the kids on his bus were screaming.”

Example from standup comic Demitri Martin: “I am a man of my word. And that word is unreliable.”

Another example from Demitri Martin: “I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Unless you’re at a funeral.”

“Like they say…” A cliché mash-up activity to help you practice surprise theory

All of the phrases below are well known English-language sayings. They automatically give you common ground with readers, because you can safely assume readers have heard them before. So what’s the problem with using them in your writing? They’re clichés. This means that not only does your reader know you didn’t make them up, the reader probably knows them by heart. If you’re trying to be funny, you have the additional issue that there is there is no way the reader will be surprised by the ending. That means no laughing.

Unless…

You can beat readers at their own game by changing the second half of the cliché just as they think they’ve jumped ahead of you.

Directions:

For each of the clichés on this list, change the part in parenthesis to something new and unexpected. Do all 20 as quickly as you can. Don’t worry about whether they’re funny until afterwards. Professional humor writers know that only a small percentage of what they write actually works—they’re used to writing fast and seeing what comes of it. For some perspective, if you get three statements that are even a little bit funny out of this exercise, you’re doing as well as most professional humor writers do on a first draft.

“It’s like they say…”
  1. You can’t judge a book by… (its cover.)
  2. When the going gets tough… (the tough get going.)
  3. It’s like finding a needle in… (a haystack.)
  4. Don’t let the cat out of the… (bag.)
  5. Two wrongs don’t… (make a right.)
  6. When in Rome… (do as the Romans do.)
  7. The squeaky wheel gets the… (grease.)
  8. People who live in glass houses… (shouldn’t throw stones.)
  9. Keep your friends close… (and your enemies closer.)
  10. Birds of a feather… (flock together.)
  11. A picture is worth a thousand… (words.)
  12. There’s no place like… (home.)
  13. The early bird… (catches the worm.)
  14. If it ain’t broke… (don’t fix it.)
  15. Don’t bite the hand… (that feeds you.)
  16. If you can’t beat ‘em… (join ‘em.)
  17. One man’s trash… (is another man’s treasure.)
  18. Beauty is in the eye of… (the beholder.)
  19. A penny saved is… (a penny earned.)
  20. The grass is always greener… (on the other side of the fence.)

This Week’s Ongoing Assignment: Tune Your Mental Radio to the Humor Nerd Station

Take some time this week to revisit things you have found funny in the past. Reread a book passage or article that made you laugh. Think about how these might relate to the three theories of humor that you learned about.

In the next class, we’ll learn a fourth theory that pulls all of these theories together and explains why we find things funny—and why we sometimes don’t.

See you next week!

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