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

Words humor writing mini course in front of a messy teacher desk

This information is excerpted from a two-week, humor writing unit plan for teachers: Introduction to Humor and Comedy Writing.

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. In the course, you’ll find additional examples of each theory and writing exercises to help you put them into practice.

Explanations of the Three Theories of Humor

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—the concept even shows through in the titles 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.”

Want more?

If you’re a teacher who would like to teach a humor-writing unit in your classroom, you can find a classroom-ready unit plan on Teachers Pay Teachers.