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There are only four or five theories of humor acknowledged as notable, and they're all wrong. This book at least has the virtue of recognizing this in the case of theories other than its own.
The superiority and release theories are the most obviously false and should be considered only historical anecdotes. It is easy to see that superiority could only be a condition or feeling that accompanies or is associated with the response to humor. It is a truth so obvious that no one could even appropriate it. If "release" means that humor enables the satisfaction of suppressed impulses, that is not a theory of what humor is. While Freud means that release in laughter signifies a wasted effort, this too is a false description of the phenomenon. As has been shown elsewhere Freud did not understand his own jokes.
In recent years there have been a few theories that try to explain humor in evolutionary terms--that of Ernest Garrett, for example, and Hugh Basil Hall. These views either say nothing about what humor itself is, or they make the false claim that humor can be identified with its evolutionary origins as do Garrett and Hall. For Garrett, what is funny about a dog elevated to a position of prestige, is that it evokes the discovery of weakness where power was expected. This already old trick just describes the surface of humor without explaining it. Another reason we know this theory is false is that the removal of the serious is an example of something that's funny--because worry can be a mistake--and is also the effect of humor, not the general form of what is funny. The approach contains no real work and is thus easily discredited, and of course it involves no extensive analysis of jokes.
Hurley, Dennett and Adams are right to debunk the "incongruity theory" as one of academe's worst errors. It claims either that mere contrasts or their resolution cause a vague pleasure identifiable as humor. Now the former of those accounts is simply void of content. It is not explanatory to describe the fall of a person as "incongruous" with his walking a moment earlier, unless the change implies a thematic meaning. The latter theory is that, for example, puns are funny because they permit an appropriate incongruity. In other words, a foible or complaint is mentioned, linked to another idea by the double meaning.
In the first place, appropriate incongruity is only one of several effects of double meaning and of something out of place or incongruous. But, furthermore, the appropriate incongruity is funny only because it signifies a deluded archetype--that is, something painful is exposed obliquely, using double meaning as a screen. The simple solution is to discard incongruity completely as the theory of humor and replace it with the one thematic concept that it implies. Academe now stands on the threshold of that event. It might be considered already past, since in fact it has been worked out in thorough detail.
Although the problem has actually been solved, the true theory of humor is being swept under the rug for some reason also undisclosed. At Colby College in April, 2013 where one author of this book (Dennett) was in attendance, my own much better view was presented to which no supposed expert in the field has responded. If such experts believed they could defend their theories they would attempt to do so today.
This book's theory of humor fails completely. The theory is right to identify error as the framework but it contains no further insight. It does not tell us that the theme of humor is always a kind of motivated error rather than accidental. And the authors don't understand that the humor in jokes is allusive, that is, an allusion to selfish self-deception. It is not created by the very fact of fooling the audience (though tension and release repeat the allusion).
Take, for example, Hurley-Dennett-Adams' example joke about the man and woman as strangers on the train.
A man and a woman who have never met before find themselves in the same sleeping carriage of a train.
After the initial embarrassment they both go to sleep, the woman on the top bunk, the man on the lower.
In the middle of the night the woman leans over, wakes the man and says, "I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm awfully cold and I was wondering if you could possibly get me another blanket."
The man leans out and, with a glint in his eye, says, "I've got a better idea... just for tonight, let's pretend we're married."
The woman thinks for a moment. "Why not," she giggles.
"Great," he replies, "Get your own damn blanket!"
On the Hurley-Dennett-Adams theory, what is funny here is that one moment both the woman and the audience think the man means by "married" to keep the woman warm by sharing his bunk with her, and then both she and we discover that his meaning is different. But such a correction itself, inert and strictly about meaning, is not funny. It is funny that the woman is fooled and mistaken about the man's intention. That is a different belief, motivated and desire-laden, which is allusive and unexplained by the Hurley-Dennett-Adams theory. Though the woman's experience is not archetypically comical it alludes to that condition.
There's no humor in the correction of the meaning-belief either in our case or for a character in the joke. That would only be the direct source of humor if the initial use of "married" was a conventional meaning that another character failed to understand. Thus the verbal humor too is allusive. The man's double meaning is what one might call a humor of mention, of reference to an archetypal gaffe. It alludes to a certain type of truly comical situation in which meaning is in fact misconstrued in a way that is self-centered. Double meaning is funny only because it symbolizes the idea of misappropriation of a society or other social member, in an act that alienates the one who does the misreading.
That there is also a reference to marriage being a pleasurable experience that turns out to be unpleasant is only further proof of my interpretation. Heaven that turns out to be hell is just a repetition here or echo of the same theme of selfish self-deception.
Inside Jokes only improves on the classic theories by suggesting that mistakes in general are an important element. That approach, however, is mishandled and ruined. All of the 100 analyses of jokes are incorrect and some blatantly so. The latter portion of this review addresses more of those examples. The book attempts to show that jokes amuse by inviting false assumptions and then correcting them by the punch line, mainly. But very few jokes fit this scheme, and it is never a very funny idea. Inside Jokes thus takes a minor aspect or narrow type of joke and makes that the main theory. The authors present their theory as open to objection while remaining overconfident. Yet they are right that there had never been a valid global theory when they wrote this book.
The authors try to apply their theory of "covertly entered belief" to the way jokes thinly conceal what is going on, but also to the audience's awareness of some clear false belief (not of its falsehood, but that it is believed). These are two different things which this book does not well distinguish. The former topic is relevant with respect to how jokes either succeed or are spoiled. But this does not explain jokes, and what the book mainly presents is the latter (viewer's false assumptions). It is always possible to consciously fall into the error involved in a joke. And it is absurd that an entire book is written about jokes advancing a theory that does not even apply to them. Not only is covertly entered belief irrelevant to jokes, it is not a main source of humor elsewhere.
If anything, note this difference. Audience false assumptions are important to jokes, rarely -- covertly entered belief is never important to jokes.
Many reviews of Inside Jokes focus on the evolutionary notion that "sugar is sweet because we like it," though what decides the success or failure of the book is the theory of covertly entered belief. Inside Jokes uses this theory of sweetness to argue that humor has become a super-normal stimulus (like dessert, for example). Thus the idea here is that a more extreme stimulus contributes to the illusion that the stimulus is an entirely objective quality. But these issues of extreme stimulus and of objectivity, though interesting, are irrelevant. Contrary to Hurley-Dennett-Adams, humor is an objective quality. Though there is often only a mild humor found accidentally in everyday experience, that difference of accidental and contrived humor does not always hold. And besides, the main part of the theory is false.
And incidentally, the trendy scientific adage that sugar is sweet because we like it is a type of fallacy known as a half truth. It is true that the experiential sweetness of sugar follows causally from its caloric or energy-producing power. However, the attraction to sugar per se is not evolved in the sense that the consciousness of sweetness is. And since consciousness evolved independently of the attractiveness of sources of energy, the sweetness of sugar, for us, is not a direct byproduct of its attractiveness to organisms generally. "Sugar is sweet because we like it" is a trivial and misleading observation.
Regardless of that question of half truth concerning sweetness, in humor the covertly entered belief theory would be false. The authors hold that when the correction of a committed belief is funny it is because the believer lacked a certain degree of awareness of the belief. The awareness that they have in mind is as much as would be necessary for direct consideration of the belief. And they hold that when such correction is not funny, the believer was more conscious of the belief and could at least consider it directly. These assertions look very doubtful, since many conscious mistakes are funny and many non-conscious ones are not, and there is further evidence against the covert entry theory. But the reference to commitment is equivocal, as one kind of commitment requires awareness and another does not.
One must do more than disprove the claim about covertly entered belief. The way to use it and to disprove the entire theory is by a modus tollens argument. Though they clearly maintain the "covert entry" thesis the authors sometimes omit it. That inconsistency alone almost makes the book completely unintelligible. Yet the idea of covertly entered belief appears throughout the book and is meant to apply to every example, without exception.
But the theory that humor is covertly entered belief must be true if the main theory of this book is true, and here is why. The theory requires that the false beliefs causing humor are initially untested and free of doubt and that humor evolved from such beliefs. The authors claim that humor happens if and only if "an assumption is epistemically committed to in a mental space, and then discovered to have been a mistake." Now on this theory the original object of humor was the grammatical first person or observer himself. Yet while there is no evidence for that thesis and it is almost certainly false, it is not crucial. Whether the origin or primary object was the first or third person--or neither, as is most likely--the bottom line is what kind of error is most important.
The quoted claim implies the related covert entry theory. The quotation does not refer to what one might call reasoned beliefs, and yet the "discovery of a mistake" rules out the irrational. Obviously, stories are different from direct experience, in that in the latter we more independently revise our beliefs. But it makes no difference in this debate whether jokes can also revise our beliefs in either of those ways. The fact remains that, in direct experience, beliefs that might be conveniently revised are very unlikely to be assumed, or regarded as probable. It is not impossible, but unlikely, uncommon.
In other words, "committed" normally implies a conscious attitude. But that meaning is quite impossible here. Assumptions, unless they are justifiable, can hardly be consciously committed. If a false assumption may be described as a belief, but the truth is well within immediate reach, it is almost impossible for the assumption to be conscious. Yet the authors of this book ignore that, and they waffle between the ideas of covertly entered and conscious conviction. One might stop there and dismiss their argument as incoherent or a fallacy. Yet the said beliefs would have to be "covertly entered," if and only if they had to be free from doubt. Such freedom from doubt is the only condition that satisfies the above quotation.
But the authors are dishonest where they arbitrarily designate this sort of casual assumption as committed or not (see p. 199-200). It is not "commitment" that they truly have in mind (which is ruled out for careless assumptions by definition) but rather a confidence expressed merely by not thinking about one's belief. Not only is the theory a sophism, but the author defended it at a conference by freely judging whether a belief was committed. His theory is thus plagued by equivocation or a lack of clarity, which contrasts with its scientific platform or overall methodology.
The quoted statement refers to assumptions that are not doubted, and yet easily corrected, even by the one who errs. They cannot, for example, be very powerful deceptions. And thus they are assumptions that do not rely on strong evidence or justification. That raises the question how they can be held. There are only two ways this kind of false belief can actually be called a belief. It is possible by being inaccessible to doubt, or else refusing doubt altogether or being dogmatic. It seems undisputed that a belief inaccessible to doubt is "covertly entered." On this theory, then, humorous errors are typically very small, and can often be described as accidental. But the authors appear to have confused committed belief with belief inaccessible to doubt. Besides that implied idea of inaccessibility, they offer no explanation of what committed belief is.
The covert entry thesis, (that only covertly entered belief is funny), is false, and it follows by modus tollens that the overall theory is false. A conscious false belief may not be funny when corrected. But if it is not funny, the reason is that it is not selfish or entirely unjustified. And conscious beliefs have those properties. Any irrational belief can be conscious, though deliberations cannot enter covertly. This book has thus completely overlooked or denied irrationality as a source of error, a kind of error which falls within humor. That is a fatal flaw for the theory, surely, but it is also ironic coming from an author who is a famous critic of religious belief. How is it that Dan Dennett, who regards religion as irrational and comical, here forgets that description and reduces humor to blind and insignificant errors, only a small aspect of something much larger? Along with the theory itself, also destroyed is the authors' attempt to bring into humor beliefs of an indifferent quality, rather than those that are more motivated or require more thought to correct. That brings us to the next problem.
It is true that a punch line may correct a number of beliefs. Yet in this book, beliefs are selected which are beside the point. And it treats belief revision as a mere fact, whereas the humor in mistakes is based on the desire that something be true (or the fear of it). The type of joke being studied involves an ambiguous phrase or word. In some cases, the authors of Inside Jokes miss that ambiguity entirely. This book is mediocre in the explanation of jokes. The commentaries fail because they keep looking for indifferent or covertly entered beliefs, occasionally even giving up when it becomes obvious that these are not the elements of jokes at all. Double meaning can be the main source of a mistake, but in humor it also may supplement another error, with a further element of folly. Inside Jokes does not inform the reader of those things. Other claims of the book are wrong, including that the original source of humor is discovery rather than error, and the notion that humor could be needed as a force driving evolution of perception and thought, or be a byproduct of such evolution. It could not be necessary as such a force; therefore it cannot be such a reward or byproduct.
While this theory focuses on unimportant beliefs in jokes, in the case of any kind of error it is wrong about what exactly humor is. So even if it were to find the right false belief, it would be unable to explain the humor. The authors claim that the relevant false belief has to be a "covertly entered" thought, held with conviction. That is, it must be mentally covert, in the one hearing the joke or in one of its characters. Now there is a kind of humor in which a fact has been forgotten, and is recovered by a subtle reminder. But that is not covertly entered belief, but the simple act of forgetting.
Imagine a human or other animal who covertly assumes that it has encountered a large stone (such as in crossing a river), thus without assuming explicitly. But the stone turns out to be a dangerous predator. Probably, if the individual had thought about what this thing really is and then chose wrongly, the discovery would not be funny. But this is not merely because the belief was not covertly entered. Humor would be lacking because non-covert entry allowed consideration of the contrary possibility -- that the stone might be a living predator. The false belief would not be a hasty assumption, and if it is an assumption at all, it is a fair judgment. The covert entry theory, then, is false. Many consciously held false beliefs are funny even from the first-person point of view, when corrected. The vast majority of covertly entered beliefs, when corrected, are not funny, all things being equal. Note how ineffectively the authors respond to these same objections (p. 199-200).
In the joke about a patient and hospital administrator, the humor does not require any covertness in the beliefs, "the nurse is talking to the patient" or even "the doctor is competent." Now there certainly is something funny about the sudden discovery that the doctor is incompetent and dangerous. But that discovery itself is not the Inside Jokes interpretation. The authors have chosen the topic of who is being spoken to, while they also mean to focus on the discovery that the doctor is unsafe. They do not notice a double meaning.
Inside Jokes claims that there is humor in the discovery that occurs in the punch line. But the humor is not in the discovery itself as a revelation of the very fact stated (that is, who was speaking to whom). The humor is in the now disclosed double meaning of what the nurse had said. At the conference Of Mind and Mirth at Colby College, Dennett insisted that his interpretation of the joke was the right one. The amount of humor in Dennett's interpretation of this joke, as of any other joke, is absolutely 0.
And if we consciously assume that "the nurse was talking to the patient," the joke does not die. The humor remains, and the same is true of many other examples in the book. It does not seem important whether the false belief is "the nurse is not talking to the surgeon," which seems like an arbitrary attribution anyway.
The book first mentions covert entry as an isolated first-person perspective, such that it means not vocal entry, but mental (Hurley, 121). This theory is supported by the argument that explicitly revealing any best concealed feature of humor would "telegraph the punch line" (Hurley, 118, 134, 230). The argument is confused, since the theory had been presented as one of the awareness of beliefs, rather than of other factors or entities. To transpose the theory in this way just looks like a sneaky (or simply foolish) sophism.
(63) Do you mind telling me why you ran away from the operating room?" the hospital administrator asked the patient. "Because the nurse said, `Don't be afraid! An appendectomy is quite simple.'" "So..." "So?" exclaimed the man, "She was talking to the surgeon!" (Hurley, 168)
The book's commentary is this: We and the administrator make the same mistake, but it is our mistake that creates the humor: we infer--without noticing--from the content of the patient's speech act, that the nurse was talking to the patient. (We tacitly go back and insert "to me" after "the nurse said," but only because of the content that follows....) (Hurley, 168)
The idea that the doctor is incompetent or dangerous is not quite enough for a joke. That is why we have the phrase, "An appendectomy is quite simple." No belief about who is addressed matters, when this phrase can be treated as ambiguous. It is revealed that "X is simple" can mean "It is easy to perform this operation," and also, a meaning that fits no better or worse, "it is safe to receive this operation."
This book does not explain why an ambiguity is funny, such as in puns. It claims without good evidence that through all past belief revisions we have evolved a reward which can be identified as the experience of humor or amusement. That thesis requires that we take all errors, trivial or not, as having equal humorous potential, which they do not have. The authors write as though we did not often recognize puns at first glance, which is counterintuitive.