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The ideas considered to be classical theories of humor, or the 'big three,' are all wrong. This book recognizes such error, though not thoroughly, while it is itself no better. This review is lengthy, yet the book can be laid to rest in one simple point. People may make careless false assumptions, sometimes only for a moment or even sustained ones. These authors believe this is the general form of all humor, following a well-established conventional view that jokes are funny because they catch the audience in a sort of blameless error. That is, in fact, only a minor aspect of jokes, and it is humorous only because it reminds us of blameworthy self-interest.
The authors' evolutionary theory, that amusement is the byproduct of a bribing of the brain to avoid error, is obviously false. The practical consequences of error and truth would have been sufficient incentive for any sentient organism, for millions of years before humans existed.
The authors define humor through their idea of covertly entered belief, which means not being fully aware of one's own assumption. Neither the idea of careless false assumption, nor this new theory about it (covertly entered belief) explains the nature of jokes, humor and comedy.
Among jokes, covertly entered belief is notable only in examples that do one of two things:
1. Present a situation of which something is assumed true by the audience, possibly without full awareness, then shown to be false.
Or in a more juvenile form,
2. Try to sneak in a spoken assumption that the audience knows is false. An example of type 2. ends with, "roosters don't lay eggs."
Only in case 2., however, is covertly entered belief necessary for humor, because the listener would have to overlook something actually being said to them. Therefore, the vast majority of examples can fall outside the theory. The book is focused on jokes, yet its theory does not apply to them in any significant way. The funniest jokes show or allude to errors of interpretation, not attention, and no jokes are pictures. It follows that jokes cannot generally rely on concealment of either beliefs or objects. Apart from jokes, the role of covertly entered belief is equally marginal, because so many comical errors aren't caused by lack of attention.
There are jokes that hinge on some false belief which could be covertly entered in the audience's mind, or it might be mentally overt. Christopher Hitchens told one about a man who thinks he has called home where his wife is cheating on him, and asks the respondent to shoot the couple. The gun and other things are situated as in his own home, but actually he has the wrong number. Here the humor requires no covertly entered belief. We consciously, clearly think that the man has called his own house.
In the one in which a man fishes at a skating rink, our assumption that he is on a frozen pond could be covertly entered. But humor does not require it. The same is true of the fisherman's own false assumption. If one says "there are no fish here" in an uncanny voice, this appears to help the delivery, but covertly entered belief is not a factor. What makes this joke funny is only one thing: that the ambiguity of the scene alludes to misinterpretation, which is central to a kind of social error and social rejection. That is the only way in which this joke can be seen as basically funny. This book, then, tries unsuccessfully to show that jokes are mainly concerned with a sort of paralysis of perception that affects an awkward personality, and is also caused by cleverly crafted mathematical puzzles. It is somewhat funny because it is an image of pretension. But few jokes are based on it, and they are among the least funny.
Humor can arise from overt careless false beliefs, for the believer if he is corrected or for others if he remains deceived. So if my glasses are lost and on my head, it is likely that I'm not thinking about that location though I surely could be. What's funny about the glasses being hidden on the head is not covertly entered belief, per se, but what makes that theme significant: that the situation resembles a self-deception of superiority. That proposition is as solid as a rock. Instead of self-deception, some prefer the phrase illusory superiority, or the Dunning-Kruger effect. But the one essence of humor is not "illusory superiority" because that allows for imposed deceptions, whereas those deceptions are funny because they allude to self-deception. Passive deception is not the concept from which all humor ultimately derives, because it does not imply necessarily that some object is desired. Self-deception meets that criterion, all humor ultimately derives from it. And humor or no humor, the covertness of belief is not a necessary feature. False assumption is only one kind of humor, so making it the essence just oversimplifies.
A mistake is funny only if we see in it a reminder of culpable self-deception. We can do that even for a person who is passively fooled. Any lack of attention alludes to this idea. Even covertly entered belief does, and it describes accurately one aspect of the experience of falling or stumbling, as on an unexpected object. But the reverse can't be happening; self-interested self-delusion can't be the reminder of covertly entered belief. Humor always derives from the image of self-deception represented anywhere (the response, amusement, copies this image). There is no possibility that this view of humor can be overturned or improved, and consequently it must, and certainly will be, accepted as the authoritative view in this field. It is true of jokes as well. But the essence of humor has to be a blameworthy, overly self-interested self-deception, because self-deception can be innocent. To deceive oneself in order to forget one's dissatisfaction, to take a bright view of life, is not blameworthy.
I advanced this global theory of humor as self-deception in 2011, clearly the most important theory of what humor is, presenting it to Daniel Dennett in a conference at Colby College in 2013. The stimulus is always self-deception of superiority or allusion to that, while the response is a mental imitation or mimicry of it. Outward laughter in such delusion also seems appropriate, and there is a strong association between them. Though related to the humanities, that theory is completely naturalistic and probably empirically verifiable.
In many mistakes, we also insinuate folly and self-deception where it is not actual, and this theory explains that.
Just thinking about a joke while it is delivered well, can never ruin it. That eliminates the need for belief covertness during such telling. A joke can be effective with any overtly entered belief.
Countless examples show that the audience itself can never ruin a joke by focusing on a belief or object, and this book confuses the two. It is excess in the delivery that can spoil a joke, which the book seems to confuse with audience thinking.
The author claims, on his website, there's a problem that we laugh at our own mistakes. Yet when we do this we're laughing at an idea, not just ourselves.
In the Times Literary Supplement review of this book, the basics of the theory weren't explained. Neither was it said that evolution would not need humor to bribe the brain to be able to avoid mistakes.
Notice Mr. Hardy's five-star review, where he gives no reason to believe the Hurley-Dennett-Adams theory other than that it is "serious" and humor "must be promoting our fitness." A true teleology of humor, explaining how it promotes our fitness, can only be found in its social use, and that use is important only because humor expresses not just a careful perception of reality but the acceptance of it. That crucial difference between mere perception and desire is what this book misses. The error of folly is motivated, not an accident, and jokes present this theme allusively, not literally. Hardy claims the book discusses what "humor does to our brains," which it intends to do though doesn't succeed. Yet it does just what Hardy denies and recommends against because it's "hard" -- it is seeking, as it should, a common property to humorous stimuli.
The superiority and release theories are the most obviously false and should be considered only historical anecdotes. It is easy to see, and admitted by scholars (Levinson, Morreall), that in the case of humor, superiority could only be a condition or feeling that accompanies the response. For some, a relief theory means that humor enables the satisfaction of suppressed impulses. But this is no theory of the essence. It describes how humor can be tendentious or have an actual person as the butt, though not necessarily one that invites ridicule. In other words, here "relief" means something separate from the humor. Humor is intrinsically relief only because it is a faint image of the satisfaction in escaping from an unpleasant reality, of being deluded about one's status. While for Freud release in laughter signifies a wasted effort, this too is a false description of the phenomenon.
In recent years there have been theories that, like Hurley-Dennett-Adams, explain humor in evolutionary terms but in other ways, that of Ernest Garrett, for example, and Hugh Basil Hall. These latter share the idea that conflict resolution is primordial and humor resembles this process. 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, forgetting that there need be no expectation involved with the personified dog. But the main error is that a particular case of humor is mistaken for the general concept. 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.
Hurley, Dennett and Adams rightly reject the incongruity theory despite its being the most accepted view. But these next comments about incongruity are my own -- the following is not from this book.
The incongruity theory claims either that mere contrasts or their resolution cause a vague pleasure identifiable as humor. Now the former of the two accounts does not explain its typical great-versus-small juxtaposition, and in those cases it is trivial. It identifies the obvious dual elements, saying nothing insightful about them. Furthermore, the theory fails to indicate that the humor in great versus small, high versus low really derives from the relation of delusion versus reality, and therefore, self-deception of superiority.
The incongruity theory uses the term either trivially or else in cases where it does not apply. It does apply to a pratfall yet this requires explanation. "Dignified versus lowly" may allow the fall to be seen as thematic. But the humor actually derives from delusion, absentmindedness, and death. Dangerous falls provide a crude amusement, just as every slight fall alludes to the potentially fatal. In all such cases, humor arises because small concerns appear excessively important when life is sacrificed for them (in this case not in a noble sense). The theory also misapplies incongruity. Every kind of irregularity or sharp variance is thrown into one heap, so that the concept not only loses the original meaning, high versus low, but even has no meaning at all.
The newer version is that puns, for example, while having other humorous effects, can create an appropriate incongruity. In other words, a foible or complaint is mentioned, linked to another idea by the double meaning. (If one needs an example, note the entire joke about the piano player and containing the line "do you know your monkey just dipped his balls in my martini?").
In the first place, the paradigm just mentioned has two possible meanings, even in the identical aspect of a joke. The standard "appropriate incongruity" theory interprets this idea to mean the way we understand jokes, the way we "get" them, resolving an incongruity. It cannot be refuted, because it is a permanent part of the humor. But what proponents of the "getting the joke" approach fail to realize, is that this idea is a repetition of the central theme of jokes, and it is extraneous to the main part of their meaning. The true theory of humor, then, assimilates the old "incongruity resolution" theory. Every kind of humor possible can easily be shown to fall under the theme of self-interested self-deception.
Thus the appropriate incongruity should also be seen as sarcasm directed at a deluded stereotype who is not present in the most ideal form though there is an actual addressee. Something painful or foolish is exposed obliquely using double meaning as a screen, in the same manner in which we whisper to someone sarcastically. The only sensible option for humor theory is to discard incongruity 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 it has been worked out in thorough detail.
This book's theory of humor fails completely. 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." That does not necessarily imply covertly entered belief, but either way, it doesn't define humor. This view is a development of the erroneous tradition that the humor in jokes consists, at bottom, in the experience of solving them. That is a repetition of the humor, but not the idea itself. Covertly entered belief is a failed illustration of that aspect, which jokes do exhibit. The view that the essence of jokes is to solve them is widely accepted, and informed Freud, Krichtafovich and many others.
The theory of this book 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, as an allusion to self-interested self-deception. In using the word "allude" or "allusive" in this theory, I am not being deliberately artsy or difficult, or just borrowing from literary theory. The word here could just as easily be the simpler "refer" or "signify." I use "allude," however, because the kind of reference is subtle, while there are also other reasons. Allusion can be a source of humor itself (as in the joke class of "appropriate incongruity"), and it uses the root "ludus" one of several terms related or synonymous with humor.
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. 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. But the reference to commitment is equivocal, as one kind of commitment requires awareness and another does not. 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.
False assumption is only one of many allusions to self-interested self-deception, and it is not the only main feature of jokes. But if it were, overtness of belief in some jokes would make no difference in the funniness. Note also, how much overtness there is, for example, in sarcasm. One way to disprove the theory is to show that it is not a good description of jokes. The following is from the book.
(A) Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you've got a mile head start, and they're barefoot.
(B) Before you criticize someone, you should (as we say metaphorically) walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you've got a mile head start, and they're barefoot.
The idea here is that a belief is covertly entered in (A) but not in (B), thus lessening the humor in (B). Here is why the above does not support the theory.
The audience still does not know what belief will be corrected, while this belief correction is humorless anyway. And even if covertly entered belief was funny, the figurative use in (A) could have been consciously considered without being written in as in (B) but with no significant loss of humor. The authors here confuse our own thought with what we read, two very different things.
Once the joke is understood, the unnecessary phrase is seen as an explanation. The joke now seems to analyze itself only after one gets it.
The main humor (here the authors are right to focus on language) is in the shift to literal from figurative -- and all kinds of meaning-based humor work by referring vaguely to an abstract personality that loses a quest for social acceptance or hospitality. That's why puns are funny, all other explanations in history have failed. In the lesser aspect, the joke sees the figurative moral adage as pompous. This joke does not appear to be another "sarcastic" appropriate incongruity, but only fits that theory in the sense of being a puzzle.
The parenthetical, "as we say metaphorically" makes the belief into information, as the audience is being told that "in their shoes" is being used as it normally would. Though the figurative use is normal and expected, writing it into the joke remains an external source. The book thus equivocates between first and third person.
Take, for example, Hurley-Dennett-Adams' joke about a man and woman as strangers on a 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 stereotypically 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. This example, also, does not seem to fall under "appropriate incongruity." There is a delay in this joke before a word is reinterpreted. Like the example of "a mile in their shoes" this ambiguity signifies a classic type of gaffe. It alludes to a truly comical situation in which meaning is in fact misconstrued in a way that is self-centered. When double meaning is funny on its face, it signifies the 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 self-interested 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 book 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.
Rob Hardy writes: Just as the pleasures of pornography ride upon but do not directly satisfy our sexual urges, or as the pleasures of sweetening from aspartame take over our energy-seeking appetites without having intrinsic nutritional value, the pleasures of jokes and humor represent a benevolent hijacking of the system for correcting our mental spaces."
But this is unclear. The theory can't be about the humor in just any corrected false assumption. But neither can it be about a hijacking of that principle. Where's the funniness in the pure belief correction, before being hijacked? How do jokes hijack that idea? They don't. It's true that humor, in a way, hijacks delusion by alluding to it, showing it indirectly. But that's different.
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 covert entry of some false belief (not of its falsehood, but that it is believed). These are two different things which this book does not well distinguish, mainly presenting the latter. It first mentions covert entry as only mental and original to the audience (Hurley, 121). Then later it is said that explicitly revealing any best concealed feature of humor would "telegraph the punch line" (Hurley, 118, 134, 230).
Many reviews of Inside Jokes focus on the evolutionary notion that "sugar is sweet because we like it." 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 causes humor to appear to be an objective quality. But a superior humorist is not extraneous to evolution at all, and is none other than an exceptional human type that evolution has made possible. 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 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.
Though they clearly maintain the "covert entry" thesis the authors sometimes omit it. That inconsistency alone almost makes the book completely unintelligible.
But the authors are dishonest where they arbitrarily designate a 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.
A conscious false belief may not be funny when corrected. But if it is not funny, the reason is that it is not self-interested 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?
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, so 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.
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.
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.
(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.