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Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:

Humor in American Film Comedy





One might wonder why the medieval architects never seem to have decided on a pent.



Wouldn’t it have been better to think five-sidedly, rather than four?











Our interest was in participants’ preference for one of four joke types over another.





We designed a test with representatives of the four humor categories: Gotcha, Word Play, Incongruity, and Sympathetic Pain.





In Gotcha humor, someone thinks that he or she is smart or in some other way talented.







Gotcha humor requires a mental calculation.




Word Play humor creates a collision of words, phrases, or other linguistic units.




Incongruity humor brings things, ideas, or concepts into collision





Sympathetic Pain humor laughs with an undeserving victim.




What separates Sympathetic Pain from Gotcha is precisely the absence of the Gotcha criterion.





The butt of a Sympathetic Pain joke can’t be judged in any way to deserve what he or she got.



Humor, it turns out, is serious business,



Gotcha depends on a perception and appreciation of justice



Word Play depends on a perception and appreciation of appropriateness.



Incongruity depends on a perception and an appreciation of truth and reality.



And finally Sympathetic Pain depends on a perception and an appreciation of mercy and compassion.




Test participants were to choose which joke in each pair was funnier.


We were looking for humor preference.








Probably the humor personalities would turn out to be combinations of two  humor types.







Four joke types can be paired to create six personalities, which can be configured into the Natural Order Circle.












One of the four humor types must be in alternating segments.


Word Play seemed to us to be a gracious straight man enhancing the success of any of the other three.



The natural intensifier lies in alternating segments.





What we needed were rubrics for each of the six combinations,


















Rubrics were all chosen to be descriptive, with positive connotations.









Our original hypothesis then was that one’s humor personality was demonstrated by one’s preference.







Our humor is directed toward the things we know and care about, not the things we have never thought  about and don’t care a twit about.








A typical humor personality score might read: Incongruity (15) + Gotcha (11) = Crusader (26).












Humor preference testing has led to strange insights into the mysteries of humor.






Humor personality is a reality.



To move on to literature, we must leap to the conclusion that works of literary art can also have humor personalities.


To determine a humor personality for a literary work, we look at the material characteristically used for humor.


If an essay is an “attempt,” then these essays are attempts to show that the humor personality of each of these movies creates a humor texture.

Contrastive humor textures will provide primary evidence for a deeper understanding of the symbiosis of comedy and humor.



Chapter 3:  A Quadrilateral for Humor of the Mind



Winona State shares an architectural feature with many colleges going back to the middle ages.  It has a quad—four dormitories built in a square and thus somewhat protecting WSU students from the inclemencies of 20 and 30 below winter temperatures.


One might wonder why the medieval architects never seem to have decided on a pent, a five-sided structure like the American military Pentagon which could presumably be pointed into the prevailing wind, thus deflecting its greatest onslaughts—but that is the kind of thing that Yankee-ingenuity-influenced Minnesotans are more likely to think about in the dead of winter.


This seeming digression isn’t. When we chose Meredith, Humor of the Mind, and a four-sided subdivision thereof, we were essentially committing ourselves to some form of quadrilateral interpretation, whether we recognized it or not.  Wouldn’t it have been better to think five-sidedly, rather than four?


In theory, we could debate this point, just as in architectural theory we could debate pents versus quads.  But practically, it turned out that looking at four forms of humor contradistinctively was a very powerful method. And thus quadrilateralism is centrally important in all the following literary discussions. Of central importance to quadrilateralism is that it is a pragmatic attempt to get at “the pork chop” center of a particular branch of literary humor. Quadrilateralism properly undertaken has no need to be exclusive. It can with ease accommodate suggestions of a fifth dimension for refinement of what has been discovered about four.


Let us try to be slightly mathematical in this chapter, nothing beyond elementary school topics. Let us say that there turn out to be eight rather than four humors of the mind.  Quadrilateralism will not be disturbed by this possibility but will try to define the “major four” among the eight possibilities. It should be easy enough to find the one preeminent of the eight humor types, perhaps accounting for 25% of the whole. The second and third most common are likely to be almost as obvious, perhaps at 15%. The fourth may be rather arbitrarily chosen from the remaining five and perhaps it actually accounts for only 7% of all Humor of the Mind. Nevertheless, the total of the four chosen categories represents 62% of all Humor of the Mind, a clear majority, even a super majority capable of forcing cloture in the United States Senate—and everybody knows that such a super majority is almost impossible to find.




Having chosen four, assuming one had been able originally to identify eight sub-humors, one could always go back and compose a second quadrilateral of the “minor humors” which would total 38% of all Humor of the Mind, or an average of 9.5% apiece. One might then regret having made the choice of such a weakling as a 7 percenter for the fourth “major humor”, but as Paul’s parents were fond of saying, that might just be chalked up to education—and perhaps it would make little final difference to our conclusions, presumably because “the weakling” would be a wall flower of empirical results compared to its three much more impressive and truly meritorious companions.


So in 1991, we committed ourselves to a four-sided, contradistinctive study. Our interest was in participants’ preference for one joke type over another, not participants’ opinion as to how funny any one joke was. Robin composed a set of 84 jokes, 21 of each of four humors of the mind, 42 narrated jokes, taken from joke books and popular magazines, and 42 cartoon jokes, taken largely from collections.


The compilation process itself led to our first major discovery: that published humor in the United States typically combines several forms of Humor of the Mind in a single joke.  In our terminology, a “pure” humor-of-the-mind joke—one clearly embodying only a single form of Humor of the Mind—was quite rare.


Remembering the Whose Ox Is Gored Principle, we determined to avoid political, religious, racial, and gender jokes. Robin eventually analyzed well over 1,000 jokes in order to come up with 84 reasonably pure representatives of the four humor categories: Gotcha, Word Play, Incongruity, and Sympathetic Pain.


(When we found that most jokes embodied combinations of more than one type of Humor of the Mind, we realized that our definitions must be somehow distortions of what Meredith originally meant since he could find only a handful of stage comedy writers who wrote Humor of the Mind material. The only other explanation that comes to mind is that Meredith had a jaundiced view of the stage, probably as smutty, violence-prone, and unintellectual to the point of never telling a mentally appreciated joke—in other words, a view often shared by commentators on Hollywood and on the American television industry.)




The form of Humor of the Mind which George Meredith discussed most articulately we have named Gotcha humor. Quite early in childhood, it is possible to discern children appreciating and generating Gotcha jokes. In Gotcha humor, someone thinks that he or she is smart or in some other way talented. Then he or she acts on the assumption of that smartness or talent. And whamo, he or she is “got,” either by somebody else or by the workings of a world that delights in humiliating false self-approbations.


A typical Gotcha joke, one of the cartoons we actually used, is a Far Side[1]  joke in which four gorillas are standing in the jungle, one with a pencil over his ear, a notebook in his hand, and a camera hung around his neck.  A second gorilla is holding out his hand to the odd gorilla, and the caption reads: “So, you’re a real gorilla, are you?  Well, guess you wouldn’t mind munchin’ down a few beetle grubs, would you? In fact, we wanna see you chug ‘em!” (90). Clearly the academic researcher thought he was pretty smart dressed up in the gorilla suit. But then of course he found either he wasn’t so smart or that gorillas weren’t as dumb as he thought.


Now, if one reviews the definition of Gotcha form, it is clear that, to be perceived, Gotcha humor requires a mental calculation.  We cannot simply observe the Gotcha situation. We must evaluate signs within the joke of someone thinking he or she is talented for the Gotcha punch to have its full meaning. This mental evaluation is the defining characteristic of Humor of the Mind.


The second of our four forms of Humor of the Mind we have called Word Play.  Children’s appreciation and generation of Word Play humor is also observable in early childhood. Word Play probably is the earliest of our four humors to develop in childhood, and it thrives on the playground in the “Knock, knock” joke. In Word Play humor, two words, phrases, or other linguistic units are forced into some sort of collision with each other.


Word Play is exemplified by a Leigh Rubin cartoon of a paunchy middle aged man in an attic looking at a mirror where he sees his armor-encrusted paunchy self bearing a sword.  The caption reads: “There were no dragons left to slay. They were now an endangered species.  There were no fair maidens to rescue. They were now feminists. Chivalry was dead. His suit was a little tight. Arthur had come face to face with a middle ages crisis.” The long caption suggests word play, and the joke, beyond the paunch belly clearly protruding under Arthur’s armor, is actually a compound of three word plays in quick succession, the last of which mentions only “middle ages crisis,” but which we as readers quickly clash with “middle aged crisis” a one-letter difference that makes all the difference. This joke, then, displays both the typical, stated collision of terms as in “dragons” and “endangered species,” along side the more sophisticated presentation of only one of the terms, “middle ages crisis,” with the expectation that the reader will provide the implied contrastive phrase that makes the word play collision possible.




Very similar to Word Play is Incongruity humor. (It has been noted that many humor theorists argue that incongruity is the basis of all humor. For our work, Incongruity, which will always be spelt with a capital “I”, as all the empirical terms of our research will be capitalized, has a specific empirical definition among  humors of the mind.)[2]


We define the Incongruity form of Humor of the Mind as humor in which two things, ideas, or concepts are made to come into collision with one another. At the start of our research, as an intuitive hypothesis, we expanded this definition to include the collision between a thing and a word. We have never regretted this intuitive tie-breaker between Incongruity and Word Play.  If a concept, idea, or thing is involved in collision, then the joke is considered Incongruity rather than as Word Play.


For example, another Rubin joke shows a disk held in a globe spindle with markings that look like a rough map of the Old World.  The caption reads: “Columbus’ first globe.” This still-life joke obviously depends on the clash between the object we see, a disk in an incongruous holder, compared to a word, “globe.”  The joke does not play with the word “globe,” as a Word Play joke might but rather is rooted in the contrast of the reality of the disk and the word and concept “globe” and thus is considered an Incongruity joke.


All three of these humor types seem discernible in Meredith, perhaps clarified by our own definitions.  The fourth type is closely related to Gotcha, and perhaps Meredith confounds these two separate forms in his discussion. Sympathetic Pain humor has not been greatly discussed academically until the Winona State humor initiative. Yet, it is rather clearly pointed to in running conversational English by the idea of “laughing with” rather than “laughing at” someone or something.


In a Sympathetic Pain joke, someone is “got,” that is, someone is discomfited, made to experience embarrassment, pain, or the like.  What separates Sympathetic Pain from Gotcha, however, is precisely the absence of the Gotcha criterion.  In Sympathetic Pain, the butt has not judged himself smart or otherwise talented. The butt is rather a victim, discomfited for circumstances entirely outside his or her own control.


Sympathetic Pain situations abound in real life.  We are tempted to sympathize with people in such painful situations.  But real sympathy involves feeling real pain, and most of the time, most of us would just as soon not feel such pain. In such cases, it is possible for us to convert sympathy into Sympathetic Pain humor.  Essentially and often literally, we say to ourselves or out loud to the butt, “That’s okay, buddy, I know exactly how you feel!”  And then of course we smile or laugh.





The typical Sympathetic Pain joke from the 42-pair Humor Quotient Test that Robin ultimately constructed  is a highly talented cartoon by Sidney Harris showing a very sick-looking brontosaurus towering over adjacent palm trees and looking back over his shoulder in a most pitiful grimace.  The caption reads: “The last brontosaurus on earth unable to understand why he can’t get a date for Saturday night.” That’s okay, buddy, I know exactly how you feel!


It is hardly our brontosaurus’ fault that he has outlived the rest of his species. Perhaps he was on vacation when the rest of his endangered species was wiped out by an inconvenient volcanic eruption or by a herd of Tyrannosaurus Rex. The cartoon doesn’t say or imply anything about how our brontosaurus achieved his solitary existence. And therefore, while clearly our brontosaurus is got, he can’t be judged in any way to have deserved what he got. Nor can he be presumed to have thought better of himself than he ought.


Once the foursome of joke types was compiled, it became apparent that each type of Humor of the Mind was dependent on the perception and appreciation of an underlying nonhumorous value. Humor, it turns out, is serious business, not merely a plaything for the flighty and ungrounded. There is some scholarly debate over the serious nature of humor, Bakhtin, for example, focusing on the carnival aspect, but Palmer, Morreall (Taking Laugher Seriously), Zwart (Lippitt), and Lippit, among others, argue for humor’s profundity.[3]


Gotcha depends on a perception and appreciation of justice. After all, the overconfident butt is getting just deserts. If we can not appreciate the justice of the falsely confident researcher trying to fool wild animals with his gorilla suit, we will less appreciate the joke. (An appreciation of justice distinguishes Gotcha Humor of the Mind from mere taunting, goading, and mean-spirited humorous jabs.)


Word Play depends on a perception and an appreciation of linguistic, aesthetic, or logical appropriateness. To appreciate Word Play, we have to know what words, phrases, and logical constructions typically go together and are aesthetically pleasing.  Far beyond recognizing a pun when we see or hear it, we need to know the difference between ordinary prose and tour de force prose or poetry, to recognize literary allusion and the humorously unfitting use of literary tropes and figures of speech. All of these linguistic perceptions are working in our over-the-hill knight joke. To appreciate Word Play, we need to be comfortably familiar with our language. Not surprisingly Word Play jokes are often impossible to translate to another language.




Incongruity depends on a perception and an appreciation of truth and reality. If we don’t know what is true or real, we will not confidently know what is incongruous. The Columbus’ globe joke depends on our appreciating not only the truth of the earth’s spherical nature, but also of the historical reality of long-prevalent flat-earth assumptions, as well as recognizing the standard shape of the globe on a spindle, found in classrooms, libraries and academic offices around the world. Incongruity jokes lend themselves to insider jokes among experts because they assume a certain knowledge base.


And finally Sympathetic Pain depends on a perception and an appreciation of mercy and compassion. We must perceive that the butt suffering pain in some sense elicits understanding, sympathy, and an attitude of compassion. The Sydney Harris brontosaurus is drawn to evoke our sympathy, and if we callously close our minds and hearts to his sad predicament, we are not appreciating the joke. And when we choose to perceive that mercy and sympathy are called for, we are choosing not to laugh at the just deserts of a Gotcha. 


The distinction between Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain is an obvious exemplar of Humor of the Mind having to calculate in order to get the joke properly. We are always amazed when we consider how little time this calculation takes any normal audience despite the fact that they clearly have received no formal training in how to make the calculation.  Perhaps it is this Meredithian insight and wonder that led us to concentrate on four humors of the mind to the exclusion of other forms of humor—bodily humor, for example, or spiritual humor as pioneered by the recent French and American philosophers Henri Bergson and Susanne Langer.


The completed Humor Quotient Test instrument paired 84 jokes against one another, each of the four types appearing 21 times, 7 times against each of the other three.  Participants were to choose which of each pair was funnier. In practice we found that the test took 20 to 40 minutes for a normally intelligent respondent. The test scores would count the number of times each joke type was chosen, with an average score for each type being 10.5.


We were looking for humor preference, a type of humor sensibility, and not “how good” a sense of humor—if that phrase has meaning—a participant displayed. Nothing in this research design assumed that some people or personalities have a better, stronger, or less inhibited sense of humor than others. Rather it assumed that however strong or weak one’s sense of humor, Humor of the Mind preference would be illuminating.[4]





But before we went on, even though Robin and Paul were both from English department backgrounds, we were scientist enough to know that we had to have at least one hypothesis. Since we had only just returned to consideration of Humor the Mind and since there seemed to be no empirical research base in the area, we felt that most specific hypotheses would be just shots in the dark. On the other hand, we intuited that we were trying to study humor personality.  Relationship between personality and sense of humor had been explored from a psychological perspective, as evidenced in Ziv’s Personality and Sense of Humor, but again we wanted a literary approach.


And in line with our example earlier in this chapter of an acquaintance who thinks in terms of excrement and sex being judged “smutty,” we decided that probably the humor personalities we might delineate would turn out to be combinations of two of the four humor types we had defined. Combining four things in pairs of two can be done in exactly six ways. Thus for our four joke types, we have these six possibilities:


            Gotcha + Sympathetic Pain

            Gotcha +  Incongruity

            Gotcha + Word Play

            Sympathetic Pain + Incongruity

            Sympathetic Pain + Word Play

            Incongruity + Word Play


The question arose how to best graphically represent and examine the relationships between those six personalities and their analytic joke types. Soon Paul was thinking in terms of a circle of six segments.  We tried a variety of orders to the circle, but from early on we were attracted to what we have since referred to as the Natural Order Circle (see figure 1.)





Figure 1.


There are several basic mathematical truths to note about the Natural Order Circle.


First, opposite segments on the circle have opposite analytic formulas. That is, the two humor types that define any one segment are absent in the segment opposite on the circle. For example at 1:00 o’clock on our circle we find the humorous combination of Gotcha and Incongruity humor. At 7:00 o’clock, we find the humorous combination of Word Play and Sympathetic Pain humor. Opposite sectors have entirely opposite humor composition.





Second, the right half of the circle has three segments all of which have a Gotcha component while the left side has three segments entirely without Gotcha components. By inspection one can find that there is a half circle for Incongruity and a half circle for Sympathetic Pain, each with its complimentary half that never has that humor component in any of its three segments.


Third, it is mathematically impossible to construct a half circle for each of the four types.  One of the four {humor types} must be in alternating segments if the other three are each given a half circle. We eventually rationalized that this fourth, alternating element is the “natural intensifier” of the system. That is, it is the element which will most easily blend in with any of the other three to enhance whichever one it is with. Word Play seemed to us to be a gracious straight man enhancing the success of any of the other three when used jointly, and thus it is found as the natural intensifier in alternating segments of the circle.


These basic mathematical characteristics should carry over to any four-humor system’s quadrilateral analysis: 1) opposite segments have mutually antithetic analysis; 2) three of the four analytic types have half-circle representation; 3 ) the fourth analytic type is the natural intensifier and lies in alternating segments.


Now it is fine to hypothesize that a humor personality may be defined by the formula Gotcha + Incongruity. But if we talk that way in the following studies, no one will be able to remember the formulas or to get much from the analysis. What we needed were rubrics for each of the six combinations, names that would point to the essential kind of personality that each combination of humor types created.




It was a memorable weekend of long walks, deep introspections and little sleep as Robin wrestled with the rubric problem, occasionally reporting out for joint discussion. By the end of the weekend, she had arrived at six tentative names or rubrics for the six circle segments. Amazingly, these six names have stood the test of time with us and are still used today to mean what they meant that first weekend in 1991. Along with the rubrics, Robin devised six descriptors. We have used these rubrics and descriptors in reporting back results to respondents ever since.


Robin’s six rubrics and descriptors starting at the one o’clock position and working clockwise around the Natural Order Circle, were:


Crusader (Gotcha plus Incongruity): a knight, someone who sees what the problems are and tries to right the wrongs


Advocate (Gotcha plus Word Play): an activist wordsmith, someone who uses verbal flair to rectify problems


Bridgebuilder (Gotcha plus Sympathetic Pain): a people person, someone who   sympathizes but also rectifies wrongs


Consoler (Sympathetic Pain plus Word Play): a comforter, someone who sympathizes and soothes pain with the right words


Reconciler (Sympathetic Pain plus Incongruity): someone who recognizes the problems and empathizes with others


Intellectual (Incongruity plus Word Play): a facts and ideas person, someone who likes to deal perceptively with reality, facts, words, and ideas.


And the rubrics were appended to the Natural Order Circle.







Figure 2


We need to stress that rubrics were all chosen to be descriptive, with positive connotations, in no way critical or pejorative. No personality is to be seen as in any way superior to another. It should be noted that the Intellectual descriptor does not characterize Intellectual as the best and the brightest, however much these may be connoted and denoted by the word in colloquial English. Instead, for our purposes people who concentrate on words and ideas (embodied in Word Play and Incongruity) and who are relatively uninterested in personal issues (embodied in Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain) are thinking as Intellectuals.




Our formal but rather unfleshed-out original hypothesis then was that one’s humor personality was demonstrated by one’s preference for one pair of humor types over all the other five pairs. We were almost ready to start testing. We still needed to do a pretest to make sure that we had pitted roughly equally funny jokes against each other. This would make statistical analysis much more meaningful. We asked our extended families to act as guinea pigs, and they graciously agreed.


But Paul made a caveat to Robin before we tested his relatives.  Pointing to one of the 84 jokes, he predicted that virtually all his relatives would choose that particular joke over virtually any imaginable opponent.  So we didn’t worry or change opposing jokes when it turned out he was right by a score of 11-0, counting cousins-in-law. (The chances of Paul’s being that right by accident are something less than one in 1,000.) How could Paul be so sure about one joke? 


The answer turns out to be important to all humor theory.  The joke in question, a Sydney Harris cartoon, has several Polynesian-looking natives sitting around a campfire and the leader announcing in the caption, “So, by a vote of 8 to 2, we have decided to skip the Industrial Revolution completely, and go right into the Electronic Age.”


What was the giveaway for this joke’s popularity in Paul’s family?   Every one of Paul’s family members had had experience in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.  Moreover, they had all had extended interaction with tribal natives in Papua New Guinea. The principle involved is that our humor is directed toward the things we know and care about, not the things we have never thought  about and don’t care a twit about.  If it is important to us, it is the material for humor that will attract us.


When George Bush Senior was ambassador to China, who ever heard an American joke about him?  But, of course, George Bush as President came in for at least his share of President-bashing humor—and still to some extent does. We care about Presidents. Most of us don’t notice ambassadors. The material for humor is what is important to us.


So after pre-testing and revision, we began administering the HQT. Two Bush Grants and several thousand respondents later, we are still administering the HQT, presently in a study of nursing home humor in conjunction with Winona .Health, our area hospital. Our indebtedness to the extended community of learners throughout the Midwest has never ceased to grow.




So what did we find?


First, we found the mathematically obvious—that the HQT yielded a set of four scores, one for each of the four humor types.  Individual scores could range between 0 and 21, averaging 10.5. Scores of 10 or 11 are just average and don’t seem typically to mean much.  Scores of 12 and 13 on a particular humor type mean something. Scores of 14 and 15 are substantial, and scores of 16 and 17 are “profound.” We virtually never get a score over 19 or under 4 for any particular humor type. A typical set of four analytic scores might be Incongruity (15), Gotcha (11), Word Play (9), and Sympathetic Pain (7). As to humor personality scores, about 90% of respondents have a clear top-two set of scores as in the previous example Incongruity and Gotcha are clearly the top two scores.  Perhaps 8% have a tie between second and third humor preference, and the rest have a tie between three secondary preferences.  Two-highest analytic scores are then combined in humor personality scores. A typical humor personality score might read: Incongruity (15) + Gotcha (11) = Crusader (26).


As a first test of HQT’s validity, we established HQT humor personalities for respondents, explained the results to them, and then asked them to take a week, consider all six personality types, and then write an essay agreeing or disagreeing with the test result for themselves.  We heavily emphasized that disagreement was as important as agreement. Better than 70% responded agreement, and we jubilantly reported the result at the next annual ISHS-sponsored conference. The largely-psychologist audience gently explained to us the Barnum Effect—that people will tend to go along with what they are told.  The psychologists were not impressed with 70% even of a large sample.


So we went back to work.  We asked respondents first to write  an essay identifying themselves as one of the six humor personality types. Then we gave them the test. We found that respondents were very good at identifying themselves as the test would independently and later do without their knowing of its existence or purpose in advance. In one of these studies, the statistical chances were less than one in a million that respondents could so accurately identify themselves by random guess. Our next ISHS report did not generate an automatic cynicism based in a Barnum Effect.





About that time, we set up HQN, the Humor Quotient Newsletter, to quickly report on other HQT findings. In a decade of HQN’s, we have reported on strong correlations between humor-of-the-mind  personality types and color preferences, preferences for various patriotic songs, self-reported yearly intellectual effort among over 300 categories of critical thought, and a host of other lifestyle variables. We have never felt that a finding of less than 95% confidence warranted a report, and we have never run a study with 30 or more respondents that did not yield a reportable result.


We’ve had some very special experiences and strange insights into the mysteries of humor along the line.  We once gave the HQT to the assembled lockmasters and other U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff on the Upper Mississippi River. We found with very high confidence that for this group, humor personality correlated to distance of one’s work station from the Mississippi River. In other words, Corps lockmasters working within yards of a fast-flowing river with highly technical physical realities, complex machinery, and a demanding public shared a strong tendency toward a single personality type which was not reflected in office workers away from the river. (Incidentally, the lockmasters tended to be Bridgebuilder in personality. If you live on the Upper Mississippi, it is easy to see the locks as bridges between “pools” stretching down to Illinois.)


Overall then in empirical testing since 1991, we believe we have demonstrated that humor personality, defined as a combination of two humor-of-the-mind types on the Humor Quotient Test, identifies personality realities which respondents can recognize in themselves. Further, we have found in test after test that humor personality as so defined is statistically correlated for one group after another with seemingly totally independent preferences and other life attitudes and propensities. And we have been gratified to find that other academic researchers have been attracted to the Humor Quotient Test and have been willing to use it in their own research, as for example Robert Priest’s research on humor and spousal relationships at West Point Military Academy. 


Humor, in short, is not just a rhetorical high explosive.  It is also a clue to a great deal of what we think, feel, and do.  (We have noticed that many people are highly guarded about their own sense of humor.  We have had groups where virtually everyone began by saying that they had no sense of humor—about as guarded a beginning as we can imagine. Perhaps guardedness about our sense of humor is quite rational: it is one of our greatest possessions and a clue to a startlingly wide range of the rest of who we are and what we do.)




So we have been convinced that humor personality is a reality.


But moving from what we have found in empirical testing to literary theory and criticism takes a great logical leap. To move on to literature, we must leap to the conclusion that works of literary art can also have humor personalities. Works of art can’t take the HQT, so there have to be other methods for determining humor preference in a piece of literature. If this seems hopeless or nonsensical, consider again our examples of acquaintances who were defined by certain senses of humor. The person who never took even death seriously but had a quip was known by his or her characteristic employment of humor, and we felt justified to characterize him or her on the basis of such evidence. Our smutty acquaintance was smutty precisely because he (or if we must be gender-balanced, she) insisted on mixing excremental and sexual humor aggressively in conversation.  Again, we felt justified to characterize on the basis of such evidence.


Similarly, would we not think the same of a smutty film, theatre performance, or television show?  In other words, we would look at the material characteristically used for humor in any of these and feel justified in characterizing the show from such evidence. Thus, what we were proposing was to label art works Crusader, Consoler, Intellectual, etc. instead of smutty.  It was a logical leap, but a leap that all of us have made on a less systematic and theorized basis.


In the six following chapters, we consider six highly successful American comedies of the last 60 years.  Probably all six are in the top 200 or 300 film comedies of the period for box office sales and professional awards, however defined.  Several rank far higher than this conservative estimate. If an essay is an “attempt,” then these essays are attempts to show that the humor personality of each of these movies creates a humor texture that is worth noting in any sensitive comedic criticism of these six works. The films we will be examining were chosen in order to exemplify critical realities about comedy, humor and their symbiotic relationship. We explicitly recognize, however, that there is much more that could be said about American film from other perspectives—critical, technical, cultural, political, and the like—which we leave to others.


Consideration of these six films’ contrastive humor textures will provide primary evidence for a deeper understanding of the symbiosis of comedy and humor. It will also provide a sound theoretical basis for considering some of the more experimentally advanced symbioses in recent American cinema which is the subject of our last chapters.





[1] Far Side aficionados might want to further investigate “Who Likes ‘Far Side’ Humor?” (Lefcourt) or  “Gary Larson’s Far Side:  Nonsense?  Nonsense!” (Paolillo) and the ensuing “Debate” (Ruch).

[2] Some notion of incongruity is central to many scholars’ understanding of humor. For a take on incongruity coming from other disciplinary perspectives, readers may want to consult Attardo et. al, “Script oppositions and logical mechanisms:  Modeling incongruities and their resolutions,”  which presents “a survey of all known logical mechanisms (defined as the resolution of the incongruity of a joke) and a first attempt at a taxonomy. 

[3] Mikhail Bakhtin has argued “That which is important and essential cannot be comical” (67) (quoted in Lippit’s review 367).On the other hand, Hub Zwart has gone so far as to argue that “both the logical and chronological beginning, of moral philosophy as well as of morality as such, is to be found in the subversive experience of laughter” (7-8) (quoted in Lippitt’s review 366). Lippit himself argues that “some of the deepest and richest humor actually depends upon … seriousness being present on some level,” (368).

[4] For a collection and overview of studies of the measurement of the sense of humor, see Willibald Ruch, “Measurement Approaches to the Sense of Humor”; Rod Martin, “The Situational Humor Response Questionnaire (SHRQ) and Coping Humor Scale ”; Kenneth Craik et. al., “Sense of Humor and Styles of Everyday Humorous Conduct”; Ruch et. al., “Assessing the ‘Humourous Temperament”; Sven Svebak, “The Development of the Sense of Humor Questionnaire: From SHQ To SHQ-6”; and Gabriele Kohler and Willibald Ruch, ‘Sources of Variance in Current Sense of Humor Inventories.”



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