The Formula for Humor - S, P, therefore C

The joke, a very simple type of humor, can illustrate the basic structure of all humor, even in its most complex and abstract forms.

A joke is like a syllogism in one important respect.

Compare --

All men are mortal                (Major Premise)
Socrates is a man                 (Minor Premise)
Therefore, Socrates is mortal     (Conclusion)


To --

Diner: Waiter, I'll have a steak
       and make it lean           (Setup)
Waiter: Which way?                (Punch line)
"Lean" doesn't just mean "not
fat," it also means "tilted."     (Conclusion)

If the premises do not relate to each other in the proper way, the syllogism will not have a conclusion.

All men are mortal                (Major Premise)
Socrates owns a television        (Minor Premise)
Therefore, ????                   (Conclusion)

Similarly, if the setup and punch line do not relate to each other in the proper way, the joke will not have a conclusion and will be "pointless" and unfunny.

Diner: Waiter, I'll have a
       steak and trim off the
       fat.                       (Setup)
Waiter: Which way?                (Punch line)
????                              (Conclusion)

When someone tries to "get" a joke, he is trying to find the conclusion of the joke. A conclusion in humor can take many forms. It might be a mental integration or a deduction. It may involve the recognition of a similarity or a difference. Whatever the form of the conclusion, the Audience needs to do some thinking to reach this goal using the information contained in the setup and punch line.

The easiest way to see this point is by creating your own examples similar to the ones above. Take a funny anecdote or situation, but change one small detail. Change the "Jewish mother" to a "Scottish mother" but leave everything else unchanged. Alter a play on words by substituting the word with the double meaning with a synonym. Does this make a difference? Why? You'll find that if the changed detail destroys the conclusion, the joke becomes pointless and unfunny.

When you enjoy humor, try to identify the setup, punch line, and conclusion. One way to find the conclusion is to imagine how you would explain what's funny to someone who didn't "get it."

The formula -- Setup, Punch line, therefore Conclusion -- defines humor's essential nature and accounts for its emotional impact. Later we will explore how and why this happens, but first we will define some of the many forms of humor.



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