The Eleven Elements of Humour

Humour often relies on unexpectedness
Humour often relies on unexpectedness

Humour helps us persevere. While humour often comes naturally and spontaneously, there are means to understand and subsequently invoke it systematically. There are 11 primary means of jest, one or many of which can be compounded to yield almost all varieties of jokes that we commonly encounter. Unexpectedness and wit are the driving force behind most humour. Surprise, absurdity, relatability, multi-endedness, and at times certain inherent biological triggers are the elementary forces of humour. Just as with any form of communication, literary devices as reference, analogy, refrain and parody are utilised for effective conveyance.

Jokes often exploit common typifications and salient traits we often associate with some entity or class. They might also reaffirm and reinforce personal and popular typifications, and one needs to be cautioned against their gradual and insidious crystallisation into inflexible, gross generalisations. The broad categorisation presented here is based on the elements and devices that evoke or induce hilarity. The eleven fundamental joke types are thus as follows:

The first is exaggeration or hyperbole. Blowing something to comical proportions especially when stereotypically relatable is one of the commonest and most intuitive forms of humour. In mimicry or mockery, a trait’s magnitude, frequency or exclusivity is exaggerated.

“The city was small.
How small?
The Entrance and Exit signs were on the same pole.”

“The colonial-era museum decided to do an exhibition of all its British-origin artefacts.
It was a dismal failure, perhaps owing to the fact that there were no specimens on display.”

“The fries you made are so oily that America wants to invade it.”

(Some might find this particular example to better belong to the third class. It is only fitting that it is so, as humour akin to all things creative, ought to be subjective and open to interpretation. It all depends on whether you see the two oils as similar enough.)

Sarcasm and irony involve simple inversions of truth assertion. Irony may also involve a purpose-defeating follow-up or an implementation or consequence that is contrary to the intent or motivation behind performance of the act. Here’s a real life incidence –

“In 1985, in New Orleans, city lifeguards who threw a pool party to celebrate a summer season with no drownings, discovered a guest drowned in the pool when the party was over.”

The next is multiplicity of meaning — often but not limited to wordplay, pun or double entendre. Often one of the puns contains a cultural or historical reference. The implied meaning frequently is a cultural or historical reference — to an attribute, occurrence or recurrence. Upon pondering intently, one may realise that even unseeming jokes actually, at their very core are based on duality or multiplicity of meaning. Take for instance, the image of a personified pineapple chasing an evasive, personified Pizza. The transfer of quality to a new context might seem to appropriate a separate category of its own. However, in essence, the humour arises of multiplicity of meanings — the scenario depicts physical chasing down as well as the strong tendency of certain people and outlets to put the topping on the pizza which the majority abhors. Thus essentially it has a literal representation and a symbol allusion or reference.

“I just deleted all the German names off my phone.
It’s Hans free.”

“Why was the river rich?
It had banks.”

“What’s the best thing about Switzerland?
I don’t know, but the flag is a big plus.”

“I told a girl she had drawn her eyebrows too high. She looked surprised.”

Another is mismatch. In its essence it takes us aback with sheer mutual incompatibility, as comparing chalk and cheese — things our brain is not conditioned to see as concordant. A discordant combination catches our brain off guard. Other joke types rely or invoke absurdity but it its the process of the breakdown to absurdity that evokes humour. However there are jokes that don’t boil down to absurdity but are absurd to begin with. At times, an unseeming yet not unlikely linkage or solution is proposed. Typically a known trend is presented in an unexpected circumstance where it isn’t exactly unapplicable, for instance, adding World War analogies to children’s cartoons. An example goes as follows:

“Tip: When recording your sex tape, play Disney music in the background.”

“That way, if it ever gets leaked online, Disney attorneys will have them all taken down.”

“Cannibalism can simultaneously solve both Global Hunger and Overpopulation.”

“Doctor: Did you take weed?
Baby: Guggu-Gagga
Doctor: Darn, you’re high as heck”

Then there is let-down. Let-downs can either be illogical, trivial, challenging natural assumptions, or plain obvious – the latter as response to problems historically associated with out-of-the-box thinking or framed as if seeking a trick answer. Curiosity and Critical Thinking are stoked and provoked and a somewhat promising premise is built before being quickly deflated to a disappointing, underwhelming conclusion which is often ridiculous, self-defeating, or mockingly comical rather than wittily lateral. It often begins as a logical inquiry engaging the reader rationally, before popping the entire tinkering.

“Teacher: How much do you get when you add together 10 bananas, 5 apples, 6 oranges, and 7 Panzer Tanks?
Michael: 15 Life-size Mickey Mouse Inflatables
Teacher: Excellent Michael. How did you know the correct answer?
Michael: Because I had jam sandwiches for breakfast today.”

“If you had to choose a student at Hogwarts to pick a fight with, which house would he belong to and why Hufflepuff?”

“A: Why did the Elephant not eat the bananas?
B: I don’t know. Why?
A: Because the bananas were not there.
A: Why did the Elephant not eat the bananas?
B: Because they weren’t there.
A: This time they were.
B: Then why?
A: Because he didn’t want to.
A: Why did the Elephant not eat the bananas?
B: Why?!
A: Because they were rubber bananas
A: Why did the Elephant not eat the bananas?
B: Because they were made of rubber?
A: No. Because this time on, the Elephant was made of rubber.”

Then there is futility. The pointlessness, vanity or false sense of something. For example, the sense of relief or consolation and even the very distinction in the following example — a famous humorous anecdote in astronomical circles, should’ve been rationally absent.

“A physicist is lecturing a class on stellar evolution and explaining that in 5 billion years the sun will exhaust itself of fuel and burn out, and all life in the solar system will end.

A student sought clarification in a trembling voice and apprehensive tone, “How many years did you say Professor?”

The Professor iterated, “5 billion years”.

“Oh, thank God,” said the visibly relieved, placated, and rejuvenated student re-assuming his seat, “I thought you said 5 million years.”

“Peter Pan: When I grow up…
Well never mind.”

Fitting Response or Comeback, typically hoisting one on their own petard and tasting one’s own medicine, consists of a belittling, downtrodding, humbling or humiliating follow-up response to a set of assertions.

“A Texan farmer goes to Australia on vacation. There he meets an Aussie farmer and gets to talking. The Aussie shows off his big wheat field and the Texan says, “Oh! We have wheat fields that are at least twice that size!”

They walk around the ranch a little, and the Aussie shows off his herd of cattle. The Texan immediately replies, “We have longhorns that are at least twice as large as your cows.”

The conversation has died down when the Texan sees a herd of kangaroos hopping through the field. He asks the Aussie, “What are those?”

The Aussie replies with an incredulous look, “Don’t you have any grasshoppers in Texas?”

Self-Reference – A sudden ‘going meta’ catches people off guard and usually requires little extra substantiation.

“Your ornately ostentatious, ostensible, flowery and pontificated description was as redundant, superfluous and tautological as this statement itself.”

“I know that I have been quoting quite hilarious examples throughout the text hereto but I’d like to avail this opportunity to stress the importance of not wasting time pursuing pointless exercises, and also to elucidate how a long, winding sentence might bog an intelligent reader down. I’d also like to point out here as to how there exist certain pieces of texts that initially draw and grab your attention and then simply waste your time using long, vain sentences, and also how dimwitted, bored and worthless you need to be in order to be still reading this junkpile of a sentence.”

“Someone asked me what subtle humour meant
The answer was ‘not very obvious’.”

Subtlety can be accomplished either by indirectness, ambiguity, encryption, or partiality. More often than not, it is used to establish a mocking or critical implication using hints and cues, without directly affirming something, and leaving out the obvious consequences. It leaves the guilt and burden of making assumptions (and discerning possible references) upon the reader as it dusts off its hands clean. They often make up excellent satire tools used for witty yet covert expression of dissent.

“A politician, a trickster, and a professional criminal walks into a bar.
Walks.”

“The sheer amount of junk emanating from your mouth just caused your mouth to give the other end of your alimentary canal an inferiority complex.”

“Wikipedia Article Title: Heavy Metal
Disambiguation: Not to be confused with ‘Screaming’.”

“I really don’t get fancanon, I just don’t see the point of it.
I mean, if I want to see a narcissist and wannabe romance writer ruin classic Star Wars characters for me, I’d watch rather watch the Star Wars prequel trilogy.”

Denormalisation, dramatic shift of focus, or Escalation is a gradual, progressive reveal or transition to inappropriateness. It begins ordinarily, with nothing out of the blue. As curtains are drawn, a cascade of inappropriateness hidden behind them comes tumbling down, spiralling the seemingly-ordinarily situation down to the pit of absurdity. The entire situation goes haywire and the structured guise of normalcy swiftly crumbles as a vast multitude of revelations transpire in quick succession overwhelming the viewer dramatically. The humour lies in what should logically have been the precedent or context actually following the consequence, action or foreground, in the narration.

“A friend got mad at me for smelling his sister’s dress.
I don’t know if it was because she was still wearing it or because the rest of the family was there. Either way it made the rest of the funeral very awkward.”

Wisecracking, Witticism, or Eloquence are the classiest forms of humour and perhaps one of the most difficult to come up with.

“To shame a man for being a glutton, his friends invited him over to a watermelon feast, and surreptitiously cast the seeds from their plates into his. Then they pointed to his plate and mocked him for eating so much watermelon. The man accepted it and pointed out that unlike the rest of them, he had at least not wolfed down the seeds as well.”

By incorporating a number of the aforesaid qualities to generate punches, a number of different, longer jokes can be created. Humour cannot be constrained within bounds. A tragedy to someone could appear humorous to another. However, striving to know exactly what makes a jest tick can enable us to deliver humour better, and become more entertaining conversationalists as well as more critically-appreciative audience.

About the Author
The author is a columnist, journalist, writer and amateur researcher, having previously written in over 50 newspapers and outlets in 30 countries, across all six continents of the world.
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