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Some scholars refer to the stimulus in humor (what is found funny) as the "holy grail of humor studies." This is a good idea whether it is meant seriously or not. But it gives the impression that the stimulus question is the only important one. It would be equally useful if "holy grail" referred to both stimulus and response, the two being inherently linked by the way they are defined.
There is a theory that establishes such a link. It is better than any of the ones Carroll mentions, and was introduced in 2011 after 5 years of work. This is probably the best possible view, which holds that all the images or stimuli of humor without exception are allusions to or direct images of a selfish self-deceived state of mind, and that the response is a copy of the stimulus. Compared with all previous explanations this one alone covers all categories without any weaknesses. Possibly, an informed reader will see such a claim and think, "but that is the superiority theory, of Hobbes or of Charles R. Gruner." But it is not. Gruner's theory cannot explain why the response follows from the stimulus, and does not really define either, and it overlooks most of the content of jokes.
The Incongruity Theory, however, is not an effective theory of what humor is, but at best a limited method for humor creation, since certain ideas are useful for that task. Originally, the incongruity theory meant -- or certainly should have meant -- only humor that placed high and low things together. Stretching the term to include any kind of strangeness is way off base.
The incongruity theory is false because it claims that contrasts in general create humor either directly or by their resolution, without any reason for this effect. It is not relevant to humor to describe the fall of a person as "incongruous" with his walking a moment earlier, unless the change implies a thematic meaning. The theory is therefore one of mere surface features. The rational solution is to discard the incongruity theory of humor and replace it with the correct thematic theory. 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. The outcome should not be considered a "descendant" of the incongruity theory.
Complaints about this review sound like a lot of excuses. Those excuses don't change the fact that Mr. Carroll's book, while containing some insight, has far too much error and is a hindrance to understanding or appreciating humor. It represents an academic authority that ought to admit its mistake today. Not 50 years from now, not 5 years from now but immediately.
Noël Carroll misses some double meanings and he does not have a convincing theory of that kind of humor, or of other kinds of jokes. He claims that incongruity explains the humor in double meaning and in violations other than jokes. Violation, either as something so general as to be meaningless, or else as the rule-breaking sense of folly, is not the essence of humor despite philosophers trying to force it to be so. It is useful to have a theory of nonsense humor if jokes exhibit it in the way that Carroll claims. Yet they do not. But success in humor theory should be a question of breadth. If a theory shows that a single idea applies well to everything, informatively, then it should be the leading and authoritative position.
Carroll argues (like Freud) that some jokes end in nonsense, as a form of tension and release. It is true that the very idea of tension and release creates humor. Carroll and many others are right that this element adds to the power of a joke. But they are wrong to invest much of the humor in it, and they don't have a global theory that explains this and all other types of humor. Tension and release, appearing even in the riddle of the Sphinx, are only part of the cumulative structure of a joke. Humor in such tension and release can only be explained by the "selfish self-deception theory" of humor, that is, because the disappearance of tension alludes to the putting down of unjustified emotions; and when humor shows the increase of tension, the allusion is to complacency. But it is ambiguity that creates most of the humor in jokes. One might say that Carroll's idea of prolonged nonsense is meant as a sort of false release. But jokes can gain very little from any kind of tension except if they finally make sense. Only then can they refer to the only idea that is humorous on its face: delusion.
Freud too overlooks many double meanings but he does not identify their significance even when he does perceive them. And since he seeks to emphasize tension, nonsense and puzzlement, he, like Carroll, selects a joke as nonsensical when actually he does not understand it. Freud then thinks laughter follows as a response by resembling a dissipation of purpose. One way to refute this view then is to explain all the jokes that are thus misinterpreted. This has already been accomplished in several examples of Freud's.
Carroll introduces the Incongruity Theory before the others (Release/relief and Superiority) and then returns to defend it more closely. This is where he introduces the problem that jokes are so puzzling as to be nonsensical. He then enlists an empty answer to address this pseudo-problem, which might be more easily solved by dropping incongruity as a theory altogether.
Jokes actually don't work by means of nonsense. I will illustrate this point again later with Carroll's cited joke about the Irishman who orders three drinks, one for himself and two for his absent brothers. But here is the one about the plane crash survivor on his island, and his two synagogues.
The lone survivor of an airplane crash is marooned on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After many years, he is rescued by a passing ocean liner. The doctor who examines him says, 'You're in great health, but tell me one thing. Why did you build two synagogues on the island?' The survivor answers: 'The one on the north side of the island is my synagogue. The other one I wouldn't step into.'
Of this joke, Carroll says, "the punchline explains the puzzle of why there are two synagogues on an island with one inhabitant, but it does so at the cost of compounding the absurdity. For the joke invites us to imagine...a man [who] would build a structure for the sole purpose of not entering it. [Thus] the answer itself is an absurdity..." (Carroll 36).
This Freudian reading is quite invalid. The answer only seems merely absurd if we continue to take the doctor's question as univocal, even after the punchline appears. But the point of this kind of joke is not to preserve the original meaning, but instead to notice how punchlines expose ambiguity. Here's what I mean.
This joke has a basic initial double meaning. Beyond that there is some further nuance. Whether one perceives the humor clearly or dimly, this joke is about equivocation as, in fact, they all are. And the initial equivocation here is on the words, "Why did you build two synagogues..." The doctor means to ask, why did you intend to build two synagogues? But the survivor doesn't interpret his question in that way. He interprets the doctor to be asking, why were you COMPELLED to build, or why did you END UP, with two synagogues? And there is hard evidence of this. Otherwise, his answer would be absurd (as Carroll notices). So Freud and Carroll's theory of jokes amounts to this: "I don't get it."
Basically, the joke is that the survivor reinterprets the doctor's question so that it is a question about how the survivor ended up --albeit, this is unrealistic -- building a synagogue that violated his own faith, and so had to build another one. Of course, there is a certain degree of absurdity in this reading. But there is a certain amount of humorous license in that sense and it is more plausible that double meaning is the main point, and not absurdity. Again, the general trend of examples would not support Carroll's view. He has selected a single example in his favor, somewhat, but could not expand that to include a great many.
It is at least possible that the doctor was asking, "Why were you compelled..." But that is very unlikely - for the reason that denominations and schisms in Judaism are obscure issues. To conclude, the joke is basically funny because in the double meaning (however implicitly or dimly felt) we notice a kind of reference to a potential self-deception. The allusive sense is the "potential." Double meaning is the occasion of error on the basis of a disregard for context and the intentions of those around us.
If there is any extra twist, it is this. Apparently, one of the synagogues has some flaw. In order to create the synagogue to which he does not want to belong, he would have either built it first, or second. Most likely, he would have built the wrong one first, and the survivor's answer also implies this. And had he built the right synagogue first, then it might not occur to him to build another one. Thus there is an extra level of meaning-play in the joke, whereby the survivor has managed to create dissent out of nothing. But in doing that, his actions allude to basic delusion and self-deception--by the condition of not knowing exactly what one is doing. In the face of all this meaning - a clear equivocation and another allusion to self-deception, Carroll and Freud see only nonsense. What is easily brought to light, they conceal.
The survivor has constructed religious disagreement on his own, or repeated pre-existing denominational differences, as they would exist in actual society. This adds to the double meaning on "Why did you build two..." That's the joke -- that's all it is.
Try this example - what does "I never met a man I didn't like" mean? Is it nonsense, or double meaning? Is the double meaning a mere "violation," and is that what makes it funny? It's far more likely that we respond to an archetype or image of one who evades context, for when we see such double meanings we are affected by that image. Similarly, Groucho Marx says, "These are my principles, and if you don't like them, well, I have others." This might be an often misunderstood joke. Most people hearing this line probably feel that it only expresses the sudden reneging on the initial offering of irreplaceable principles. But although it's there, that's not the main meaning. Groucho really means that the emphasis changes from the word "These" to the word "my." Thus the possessive sense of "my" comes out and becomes dominant because of the punch line. It is the double meaning that is important, though the reneging theme is also there adding to the mix. Even if we thought mere linguistic violation to be funny, shifts of meaning cannot easily be perceived as transgressions at all.
The humor is often partly or entirely in the double meaning or equivocation. Thus Carroll does not know the nature of most jokes because he doesn't know where to look for it. Now, on p. 21 he does mention the humor of ambiguity, as in puns and the like. But like many theorists of a similar view, he chalks this phenomenon up to incongruity. Carroll claims that puns and other double meanings are "incongruous." Thus to misinterpret a sound is, he says, to "violate a conversational protocol" or maxim of some sort, and that's why such examples are funny. Actually, this very old view can be discredited. Many violations similar to the level of violation in misreading language simply aren't funny at all.
Although it is a violation not to pay attention to context or others' intentions, it is more important to note that it is an ethical sort of violation, a kind of self-centeredness. And according to what I think is the best theory (the one that I claim as intellectual property) every example of humor is or alludes to an image of such delusion, and our dispositional response to this stimulus is merely an echo of that image. Thus the "dispositional theory" that Carroll attributes to Jerrold Levinson, for example, only becomes truly important in this sense. It is only an obvious fact that there is such a disposition. The dispositional response does not warrant being called a theory, though I noticed it probably well after Levinson did. And we have probably evolved or developed this response in a psychological sense as an expression of our adjustment to ethical and social norms.
Besides having no understanding of what jokes are, or what they mean, Carroll says other things in his book that are off base. Contrary to his impression that incongruity only has marginal problems, it is inadequate in every instance.
Carroll admits that he is not completely satisfied with what he finds the least problematic view, the Incongruity Theory. And yet he defends it in scores of examples. It is difficult to conclude from this picture what sort of improvement is actually desired. Either a theory works, and applies to many examples, or it doesn't. If new theories are actually in the works to improve things, there ought to be clearer knowledge of what form this will take. Anything less is unconvincing.
"The incongruity theory still seems the most promising, because it offers the most informative approach to locating the structure of the intentional object of comic amusement" (48). It does not follow from such success in locating basic features in only some classes, that a concept is very informative. Carroll also mentions that the banishment of fear is a factor that is "added to perceived incongruity in order for the incongruity theory to approach adequacy" (29).
The problem here is not just that incongruity is too general as Carroll himself notes. But he seems unaware of an alternative, already known, that much better explains all that it explains.
Success in "locating the structure," is in noticeable tension with incongruity as an "imprecise notion" (37) and "no more than a necessary condition for comic amusement" (28). How is it informative to explain many examples, if only by a necessary condition? Carroll also criticizes incongruity directly on p. 34 and 37. On 34, he grants that incongruity is similar to puzzles (a problem that he then tries to solve), and shortly thereafter on p. 37, it is admitted that incongruity is too general, or does not describe its object informatively. But there is a basic reason for doubts. It is explained here and in a book. Incongruity is only a description of humor, rather than an actual explanation, something that's been said enough times. For Carroll, it is hoped that eventually a supplemental theory will arrive to patch up the problem, "isolate the pertinent recurring variables" and actually vindicate and preserve Incongruity, an implausible prognosis (53). I predict that it will never happen.
One problem with incongruity is that it does not produce a "response side" theory. It has not in 300 years presented a contentful view of what the response to humor is, only the stimulus. The fact is that incongruity by itself is incapable of eliciting in us something like the response to humor. Theorists like John Morreall suggest "pleasure," but this is untenable. For there are pleasures in incongruity that are not humorous. Matthew Hurley has pointed out that relatively "benign" violations are often not funny at all. Furthermore, any pleasure felt in these violations or humor is not necessarily where the humor is.
Thus when I assert that "humor is not a pleasure," I don't mean that it does not include pleasure, but that this does not capture it because it is too general, and in two ways. It is too general because pleasurable feeling is too general, and because a satisfaction in some knowledge or fact is too general. As for the latter case, one might be "pleased" by a fact or evidence of something, and might not have any feeling about it. As Victor Raskin once noted in a conference, the response to humor resembles intoxication. But Raskin did not assert, and did not know, why the response to humor is related to intoxication. The relation is plainly that both phenomena evoke not only delusion but a willful, appetitive delusional state. Tickling tends to evoke this state, not merely because it is sensual or sexual, but by the sense of its impropriety. By rapidly and repeatedly approaching sensitive areas, it violates the form of intimacy. This is the best account, though others have been attempted. Tickling is not a "mock attack," and we don't laugh when tickled because of only a bodily impulse. We laugh because we find the IDEA of being tickled an allusion to selfish self-deception. Therefore laughter is not a reflex in the case of tickling.
A cold beverage, or a cool shower on a very hot day, might be congruous with desires. But they are incongruous with the surrounding heat, while even in that very sense they are pleasant in both the objects and their effects (the hot-cold contrast is desired), but neither, in that sense, is funny. Thus it is not, as Alexander Bain once suggested, that non-humorous incongruity is so easily found to be unpleasant. (In fact, Bain's "snow in May" example even eerily resembles the kind of pleasure just mentioned). A man in a wheelchair winning a track race is quite incongruous as well as inspiring and pleasing in an ethically sound way, and this even answers with the positive version of Bain's "decrepit man under a heavy burden." If the "special Olympics" does not violate actual defunct norms, it follows new norms that would been considered strange long ago. But it has no humor, unless we twist things by an insensitive interpretation.
Humor is not in essence, as Carroll claims, a "deviation from some presupposed norm" (17). Evidently, however, every humorous incongruity violates some norm. Erotic advances are a major paradigm. We will overlook some modern social changes (and even looks to some extent) and here treat efforts in love as a question of skill and charms.
Suppose we tried to understand the pursuit of a love object as humorous, in the sense of norm-violation. But this is not what we do. First, the comedy cannot be in the mere mismatching of appearances, since these would remain if the love was requited. The fact is that, while it is at times very unwise, individuals pursue unrequited love interests. But where there is comedy in all this, it is not in the transgression, per se. In the first place, it would be to reduce the error to a mere factual one. The simple answer is that the comedy is about the mental qualities, the slight madness in any intention of finding love. And we sense a greater madness to the extent that we can regard the endeavor as very awkward or challenging. To say that funny madness is merely "deviation" counts as a description of its appearance and basic reception, rather than saying why that description is humorous or comical. But, unlike mere deviation, delusion is in itself humor.
How bizarre it would be, if we really thought that breaking rules, per se, was what the humor in romantic intrepidity, or unlikely love were all about. Who would we resemble, but the romantic fool himself, for whom rules are so all-important? Is that not inapposite? Indeed, I maintain that our sense of humor is a mirroring of folly, but not in this sense.
Now one does not have to look to Alexander Bain to provide counterexamples to the Incongruity Theory, though he provided several. He did so without consideration of the possibility of positive cases, and did not resolve the objection that he himself raised. If one cites Bain, it all comes to nothing unless some valid alternative may be proposed.
There are various other cases in which it is clearly not the norm-deviation in an incongruity that is funny. Birds might perch on the head of a rhinoceros. Suppose this violates some presupposition, that the larger animal should not tolerate his practical free rider. That's clearly not where the humor is. Rather, it is in the notion that the larger animal is imbued with a human-like absentmindedness. But, if it were true that this personification was a norm-violation humor (or mere incongruity) then the absentminded element would have no actual role, though it clearly does.
Carroll has had the sense not to mention one other theory, that associated with Tom Veatch or A. Peter McGraw, now the so-called Benign Violation theory. It is not clear, though, that Professor Carroll perceives how frivolous McGraw and Veatch's view is. It confuses an accidental or particular aspect of humor with the essence. But the flavor of the "Incongruity Theory" that Carroll himself adopts is similar to Benign Violation. According to Carroll, the transgressive aspect of incongruity is paramount; it holds that "what is key to comic amusement is a deviation from some presupposed norm." For example, he uses the word "mistake" to characterize the idea of personified or anthropomorphized things or animals (Carroll 19). As I have claimed, it is more likely that anthropomorphism amuses as an image of delusion--something lower taking itself to be, or becoming, something higher and greater than what it really is. And that is just the sense in which Ron Burgundy verbally taunts his dog in the comedy Anchorman. Humor in this taunt has nothing to do with norm-violations about the treatment of an animal qua animal on the part of Ron or us. Rather, it's about the allusion to the dog's hyperbolic privileges, his being elevated to the attributes and comforts of a human. And we don't find humor in this as purely norm-deviation, either.
Carroll does not have a plausible theory for what, as he mentions, "vital interests humor serves" (68 ff). Freud's own psychology can be applied to a better theory of humor than his own, in order to produce a teleology of humor and the comic. Suppose humor stimuli cause an imitative response (in the form of, for example, something like Levinson's inner mental "disposition" toward laughter). The psyche may be expressing its moderation and control over delusion, by internalizing the gestures of delusion through humor and jokes. This is similar, but different from Freud's theory of the matter, in that for him these stimuli, in particular jokes, represented moderated vestiges not of delusion but of closely related childhood play. Carroll, however, considers little or no answer to the purposive question, unless it is in line with the Incongruity Theory. On this point he makes reference to a Marvin Minsky, whose theory of cognitive debugging sounds exactly like that advanced in Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind. Does it make sense that Carroll mentions two separate authors, Marvin Minsky and Matthew Hurley (in the bibliography) without noting that their ideas are pretty much identical? One main reason this now somewhat popular theory is mistaken, is that there is no need for humor to have such an everyday, general heuristic-aiding role, or evolutionary origin. The mind is equipped in that task much more basically. So another novel view merely goes out the window with all the rest.
Carroll's traditional explanation also fails in the case of incongruity that is not strictly verbally based. He considers a joke about a priest and abbot who encounter Jesus praying in their own church sanctuary. It is the priest who asks, "What should we do?" to which the abbot answers, which we could take as irony on his part, "Look busy." Carroll holds that, because it is the priest who expresses an everyday kind of worry, it is he who interprets his job in terms of an "earthly" system of behavior or rules. And this amuses by way of incongruity, not just because the two religious reveal themselves to be worried, but because the proposed solution is both superficial as well as derived from worldly affairs. It is a helpful and rich reading, although it is the abbot who ends the joke (Carroll 83). Again, however, incongruity is too vague. A mere mismatching or discrepancy between things, even if they are high and low, or whatever, does not tell us what's going on. The world is full of such differences in cases that are not humor. Dirt and rock, boredom, slime or trash are incongruous with the sky and ideas of heaven, and they also contrast with space, water, and with abstract ideas. But not one of those relations has any inherent humor, unless some other implicit element is also noticed. If expensive jewelry is soiled, there is incongruity but there is no humor without some other element. But what's missing is not violation or transgression.
The everyday and earthly may connote either an unpleasant truth, or else, the very opposite, the everyday as itself a complacent delusion. In other words, there is a sense that the downward pulling from the sublime (heaven and God) to the un-sublime is a shattering of delusions of religious importance, holiness and salvation. And in fact the delusion embodied in these serious things is very often felt in humor in different, even contrasting ways, as a kind of peace and complacency, but also as anxiety, fear and rage. When the rage "comes to nothing" to borrow Kant's phrase, what we are left with is its after-image or reverberation. We find that reverberation ridiculous, because the rage expresses delusional interest. And yet at the same time, religious grandeur and anxiety are themselves a form of reality, over which the everyday life is plastered as instead the delusion, the complacency. We can have, therefore, a complete reversal, in which either life or afterlife can function as the delusion or the reality. The incongruity theorist, then, is not remiss in pointing to a recurring dichotomy that dominates the joke and humor. He simply does not note its strange reversals or specific concepts of delusion and reality. In fact, as I show in my book, various images of this kind tend to flip-flop between these two roles of delusion and reality.
Jokes that are meaning-based don't create humor by breaking conventions of language. And contrary to Freud and Carroll, verbal humor does not consist in nonsense. The nonsense theory of this joke class has been defended, yet the search for evidence has been most unsuccessful. And Freud tried very hard to discern exactly how jokes mix sense and nonsense, and he failed. David Hume challenged the world to produce empirical evidence of causal connections, and that didn't happen. Now it seems, perhaps, that Freud with his ability could not discern the double meanings in jokes. He was, however, probably not even looking for them. Freud never wrote another full-length treatment of humor after 1905. Thus he formed his view, before the landscape was transformed by the brilliant equivocations of Groucho Marx, which at any rate are in English (the jokes that begin with "I never forget a face," and with "time flies like an arrow," etc.). Freud had, therefore, that much less material for inspiration and insight. It is not unrealistic that later humorists, including Groucho, have radically augmented what we possess, in terms of humorous content. To Freud's (and Carroll's) theory of jokes (to say nothing of Freud's bizarre taxonomy of its classes) we might apply Occam's Razor. Jokes obviously exhibit double meanings in a vast proportion of cases, while others contain double meanings that are more subtle and harder to detect. If the choice is between the Freud/Carroll position or a double-meaning theory, the latter is much more probable. It is applicable to more cases. And it is more likely that ambiguity is humorous as a reference to implied or potential delusion, rather than as either norm-violation or as nonsense.
After Carroll tries to establish that a logical violation is humorous, he claims that "many other laws than those of logic" are equally applicable to the phenomenon. He proposes that there is a handful of illegalities or legal concepts that involve humor (at the inexplicable exclusion of others). He even mentions an instance of anthropomorphism, calling it a "biological anomaly." "Panels by Francois Boucher show very young children at work in very adult roles." Carroll doesn't seem to realize that children in adult roles fall into the same logical category as any object in a human role. Why would he not perceive the analogy? It is plainly a question of delusion, like anthropomorphism, or personification, and all images of an ambition that is petty and yet vaulting.
Carroll tries to explain a joke about an Irish drinker. As Carroll puts it, humor consists in the fact that the drinker "understands the concept of `being on the wagon' to be consistent with downing two drinks for his brothers, so long as he refrains from tossing one back for himself." Carroll is claiming that we are amused at violations of reasoning, qua violations. But if this were so, then we would seem to be more amused by logical errors. There are several kinds of basic logical fallacies that are not funny at all. Various non-sequiturs, many half-truths, and other errors are often mostly humorless. It may be that we are amused by the "circular" quality of other fallacies, or the way they suggest a lack of awareness of reality.
But if humor derives from the corrupt logic of the drinker, it is because unreason resembles selfish self-deception. And the humor is perceived mostly in what he says, not in what he does or thinks. The drinker says, "Because I am on the wagon," thus referring to himself as though he were absent as his brothers are. It is mostly these words that count, and their ambiguity.
On page 29, in the context of explaining humor and violence generally, Carroll mentions the idea of a "funny face." He is surely thinking of such things as stretched grins, grimaces, rolling of eyes and wanderings of the tongue. What is felt as humor in these gestures, however, is an attitude of delusion (with particular nuances like desire or frustration). Humor is always a reference to this idea, and our response is to mirror the allusion.