The Gentle Cemetery

What Makes Things Funny? the tattood arm of Lenny Bruce

Updated: 31st May 2022

If there is a core question I'm trying to answer here, it's that.

Below is a bit of a rundown of the main ideas I've started looking at to answer that question. Each section contains links to places where I've expanded on the concepts.


Firstly there's the idea that there are different types of laughter, and that for the purpose of this website I'm really only interested in genuine laughter, not the kind of performed laughter we do as a social signal. That's because I'm interested in understand what makes things funny, and not so much in how humans use laughter, although there might need to be a bit of that as well.

Why we laugh

So then there's the idea that genuine laughter is a response to a certain kind of stimulus. My understanding/interpretation of Benign Violation Theory is that we laugh in response to something dangerous (a violation) that actually is not dangerous (it's benign). The reason I think we do that is to deal with adrenaline that's been released by our fight or flight response that our body now realises wasn't needed after all.

This is not a new theory at all (see Sigmund Freud & Herbert Spencer) but I haven't seen these ideas brought together quite in this way. In fact it seems like as a theory it is out of fashion, which seems strange as it makes so much sense to me.

In some ways what follows is me trying to explain why I still think it's right.


Then there's the idea that, as with some of our other bodily responses, we find laughter pleasurable and so we've learned to "tickle" this response in all sorts of ways that go beyond its original purpose. When I say tickle here I don't just mean physical tickling, but more the kind of thing you mean when you say "tickle your taste buds".

Multiple ways at once

Then there's the idea that because of the way this laughter-response works, we are able to tickle it in multiple ways at the same time. Whilst I think all of these way go back to the same danger-not-danger stimulus and response mechanism, I think that some of them are so subtle, and often so many of them are happening at once, that it's sometimes hard to pick them all apart.

Picking them apart

Which brings us to the wider point of this site. In thinking about the above ideas, I think there's potential here to say something interesting about comedy and people. I think in trying to pick apart what makes things funny in this way, we can learn more about what different things they find dangerous, and understand most clearly why they find things funny.

As I've said this is about scratching a mental itch and I don't feel like I've read anything like this elsewhere. Maybe I've not looked hard enough, or maybe no-one else has approached it in quite this way. Either way, I thought I'd give it a go.

<- Back