The common definition of c


omedy is any discourse generally intended to amuse, especially in television, film, and stand-up comedy. This definition must be carefully distinguished from its academic definition, namely the comic theatre, whose Western origins are found in Ancient Greece. In Athenian democracy, the public opinion of voters was remarkably influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theatres.

Comedy as a term for ancient theatre connotes a dramatic performance that pits two societies against each other in an amusing agon or conflict. The Canadian writer Northrop Frye famously depicted these two opposing sides as a "Society of Youth" and a "Society of the Old". Comedy in its ancient sense therefore always involves struggle. This struggle is thought to occur between a relatively powerless youth on the one hand, and the societal conventions that pose obstacles to his hopes on the other; in this sense, the youth is understood to be constrained by his lack of social authority, and is left with little choice but to take recourse to ruses which engender very dramatic irony which provokes laughter.

Much comedy contains variations on the elements of surprise, incongruity, conflict, repetitiveness, and the effect of opposite expectations, but there are many recognized genres of comedy. Satire and political satire use ironic comedy to portray persons or social institutions as ridiculous or corrupt, thus alienating their audience from the object of humour. Satire is a type of comedy.

Parody borrows the form of some popular genre, artwork, or text but uses certain ironic changes to critique that form from within (though not necessarily in a condemning way). Screwball comedy derives its humour largely from bizarre, surprising (and improbable) situations or characters. Black comedy is defined by dark humour that makes light of so called dark or evil elements in human nature. Similarly scatological humour, sexual humour, and race humour create comedy by violating social conventions or taboos in comedic ways.

A comedy of manners typically takes as its subject a particular part of society (usually upper class society) and uses humour to parody or satirize the behaviour and mannerisms of its members. Romantic comedy is a popular genre that depicts burgeoning romance in humorous terms, and focuses on the foibles of those who are falling in love.




The word "comedy" is derived from the Classical Greek komodia, which is a compound either of κῶμος (revel) or κώμη (village) and ᾠδή (singing): it is possible that κῶμος itself is derived from κώμη, and originally meant a village revel. The adjective "comic" (Greek κωμικός), which strictly means that which relates to comedy is, in modern usage, generally confined to the sense of "laughter-provoking". Of this, the word came into modern usage through the Latin comoedia and Italian commedia and has, over time, passed through various shades of meaning.

Greeks and Romans confined the word "comedy" to descriptions of stage-plays with happy endings. In the middle ages, the term expanded to include narrative poems with happy endings and a lighter tone. In this sense Dante used the term in the title of his poem, La Divina Commedia. As time progressed, the word came more and more to be associated with any sort of performance intended to cause laughter.




Aristophanes, a dramatist of the Ancient Greek Theatre wrote 40 comedies, 11 of which survive and are still being performed. In ancient Greece, comedy seems to have originated in bawdy and ribald songs or recitations apropos of fertility festivals or gatherings, or also in making fun at other people or stereotypes. Aristotle, in his Poetics, states that comedy originated in Phallic songs and the light treatment of the otherwise base and ugly. He also adds that the origins of comedy are obscure because it was not treated seriously from its inception.

The phenomena connected with laughter and that which provokes it have been carefully investigated by psychologists. They agreed the predominating characteristics are incongruity or contrast in the object, and shock or emotional seizure on the part of the subject. It has also been held that the feeling of superiority is an essential, if not the essential, factor: thus Thomas Hobbes speaks of laughter as a "sudden glory." Modern investigators have paid much attention to the origin both of laughter and of smiling, as well as the development of the "play instinct" and its emotional expression.


Shakespearean comedy


Traditionally, the plays of William Shakespeare have been grouped into three categories: tragedies, comedies, and histories. Some critics have argued for a fourth category, the romance. "Comedy" in its Elizabethan usage had a very different meaning from modern comedy. A Shakespearean comedy is one that has a happy ending, usually involving marriage for all the unmarried characters, and a tone and style that is more light-hearted than Shakespeare's other plays.

Shakespearean comedies also tend to have:

         A struggle of young lovers to overcome difficulty that is often presented by elders

         Separation and unification

         Mistaken identities

         A clever servant

         Heightened tensions, often within a family

         Multiple, intertwining plots

         Frequent use of puns

Several of Shakespeare's comedies such as Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well, have an unusual tone with a difficult mix of humour and tragedy that has led them to be classified as problem plays.


Humour is the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement. Many theories exist about what humour is and what social function it serves. People of most ages and cultures respond to humour. The majority of people are able to be amused, to laugh or smile at something funny, and thus they are considered to have a "sense of humour".

The term derives from the medicinal science of the ancient Greeks, which stated that a mix of fluids known as humours (Greek: χυμός, chymos, literally: juice or sap, metaphorically: flavour) controlled human health and emotion.

A sense of humour is the ability to experience humour, although the extent to which an individual will find something humorous depends on a host of variables, including geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, intelligence, and context. For example, young children may possibly favour slapstick, such as Punch and Judy puppet shows or cartoons (e.g. Tom and Jerry). Satire may rely more on understanding the target of the humour, and thus tends to appeal to more mature audiences. Non-satirical humour can be specifically termed "recreational drollery".


Understanding humour


Humour occurs when:

         there is a surprising shift in perception.

         there is a release from a tension that has been built up.

         two very different things are juxtaposed in a ridiculous way.

         errors, bad luck, stupidity, or inferiority in another person are exposed.

Western humour theory begins with Plato who attributed to Socrates in the Philebus (49b) the view that the essence of the ridiculous is an ignorance in the weak who are thus unable to retaliate when ridiculed. Later in Greek philosophy, Aristotle in the Poetics (1449a p 34-35) suggested that an ugliness that does not disgust is fundamental to humour.

The Incongruity Theory originated mostly with Kant who claimed that the comic is an expectation that comes to nothing.


Evolution of humour


The acceptance of what constitutes humour depends on social demographics and varies from person to person. Some root components of humour are:

         appealing to feelings or to emotions.

         similar to reality, but not real.

         some surprise/misdirection, contradiction, ambiguity or paradox.

Humour can often be created through the use of hyperbole, metaphor, reductio ad absurdum or farce, reframing, and careful timing. Rowan Atkinson explains in his lecture in the documentary "Funny Business", that an object or a person can become funny in three different ways. They are:

         By behaving in an unusual way

         By being in an unusual place

         By being the wrong size

Most sight gags fit into one or more of these categories.

Humour is also sometimes described as an ingredient in spiritual life. Some Masters have added it to their teachings in various forms. A famous figure in spiritual humour is the laughing Buddha, who would answer all questions with a laugh.




Laughter is an audible expression or appearance of merriment or happiness or an inward feeling of joy and pleasure (laughing on the inside). It may ensue (as a physiological reaction) from jokes, tickling and other stimuli. Inhaling nitrous oxide can also induce laughter; other drugs, such as cannabis, can also induce episodes of strong laughter. Strong laughter can sometimes bring an onset of tears or even moderate muscular pain.

Laughter helps humans clarify their intentions in social interaction and provides an emotional context to conversations. Laughter is used as a signal for being part of a group it signals acceptance and positive interactions with others. Laughter is sometimes seemingly contagious, and the laughter of one person can itself provoke laughter from others as a positive feedback. This may account in part for the popularity of laugh tracks in situation comedy television shows. The study of humour and laughter, and its psychological and physiological effects on the human body is called gelotology.


Laughter in animals


Laughter is not confined or unique to humans, despite Aristotle's observation that "only the human animal laughs". The differences between the laughter of chimpanzees and humans may be the result of adaptations that evolved to enable human speech. However, some behavioural psychologists argue that self-awareness of one's situation, or the ability to identify with another's predicament are prerequisites for laughter, and thus certain animals are not laughing in the "human manner". Laughter is a rich experience and expression in human beings. Self-awareness and ability to identify with another's predicament may be prerequisite to intellectual jokes with specific references and contexts, but not for laughing behaviour as such. Thus there are several shades of smiling and laughing expressions. Such laughter is not often seen in animals. Nevertheless, one cannot deny occurrences of primitive laughter in terms of experience and expression in animals. Owners of pets can vouch on this point, if they understand when their pet is happy and how it expresses the same.


An Orangutan "laughing"

An Orangutan "laughing"


Research of laughter in animals may identify new molecules to alleviate depression, disorders of excessive exuberance such as mania and ADHD, or addictive urges and mood imbalances.


Non-human primates

Chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans show laughter-like vocalizations in response to physical contact, such as wrestling, play chasing, or tickling. This is documented in wild and captive chimpanzees. Chimpanzee laughter sounds more like breathing and panting than human laughter. The differences between chimpanzee and human laughter may be the result of adaptations that have evolved to enable human speech. There are instances in which non-human primates have been reported to have expressed joy. One study analyzed and recorded sounds made by human babies and bonobos (also known as pygmy chimpanzees) when tickled. It found that although the bonobos laugh was a higher frequency, the laugh followed the same spectrographic pattern of human babies to include as similar facial expressions. Humans and chimpanzees share similar ticklish areas of the body such as the armpits and belly. The enjoyment of tickling in chimpanzees does not diminish with age.


Brown Rat

Brown Rat



It has been discovered that rats emit short, high frequency, ultrasonic, socially induced vocalization during rough and tumble play and when tickled. The vocalization is described a distinct chirping. Humans cannot hear the "chirping" without special equipment. It was also discovered that like humans, rats have "tickle skin". These are certain areas of the body that generate more laughter response than others. The laughter is associated with positive emotional feelings and social bonding occurs with the human tickler, resulting in the rats becoming conditioned to seek the tickling. Additional responses to the tickling were those that laughed the most also played the most, and those that laughed the most preferred to spend more time with other laughing rats. This suggests a social preference to other rats exhibiting similar responses. However, as the rats age, there does appear to be a decline in the tendency to laugh and respond to tickle skin. Although research has yet been unable to prove rats have a sense of humour, it does indicate that they can laugh and express joy.



The dog laugh sounds similar to a normal pant. Dog laughter, when heard by other dogs, can initiate play, promote pro-social behaviour, and decrease stress levels. When dogs laugh or hear other dogs laugh, it significantly reduces their stress behaviours; they wag their tails more, and their facial expressions change to a play-face. Laughter among dogs increases their pro-social behaviour. Research suggests exposure to dog-laugh vocalizations can calm the dogs and possibly increase shelter adoptions.



Laughter is a common response to tickling

Laughter is a common response to tickling


Recently researchers have shown infants as early as 17 days old have vocal laughing sounds or spontaneous laughter. Gelotology research shows that laughter is a mechanism everyone has; laughter is part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same way. Everyone can laugh. Babies have the ability to laugh before they ever speak. Children who are born blind and deaf still retain the ability to laugh. Even apes have a form of pant-pant-pant laughter.

Men and women take jokes differently. A study that appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found in a study, 10 men and 10 women all watched 10 cartoons, rating them funny or not funny and if funny, how funny on a scale of 110. While doing this, their brains were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Men and women for the most part agreed which cartoons were funny. However, their brains handled humour differently. Researchers suspect the element of surprise may be at the heart of the study. They suggested that maybe women did not expect the cartoons to be funny, while men did the opposite.

Gelotology is the study of physiological effects of humour and laughter. While it is normally only considered clich that "laughter is the best medicine," specific medical theories attribute improved health, increased life expectancy, and overall improved well-being, to laughter. Laughter, the intended human reaction to jokes, is healthy in moderation, uses the stomach muscles, and releases endorphins, natural "feel good" chemicals, into the brain.



Common causes for laughter are sensations of joy and humour, however other situations may cause laughter as well. A general theory that explains laughter is called the relief theory. Sigmund Freud summarized it in his theory that laughter releases tension and "psychic energy". This theory is one of the justifications of the beliefs that laughter is beneficial for one's health. This theory explains why laughter can be as a coping mechanism for when one is upset, angry or sad. Philosopher John Morreall theorizes that human laughter may have its biological origins as a kind of shared expression of relief at the passing of danger.



A joke is a short story or ironic depiction of a situation communicated with the intent of being humorous. These jokes will normally have a punch line that will end the sentence to make it humorous. A joke can also be a single phrase or statement that employs sarcasm. The word joke can also be used as a slang term for a person or thing that is not taken seriously by others in general or is known as being a failure. A practical joke or prank differs from a spoken one in that the major component of the humour is physical rather than verbal (for example placing salt in the sugar bowl). Jokes are typically for the entertainment of friends and onlookers. The desired response is generally laughter; when this does not happen the joke is said to have "fallen flat".

Jokes have been a part of human culture since at least 1900 BCE. A fart joke from ancient Sumer is currently believed to be the world's oldest known joke.


Psychology of jokes

Why we laugh has been the subject of serious academic study, examples being:


Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Judgement (1790) states that "Laughter is an effect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing." Here is Kant's 218-year old joke and his analysis:

"An Englishman at an Indian's table in Surat saw a bottle of ale being opened, and all the beer, turned to froth, rushed out. The Indian, by repeated exclamations, showed his great amazement. - Well, what's so amazing in that? asked the Englishman. - Oh, but I'm not amazed at its coming out, replied the Indian, but how you managed to get it all in. - This makes us laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure. This is not because, say, we think we are smarter than this ignorant man, nor are we laughing at anything else here that it is our liking and that we noticed through our understanding. It is rather that we had a tense expectation that suddenly vanished..."


Henri Bergson, in his book Le rire (Laughter, 1901), suggests that laughter evolved to make social life possible for human beings.


Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation (1964), analyses humour and compares it to other creative activities, such as literature and science.


Edward de Bono suggests that the mind is a pattern-matching machine, and that it works by recognizing stories and behaviour and putting them into familiar patterns. When a familiar connection is disrupted and an alternative unexpected new link is made in the brain via a different route than expected, then laughter occurs as the new connection is made. This theory explains a lot about jokes. For example:

         Why jokes are only funny the first time they are told: once they are told the pattern is already there, so there can be no new connections, and so no laughter.

         Why jokes have an elaborate and often repetitive set up: The repetition establishes the familiar pattern in the brain. A common method used in jokes is to tell almost the same story twice and then deliver the punch line the third time the story is told. The first two tellings of the story evoke a familiar pattern in the brain, thus priming the brain for the punch line.

         Why jokes often rely on stereotypes: the use of a stereotype links to familiar expected behaviour, thus saving time in the set-up.

         Why jokes are variants on well-known stories (eg the genie and a lamp and a man walks into a bar): This again saves time in the set up and establishes a familiar pattern.




The rules of humour are similar to those of poetry. These common rules are mainly timing, precision, synthesis, and rhythm. French philosopher Henri Bergson has said in an essay: "In every wit there is something of a poet."



To reach precision, the comedian must choose the words in order to provide a vivid, in-focus image, and to avoid being generic as to confuse the audience, and provide no laughter.



As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, "Brevity is the soul of wit". Meaning that a joke is best when it expresses the maximum level of humour with a minimal number of words; this is today considered one of the key technical elements of a joke.



Folklorists, in particular (but not exclusively) those who study the folklore of the United States, collect jokes into joke cycles. A cycle is a collection of jokes with a particular theme or a particular "script". (That is, it is a literature cycle.) Folklorists have identified several such cycles:

         the elephant joke cycle that began in 1962

         the Helen Keller Joke Cycle that comprises jokes about Helen Keller

         Viola jokes

         the NASA, Challenger, or Space Shuttle Joke Cycle that comprises jokes relating to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

         the Chernobyl Joke Cycle that comprises jokes relating to the Chernobyl disaster

         the Polish Pope Joke Cycle that comprises jokes relating to Pope John Paul II

         the Essex girl and the Stupid Irish joke cycles in the United Kingdom

         the Dead Baby Joke Cycle

         the Dingo Joke Cycle that comprises jokes relating to the Azaria Chamberlain disappearance

         the Newfie Joke Cycle that comprises jokes made by Canadians about Newfoundlanders

         the Little Willie Joke Cycle, and the Quadriplegic Joke Cycle

         the Jew Joke Cycle and the Polack Joke Cycle

         the Rastus and Liza Joke Cycle, which Dundes describes as "the most vicious and widespread white anti-Negro joke cycle"

         the Jewish American Princess and Jewish American Mother joke cycles

         the Wind-Up Doll Joke Cycle

         Chuck Norris Facts

Whenever there is a popular joke cycle, there generally is some widespread kind of social and cultural anxiety, lingering below the surface, that the joke cycle helps people deal with.


Types of jokes

Jokes often depend on the humour of the unexpected, the mildly taboo (which can include the distasteful or socially improper), or playing off stereotypes and other cultural beliefs. Many jokes fit into more than one category.

Political jokes are usually a form of satire. They generally concern politicians and heads of state, but may also cover the absurdities of a country's political situation. A prominent example of political jokes would be political cartoons. Two large categories of this type of jokes exist. The first one makes fun of a negative attitude to political opponents or to politicians in general. The second one makes fun of political clichs, mottos, catch phrases or simply blunders of politicians. Some, especially the you have two cows genre, derive humour from comparing different political systems.

Professional humour includes caricatured portrayals of certain professions such as lawyers, and in-jokes told by professionals to each other.

Mathematical jokes are a form of in-joke, generally designed to be understandable only by insiders.

Ethnic jokes exploit ethnic stereotypes. They are often racist and frequently considered offensive. For example, the British tell jokes starting "An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman..." which exploit the supposed parsimony of the Scot, stupidity of the Irish or rigid conventionality of the English. Such jokes exist among numerous peoples. Racially offensive humour is increasingly unacceptable, but there are similar jokes based on other stereotypes such as blonde jokes.

Religious jokes fall into several categories:

         Jokes based on stereotypes associated with people of religion (e.g. nun jokes, priest jokes, or rabbi jokes)

         Jokes on classical religious subjects: crucifixion, Adam and Eve, St. Peter at The Gates, etc.

         Jokes that collide different religious denominations: "A rabbi, a medicine man, and a pastor went fishing..."

Self-deprecating or self-effacing humour is superficially similar to racial and stereotype jokes, but involves the targets laughing at themselves. It is said to maintain a sense of perspective and to be powerful in defusing confrontations. Probably the best-known and most common example is Jewish humour. The egalitarian tradition was strong among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in which the powerful were often mocked subtly. Prominent members of the community were kidded during social gatherings, part a good-natured tradition of humour as a levelling device. A similar situation exists in the Scandinavian "Ole and Lena" joke. Self-deprecating humour has also been used by politicians, who recognize its ability to acknowledge controversial issues and steal the punch of criticism - for example, when Abraham Lincoln was accused of being two-faced he replied, "If I had two faces, do you think this is the one Id be wearing?".

Dirty jokes are based on taboo, often sexual, content or vocabulary. Other taboos are challenged by sick jokes and gallows humour; to joke about disability is considered in this group.

Surrealist or minimalist jokes exploit semantic inconsistency, for example: Q: What's red and invisible? A: No tomatoes..

Anti-jokes are jokes that are not funny in regular sense, and often can be decidedly unfunny, but rely on the let-down from the expected joke to be funny in itself.

An elephant joke is a joke, almost always a riddle or conundrum and often a sequence of connected riddles, that involves an elephant.

Jokes involving non-sequitur humour, with parts of the joke being unrelated to each other; e.g. "My uncle once punched a man so hard his legs became trombones", from the Mighty Boosh TV series.



The question / answer joke, sometimes posed as a common riddle, has a supposedly straight question and an answer which is twisted for humourous effect; puns are often employed. Of this type are knock-knock joke, light bulb joke, the many variations on "why did the chicken cross the road?", and the class of "What's the difference between..." joke, where the punch line is often a pun or a spoonerism linking two apparently entirely unconnected concepts.

Some jokes require a double act, where one respondent (usually the straight man) can be relied on to give the correct response to the person telling the joke. This is more common in performance than informal joke-telling.

A shaggy dog story is an extremely long and involved joke with an intentionally weak or completely non-existent punchline. The humour lies in building up the audience's anticipation and then letting them down completely. The longer the story can continue without the audience realising it is a joke, and not a serious anecdote, the more successful it is. Shaggy jokes appear to date from the 1930s, although there are several competing variants for the "original" shaggy dog story. According to one, an advertisement is placed in a newspaper, searching for the shaggiest dog in the world. The teller of the joke then relates the story of the search for the shaggiest dog in extreme and exaggerated detail (flying around the world, climbing mountains, fending off sabre-toothed tigers, etc); a good teller will be able to stretch the story out to over half an hour. When the winning dog is finally presented, the advertiser takes a look at the dog and states: "I don't think he's so shaggy."


'World's oldest joke' traced back to 1900 BC

Posted Thu Jul 31, 2008 10:00am AEST


The world's oldest recorded joke has been traced back to 1900 BC and suggests toilet humour was as popular with the ancients as it is today, British academics say.

The joke is a saying of the Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq, and goes: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."

It heads the world's Oldest Top 10 joke list published by the University of Wolverhampton.

A 1600 BC gag about a pharaoh, said to be King Snofru, comes second. "How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish."

The oldest British joke dates back to the 10th century and reveals the bawdy face of the Anglo-Saxons. "What hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole that it's often poked before? A key."

"Jokes have varied over the years, with some taking the question and answer format while others are witty proverbs or riddles," said the report's writer, Dr Paul McDonald, a senior lecturer at the university.

"What they all share however is a willingness to deal with taboos and a degree of rebellion. Modern puns, Essex girl jokes and toilet humour can all be traced back to the very earliest jokes identified in this research."

The study was commissioned by UK television channel Dave.


- Reuters