Humor is believed to be very difficult to understand due to its subjective mechanisms. The way we understand humor is often compared to that of pornography--"You know it when you see it"--but this is an analytical evasion and at base, simply not true.
Humor can’t be defined by what’s actually funny. However, if you look it up in any dictionary, you’ll find exactly that; adjectival feelings like amusement, gaiety, or happiness. All these things merely describe subjective affect, they don’t define it. Humor is indeed more complicated than many concepts though because it keeps one foot in reality, and one foot out. In short, humor is a myth.
Myths are distinct from fantasies, because fantasies are created as a complete escape from reality. Myths require a realistic point of reference, or kernel of truth. Essentially they’re fanciful tales with aspects of truth. Due to this structure, science fiction is by definition mythical because it's based in scientific principles and known reality, basing new, speculative realities upon them. Science fiction and humor thereby follow the same myth-structure: First establish a reality-base, then contort, adapt, or speculate divergent premises.
Typical jokes involve: Starting with a real observation or trait, then intentionally connecting it to something ridiculous; embellishing certain established characteristics to produce wild effects; making categorical comparisons with unrelated things to draw logically valid though completely unrealistic conclusions; or evoking imagery that is often found comical and juxtaposing it with something normally stoic. Humor bridges reality and unreality through disproportionate or mis-associations. It can either be intentional or accidental, but either way, to quote George Orwell, it “upsets the established order.”
Take the classic joke: A horse walks into a bar and the bartender asks, "Why the long face?" I'll admit it isn't the funniest joke, but that's just due to its superficiality. Everyone knows horses have long faces (actually, heads), but no one is thinking of the metaphorical long face before the punch-line is delivered. They're just subtly misdirected toward the ridiculousness of a horse walking into a bar. It catches us off guard, upsetting our prediction, or mental order.
Here's another form. Since the 'bartender' jokes have become so prolific, jokes using them as jokes have become popular. Take this example: A duck walks into a bar, and the bartender asks, "What is this, a joke?" It's a type of meta-humor that builds upon established humor, using the original humor as reality--because it's been integrated into our social consciousness--and then adding the new bits to create the new joke. It’s still a myth, though a compound myth. Many jokes take this compound form, which, told to someone unaware of the earlier forms wouldn’t be funny, but told to someone aware of the progression can be strangely hilarious.
Myths--therefore humor--are affected by our social and cultural awareness, as well as our faculty of language. The more acutely we understand metaphor, nuance, and tone, the more meaning we’re able to play with. But humor's not just an academic activity, where you input variables and try to surprise others with random, quirky one-liners. Timing is key, which you can't fake or prescribe on paper. The funniest people are those who understand the kernels of truth within the myths, understand their audience, and craft a set of premises and gestures to lead their audience through the reality-divergences. Even the cleverest jokes can fall flat if they're mis-told.
Humor is like a fine cigar: You ruin it when you rush it; and it's best enjoyed in good company.
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