I will in this entry briefly discuss what I see as the major division of many of the theories of humor. I take most of my information from Rod Martin's textbook The Psychology of Humor (Elsevier, 2007), though I have consulted other sources as well.
For this brief discussion, I will use as an example the famous paraprosdokian: “I’ve had the most wonderful evening ... but this wasn’t it,” a witticism which has been falsely attributed to Groucho Marx.
Over the millennia of written history, there have been many theories of humor. Within the western intellectual tradition, the various theories have fallen into what I consider two broad categories: incongruity theories and disparagement theories.
An incongruity resolution is a cognitive process in which the brain detects a contrast or ambiguity and then tries to resolve the interpretations of the incoming information into a consistent whole. The pleasure in resolving an incongruity is similar to the pleasure felt when solving a puzzle. In the joke above, the listener begins the sentence thinking that the speaker is talking about the present moment, this evening, but the end of the sentence forces the listener to reinterpret the beginning of the sentence. The surprise reinterpretation of the beginning of the sentence is a puzzle the brain derives pleasure from solving.
Disparagement theory says that humor fundamentally lowers social status. A man in a suit walking down a sidewalk has a certain amount of implied dignity. When he slips on the proverbial banana peel, his facade of dignity slips too, and we laugh at him. In the example joke above, the beginning of the sentence seems to be a compliment to the host of a party, a customarily positive exaggeration, while the resolution of the incongruity is a negative assessment of the evening, and, told to the host's face, could be highly insulting. The joke has been falsely attributed to Groucho Marx because that sort of disparagement in a refined social setting was typical for the characters he played.
Many humor theorists have combined both incongruity and disparagement. Herbert Spencer argued that humor resulted from "descending incongruity." Arthur Koestler, who coined the term bisociation (which was an important concept in the history of the incongruity school), argued that, in addition to two competing interpretations, there was always an element of aggression in humor. Most humor theorists have either been primarily in the incongruity camp or primarily in the aggression/ disparagement camp, but the two are not incompatible.
Next month, I will expand on the issues surrounding the disparagement theories of humor, because their function within the social dynamic is not as simple as it might appear.