Philosophy and Literature, © 2004, 28: 1–22
LAUGHTER AND LITERATURE:
A PLAY THEORY OF HUMOR
Let’s start with some hard data.
Exhibit A: President Calvin Coolidge and his wife were being shown over a
poultry farm. When a rooster mounted a hen in front of Mrs Coolidge, she asked
how often he did this. “Several times a day.” “Tell that to the President.” When
Coolidge was told, he asked, was it always the same hen? “No, different hens.”
“Tell that to Mrs Coolidge.”
That sounds like a joke, but it’s just history, not design. Now two
Exhibit B: Two behaviorists have sex; one says to the other afterwards: “That was
great for you; how was it for me?”
Exhibit C: Lenny Bruce had a routine about his wife wanting to have a
child. His response to her: “Why bring strangers into the house?” 1
We don’t laugh only at jokes, or only at things intended to be funny
that we couldn’t quite call jokes, like President Coolidge’s riposte.
Being a serious sourpuss, I don’t like collecting jokes or having them
forwarded to me through the Internet, but I was once sent a list of what
purport to be “questions actually asked of witnesses by attorneys during
trials” in the US.2 They aren’t jokes, and I can’t vouch for their
authenticity, although they sound unlikely enough to be true; but they
2Philosophy and Literature
Exhibit D: “All your responses must be oral, OK? What school did you go to?”
Exhibit E: “How far apart were the vehicles at the time of the collision?”
But if I don’t collect ordinary jokes I am a headline hunter: headlines
can be micro-haiku, condensed comedy, half-line one-liners.
Exhibit F: a recent headline for a review of an unﬂattering documentary
about Princess Diana’s lover, James Hewitt: The Princess and the Pea-Brain.3
So much for the data. How do we explain its effect on us? How do we
explain humor, and how can I show that an evolutionary approach to
humor, and to literature, can be fruitful and even necessary?
Let me list some of the problems of studying humor. Why do we ﬁnd
funny so many different kinds of things—words, intonations, accents,
appearances, characters, actions, situations—whether or not they are
designed to be funny? The jokes and quips and courtroom blips above all
have human language in common, but we can laugh without language,
and even without humans. I recently watched the documentary Travel-
ling Birds,4 which apart from an intermittent voice-over consists simply
of long shots of birds of one species at a time migrating seasonally from
one part of the globe to the other. There was nothing to cue anybody
for laughter, but when among a crowd of long-legged cranes standing
on ice, one lost its balance, tried to regain it, slipped further, and
toppled right over, the whole cinema audience laughed. Why? Why is
our reaction to what we ﬁnd funny laughter, and why do we laugh when
there’s not necessarily any joke?
Laughter is difﬁcult to explain in evolutionary terms. Evolution has
many strange behaviors to explain, of course. The philosopher and
evolutionist Daniel Dennett, for instance, writes of
a species of primate in South America, more gregarious than most other
mammals, with a curious behavior. The members of this species often
gather in groups, large and small, and in the course of their mutual
chattering, under a wide variety of circumstances, they are induced to
engage in bouts of involuntary, convulsive respiration, a sort of loud,
helpless, mutually reinforcing group panting that sometimes is so severe
as to incapacitate them. Far from being aversive, however, these attacks
seem to be sought out by most members of the species, some of whom
even appear to be addicted to them.
Dennett adds that: “We might be tempted to think that if only we
knew what it was like to be them, from the inside, we’d understand this
curious addiction of theirs. If we could see it ‘from their point of view,’
we would know what it was for. But,” he explains, “the species is Homo
sapiens (which does indeed inhabit South America, among other
places), and the behavior is laughter.” He asks, “What do we do better
than we otherwise would do, thanks to the mechanisms that carry with
them, as a price worth paying, our susceptibility to—our near addiction
to—laughter?”5 How could evolution have designed such a behavior?
How could it be so much a part of our species, whatever culture or clan
we come from?
There’s much else to explain about laughter. Why do we enjoy
laughter so much? Why do we especially enjoy laughing together? Why
should it be that when we perceive something as funny, we have this
particular, almost involuntary, response in face and lungs? How does
laughter relate to smiling? How does it relate to other sounds our
mouths make, especially speech? How can we ﬁnd it impossible to
deﬁne what’s funny and yet generally ﬁnd ourselves all laughing at the
same time? Why do we laugh more often, as research shows, at things
that aren’t jokes than at things that are ?6 Why does humor sometimes act
like a balm, a sweet social stimulant, and sometimes like a barb?
Humor theorists agree that there are three main traditional theories
of humor, with much overlap among them.7 One, the most widespread,
is now usually referred to as the incongruity-resolution theory. Kant writes
that “Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation
of a strained expectation into nothing”: in other words, when we hear
the punch line, the tension of our expectations disappears, it is resolved
in a ﬂash.8 Schopenhauer also agrees that our success at resolving
incongruity is expressed in laughter.9 This explains part of “That was
great for you, how was it for me?” or “Why bring strangers into the
house?” We don’t expect the reversal of the familiar question in the ﬁrst
instance, or the application of another familiar formula to having a
child in the second, and we do quickly resolve them, in terms of
4Philosophy and Literature
behaviorists’ assumptions that we cannot see into the mind and should
therefore focus only on actions, or in terms of Lenny Bruce’s misgivings
about becoming a parent. But incongruity resolution cannot explain a
good deal of our laughter outside jokes, such as at the sliding and
collapsing crane, or at characters from Mrs. Bennet to Mr. Micawber.
Another main theory of humor is now called the superiority theory:
According to Hobbes, laughter is an expression of our feelings of
superiority over others, or over our own former position of inferiority. In
On Human Nature he presents what has become the classic statement on
the subject: “the passion of laughter [. . .] is nothing else but sudden
glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in
ourselves, by comparison with the inﬁrmity of others, or with our own
This may explain our laughter at the crane: sitting or standing upright
as we watch, we literally have an “eminency” over the bird now sprawled
on the ground. It may explain slapstick humor, slipping on banana
peels, custard-pies-in-the-face, and the blunders in the courtroom
(“Oral” and Co.), as well as laughter as an instrument of aggression,
ridicule, satire, censure (the behaviorist joke, if we read that as satire).
But it does nothing to explain Lenny Bruce’s “Why bring strangers into
the house?” or many other verbal jokes, like Bob Hope’s comic riff on
being born in England: “I still have a bit of British in me. In fact, my
blood type is solid marmalade.”11 Nor can a superiority theory of humor
explain why humor is more often balm than barb.
A third main theory of humor is now known as the relief theory.
Although a version of this dates back to Aristotle, and it was developed
by Herbert Spencer, Freud elaborated it most fully, ﬁrst in Jokes and
Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), and then in his 1927 essay
“Humour.” Paul Grant summarizes Freud: “In humour . . . we prepare
ourselves to feel emotions such as fear or pity, but realize that we have
no cause to be concerned; the energy summoned is found to be
superﬂuous and released in laughter.” For Freud, humor has a “heroic
function in the sense of liberation it achieves in allowing us to stand
aloof from the trials and tribulations of life.”12 Freud has something
here, in the idea that we can brace ourselves in humor, but it is hard to
ﬁnd ourselves bracing for fear or pity or anything else in examples like
“Oral” or “Tell that to Mrs Coolidge.”
These theories of humor, and others,13 attempt to explain why we
ﬁnd things funny, but not why laughter is the outward form of our
ﬁnding things funny. Laughter varies slightly from culture to culture,
but it is nevertheless a human universal—which suggests the need for
an evolutionary explanation.14 Such an explanation might also be able
to show not only why we ﬁnd certain things funny (and why we ﬁnd
funny all the kinds of things we ﬁnd funny) but also why that sense of
something as funny has its expression in laughter, why we ﬁnd humor
and laughter so intensely pleasurable, and why we usually ﬁnd them
such a social lubricant but why they can also sometimes be a social
Not only can an evolutionary explanation of humor explain more of
what is funny and why it results in laughter, but it can also explain much
more than verbal humor. Verbal examples are of course the easiest to
discuss. But laughter, while often triggered by words, is itself pre-verbal
and non-verbal. Laughter and sobbing are “the ﬁrst two social vocaliza-
tions that children make”; unlike speech, they are relatively involuntary,
socially contagious, and with a consistent emotional valence; like other
primate social calls they do not require ﬁne articulation but only an
“alternation of the presence and absence of vocal sounds, superim-
posed on relatively more stable mouth postures,” and their motor
activity depends on mid-brain and brain stem circuits rather than the
higher speech centers. Like many social signals, laughter and sobbing
have evolved as a contrasted pair: laughter is produced by exhalation,
which we also use in producing speech, and sobbing, by inhalation.
Although chimpanzees can vocalize as readily in inhalation as exhala-
tion, humans ﬁnd it difﬁcult, almost painful, to speak while inhaling.
Sobbing captures and signals that pain; laughter makes the most of the
relaxed effortlessness of our vocalizing while exhaling.15 Because of the
differences between the social calls of laughter and sobbing on the one
hand and articulated speech on the other, we need to look for a deeper
explanation for humor and laughter than in jokes.
There are a number of competing evolutionary theories of humor
and/or laughter. One is in terms of aggression or mockery, like
chimpanzees that hoot together at a common enemy. This is close to
Hobbes and the superiority theory of humor, but neither for chimpan-
zees nor for children does laughter in fact begin in intimidating
derogation.16 Another evolutionary explanation is in terms of disarming
6Philosophy and Literature
aggression, as a signal of submission, but as Robert Storey notes, one
chimpanzee will never try to disarm another lurching ominously closer
by greeting it with laughter.17 A third explanation is in terms of
expressing relief at the passing of danger, or alerting others to the
passing of a threat, but there is no evident selective advantage for such
a signal.18 A fourth explanation, far more promising, explains laughter
in terms of play. It has been most fully developed by the Dutch
primatologist Jan van Hooff, but the psychologist Robert Provine, the
evolutionary psycholinguist Steven Pinker, and the neuroscientist
Terrence Deacon are also fundamentally in accord.19
Van Hooff locates the origins of laughter in the relaxed open-mouth
face that primates and other mammals and even birds display in play.20
Animal behaviors and expressions often become what ethologists call
ritualized, stylized in a ﬁxed and distinctive pattern that serves as a clear
signal within a species, so that its members can understand each other
and waste as little energy, time and health as possible in friction or
ﬁghting or needlessly acting at cross-purposes. A ritualized behavior
such as the widespread mammalian relaxed open-mouth display, or
human laughter, does not emerge simply as an expression of some
internal state, but evolves gradually into a well-deﬁned social signal only
because it is useful for senders to have receivers construe it in a certain
way. Over time, minute differences of expression, gesture and posture
become intensiﬁed, to the point where, say, signs of anger such as
bristling hair and tight lips suggest to another, “Back off,” while a smile
suggests: “You may safely approach.”21 In humans, facial expressions for
sadness, happiness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger can be recognized
from any culture to any other, because these expressions have evolved
to be as distinctive across our species as the human social calls of
laughter and sobbing
Why did the relaxed open-mouth display evolve? In order to explain
it, we will need to explain ﬁrst play, and then social play.
Play has been observed in many animal species, including all
mammals in which it has been looked for, and especially in rats, canids
(dogs and wolves), primates and cetaceans (dolphins and whales).
Easily recognized by experts and non-experts alike,22 despite the
difﬁculty of deﬁning it, play has been much studied by biologists. It
seems clear that it must have an adaptive function, since it is so
widespread within and across species, since it consumes valuable
energy, since it puts players at increased risk of predation or injury, yet
remains eagerly anticipated, solicited and maintained. Pleasure is
nature’s way of ensuring that creatures perform an activity, and animals
and humans not only look as though they enjoy play but their brains
release dopamine when they anticipate or take part in it.23
There is clear evidence that juvenile play deprivation among both
rats and humans is associated with serious social malfunction in later
life. Young rats experimentally deprived of play grow up unable to
judge how and when to defend themselves, so that they veer between
being far too aggressive and far too passive.24 In humans such experi-
ments, thank goodness, have not been tried, but in a large-scale study of
sociopathic murderers in Texas, researchers were surprised to ﬁnd no
common factor, in terms of background or experience, other than an
absence or an extremely reduced amount of play in childhood in 90%
of the perpetrators.25
While most who study play agree that it must have an adaptive value,
they cannot agree on what that value is. Among the many explanations
proposed are training for later life and training for the unexpected:
training for the expected, if you like, versus training for the unex-
pected. Both appear necessary.26
Training for the expected seems a natural part of play. Boys (and to
a lesser extent girls) love to throw stones, cones, sticks, fruit, hand-
scoops of earth, mud, water, or snow, boomerangs, balls of all sizes and
shapes, metal or paper darts, Frisbees, in fact anything they can hurl
through the air. Javelin and discus contests have been known for
millennia; aerodynamically sophisticated spears date back at least
400,000 years, and cruder versions no doubt much further. Hunting
with the aid of projectiles has mattered throughout human protohistory,
and the cross-cultural boyish pleasure in practicing throwing surely
But much play seems hard to explain in terms of training for the
expected. Why do children skip as well as run, why do young langur
monkeys do handstands, why do lambs frisk and gambol, why do piglets
run, jump, spin in mid-air, ﬂop over and take off again, squealing with
delight?27 A promising recent theory advanced by Marek S+pinka and his
colleagues suggests that play is especially training for coping with the
unexpected.28 In play, animals and humans move in unusual, exagger-
ated and exuberant ways, testing the limits of balance and bounce and
locomotion, actively putting themselves into situations that risk loss of
8Philosophy and Literature
control (think skateboarding, skiing, surﬁng) but allow quick recovery,
in order to learn to cope with the unexpected. In play, horses make
high speed turns that are not part of their usual gait; monkeys will
cavort through the branches or jump one by one from a tree into a
river, again and again, more ﬂamboyantly each time, like children belly-
ﬂopping into the water.29 The likeliest explanation seems to be that this
is training for the unexpectedness that will help them evade a predator
or an aggressor. In a chase, the ability to make and recover from
atypical movements could mean the difference between life and death
(S+pinka et al., pp. 141, 143).
Running and frisking and cavorting can be performed solo, but in
the wild they can be dangerous, and animals rarely carry out such
activities away from the vigilance of others of their kind.30 But a high
percentage of play is social, chasing, mock-ﬁghting, rough-and-tumble,
tickling. If mere gamboling and galumphing are training for escape
from pursuit, chasing is even better, and rough-and-tumble offers
training in the unexpected moves of both evasion and defense, not only
against predators but against aggressive competition with conspeciﬁcs.
But if such play is to be of beneﬁt, then it must not escalate into real
ﬁghting. Animals need to furnish very clear signals to each other that
they are not attacking but only playing (Bekoff, Minding Animals, pp.
124–25). The little nips that in many animals in the mammalian line
have been the main tools of play-ﬁghting have to be distinguished in
advance from real bites. The ritualized signal of the relaxed open-
mouth display has therefore evolved in species from rats and wolves to
chimpanzees. The baring of the teeth before biting has moved away
from the rigidity and tension of real aggressive biting toward the
maximum looseness that tends to characterize all bodily movements
and postures in play (vH&P, p. 267). At the same time, the breathless-
ness that results from the energy expenditure of intense play has been
ritualized, in wolves and dogs and in primates like orangutans, gorillas,
and chimpanzees, into a rhythmic pant, a volley of exhalations that
together with the play face seems the origin of human laughter.31 Even
rats nipped behind the neck in their tireless play emit a joy chirp too
high for human ears (S+pinka et al., p. 159; Panksepp, p. 146). In such
play the active partner has a play face to signal that this is mock
aggression, while the passive partner pants to indicate “This is fun, keep
going,” as the roles rapidly switch back and forth.32
Van Hooff notes two consequences of the play-face explanation for
the origins of human laughter: ﬁrst, that the idea that laughter
originates in aggression cannot be right, since there is no evidence
either in closely related species or in human infants for such an origin;
and second, more surprisingly, laughter and smiling appear to have
quite different roots. Smiling seems to derive from a fear grin, a baring
of the teeth shown by a subordinate to a dominant, a nervous signal of
submissiveness common in many species, including many parts of the
primate line. That remote origin can still be detected in an embar-
rassed human smile of apology or social deference or awkwardness.
In humans, and in some other primate species, van Hooff observes,
the laugh and the smile, although they have different origins, tend to
converge, so that a smile can seem like a weak laugh, a laugh like a
strong smile. Some primate species, like baboons and some macaques,
are relatively despotic, and in these the relaxed open-mouth play face
and the bared-teeth fear grin are very distinct; but in other species, like
other macaques and humans, which are much more egalitarian, the
two facial displays can converge as signs of lack of threatening intent
and even friendliness (vH&P, pp. 275–76, 280–86).
But how do we get from the play face and play pant as social signals
to human laughter in response to mastering a cognitive surprise?33 Let
me suggest the route. The mind, as evolutionary psychology has
stressed, is crammed with expectations, built in ﬁrst through natural
selection and then added to by experience. Among those that natural
selection incorporates in us, the most urgent of all is the expectation of
danger, the unexpected manifestation of an expected threat. Young
birds that have never seen a hawk before will panic when a bird-shaped
kite with wings toward one end is towed overhead so that its wings are at
the front, but will be unperturbed if is towed the other way, so the wings
are at the back and the shape seems more like a duck than a hawk. We
are all equipped with a startle reﬂex, we are all programmed to dip or
dive when something looms rapidly in our ﬁeld of vision. Nature
cannot afford to have us learn of recurrent dangers through trial and
In play-ﬁghting and in tickling in animals including humans, or in
human peek-a-boo games, the rough form of a threat catches the
attention and primes alertness, only for threat quickly to turn to
opportunity. In rats, chimpanzees and other animals that enjoy play-
ﬁghting and friendly nips or tickles, so long as there is a relaxed and
10 Philosophy and Literature
trusting social atmosphere, it is the surprise movements that produce
the greatest vocal release and the greatest apparent pleasure, the
unexpected within the context of harmless play.35 And in human
laughter we ﬁnd the same (Provine, Laughter, p. 93).
It is important to remember that play can persist—and animals that
play want it to—only if it can clearly be seen by both sides as play. The
swing and looseness of play expressions and actions must be manifest.
Each party needs to know that the other also expects only play, not
serious combat, from the encounter. That conﬁdent sharing of expecta-
tions, so that there is as much room as possible for the unexpected
within the rules of the expected, is essential to social play.
Shared expectations that allow for surprises that catch us off guard,
that simulate risk and stimulate recovery, are the key not only to play of
all kinds but also to humor. In jokes we are often primed for surprise,
but despite our actively seeking to anticipate an unexpected resolution,
the punch line still takes us unawares, but in a way that allows the
tripping up of our expectations to be followed by a swift regaining of
Most of our expectations are not explicit, but surprise can show they
were there. Without thinking of it, we expect a crane to remain upright;
if it slips, wobbles, and topples, we laugh. Without thinking of it, we
expect a person to carry on walking, but if a clown or a cartoon
character or a silent comedian slips on a banana peel, we will laugh
Play with expectations offers a better explanation for humor than
incongruity resolution. There is no incongruity in a crane falling or a
person slipping on a banana peel, but there is a harmless jolt to
expectations. Even in many of the best jokes, there is no incongruity to
resolve, but simply a possibility we do not expect, no matter how
primed we are for surprise. We have seen enough lead-up to anticipate
that the façade of a building will fall on Buster Keaton as he walks past.
We expect disaster, but not that an open doorway will fall over the very
spot where he happens to be and allow him to walk on, quite
unperturbed, over the rest of the collapsed facade. Or to switch from
actions to words:
What did President Clinton say to his wife after making love? “I’ll be home in
twenty minutes, honey.”
“Watson, we can see all the stars. What do you deduce?”
“Among all those myriads, Holmes, there must surely be other inhabited
“No, you idiot, someone has stolen our tent!”
There are no incongruities here, simply possibilities that pounce from
nowhere, but allow us instant and satisfying recovery.
Part of the pleasure of human laughter is that it shows how richly
attuned our expectations are, even if they remain inexplicit. Language
makes it particularly possible for us to see the unexpected expectations
we share, since while language itself is explicit its rules are usually not;
it incorporates many expectations we overlook or allows many infer-
ences we take for granted until they are violated. “The Princess and the
Pea” carries one set of expectations, and “pea brain” another, and
despite the pea in both verbal pods, we have never thought of them
together. In the Clinton joke, we naturally infer that when he talks to
his wife after making love, he has made love to her, and in the punch
line we instantly see we were wrong but that we all leaped to that wrong
expectation. Our very recognition that we share such expectations
makes our amusement socially binding in the way that physical play,
through its dependence on the less novel expectations of ritualized
behavior, also serves to unite.37
If a would-be joke does not take us by surprise, if, as we say, we see the
punch line a mile off, we will not ﬁnd it funny. On the other hand,
springing a joke with insufﬁcient preparation can also ruin it.38 But if
our expectation has been primed, if we know a joke is coming, and we
still ﬁnd the punch line takes us by surprise, it will be even funnier: it
resembles exactly the relationship between the keen general expecta-
tion of play, and the acute particular surprises animals, including
humans, especially enjoy in play.
But mere surprise is not enough. Discrepancy alerts the right
hemisphere of the brain to try to integrate new information with old
(Ramachandran and Blakelee, p. 142). Those with damage in the right
frontal neocortex often no longer understand humor. Knowing that
humor is associated with surprise, they tend to laugh at mere non-
sequiturs they think must be funny, when to the rest of us they are not.39
Only if a joke involves surprise, and allows us to retrieve sense, will it
be funny, just as surprise moves by play-opponents that let us make
12 Philosophy and Literature
quick recoveries will be especially rewarding. A discrepant event will
make an eight-month-old infant vigilant; it will ﬁrst stare, then become
distressed if it cannot assimilate the event into what it knows; but if it
suddenly understands something new, an infant will produce what
developmental psychologists call the smile of mastery.40 And for adults,
the faster the surprise and the richer the retrieval, the better the joke
Lenny Bruce’s “Why bring strangers into the house?” involves a
familiar expression in an unexpected context, but we recover its
aptness as an outrageous expression of his reluctance to have a child;
almost as soon, we recognize also that when any child is born we don’t
really know what sort of person will be coming into the household; yet
never until now have we thought of a new-born infant as a stranger in its
parents’ home. All this ﬂashes through our mind, catching us off guard
only to place us in a new kind of control.
Part of the special social pleasure of humor is that it alerts us to how
much we share. We sense that someone has known our expectations
well enough to spring a surprise on us, and one that knocks us off
balance not to take advantage but only to provoke our gleeful rebound:
a treat, not a threat, and an afﬁrmation of our shared understanding.
But there is also a more purely cognitive pleasure in the jolt and joy
of a joke. In the Holmes or the Clinton examples, our expectations lead
us to infer from the data what seem the obvious scenes (two men
strolling or standing and looking at the night sky, Clinton making love
to his wife), only for them to prove not to be the only possible
inferences. We topple into the trap of error and are then sprung free,
exhilarated by the speed of our recovery. This has profound cognitive
Not until children are nearly ﬁve do they understand the false belief
essential to more sophisticated humor. In tests of false belief, three- and
four-year-olds are shown, say, a Smarties tube with pencils hidden
inside. When they are asked what they think is there, they naturally
answer “Smarties”; after they are shown the pencils, they are asked what
they now think is in the tube. “Pencils.” And what did you think was
there before? The three-year-olds will still say “Pencils”: they cannot
understand false belief, cannot see that they once thought something
different from what they now think.41 Grasping and gasping at that
difference is the essence of sophisticated human humor.
I have used jokes as our main data set, because they are compact and
quickly cashed cognitive currency. But much of our deliberate humor
involves not tightly turned jokes but intonations and imitations that
mimic another person or people or point of view, perhaps in a vein of
mock stupidity, mock incomprehension, or mock hostility. As Robert
Provine notes, “Mutual playfulness, in-group feeling and positive emo-
tional tone—not comedy—mark the social settings of most naturally
occurring laughter” (cited in Storey, “A Critique of Recent Theories,” p.
76). Because we guess our audience will sense we cannot mean this
action or that utterance seriously, they will laugh at our play with the
expectations we share. A simple sample. My wife muses aloud: “I think
I’ll just do boiled potatoes for dinner.” I reply: “That sounds a little
meager”—as if I thought she was saying that the meal would consist
only of boiled potatoes. I do not in fact know quite what she means
(boiled rather than roasted potatoes, along with whatever else she had
in mind, or had she perhaps been thinking of a ratatouille?), but by
saying what I do, as if I had inferred “boiled potatoes alone,” and
knowing that she will know that I do not really infer that, I make us both
laugh, in casual celebration of the unspoken expectations we share and
can toy with.
Humor need not be verbal at all. Barry Humphries is a brilliant
verbal comedian, but in his persona of Sir Les Paterson, Australian
cultural attaché, his crooked teeth, his plastered-down hair, his copious
drinking, his spraying saliva as he talks, his all-round boorishness, and
the false penis that bulges under his trousers when he expresses a
particularly leering thought could make us laugh even with the sound
on mute, because his appearance and behavior sit so much at odds with
what we expect of others, let alone a supposed paragon of cultural
sophistication. Sir Les violates our expectations, but there is no
“incongruity” that needs to be “resolved” here: he simply stands for a
sleazy type, and his mock-sleaziness is as enjoyable, in its constant
particular surprises, as the mock-aggression of play.
By seeing humor as playing with shared expectations and linking it to
the relationship between the preparation for the expected and for the
unexpected in physical play, we can explain everything that the
incongruity theory of humor attempts to account for, and more, and
everything that is valid in the relief theory of humor. At the same time,
we also rule out the idea that humor begins in aggression.
14 Philosophy and Literature
Yet what about the superiority theory of humor? In Hobbes’s formu-
lation, laughing at a sudden eminence in ourselves compared with what
we were, he seems to anticipate the recovery aspect of the play theory of
humor I have proposed; but laughing at a sudden eminence in
ourselves compared with others seems closer to an aggressive theory of
humor. And we know humor can be used, as our language puts it, to
laugh at as well as laugh with, to be funny by making fun of people. How
can we square humor as a barb with humor as a balm, a social binding
One of the major research areas of sociobiology and evolutionary
psychology over the last forty years has been the problem of coopera-
tion. Evolution by natural selection would seem at ﬁrst glance to favor
all-out competition, selﬁsh genes in the sense even of genes for
selﬁshness. Yet cooperation exists at all levels of life, because it allows
many species to achieve what may be difﬁcult or impossible for its
members acting on their own.
In individualized societies (as opposed to species with largely identi-
cal or similar genes, like slime molds or ants) cooperation has even
reached the unprecedented scale, range and complexity of human
society. Modern evolutionary theory has found many ways to account
for the evolution of cooperation, but without ignoring what has been
called the fundamental problem of social life:42 that in an individual-
ized society cooperation is always between potential competitors (since
their genes differ), and that therefore will always be subject to the risks
of non-cooperation, defection, cheating, exploitation.
If cooperation cannot exist without conﬂict, the conﬂict occurs at
several levels. At the individual level, it involves seeking personal
advantage regardless of the interests of others. Play prepares us for
competition in a way that heightens cooperation, through its intrinsic
pleasure and the common expectations that make it possible. But play
can easily involve cheating or real aggression, whether at the hand of
schoolyard bullies or on the professional football ﬁeld or baseball
ground.43 Humor too can be used in ways at odds with cooperation,
either in promoting oneself or in demoting others. In the former case,
humor can become a form of compulsive competitive display, some-
thing males, for well-established evolutionary reasons, are particularly
prone to; or in the latter, a means of derogating others, least attractively
of all in manipulative strategic mockery.
At the level of the group, cooperation in an individualized society
cannot be maintained without conﬂict. It has been a key result of the
last twenty years of evolutionary theory that cooperation, especially
large-scale cooperation, cannot evolve without punishment, and even
without the punishment of non-punishers.44 In play, principles of fair
play and teamwork promote cooperation, while rules, referees and
disqualiﬁcations punish deviations. Humor can also be used at the
group level to promote cooperation—by its self-rewarding nature45 and
by reinforcing the recognition of shared expectations—and to discour-
age or punish non-cooperation or deviance. A sense of what is normal
behavior within a group can be played with humorously, as a ﬁrst sally
of criticism, against those considered to violate common expectations.
The few remaining hunter-gatherer groups, assumed to be closest to
the evolutionary origins of human sociality, are all egalitarian. They
police their egalitarianism in the ﬁrst instance by ridicule of those who
try to claim more than their share of goods or glory, and only later by
censure, punishment, expulsion or death.46 From the hunter-gatherer it
is only a small step to the gentler corrective joshing of the workplace or
to the satirist mocking pretension, vice and folly.
Beyond the individual and the group level, competition also exists at
the between-group level. Another key result of the evolutionary theory
of cooperation is that in-group amity frequently comes at the expense
of out-group enmity.47 A group readily closes ranks against a common
foe, and as we see all too often, can often regard another group’s mere
difference as sufﬁcient grounds for hostility. Since the struggle to
expand cooperation so that it extends all the way across humanity will
never be easy, and will always be fraught with the tension between
competition and cooperation, racist, regionalist and other socially
divisive jokes, alas, will be all too likely to persist.
Humor, therefore, like play, is fundamentally social, but that means
that it is also always subject, and at multiple levels, to the competitive as
well as the cooperative. Mockery, sarcasm, scorn, taunts, and satire are
part of the ever-present tension between competition and cooperation,
but humor begins with the pleasure of play de-fanging aggression into
mock-aggression, and not with the always possible re-fanging that turns
a tickle or a nip back into a selﬁsh poke or a corrective or aggressive
Dennett asks the key evolutionary question: what advantage could
Homo sapiens gain from laughing? Why would laughter and humor have
evolved as behaviors that matter so much to us? The answer is this:
16 Philosophy and Literature
laughter, by signaling our pleasure in cognitive play, invites and
encourages us to prepare playful surprises for one another. Playing
socially with our expectations reinforces our sense of solidarity, our
recognition of the huge body of expectations we share; it trains us to
cope with and even seek out the unexpected that surrounds and can
extend these expectations; and yet it can offer a ﬁrst more or less
playful warning to those who diverge from them in ways we reject.
There’s little room left for literature, but let me try. All I would like to
suggest—obviously, there is no chance to demonstrate—is that an evolu-
tionary understanding of humor, as of other aspects of human nature,
can enrich our appreciation of literature.
Shakespeare, for example, with his searching sense of human nature,
does not simply write great comedy, he explores the nature of comedy,
and the tension between cooperation and competition in humor. In
Twelfth Night Sir Toby seems the spirit of conviviality, not least when he
stands in opposition to the killjoy Malvolio, but at the same time he
consistently exploits both the wealth of his boon companion, Sir
Andrew, and Sir Andrew’s partial imperviousness to his role as Sir
Toby’s comic butt. Feste, the professional Fool, lives by his wits, by an
aggressive abuse that the supple-minded Olivia and Viola rightly
construe as mere mock-aggression, an invitation to boisterous verbal
rough-and-tumble. Because the rigid Malvolio will have none of either
Feste’s mockery or Sir Toby’s merriment, the clowns and carousers
dupe him into beaming a ﬁxed one-way smile at a bewildered Olivia.
That seems hilarious, but when Malvolio is for that reason taken off to
a madhouse, and Feste continues to taunt him, the comic slips toward
the uncomfortable as Shakespeare explores the savagery always possible
in humor, and shows us our own complicity, in our eagerness to see
Nabokov is more persistently comic than Shakespeare. He constantly
toys with our expectations in order to suggest us how much we share,
how much we take for granted, how many possibilities we do not see,
how many surprises might lurk around the corner of life. He shows us
how there are far more possibilities (in words, phrases, images, things,
people, moments, stories, worlds) than those we blandly expect, and he
makes us enjoy the sudden surprise when we recognize the gap between
what we hadn’t even known we expected and what we actually ﬁnd. He
suggests that life itself constantly springs surprises on us, that indeed it
is as if there is something playful behind life itself, that toys with us only
to allow our triumphant recovery. And in the same spirit, he packs his
worlds with comic surprise within surprise within surprise. The poet
John Shade, in his wry but heart-rending autobiographical poem “Pale
Fire,” writes aptly of “playing a game of worlds,” but beyond one of his
plain recollective phrases like “my bedroom” we discover a mad
annotator offering a gloss on the bedroom of the Crown Prince of
Zembla, of all places, who is besieged in his bedroom for three days by
a fantastically beautiful lady in waiting, set on him by her ambitious
mother, and wearing “nothing except a kind of buttonless and sleeve-
less pajama top.” But for the homosexual and misogynistic heir
apparent, “the sight of her four bare limbs and three mousepits
(Zemblan anatomy) irritated him.”48 The comic and cosmic surprises
even within the ﬁrst ﬁve lines of the long note on “my bedroom”—
comedy of character, situation, conduct, logic, tone, obvious and
hidden allusion—take a moment to ﬁrst enjoy but an hour to fully
Although Nabokov’s contemporary, and another great comic writer,
Beckett had a sense of life that could hardly be more different from
Nabokov’s. His ﬁrst novel, Murphy, begins: “The sun shone, having no
alternative, on the nothing new.”49 Like the headline writer of “The
Princess and the Peabrain,” Beckett defamiliarizes a familiar phrase,
here “There’s nothing new under the sun,” but in his case makes his
phrase bleaker, more deterministic, more despairing—the sun has no
alternative but to shine on the nothing new—only for him to send a
strange glint through the gloom by this startling and comic transforma-
tion of the proverb. If such an unexpected twist lurks in such a cliché,
there are new things under the sun. But despite the trillions of
combinations we can make on the chessboard of life, we are only
deferring the inevitable endgame.
If Nabokov enjoys surprising us with what we haven’t expected, and
implying how much more such surprises suggest in life and beyond,
Beckett looks at our expectations, and suggests how hollow they are,
although even within that hollowness there is endless room for sur-
prise—not that that changes the outcome. Beckett constantly proposes
that our expectations, like Vladimir and Estragon’s hope that Godot
will come, can only be disappointed, but he creates comedy out of that
disappointment and out of the persistence of our hopes nevertheless.
And he can do so because our expectations are so rich, whether those
18 Philosophy and Literature
built into a phrase like “There’s nothing new under the sun” or into the
title and trajectory of Waiting for Godot.
An evolutionary approach to human life in general and to humor or
literature in particular can explain things at a deeper level than a
philosophical or a linguistic or a conventional critical analysis. As a
species and as individuals, we were human and laughing before we had
language, and we descend from creatures that have been playing and
panting for pleasure for many millions of years, as sociality slowly
strengthened, as creatures evolved that could have ever more complex
expectations of their world and of their kind. An evolutionary approach
to humor can explain its origins and impact, and the powerful social
bonding that comes both through sharing expectations and through
using that sense of shared expectations against those who violate them.
An evolutionary approach places humans in a much larger context
than any that starts only with modern verbal humor, although it can
explain that, too. It treats of laughter and literature across the species,
but it does not reduce the distinctiveness of individuals as different as
Shakespeare, Nabokov and Beckett. Evolution could never have begun
without variation, and if it gradually builds up forms, patterns, expecta-
tions, it keeps them open, nowhere more than in the unexpected
within the expected in laughter and literature.
University of Auckland
1. Time, November 4, 2002.
2. The list was purportedly published in the Massachusetts Bar Association Lawyers Journal
and seems to have ﬁrst spread on the Internet in November 1997.
3. By Nancy-Banks-Smith, Guardian, 25 July 2003.
4. Le Peuple migrateur (also known as Winged Migration), directed by Jacques Perrin,
5. Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (London: Penguin,  1993), pp. 62–63.
6. Robert R. Provine, Laughter: A Scientiﬁc Investigation (London: Faber and Faber,
2000), p. 40: “Only about 10 percent to 20 percent of prelaugh comments were
estimated by my assistants to be even remotely humorous.”
7. John Morreall, ed., The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor (New York: SUNY Press,
1987); T. G. A. Nelson, Comedy: An Introduction to Comedy in Literature (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1990). I would like to thank my supervisees, Matthew Brillinger,
Nabokov’s Humor: The Play of Consciousness, unpub. Ph.D. diss., University of Auckland,
2003, and Paul Grant, Nabokov’s Comic Vision, unpub. Ph.D. diss., University of Cam-
bridge, 2003, for their clear discussions of humor theory.
8. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. by J. H. Bernard (London: Macmillan,
1892), Part 1, Div. 1, p. 54; quoted in Morreall, p. 47.
9. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, trans. by R. B. Haldane and John
Kemp (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1907–1909); quoted in Morreall, p. 52.
10. Grant, chap. 2; Thomas Hobbes, On Human Nature, chap. 8, section 13; quoted in
Morreall, p. 20.
11. Cited in New Zealand Herald, 30 July 2003, B10.
12. Grant, chap. 3.
13. For instance, Henri Bergson’s laughter as mockery of inﬂexibility, Laughter: An
Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (London:
Macmillan, 1911), or Arthur Koestler’s, laughter as bisociation, or the joining of two
ideas or frames, The Act of Creation (New York: Macmillan, 1964).
14. Jan A. R. A. M. Van Hooff and Signe Preuschoft, “Laughter and Smiling: The
Intertwining of Nature and Culture,” in Animal Social Complexity: Intelligence, Culture, and
Individualized Societies, ed. Frans B. M. de Waal and Peter L. Tyack (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2003), pp. 260–87 (hereafter vH&P), p. 261, citing especially the work
of Paul Ekman.
15. Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Human
Brain (London: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 1997), pp. 58, 250, 419.
16. D. Hayworth, “The social origin and function of laughter,” Psychological Review 35
(1928): 367–84; Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Die Biologie des menschlichen Verhaltens: Grundriß
der Humanethologie (Weyarn: Seehammer, 1997); Charles Gruner, The Game of Humor: A
Comprehensive Theory of Why We Laugh (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1997), critiqued in
vH&P, p. 276 and in Robert Storey, “A Critique of Recent Theories of Laughter and
Humor, with Special Reference to the Comedy of Seinfeld,” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies
2 (2001): 75–92.
17. Storey, “A Critique of Recent Theories,” pp. 76–78, citing Robert R. Provine,
“Laughter,” American Scientist 84 (1996): 38–45, and the discussion of Morreall in Bob
Holmes, “Titter Ye Not . . . ,” New Scientist 150 (1996): 2–3.
18. See V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain: Human Nature
and the Architecture of the Mind (London: Fourth Estate, 1998), p. 206 and Morreall,
critiqued in Storey, “A Critique of Recent Theories,” p. 77.
19. Jan A. R. A. M. van Hooff, “A comparative approach to the phylogeny of laughter
and smiling,” in Non-verbal Communication, ed. R. A. Hinde (London: Cambridge
University Press, 1972), p. 209–41; vH&P; Provine, Laughter, p. 45 (“Laughter’s marked
sociality reﬂects roots in tickle and rough-and-tumble play”); Steven Pinker, How the
Mind Works (New York: Norton, 1997), p. 554; Deacon, The Symbolic Species.
20 Philosophy and Literature
20. See also Robert Fagen, “Animal Play, Games of Angels, Biology, and the Brain,” in
The Future of Play Theory: A Multidisciplinary Inquiry into the Contributions of Brian Sutton-
Smith, ed. A. D. Pellegrini (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), pp. 23–44, p. 24.
21. vH&P, pp. 264, 267, paraphrasing Niko Tinbergen’s classic 1952 paper, “‘Derived’
activities: Their causation, biological signiﬁcance, origin, and emancipation during
evolution,” Quarterly Review of Biology 27 (1952): 1–32; see also Provine, quoted in Storey,
“A Critique of Recent Theories,” p. 77: laughter “must have evolved to change [or
sustain—R.S.] the behavior of others” since “it is difﬁcult to see any evolutionary
advantage in expressing an emotion for its own sake.”
22. Marek S+pinka, Ruth C. Newberry, and Marc Bekoff, “Mammalian Play: Training for
the Unexpected,” Quarterly Journal of Biology 76 (2001): 141–68; 142.
23. Colin Allen and Mark Bekoff, Species of Mind: The Philosophy and Biology of Cognitive
Ethology (Cambridge: MIT/Bradford, 1997); Bekoff, “Virtuous nature,” New Scientist (13
July 2002): 34–37; Bekoff, Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 113.
24. Fagen, p. 35; see also Stuart Brown, “Play as an organizing principle: clinical
evidence and personal observations,” in Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative, and
Ecological Perspectives, ed. Mark Bekoff and J. A. Byers (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998), pp. 243–59.
25. Brown, p. 248; and see Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 40.
26. For a rapid summary of proposed functional explanations for play, see Sutton-
Smith, The Ambiguity of Play, p. 219 and S+pinka et al. For training for the expected, see
K. Groos, The Play of Animals (New York: Appleton, 1898) (practice for adult life); Peter
K. Smith, “Does play matter? Functional and evolutionary aspects of animal and human
play,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 5 (1982): 139–84. For training for the unexpected, see
S+pinka et al. Sutton-Smith describes play as a “dialectic . . . between order and disorder,
“Emotional Breaches in Play and Narrative,” in Children in Play, Story, and School, ed.
A. Göncü and E. L. Klein (New York: Guilford, 2001), pp. 161–76, p. 165, citing S. Miller,
“The playful, the crazy, and the nature of pretense,” Rice University Studies 60 (1974): 31–
51—“in play being in control is the frame within which you may be safely out of control.”
27. Fagen, p. 24; langurs: Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Woman That Never Evolved (Cam-
bridge: Harvard University Press, 1981/1999), p. 77; piglets: S+pinka et al., p. 158.
28. See n. 22.
29. Horses: Fagen, p. 37; monkeys: Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play, p. 22.
30. Fagen, p. 34; S+pinka et al., p. 144; Jaak Panksepp, “The Rat Will Play, in The Smile
of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions, ed. Mark Bekoff (New York:
Discovery Books, 2000), pp. 146–47, p. 146.
31. Provine, Laughter, p. 75; Deacon, p. 73; Storey, “A Critique of Recent Theories,” p.
76 citing Provine: this “breathy, panting laughter” in chimpanzees “is probably the
primal form that dates back to the common ancestor of all great apes and people.”
32. Storey, “A Critique of Recent Theories,” p. 76; Provine, Laughter, p. 93 (“Laughter
and smiling are means for a prespeech human baby to indicate ‘I liked that, do it
again’”); vH&P, p. 274; Bekoff, Minding Animals, p. 126.
33. Storey, “A Critique of Recent Theories,” p. 77: “The question remains: How did
either the laugh or the smile come to be attached to private acts of mastery in the
34. This surely relates to the prevalence of disaster in the stories of very young
children, as noted by Brian Sutton-Smith; see Greta G. Fein, “Toys and Stories,” in
Pellegrini, pp. 151–64, p. 160.
35. vH&P, pp. 274, 275; as Darwin himself noted, “A young child, if tickled by a strange
man, would scream from fear” (cited in Provine, Laughter, p. 100).
36. See Michael Mulkay, On Humour: Its Nature and Its Place in Modern Society (Cam-
bridge: Polity Press, 1988), p. 186: “In humor generally, the expected is unexpected and
the unexpected, expected.”
37. The socially unifying force of humor is one of the burdens of Ted Cohen’s Jokes:
Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
38. Ramachandran and Blakeslee, p. 206. Continuing too soon after the punchline
also neurologically inhibits audience laughter (Provine, Laughter, p. 39).
39. H. H. Brownell, D. Michel et al., “Surprise but not coherence: sensitivity to verbal
humor in right-hemisphere patients,” Brain and Language 18 (1983): 20–27; J. A. Kaplan,
H. H. Brownell et al., “The effects of right hemisphere damage on the pragmatic
interpretation of conversational remarks,” Brain and Language 38 (1990): 315–33;
Deacon, pp. 311–12; Provine, Laughter, p. 181.
40. Jerome Kagan “Temperament and the Reactions to Unfamiliarity,” Child Develop-
ment 68 (1997): 139–43; Jerome Singer, “Imaginative Play in Childhood: Precursor of
Subjunctive Thought, Daydreaming, and Adult Pretending Games,” in Pellegrini, pp.
187–219, p. 190.
41. H. W. Wellman and S. A. Gelman, “Knowledge Acquisition in Foundational
Domains,” in Handbook of Child Psychology: vol. 2, Cognition, perception and language, ed.
D. Kuhn and R. Siegler (New York: Wiley, 1998), pp. 523–73; p. 540.
42. See e.g. David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of
Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
43. Brian Sutton-Smith, the doyen of childhood play scholars, has repeatedly chal-
lenged the idealization of play: see Sutton-Smith and D. Kelly-Byrne, “The idealization of
play,” in Play in Animals and Humans, ed. P. K. Smith (London: Blackwell, 1984), pp.
44. Ernst Fehr and S. Gächter, “Altruistic punishment in humans,” Nature 415, 10
January 2002: 137–40; Fehr and J. Heinrich, “Is strong reciprocity a maladaptation? On
the evolutionary foundations of human altruism,” in Genetic and Cultural Evolution of
Cooperation, ed. P. Hammerstein (Cambridge: MIT, 2003), pp. 55–82.
22 Philosophy and Literature
45. Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (London: Faber
1996), p. 182, notes that laughter stimulates the release of endogenous opiates.
46. See Christopher Boehm, “Egalitarian Behaviour and the Evolution of Political
Intelligence,” in Andrew Whiten and Richard W. Byrne, Machiavellian Intelligence II:
Extensions and Evaluations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 348, 355.
47. Randolph Nesse and George Williams, Evolution and Healing: The New Science of
Darwinian Medicine (London: Phoenix, 1997), p. 138: “As Michigan biologist Richard
Alexander so neatly put it, today’s central ethical problem is ‘within-group amity serving
48. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (New York: Putnam, 1962), p. 63.
49. Samuel Beckett, Murphy (London: Picador,  1973), p. 5.