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A humor typology to identify humor styles used in sitcoms

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The sitcom genre is one of the most enduringly popular, yet we still know surprising little about their specific elements. This study aimed to develop a typology of humor techniques that best describe the components comprising the sitcom genre. New original techniques were added to applicable techniques from previous schemes to propose a sitcom-specific humor typology. This typology was tested with another coder for inter-coder reliability, and it was revealed the typology is theoretically sound, practically easy, and reliable. The typology was then used to code four well-known US sitcoms, with the finding that the techniques used aligned with the two most prominent theories of humor – superiority and incongruity.
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Jennifer Juckel*, Steven Bellman and Duane Varan
A humor typology to identify humor styles
used in sitcoms
DOI 10.1515/humor-2016-0047
Abstract: The sitcom genre is one of the most enduringly popular, yet we still
know surprising little about their specific elements. This study aimed to develop
a typology of humor techniques that best describe the components comprising
the sitcom genre. New original techniques were added to applicable techniques
from previous schemes to propose a sitcom-specific humor typology. This typol-
ogy was tested with another coder for inter-coder reliability, and it was revealed
the typology is theoretically sound, practically easy, and reliable. The typology
was then used to code four well-known US sitcoms, with the finding that the
techniques used aligned with the two most prominent theories of humor
superiority and incongruity.
Keywords: humor styles, sitcoms, humor theory, psychology of humor, humor
typology
1 Introduction
The sitcom genre is phenomenally successful at attracting broad audiences to
television networks. In the mid-1950s, the number one hit was the CBS sitcom,
I Love Lucy (Brooks and Marsh 2007). When the popularity of Westerns dimin-
ished in the 1950s, sitcoms began to dominate ratings in only a matter of
seasons (Hamamoto 1989). Since then, the sitcom has become the widest reach-
ing comedy form, with remarkable popularity and longevity (Mills 2005). In fact,
it is the only genre to make the Top 10 highest rating programs every year since
1949 (Campbell et al. 2004). Surprisingly, however, research carried out on
sitcoms specifically is scant. The aim of this article is to help accelerate sitcom
research by developing a typology of sitcom humor techniques, to identify the
key components of sitcoms.
*Corresponding author: Jennifer Juckel, General Practice Training QLD,
E-mail: jjuckel@gmail.com
Steven Bellman, Ehrenberg Bass Institute, University of South Australia.
http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0085-2014
Duane Varan, CEO MediaScience
Humor 2016; 29(4): 583603
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A variety of reasons can be seen as contributing to the current lack of sitcom
research. Firstly, and sadly, there is a perception that comedy is not complex
enough for serious study (Mills 2005). Secondly, there is apprehension about study-
ing the mechanics underneath sitcom humor (Curtis 1982; Olson 2001), exemplified
in a well-known quote: Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are
interested and the frog dies of it(Mankoff cited in Morreall 2009). Finally, there is
no focused fundamental theory of humor and laughter, as researchers from fields
including psychology, philosophy, sociology, literature and mathematics have put
forward equally valid but different descriptions of what makes us laugh (Mills 2005).
Add to this the fact that a sense of humor is a very personal and subjective trait,
lending itself to a potentially huge range of experimental responses (Mills 2005).
Despite these obstructions, there are a number of valuable reasons to study
sitcoms. First, why people find things funny illuminates psychological and
sociological aspects of individuals and groups. For example, analyzing sitcoms
can be useful in illuminating aspects of specific nations or cultures (Mills 2005).
Secondly, writers, producers, and television networks would benefit from shar-
ing typology of techniques for describing and comparing sitcoms. For example,
investigating the types of humor that appeal to certain audiences could assist in
the targeting and production of programs.
This article adds to previous research on humor and humor typologies by
devising a typology specifically for coding humor techniques used in sitcoms. As
no one theory or technique is likely to be the explanation, it is logical to draw
from a combination. The article begins by reviewing previous humor coding
schemes by Berger (1976) and Buijzen and Valkenburg (2004), identifying their
shortcomings for capturing humor contained in sitcoms. Next, the process of
devising a new sitcom-specific typology is detailed. For this, Bergers typology
was used as a basis, over three phases of development. Phase 1 involved
adopting appropriate techniques from both Berger and Buijzen and
Valkenburg. Phase 2 involved the addition of new original sitcom-specific tech-
niques, and in Phase 3 the resulting typology was tested with another coder for
inter-coder reliability. Finally, the typology is tested to identify the key compo-
nents of four US sitcoms. The article concludes with a discussion of the theore-
tical and practical implications of this new sitcom humor typology.
2 Literature review
Despite the lack of research into the specific techniques of humor, scholars,
psychologists, and philosophers have tried to understand what makes people
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laugh. As a result, various humor theories have been developed and although
scholars may not agree on which is the most viable, there is current consensus
that these theories may be complementary (Buijzen and Valkenburg 2004). In
order to investigate the relationship between theories it is necessary to identify
humor types derived from all the main theories contained in works of humor.
However, to date, research using categorized humor types is limited. The most
extensive typology was originally put forth by Berger (1993) in 1976. Bergers
typology is unique in that it uses techniques from across the main humor
theories. The basis of Bergers typology is that individual humor techniques
may be used not only on their own, but also in combination with others
regardless of which theory they stem from. In fact, rather than being contra-
dictory, it is the combination of humor types that serves to generate humor
(Buijzen and Valkenburg 2004).
Bergers aim was to identify humor types in order to categorize them,
and for this purpose he analyzed jokes. He cites two reasons for this; the first
being for ease and simplicity, the second being that jokes enable direct and
immediate use of humor (1993). Berger asserts that because humor is incredibly
complex, many mechanisms may be active at one time, and while some
techniques may not be funny when used in isolation, they work when used
in combination with other techniques. However, he points out that one
mechanism is usually dominant. Bergers method was to name as many
humor techniques as possible; with emphasis on what is generating humor
rather than why it is funny (1993). Berger focused on techniques because he
asserts it is not the content or subject matter that is funny, but rather the way
that content is presented.
In Bergers classification scheme, reversals (or opposites) of techniques were
treated as the original humor technique. For example, both exaggeration and its
reversal, understatement, were coded as the technique exaggeration.The typol-
ogy comprises four basic categories language (verbal humor), logic (ideational
humor), identity (existential humor), and action (physical or nonverbal humor),
with individual humor techniques contained within these categories. Berger insists
his typology is comprehensive, and that the 45 humor techniques are mutually
exclusive.
When Buijzen and Valkenburg (2004) were looking to identify humor used
in audio-visual material, they found it necessary to adapt and amend Bergers
typology. Berger claimed that he elicited his techniques by way of a content
analysis of all kinds of humor in various media(p.18, 1993). (He does not
distinguish which kinds of media.) Nevertheless, Buijzen and Valkenburg
dropped a number of items from Bergers original typology to make it more
appropriate for television commercials.
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Buijzen and Valkenburgs typology contained 8 categories, which are
defined as follows (the number of individual items contained within each
category is in parenthesis):
Slapstick (9) Physical pie-in-the-face humor, often degrading.
Surprise (4) Sudden changes of concepts and images.
Irony (6) Meaning the opposite to what is being expressed.
Clownish behavior (6) Exaggerated physical behavior.
Misunderstanding (4) Misinterpreting a situation.
Parody (5) Imitating a style or genre.
Satire (5) Making fun of well-known things, situations, or people.
Miscellaneous (8)
Specifically, the purpose of Buijzen and Valkenburgs typology was to distin-
guish humor techniques used in television advertisements aimed at different
audience groups. The adaptation process from Bergers typology involved two
stages. The first was a review of research into the humor preferences of various
age and gender groups, and the second was an inductive analysis similar to
Bergers method, this time analyzing audiovisual media instead of jokes. The
researchers considered commercials the audiovisual equivalent of jokes in that
they are short with complete storylines that can be accessed directly.
For the purposes of coding sitcom humor, the main shortcoming of Bergers
typology is that audiovisual media may contain a much wider variety of humor
types and techniques than verbal narratives. The definitions of techniques also
change when shifting from verbal narratives to audiovisual material. In addition,
Bergers study focused on humor aimed at adults, whereas Buijzen and Valkenburg
aimed to address humor aimed at all age groups. Consequently, Buijzen and
Valkenburgs revised typology contains a number of marked changes 16 techni-
ques from the original typology were discarded, 12 new techniques were added, and
categories were completely revised. In sum, the transition from the original typology
saw a reduction from 45 to 41 techniques, and an expansion from 4 to 8 categories.
3 Development of new humor categories
The humor categories created by Berger were used as the foundation on which
to develop an instrument to code sitcoms. As discussed above, the purpose of
Bergers original typology was to analyze jokes and, as a result, it needed to be
adapted for coding television programs. Applicable humor techniques from the
Buijzen and Valkenburg typology were added into appropriate categories and
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new techniques were developed. In this way, the new instrument would be a
blend of the two typologies in methodology, while being aimed at coding humor
techniques unique to the sitcom format.
Berger categorized techniques into language, logic, identity and action, and
developed these categories by way of a top-down, inductive analysis of humor-
ous material. Buijzen and Valkenburg, on the other hand, used bottom-up
statistical analysis to investigate how their techniques clustered into higher
order categories. Over a number of principle component analyses for categorical
variables (CATPCA), seven humor categories were arrived at, with six items that
did not load exclusively onto a category placed into a miscellaneous group.
Bergers top-down method ensured techniques were grouped logically and
theoretically. As a result, his original typology does not contain a miscellaneous
category as in the Buijzen and Valkenburg typology. This suggests that a
bottom-up approach can categorize humor techniques differently from how
they would be grouped logically, from the perspective of both the creator and
the audience. For this reason, Bergers four theoretical categories were used as
the basis for the current typology, with the addition of techniques that capture
humor in audio-visual media. To accomplish this, techniques from Buijzen and
Valkenburgs typology were added, as well as new original techniques.
4 Phases of development
4.1 Phase 1
In phase 1 of the development of the new typology for sitcoms, the Berger
techniques considered relevant were kept. A total of 17 techniques were not
included because they either were considered not relevant to coding sitcoms, or
represented by other techniques. For instance, three of Bergers four Action
techniques Chase, Slapstick, and Speed were grouped convincingly by Buijzen
and Valkenburg under the category clownish humor,and this category can be
summarized by a single technique, Clumsiness, identifying the presence of phy-
sical humor (lacking dexterity or grace,see Table 4). Another problem applying
Bergers joke techniques to sitcoms is that images are necessarily moving images,
involving action as well as appearance. For example, one Berger technique from
the Identity category, Grotesque appearance, was renamed Repulsive behavior,
and because it now related to behavior, it was relocated to the Action category.
Six techniques developed by Buijzen and Valkenburg (Conceptual sur-
prise, Outwitting, Malicious pleasure, Peculiar face, Peculiar music, and
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Clumsiness) were added into appropriate categories bringing the total number
of techniques to 17.
4.2 Phase 2
At this stage, there were still areas that needed capturing, so five new original
sitcom-specific techniques were added Wit, Caught out, Condescension,
Deceitful behavior, and Self-deprecation. Caught out (unexpectedly get caught
while wrongdoing or saying something reprehensible) was added as it reflected
sitcom behavior not covered, in Bergers sense, by the reverse of Buijzen and
Valkenburgs technique, Outwitting (outsmarting someone or the establishment
by retort, response, or comeback). Both of these were included in Bergers Logic
category. Definitions of all these new techniques are included in Table 1. The
Table 1: Definitions of techniques used in the new sitcom humor typology.
Humor Technique Short Description
Absurdity Nonsense, a situation that goes against all logical rules
Allusion Indirect reference
Caught out Unexpectedly get caught while wrongdoing or saying something
reprehensible
Clumsiness Lacking dexterity or grace
Coincidence A coincidental and unexpected occurrence
Conceptual
surprise
Misleading the audience by means of a sudden unexpected change of
concept
Condescension Displaying arrogance by patronizing those considered inferior
Deceitful behavior Being deliberately misleading, concealing or distorting the truth
Irony Saying one thing and meaning something else or exactly the opposite of
what youre saying
Malicious pleasure Taking pleasure in other peoples misfortune; victim humor
Misunderstanding Misinterpreting a situation
Outwitting Outsmarting someone or the establishment
Parody Imitating a style or a genre of literature or other media
Peculiar face Making a funny face, grimace
Peculiar music Funny, unusual music (when not as part of program structure)
Pun Playing with the meaning of words
Repartee Verbal banter, usually in a witty dialogue
Repulsive behavior Offensive, aversive, disgusting behavior
Ridicule Making a fool of someone, verbally or nonverbally
Rigidity Someone who thinks along straight lines, who is conservative and inflexible
Self-deprecation Expressing something negative about oneself
Wit Ingenious humor
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final typology (Table 2) included four categories and 22 techniques, which were
tested for reliability during the next phase of development.
4.3 Phase 3
In phase 3 of development, another coder was enlisted to test the typology for
inter-coder reliability. A variety of popular US sitcoms aired over the period
20072009 were used as stimuli. To begin with, the two coders coded a selection
of sitcoms together while discussing the humor observed in the sitcoms in
relation to its representation on the coding sheet. When an instance of humor
appeared that contained multiple techniques, the program was paused while the
coders discussed the humor techniques in relation to their representation on the
coding sheet. The unit of analysis was also discussed. Throughout this process,
amendments were made to the coding sheet before the coders went away to
separately code a number of programs. The coders then separately coded this
first batch of programs. Agreement on the independently coded techniques was
calculated to evaluate the reliability of the final coding scheme.
Table 2 shows the final version of the coding scheme that was used in the
third (reliability testing) phase of this process. The final scheme has four
categories (adopted from Berger), as opposed to the eight used by Buijzen
and Valkenburg (2004). The scheme has 22 techniques, 19 less than the 41 used
by Buijzen and Valkenburg (2004). Six Buijzen and Valkenburg techniques
were adopted for this scheme, while five new techniques were added, devel-
oped specifically for this study to code unique aspects of sitcom humor. The
following section describes in more detail the reliability testing process used in
Phase 3.
Table 2: New typology for sitcoms 4 categories/22 techniques.
Language Logic Identity Action
Allusion Absurdity Parody Peculiar face
Irony Coincidence Rigidity Peculiar music
Puns Conceptual surpriseMalicious pleasureClumsiness
Repartee OutwittingCondescension* Repulsive behavior
Ridicule Caught out* Deceitful behavior*
Wit* Misunderstanding Self-deprecation*
Notes: *New technique created for this study.
Buijzen & Valkenburg technique.
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5 Reliability testing
5.1 Sitcom selection
Two sitcoms, Modern Family (ABC) and The Office (NBC) were used for the first
stage of Phase 3, identifying the average level of reliability for the codes refined
in Phase 2. After revising the code definitions, the final reliability test involved
coding two episodes each of four different sitcoms: Scrubs (NBC/ABC), Will and
Grace (NBC), How I Met Your Mother (CBS), and Two and a Half Men (CBS). All
programs were 20 minutes long.
5.2 Unit of analysis
To analyze the coding sheet for reliability, thought had to be given to its unit
of analysis, that is, the units of sitcom time that would be coded. Coding
every single instance of humor over a 20-minute program was impractical for
analysis and the resulting data would only represent frequency of technique
use. Units less than 10 seconds in duration would be difficult to use con-
junction with other methods of analysis, such as skin conductance, because
of the 3-second delay generally involved in psychophysiological measures
(Potter and Bolls 2012). Furthermore, from a theoretical view, it is question-
able how much underlying meaning can be contained in such small
segments.
5.2.1 Beats
The first unit of analysis considered was beats.According to McKee (1997),
beats are exchanges of action/reaction in character behavior(p.258).
McKee, who uses beats as a component of scene analysis, qualifies each
beats sub textural action with a verb or active phrase, such as beggingor
wanting her to stay. The moment this sub textural action changes, for
example, from beggingto threatening to leave, the beat is over.
Originally, it was decided separating sitcoms into beats for the unit of
analysis was less problematic and less ambiguous than marking each
humor technique. However, once segmenting the shows had begun, it was
evident this was not the case as faster paced shows such as Modern Family
and, in particular, The Office, contained many more beats than humor
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techniques. This posed an issue for psychophysiological analysis, as many
beats were less than 10 seconds long.
5.2.2 Scenes
The next level of analysis from a beat, according to McKee, is a scene. Beats
are contained within scenes. McKee (1997) defines a scene as an action ()
in more or less continuous time and space(p. 35). But using scenes by this
definition for humor technique analysis is ambiguous because there are
sometimes a few different stories (and related humor techniques) that can
occur in the same time and space within a scene. For example, in the sitcom
Friends, overlapping stories often occur simultaneously as the cast sit down
to coffee in their usual café. This is because sitcoms have a history of being
filmed on a set in front of a live audience.
Apart from the issue of multiple stories happening in the same time and
space, there lies the problem of the same story (and related humor techni-
ques) carrying over into multiple times or spaces. For example, at the begin-
ning of the Todd Packerepisode of The Office, one character mockingly asks
another a question in the staff lunchroom while the other staff members are
present. He repeats this question over a number of time frames until they are
alone and it is much later. In this case, the topic is the same but time changes
as a part of the joke. The humor revolves around this time change, so to class
each time-changed setting as a new scene serves no purpose theoretically and
only complicates the data analysis.
5.2.3 Scenes-by-topic
To address this problem, the shows were segmented into scenes by topic. That
is, as long as the characters were talking about or the scene revolved around the
same topic, it was classed as a scene. This also makes sense for the humor
techniques, as jokes relate to a particular topic. In this article, topic segments
were named scenes by this definition.
When sectioning sitcoms into scenes by topic, there were problems again to
do with very short scenes. The Office and Modern Family often have short bursts
(a couple of seconds long) of a theme that continues throughout the show
incidentally thrown in among other longer scenes. A way around this was to
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keep the main scene by topic as a whole, and make a note if these contained
short topic bursts when coding humor techniques.
5.3 Coding procedure
Programs were divided into their appropriate scenes before the coders analyzed
each scene for humor techniques. Each scene could contain many instances of
humor, but were only coded for each type of humor once. Each type of humor
was coded as being present (1) or absent (0).
6 Results
To ascertain inter-coder reliability statistically, Krippendorfsalphawas
selected because it is widely recognized as the most rigorous test for content
analysis as it incorporates agreement by chance as well as the magnitude of
non-agreements (Krippendorf 2011). Forrobustreliability,Krippendorfsalpha
requires a cut off level of 0.8, with items achieving outcomes between 0.667 -
0.8 considered for tentative conclusions (Krippendorf 2004). After coding the
first two programs (two episodes each of Modern Family and The Office)the
coders came together to assess their findings. For the two episodes of Modern
Family the percentage agreement was 96 %. However, the Krippendorfsalpha
level was only 0.58. Likewise, for the two episodes of The Office,thepercen-
tage agreement was 96 %, with a Krippendorfs alpha level of 0.66. These
alpha levels are not considered satisfactory for reliability, so discussion was
carried out between the coders and amendments were made until consensus
was achieved.
Coding then commenced of a new batch of shows, comprising 215 scenes
across 8 programs (listed above). The overall percentage agreement calculated
was 96 %. Table 3 displays the statistics for each technique coded in the final
analyses. No technique fell below the.667 cutoff for exploratory analysis (the
lowest was Conceptual surprise, α= .67). Half (11) of the 22 techniques had
reliabilities above the recommended.80 level.
At this point the typology was considered ready for use in the main analysis.
Table 3 displays the final 22 techniques with definitions. Some of the definitions
derived directly from the original typology by Buijzen and Valkenburg (2004),
while others were produced from observations and discussions made during the
coding process.
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6.1 Method
The previous section discussed the identification of humor techniques relevant
to television sitcoms, and the process of developing a reliable way of coding for
the presence/absence of these techniques. These techniques were then evalu-
ated for their potential usefulness as independent variables in future research by
using them to code for the presence and absence of humor techniques in four
well-known US sitcoms.
6.2 Programs
Programs used in this study were the four highest-rating comedy programs across
the four primary US networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX). Two episodes of each program
were coded. Each episode was segmented into scenes based on topic as long as
the characters were talking about (or the scene revolved around) the same topic; it
Table 3: Inter-coder reliability statistics for scenes coded by each
individual program (8 programs, 215 scenes coded in total).
Humor technique Percent agreement Krippendorfs
Malicious pleasure  %.
Ridicule  %.
Condescension  %.
Deceitful behavior  %.
Peculiar face  %.
Peculiar music  %.
Clumsiness  %.
Repulsive behavior  %.
Conceptual surprise  %.
Coincidence  %.
Irony  %.
Absurdity  %.
Outwitting  %.
Caught out  %.
Misunderstanding  %.
Parody  %.
Rigidity  %.
Self-deprecation  %.
Sexual allusion  %.
Pun  %.
Repartee  %.
Wit  %.
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was classed as a scene. Scenes could vary in duration. Also, scenes could contain no
humor techniques, or one or more humor techniques.
6.3 Coding
Based on theory and coding procedures outlined in the previous section, 22
individual humor techniques were established as being potentially instrumental
in the use of humor in sitcoms (Table 2). These techniques were distributed
across four humor categories adopted from Bergers original humor typology
(1976). Techniques were mutually exclusive, and more than one technique could
appear during any scene.
Using a spreadsheet, sitcoms were first segmented into scenes by topic, and
then each scene was coded for the presence or absence of the 22 humor
techniques. Scenes were coded for humor techniques with techniques coded
only once if they appeared. Additional information such as plotlines, characters
and narrative structure was recorded.
7 Results
7.1 Unit of analysis Scenes by topic
As discussed in the previous two sections, scenes-by-topic were chosen as the
most appropriate level of analysis for this study. Table 4 displays descriptive
Table 4: Descriptive statistics of scenes (standard deviations in parentheses).
Program The Big Bang
Theory
Family
Guy
Modern
Family
The
Office
Total
Scenes     
Scene duration (secs) . . . . .
(.)(.)(.)(.)(.)
Scene duration min (secs)     .
Scene duration max (secs)     .
Humor techniques per scene
(
x)
. . . . .
(.)(.)(.)(.)(.)
Humor techniques min  .
Humor techniques max  .
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information about the average scene, for each program individually, and aggre-
gating across the four programs. The total dataset consists of 169 scenes (rows),
equally contributed from all four programs (χ² (3, N= 169) = 4.99, exact p= .174).
Each episode contained an average of 21 scenes, and since each episode was 21
minutes long (without ads), each scene lasted just under 1 minute on average
(M= 57.61 s). Each scene featured on average just over 3 different humor tech-
niques (M= 3.38).
7.2 Prevalence of humor techniques
The frequency of use of each humor technique across programs can be seen in
Table 5. As can be seen, humor technique use varied significantly across
programs. Discussion of the top 5 humor techniques used in each program
follows.
7.2.1 The Big Bang Theory (The Boyfriend Complexity;The Toast
Derivation)
This program contained the highest use of techniques overall from three cate-
gories Language, Logic, and Identity. In fact, for the use of humor techniques
from the Language category, The Big Bang Theory was considerably higher in
comparison to the other three shows. Most-used techniques from this category
include Ridicule, Repartee, and Wit. The Big Bang Theory also scored consider-
ably higher in techniques from the Identity category, with Rigidity being its
highest scoring technique overall. Since these techniques revolve around wit
(Language) and character-based situations (Identity), these findings suggest the
show derives most of its humor from witty dialogue, and its characters
idiosyncrasies.
7.2.2 Modern Family (Regrets Only;Two Monkeys and a Panda)
In comparison to the other shows, humor techniques used in Modern Family
were spread more evenly across categories, indicating that the show includes a
range of humor types rather than being focused on any particular type. In
contrast to The Big Bang Theory, which recurrently uses character-based
humor techniques, the humor in Modern Family arises from storylines as well
as characters.
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7.2.3 Family Guy (Family Goy;Business Guy)
Three techniques in particular were prominent in Family Guy in comparison to
the other showsParody, Absurdity, and Repulsive behavior. Since these tech-
niques are all derisive in nature, much of this shows humor can be explained
by superiority theory: deriding othersmoral and social standards them (Berger
Table 5: Frequencies of individual humor techniques (by category) used in 2 episodes of each
program. Category totals included.
Humor Technique The Big Bang
Theory
Family
Guy
Modern
Family
The
Office
Total p.
. Language
.Allusion 
.Irony 
.Pun 
.Repartee 
.Ridicule 
.Wit 
     .
. Logic
.Absurdity 
.Coincidence 
.Surprise 
.Outwitting 
.Caught out 
.Misunderstanding 
     .
. Identity
.Parody 
.Rigidity   
.Malicious Pleasure 
.Condescension 
.Deceitful behavior 
.Self-deprecation 
     .
. Action
.Peculiar face 
.Peculiar music 
.Clumsiness 
.Repulsive behavior 
.
Total techniques      .
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2010; Keith-Spiegel 1972; Martin 2007; Meyer 2000; Mulder and Nijholt 2002;
Veatch 1998). Absurdity and Parody featured notably higher in Family Guy
than in the other shows. This result highlights the absurd nature of many of
the shows themes and storylines. Perhaps this finding relates to the fact this
was the only animated program in the study, allowing for these types of
themes.
7.2.4 The Office (China;Todd Packer)
Most prominently used techniques in The Office included Allusion
(Language), Outwitting (Logic), and Deceitful behavior (Identity).
Techniques such as Deceitful behavior, Condescension, and Ridicule denote
derisive humor. Considering this show is set in the workplace, these results
suggest much of its humor derives from facetiousness in workplace
relationships.
8 Summary
In sum, these analyses of differences in humor technique usage between these
four programs revealed:
1. Family Guy derives much of its humor from themes related to moral and
social standards.
2. The Big Bang Theory contains humor that is mostly character-based.
3. The Office frequently uses malicious humor.
4. Modern Family features a range of techniques across categories, but fewer
humor techniques related to moral and social standards.
5. The three highest scoring humor techniques overall across programs were
Allusion (Language category), Surprise (Logic category), and Parody
(Identity category), with the latter being mostly due to its use in Family Guy.
In conclusion, analysis has revealed that despite the small sample of sitcoms
used in this study, there is sufficient range and variability in humor technique
use across the four humor categories to suggest the utility of the proposed
sitcom humor typology. Although not all techniques were used by all shows,
each technique was used at least once in one program.
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9 Discussion
The aim of the current study was to identify key components of sitcoms in terms
of the prevalence of various humor techniques. This aim was achieved. As would
be expected, the prevalence of humor techniques was found to vary across
sitcoms. These variations are discussed below, as well as their theoretical and
practical implications.
Four categories of humor techniques were adopted from Bergersoriginal
humor typology for jokes (1976). Each category was represented by several specific
techniques. Altogether, a total of 22 individual humor techniques were investi-
gated. The results of this study suggest that the proposed typology may be useful
for investigating which specific humor techniques improve program enjoyment.
First, this study identified the most appropriate unit of time for coding sitcoms:
individual scenes within programs, related by topic, rather than shorter beatsor
programs in their entirety. Second, the results show that while only four programs
were coded in the main study, these programs featured instances of every type of
humor technique, suggesting that the proposed typology is exhaustive. All four
humor categories, although not all 22 techniques, were represented in the four
sitcoms analyzed, suggesting that the producers of all four programs shared lay
theories about the importance of these categories.
9.1 Theoretical implications
Currently, the superiority and incongruity theories of humor are recognized as
the most influential (Berger 1987; Martin 2007). Firstly, superiority theory offers
an emotional aspect to humor by citing the boosting of self-esteem as its
function (Buijzen and Valkenburg 2004). Historically, this theory dates back
the longest, existing in various forms. Much of this humor is aggression-based,
ranging in malevolence from benign and playful to hurtful and malicious.
Zillman and Cantor (1976) theorized that appreciation of this humor is depen-
dent upon how the disparaging group is perceived.
Secondly, incongruity theory is heralded as the most influential and widely
accepted of all humor theories (Berger 1987; Martin 2007). This theory focuses
solely on cognition (Buijzen and Valkenburg 2004; Martin 2007; Meyer 2000).
The idea that incongruity lies at the heart of the humor experience has been
discussed by philosophers and theorists for over 250 years (Martin 2007).
However, it is argued that while some form of incongruity is required in the
humor process, it is not enough on its own. It has been theorized that
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incongruity in isolation is not necessarily funny, but that it facilitates humor
(Martin 2007; McGhee 1972; Mulder and Nijholt 2002).
9.1.1 Logic category
The Logic category of humor techniques derives from the incongruity theory of
humor. The prevalence results in the current study are in line with the proposi-
tion that this theory only addresses the structure of humor, and that Logic
techniques occur in combination with other techniques.
9.1.2 Identity category
Interestingly, out of the four shows, The Big Bang Theory contained more techni-
ques from the Identity category than the other three shows. Theoretically, the
Identity category has mixed underpinnings, incorporating aspects from both
incongruity and superiority theories. In this study, techniques in the Identity
category derive their humor from idiosyncratic behaviors, which are surprising
and outside the norm (incongruity theory). In addition, these characters assert
their superiority with behaviors such as Malicious pleasure and Condescension,
and inferiority with behaviors such as Self-deprecation (superiority theory).
Theories originally put forth in the 1960s and 70s (La Fave 1961; La Fave et al.
1973; Zillman and Cantor 1976) cite group identification and group attitudes as key
in appreciation of such humor. Historically, both the incongruity and the super-
iority theories have been widely influential, but logically humor derives from their
combination, and this studys prevalence results reflect this.
9.1.3 Language category
Techniques from this category are devices that play with words or situations.
This type of humor relates most closely to incongruity theory as the appearance
of these techniques elicits humor by way of surprise in the pattern of events.
9.1.4 Action category
According to Buijzen and Valkenburg, incongruity theory explains the more
innocuous types of humor, which includes the techniques in this category.
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Berger (1987), however, saw the slapstick style of humor as being derived from
superiority theory, as humor is seen in clownishly inferior behavior. Therefore,
humor resulting from this category can also be seen as deriving from the
combined operation of the two theories. Alternatively, the same theoretical
explanations may apply as those for the Identity category, which also stems
from both incongruity and superiority theory.
9.2 Practical Implications
The results of this study also suggest some practical implications for producers
of sitcoms. This studys prevalence analysis revealed that Action techniques
(slapstick) were used just as frequently as techniques from the other cate-
gories across the four sitcoms. This could indicate that on its own, this category
does not ensure program enjoyment, but does contribute to enjoyment in com-
bination with other techniques. One Identity technique, Parody, was featured
most frequently in Family Guy. Logic techniques also featured across the four
sitcoms analyzed in this study, and so could be seen as an important component
of sitcoms, but, theory suggests, only in combination with other categories.
9.3 Limitations and future research
A limitation of this study was its use of only four US network shows. In addition,
only successful shows were tested; that is, shows that made it to television and
screened for more than a few seasons. It is conceivable that many of the low-
prevalence techniques in the shows sampled are highly prevalent in other, less
successful shows. Also, the styles of the sitcoms used differed. For instance,
Family Guy is animated, whereas The Office and Modern Family showcase a
docu-style aesthetic, which would affect the type of humor used. Finally, the
four sitcoms that were analyzed used a relatively sophisticated level of humor. If
comedies based more on the use of physical humor had been analyzed, such as
Funniest Home Videos or classic silent films, the prevalence of Action category
techniques would have varied more across programs. However, these shows are
not sitcoms.
Future research should use the humor techniques typology developed in this
study on a wider variety and higher number of sitcoms. Further investigation of
effective techniques should consider, not only the frequency of techniques, but
the rhythm, incidence and combinations of techniques that are most effective.
As stated, a technique may be most effective when it is used rarely, and in
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combination with other specific techniques. No doubt, there are also contextual
factors that contribute to program enjoyment.
Analyzing cable and niche shows, and comparisons between groups (such
as cultural differences) in the use of humor types (e. g., US humor and UK
humor). Furthermore, other forms of comedy, not only sitcoms, may be analyzed
using the typology, or adaptations of the typology. For instance, live stand-up
comedy would be an interesting arena for investigating the use of humor
techniques and categories, especially as live performance is much easier to
manipulate than video production (Russell 2002).
10 Conclusion
In conclusion, the sitcom genre is the widest reaching comedy form, yet sitcom
specific research is surprisingly scant (Mills 2005). The aim of the current study
was to develop a humor typology to identify key components of sitcoms. This
aim was achieved, with the finding that significant categories and techniques
aligned with the two most prominent theories of humor superiority and
incongruity. To develop the typology, new techniques were added to those
previously adapted to code humor in television content. This typology was
tested and found to be theoretically sound, practically easy, and reliable. This
new typology is ready to be used in future research into the prevalence and
effects of humor techniques in sitcoms.
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Bionotes
Jennifer Juckel
Jennifer Juckel completed her Ph.D. in media psychology at Murdoch University in Perth (which
this paper is based on). She currently works at General Practice Training Qld as a research
officer, working on research that aims to improve the standard of training given to registrars on
their way to becoming general practitioners.
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Steven Bellman
Steven Bellman is the MediaScience research professor at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for
Marketing Science, University of South Australia. His research on viewer responses to media
content and advertising is funded by the sponsors of the Beyond:30 project, who include many
of the worlds leading TV networks and advertisers. He has a Ph.D. from the University of New
South Wales, and is on the editorial boards of Journal of Advertising, Journal of Advertising
Research, and Journal of Interactive Marketing.
Duane Varan
Duane Varan is CEO of MediaScience in Austin, Texas, facilitator of the ESPN Lab. He also
oversees Beyond:30, a collaborative industry project exploring the changing media landscape,
He has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, is well-published and is the recipient of
numerous awards including the Australian Prime Ministers University Teacher of the Year
Award. MediaScience operates audience research labs in Austin and Chicago.
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... In relation to general humor, Weiss and Wilson [33] analyzed the five most popular prime-time family sitcoms in 1992, and found that humor was more often associated with situations that evoke negative emotions than positive emotions in the plot (e.g., angry or frightened characters were often targets of malicious humor). With regard to animated sitcoms, a recent study by Juckel, Bellman and Varan [34] analyzed humor categories and techniques in non-animated sitcoms (i.e., The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, The Office) and in an animated sitcom (i.e., Family Guy). It was found that Family Guy used more derisive and offensive humor techniques such as parody, absurdity, and repulsive behavior compared to non-animated sitcoms. ...
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Research on humor is carried out in a number of areas in psychology, including the cognitive (What makes something funny?), developmental (when do we develop a sense of humor?), and social (how is humor used in social interactions?) Although there is enough interest in the area to have spawned several societies, the literature is dispersed in a number of primary journals, with little in the way of integration of the material into a book. Dr. Martin is one of the best known researchers in the area, and his research goes across subdisciplines in psychology to be of wide appeal. This is a singly authored monograph that provides in one source, a summary of information researchers might wish to know about research into the psychology of humor. The material is scholarly, but the presentation of the material is suitable for people unfamiliar with the subject-making the book suitable for use for advanced undergraduate and graduate level courses on the psychology of humor-which have not had a textbook source. 2007 AATH Book Award for Humor/Laughter Research category! *Up-to-date coverage of research on humor and laughter in every area of psychology *Research findings are integrated into a coherent conceptual framework *Includes recent brain imaging studies, evolutionary models, and animal research *Draws on contributions from sociology, linguistics, neuroscience, and anthropology *Provides an overview of theories of humor and early research *Explores applications of humor in psychotherapy, education, and the workplace *Points out interesting topics for further research and promising research methodologies *Written in a scholarly yet easily accessible style * 2007 AATH Book Award for Humor/Laughter Research category.
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This research volume serves as a comprehensive resource for psychophysiological research on media responses. It addresses the theoretical underpinnings, methodological techniques, and most recent research in this area. It goes beyond current volumes by placing the research techniques within a context of communication processes and effects as a field, and demonstrating how the real-time measurement of physiological responses enhances and complements more traditional measures of psychological effects from media.
Article
Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor develops an inclusive theory that integrates psychological, aesthetic, and ethical issues relating to humor Offers an enlightening and accessible foray into the serious business of humor Reveals how standard theories of humor fail to explain its true nature and actually support traditional prejudices against humor as being antisocial, irrational, and foolish Argues that humor's benefits overlap significantly with those of philosophy Includes a foreword by Robert Mankoff, Cartoon Editor of The New Yorker.
Book
Research on humor is carried out in a number of areas in psychology, including the cognitive (What makes something funny?), developmental (when do we develop a sense of humor?), and social (how is humor used in social interactions?) Although there is enough interest in the area to have spawned several societies, the literature is dispersed in a number of primary journals, with little in the way of integration of the material into a book. Dr. Martin is one of the best known researchers in the area, and his research goes across subdisciplines in psychology to be of wide appeal. This is a singly authored monograph that provides in one source, a summary of information researchers might wish to know about research into the psychology of humor. The material is scholarly, but the presentation of the material is suitable for people unfamiliar with the subject-making the book suitable for use for advanced undergraduate and graduate level courses on the psychology of humor-which have not had a textbook source.
Article
Humor, that certain psychological state which tends to produce laughter, is fully characterized by three conditions which individually are necessary and jointly sufficient for humor to occur. The conditions of this theory describe a subjective state of apparent emotional absurdity, where the perceived situation is seen as normal, and where, simultaneously, some affective commitment of the perceiver to the way something in the situation ought to be is violated. This theory is explained in detail and its logical properties and empirical consequences are explored. Recognized properties of humor are explained (incongruity, surprise, aggression, emotional transformation, apparent comprehension difficulty, etc.). A wide variety of biological, social/communicational, and other classes of humor-related phenomena are characterized and explained in terms of the theory. Practical applications are suggested, including ways to figure out misunderstandings in everyday life.