What’s So Damn Funny?

“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” ~James Thurber

or more technically:

“Humor can be defined as surprise that softens our perception of adversity to a psychologically maneageable level.” ~Edward O. Wilson

Why don’t autistics “get” jokes? Do they lack a sense of humor as some people assert?

Humor is a reaction that developed to defuse rage or stress in a situation. It allows groups of individuals to continue coexisting by laughing together, rather than by attacking each other. It is also for defusing embarrassment/ shame, and thus allows an individual to “save face” (not lose their ego/ status) and not risk isolating their self. There is a big difference between laughing at someone, and laughing with someone. The latter is a functionally constructive adaptation.

If you are laughing, you cannot simultaneously feel stressed, angry, depressed, anxious or resentful at the same time. It maximizes positive feelings and reduces negative feelings and thus promotes overall personal health, in addition to promoting group cohesion rather than disharmony.


Humor can occur when we feel relief at a situation that was originally perceived to be a stressor, but at second look is not (e.g., discovering that a “snake” was in fact a dead branch).

Humor can occur when we “make light of” another’s (negative) action or comment by failing to accept it is intended importance. This “Teflon” quality is a form of self-defense, but can also promote group harmony by preventing hostility from progressing by reducing the power of the aggressor, especially if others also deflect the hostility in this manner. There are some kinds of power that only work if both parties “go along with” their roles as the aggressor and the suppressed.

Some humor is simply the delight in witticisms, e.g. puns, word play and such. Those people who are really adept at, and enjoy this sort of humor, often feel that it is rather not the “lowest form of humor”, but the highest, because it does not occur at the expense of another’s ability to “keep face” (maintain their ego/ status).


Some humor is “slapstick”, where the amusement is derived from the perceived/ potential, “fake” quality of actors pretending to hurt each other. The audience laughs partly from a sense of schadenfreude when something bad happens to someone else and the observer’s sense of (embarrassed) relief that is felt because it is happening to someone else rather than them. This stems from a sense of insecurity (if the action resulted from another person) or from general anxiety (if the action resulted from an impersonal, environmental act, such as my neighbor getting hit by a falling tree limb). The audience also laughs from a sense of superiority to the victim of the action, as derived from their own insecurities in being able to deal with problems and people in life (“Ha-ha, I am not that dumb!”)

Slapstick is “humor derived from pain”; it is personally not a form of humor that I enjoy. I did enjoy slapstick to some degree as a young child, but once I actually understood the dynamics of what was going on, it lost all potential for entertainment. I do not see anything funny in the “humor” of hurting others either physically or verbally. (Perhaps this is why many people find clowns scary, rather than funny, in addition to the whole generally strange appearance, and the inability to read emotional intent due to the face-paint?)

This humor from schadenfreude can sometimes be positive. It rarely is, being the humorous version of car-wreck carnage that everyone feels obliged to gawp at. But I think that some of the “I Love Lucy” episodes could be considered in this vein. We keep laughing as Lucy digs herself deeper and deeper into a hole, but fortunately she never gets truly hurt. Even as we shake our heads and think that we would never do anything so absurd as Lucy does, we also realize that in other situations, we too could end up behind that conveyer line, trying to cram chocolates somewhere, simply because we were too proud or too embarrassed to holler, “Stop the line, I cannot keep up!”


Likewise, there are some jokes that I simply do not get; I am “clobbered by the punch line” because I stand there looking confused (perhaps with a weak, apologetic smile) because I do not understand why others find the joke funny. Sometime this is due to my not understanding/ knowing the popular culture reference that gives it the necessary perspective. Of course, if you have to have this kind of joke explained to you, it loses all of it is “funny” because it is the element of surprise or incongruity that provides the funny! The other times I miss the punch line is when this is due to one of those peculiar social interaction “games” that (nearly) everyone else intuitively understands, but I am oblivious to. Once again, the joke is funny because it is the element of surprise or incongruity of what the others expect to happen, versus what actually happened in the story of the joke.

These are cultural jokes. Some of these cultural facets are common throughout most of the western societies, and because of this seemingly pervasive quality, are thought to be “universal”, even though the joke would, even if adequately translated, still fall flat in other, very different cultures. Likewise, there are some jokes that are only funny if you understand the cultural context, but because the cultural context is limited due to smaller population numbers (e.g. Deaf culture jokes), the joke serves an additional purpose of helping define cultural qualities by contrasting what “outsiders” would expect versus what the cultural “insiders” expect.

Autistics who sometimes feel a bit outside of the common cultural spectrum have these feelings of estrangement/ alienation reinforced because we do not “get” some of these culturally-based jokes. Once upon a time, I was accused of “not having a sense of humor” because I do not enjoy/ understand the humorous value of many of the jokes on the television show “Everybody Loves Raymond”. Many of those jokes were based upon characters insulting each other and other forms of personal pain. Indeed, I do not find these kinds of jokes to be humorous. However, I do enjoy the humor of word-play, or of people in painful situations who make jokes to confound the pain or turn the situations upside-down and break the potential pain of the situation (e.g. the television show “M*A*S*H”). In other words, I enjoy shows about people being clever, but not shows about people being mean or stupid.

I also love humor derived from absurdity. The joke is funny because of the element of surprise or incongruity of what the others expect to happen, versus what actually happened in the story of the joke. Absurd humor sometimes reveals something about ourselves, because it makes us aware of some familiar aspect of our social/cultural lives, and look at it in a way that we had not thought about it before.

For example, in Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” movie, the squire is making cloppity-cloppity sounds with coconut halves while the knight is skipping down the lane, and this reveals to us a set of nested incongruities … we know that on old radio programs, this was the way the “galloping horse” sound effect was made — but this is a moving picture show! There is initial surprise, followed by incongruity: we can see the sound effect being made. The joke gets funnier because the other characters in the scenes act as though this is normal — they are asking us to perform the “willing suspension of disbelief” (a fancy term meaning “just pretend”) for something on stage that is normally only done off stage, which is a further absurdism, or more incongruity.

The same also applies to sexual innuendo. In this case, the “pain” being thwarted is the frustrated desire (and/or sometimes the loss of face). In the movie “Young Frankenstein” there is a scene where a wench asks a guy if he wants to “roll in the hay.” We all know that this phrase is a very old euphemism for having sex. The joke is that when he indicates his interest, all the girl does is to … begin turning over in the haypile saying, “roll, roll, roll, roll…” taking the figure of speech literally. The humor lies in what the character and the audience expected (hoped) would happen, versus what unexpected event actually happened. How the character reacts to this frustration is also a bit of sympathetic farce — most guys can relate to having gotten their um, hopes up, and then totally dashed because the situation with the girl did not turn out as hoped. The humor is thus secondarily derived from coping with the pain of frustration.

Much of the humor in sexual innuendo comes from the innuendo part of it and seeing how far one can stretch a bit of word play. The British comedy “Are You Being Served?” is chock-full of this in the dialog of Mr. Humphries and Mrs. Slocombe.

The likewise supposed “lack of empathy” ascribed to autistics is rather either a lack of being able to identify other’s emotional responses, or a lack of understanding of the motivations that cause other’s emotional reactions. Indeed, I have great sympathy for the victims of slapstick or insulting humor (having often been the victim of such situations) and this is why I do not find it to be funny.
Another tangent to the psychological perspective of AS, is that sometimes others view this lack of understanding cultural humor or the lack of enjoyment of insulting humor, as being “lacking a sense of humor” altogether. The flippant comments about my perceived humorlessness reflect this: some of the incongruous things I find to be funny, others find quite strange, stupid, or humorless. But it is not a lack of a sense of humor on my part, but sometimes finding humor in different things.


Secondly, there is a big difference between laughing at someone, and laughing with someone. Attacking someone and then saying, “Oh it is just a joke; whatsamatter, can’t you take a joke?” is not true humor. This is “humor” derived from a feeling of superiority, using shame and derision.

Whether or not something is “truly” funny has to be evaluated. It is really interesting to watch old programs and then you realize that some kinds of humor do not age well. Political satire can be so topical that it is no longer funny or even intelligible a couple of decades later. Tastes in humor change, mostly due to evolving senses of what is appropriate for being laughed at. There are racial and sexist jokes that are only painful to hear, because it is embarrassing to realize that someone could have found their humor in the ridicule of others. When the “Jokes you cannot tell in mixed company” end up as “Jokes you wouldn’t even want to tell in any kind of company”, you get some hope that maybe society is growing up … just a little bit.

Making fun of someone and laughing at their expense is not funny. Although some forms of humor involve pain, but true humor is derived from averting or deflecting pain, rather than from inflicting pain. The ultimate (evolutionary) purpose of humor is to provide a coping mechanism and to reduce stresses (replacing negative feelings with positive ones) by reducing the importance of an event and it is perceived negative quality, and also to improve group dynamics.

Our feelings result not from situations, but from the positions we take or the values that we assign to situations. Likewise, it is often not particular situations that stress us, but the meanings or positions or values that we assign to those situations.

Humor enables us to change our perspective on situations, and thus how we can react to them. We laugh to keep from crying. We laugh because when we are powerless to act upon a situation, we are faced with either certain depression, or with using the one act of power left to us, the power to laugh at it.

Being able to laugh at situations improves our emotional and physical well-being (aerobics for the cardiopulmonary heart and spiritual heart both), and allows us to more successfully interact with and enjoy other’s company. When life gets too heavy, learn to lighten your load by shrugging off some of the pain. You cannot always prevent things from happening, but you can often choose how you will react to them.

Besides, the person who can laugh at their self will never run out of source material!


  1. qw88nb88 said,

    10 August 2006 at 22:41

    Resiliency is something that fascinates me. What makes someone able to keep hanging in there, and endeavour to repeatedly try different things, despite the repeated setbacks? Even when so many setbacks are not merely lack of results but are are abusive: outright denial, dismissal and denigration from others? People can be profoundly amazing. I think that having a sense of humor and being resilient are interactive in a positive feedback loop.

  2. Phil Schwarz said,

    10 August 2006 at 21:00

    At Autreat 1999 (see http://www.ani.ac/autreat.html), I attended a workshop on autistic forms of humor (which the speaker began by quoting papers in the autism research literature that claimed that we don’t *have* a sense of humor… to much mirth on the part of the audience).

    The four people seated closest to me in the room were all survivors of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization, misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and mismedication (in some cases nearly fatal). Yet here we all were, participating in a workshop on humor.

    I think that says something about the resiliency of the human spirit.

  3. qw88nb88 said,

    10 August 2006 at 10:26

    Old joke:

    “The Sarchasm” that gulf between the person making a sarcastic remark and the person not getting it.

    (I’ve fallen in there a number of times, myself.)

  4. Jannalou said,

    10 August 2006 at 9:58

    Ah, I think we share a lot of the same sense of humour. How refreshing! :)

    There are not a lot of sitcoms that I truly enjoy; Seinfeld in particular is a show I positively detest. But I quite enjoy “intelligent humour”, hour-long comedies that pretend they’re dramas but are poking fun at themselves (like Due South did so well), and a number of British comedies.

    But the other stuff – as I said in my comment to your previous post – I either just don’t “get it” or I don’t seem to get it. It’s annoying to attempt to carry on a joke by acting like the other person was completely serious, and be told “I was joking”. I usually respond with “I know.” But… *sigh*

    And when I’m told someone was being sarcastic or joking about something, and I really didn’t realise it, then I just feel stupid.

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