Some jokes are simply not funny. This is less of a controversial statement than you may think it is. Everyone is familiar with humor as a concept, as humans are hardwired to search for humor in life and within each other, as it motivates us and strengthens the bonds between friends and family. From infancy, laughter is a primal instinct of our species. When a mother plays peek-a-boo with her baby or tickles them, they show amusement just like an adult will find a witty joke humorous. We’ve all been exposed to the idea that humor is subjective because one person’s sense of humor differs from another. For example, one might argue that the baby would not laugh at the witty joke, and the adult would not laugh at peek-a-boo, making humor subjective.
However, one would not consider making a complex joke to a child. Why? Because they are thinking about their audience. Though many factors play into what makes a joke funny, one of the most important is who is listening. This is why we make different jokes around our coworkers than our friends. Your joke might be funny to your friends, but your colleagues might deem it immature. The joke is still inherently funny but relies on a specific audience to garner laughter. Almost any joke can be unfunny or offensive if told in the wrong context and I would argue that not knowing what your audience will laugh at signifies a poorly crafted joke.
Additionally, good humor catches you by surprise. The incongruity theory of humor proposed in Aristotle’s book “Rhetoric” states that in an objectively good joke, “the word which comes is not what the hearer imagined.” In other words, jokes with a clever twist catch people off-guard in a way that translates to amusement. This surprise creates a basis for objective humor. Whether it is a well-timed punchline in a stand-up routine or a ridiculous plot twist in a movie, a certain degree of shock elicits a knee-jerk physiological response that transcends personal subjectivity. A good joke travels down a mental path no one else expected and pleasantly surprises.
The brain also recognizes specific patterns and structures in humor as universally amusing. While culture can shape the nuances of humor, the core principles of what makes something funny remain surprisingly consistent across cultures. As mentioned previously, in most cultures, jokes fall under a specific structure: first, there is a setup, then a punchline. The brain processes predictable structure combined with an unexpected outcome in a way that triggers laughter. This universal response suggests that objective elements within the structure of humor influence our collective perception.
Consider the classic “slip on a banana peel” or the “pratfall” scenario. While the cultural context might add layers of nuance to the joke, the fundamental humor arises from the universally relatable experience of unexpected clumsiness. Though a dated comedic trope, physical comedy taps into our shared understanding of the human condition, making it a cross-cultural source of amusement.
While personal tastes undoubtedly shape individual preferences in humor, the notion that humor is subjective oversimplifies the complex nature of comedic experiences. The cross-cultural appeal of the aforementioned comedic elements, delivery, timing, shock value, audience and complexity contribute to the argument that there are objective aspects to what makes something funny.
Acknowledging the objective nature of humor does not diminish different types of comedic expressions. In recognizing the objective elements of humor, we can appreciate why we laugh at some jokes and not at others. A joke that is too predictable or complex will fall flat because it is not relatable or surprising.
Similarly, a joke can fail to make people laugh because of poor delivery or timing. Regardless, without one or more of these elements, we can look at a joke and objectively say it is less funny than it would be if it had those qualities.
While everyone has their own taste and preference for humor, these principles are evidence that humor is a universal experience that defies cultural boundaries.