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Review of  The Primer of Humor Research

Reviewer: Ksenia Mikhailovna Shilikhina
Book Title: The Primer of Humor Research
Book Author: Victor Raskin
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 21.445

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EDITOR: Raskin, Victor
TITLE: The Primer of Humor Research
SERIES: Humor Research [HR] 8
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2008

Ksenia M. Shilikhina, Department of Romance and Germanic Philology, Voronezh
State University, Russia


''The Primer of Humor Research'' introduces the interdisciplinary field of humor
studies to a first-timer. Humor is a universal phenomenon and as such it
deserves cross-disciplinary attention. The volume shows how different theories
co-exist to explain various functions of humor in human interaction. The
contributors also present overviews of sources for further humor research and
provide the reader with extensive bibliographies.

The book contains eighteen papers discussing different perspectives on verbal
and visual humor. Because each paper presents traditions of humor research
within a particular discipline, I will briefly review each contribution.

Victor Raskin ''Editor's notes and thoughts''
As someone who has been involved in humor research for a long time, Raskin
presents humor research as an underestimated field that deserves better
treatment. He briefly discusses his own theory of verbal humor in its latest
version known as GTVH - General Theory of Verbal Humor. The theory presents a
model of humor competence which is based on the notion of script, i.e. a
structured chunk of semantic information. Humor appears when two opposing
scripts overlap in an utterance or a text. Later in the volume, this theory is
applied to different areas of humor research.

Willibald Ruch ''Psychology of humor''
The paper presents a substantial overview of humor research in psychology.
Issues that are of interest to psychologists include the questions of how we
perceive something as being funny and how smiling and laughter correlate with
this perception. Psychological research of humor in the past decades also takes
into account cognitive aspects (e.g. the role of problem-solving operations or
the type of individual cognitive styles that affect humor appreciation) and
motivations for choosing certain topics to joke about. Freud's model treats
verbal humor as the need to express suppressed impulses of aggression or
sexuality. The salience theory as an alternative to Freud's ideas states that
topics for joking are chosen on the basis of their salience: The more important
the theme is, the more attention it gets and hence the higher the chances are
that it is joked about. Other issues discussed in the paper include factors
which support or impede verbal humor. The ability to appreciate humor largely
depends on personality and mood. Closely connected to the problem of personality
are questions of heritability and evolution of humor and laughter. The paper
ends with a detailed 20-page list of references.

Salvatore Attardo ''A primer for the linguistics of humor''
Attardo discusses existing theories of verbal humor from a linguistic
perspective with a special interest in GVHT, as developed by Victor Raskin and
the author himself (see Raskin 1985, Attardo 1994, Attardo 2001). The focus of
the paper is the structuralist approach to humor, which allows moving from
taxonomic theories of humor to its dynamic modeling. The dynamic approach allows
for modeling of humor competence; in other words, it attempts to explain how
people create and understand humor in communication. Attardo shows how the GVHT
can be applied to large texts and gives the analysis of the text of Lord Arthur
Savile's Crime (by Oscar Wilde) as an example. He also discusses discursive and
sociolinguistic approaches to verbal humor as well as more formal computational
and corpus-based ways of research. The final part of the paper outlines
perspectives of linguistic approaches to humor. The author also provides a reach
reference to the research of humor in linguistics.

Christie Davies ''Undertaking the comparative study of humor''
Davies focuses on the methodological issue of comparing jokes of different
cultural origin. She claims that the comparative method allows a better
understanding of why different cultures employ certain kinds of humor. She is
particularly interested in ethnic and political jokes about stupidity, a type of
joke that exists in nearly every culture. She gives an overview of the range of
nations that have become the targets of stupidity jokes in various cultures. As
for political stupidity jokes, Davies explains their existence by either
non-democratic political regimes or particular personalities of politicians.

Elliott Oring ''Humor in anthropology and folklore''
The paper introduces an anthropological perspective on verbal humor. Oring
argues that humor is an important part of rituals and cultural traditions and as
such has become the object of anthropological and folklore studies. The
difference between the two approaches lies in the concepts of culture and
tradition: the former is the core notion of anthropology and the latter is the
central emphasis of folklore research. Anthropologists view humor as a type of
behavior or as an important part of rituals. In folklore studies, humor is often
conceptualized as a speech genre. Jokes and anecdotes are often analyzed as
cycles which reflect social values. This cyclic approach explains why people
engage in telling sick jokes - this is a way of relieving stress and distancing
oneself from disastrous situations. The final part of the paper describes four
types of context to be taken into account: cultural context, social context,
individual context and comparative context. Oring shows how this distinction
(made by anthropologists) enables us to observe and analyze diverse kinds of
verbal humor in different social groups and settings.

John Morreall ''Philosophy and religion''
The paper presents a philosophical perspective on humor research. Morreall shows
how the Superiority Theory dominated over centuries. Greek philosophers and
early Christian thinkers argued that laughter is a way of showing superiority
over other people. The Relief Theory gradually became an alternative to the
Superiority Theory starting from the 19th century. It is best known through the
works of Herbert Spencer (1891)and Sigmund Freud (1959). Humor and laughter were
then viewed as ways of relieving constrained nervous energy. The third theory of
humor - the Incongruity Theory - treats humor as our reaction to something that
violates previously set-up expectations. The Incongruity Theory explores
cognitive operations which underlie our perception of humor. Morreall also
discusses major issues in philosophy and religion concerning the compatibility
of religious world views, rationality, emotions and sense of humor. He concludes
that most religious thinkers evaluate humor in a negative way.

Alleen and Don Nilsen ''Literature and humor''
The authors start their discussion of humor in literature by comparing literary
works with folk genres (e.g. literary ballads vs. folk ballads or literary fairy
tales vs. folk tales). They argue that because literary works require a more
thorough choice of words people expect to find humor of higher quality in
literary works. The paper also gives a brief description of different kinds of
literary humor ranging from Greek comedies of various types to satirical
literature (e.g. Jonathan Swift's ''Gulliver's Travels'' or George Orwell's
''Animal Farm'') and black humor novels of the 20th century such as Joseph
Heller's ''Catch-22'' or Thomas Pynchon's ''Gravity's Rainbow''. A separate section
is devoted to a short review of works written by literary critics who guide the
readers to better understanding of humor in literature. The authors stress the
need for cross-disciplinary approach in literary humor research.

Lawrence E. Mintz ''Humor and popular culture''
The discussion of the role of humor in popular culture starts with the premise
that humor exists in every culture and epoch and that, although particular
instances of humor differ from culture to culture, there are common features of
humor shared by many cultures. Mintz focuses specifically on humor in popular
art and entertainment with particular emphasis on American pop-culture. He shows
that humor in popular culture is a highly sophisticated type of communication.
Mintz surveys attempts to create the character of a common man through humor in
the 18th century America. He also describes humorous cartoon strips portraying
the image of the so-called ''little man'' (a man whose life is governed by his
wife and children and who is reqularily hit by all kinds of disasters) at the
beginning of the 20th century. Another popular genre discussed in the paper is
that of stand-up comedy. The author traces the origin and growth of the genre
and shows why stand-up comedy is an important form of communicating social
values. Popular culture humor is also widely translated by television and radio,
so not only sit-coms, but nearly every genre of broadcasting today is ruled by

Amy Carrell ''Historical views of humor''
This paper provides the reader with information on humor research from a
historical perspective. Humor studies have a long history which goes back to
ancient philosophers. Historical perspective traces the evolution of the
definitions and major theories of humor. These include the incongruity theory,
disparagement theories, release/relief theories, script-based semantic theory,
GTVH, and audience-based theory. The incongruity theory treats humor as a result
of inconsistency between what is expected and what is perceived, while
disparagement theories see humor as a way of treating other people's
shortcomings and deficiencies. Theories that fall into the category of
release/relief perceive humor as a way to release social tensions. Raskin's
script-based theory and its later Attardo and Raskin's revision (GTVH) are
predominantly linguistic in their nature. According to them, humor is based on
six knowledge resources, namely script opposition, logical mechanism, situation,
target, narrative strategy, and language. Finally, audience-based theory places
the responsibility for humorous reaction on the audience: There is nothing that
is funny in and out of itself; rather, it is the reaction to a joke that
matters. The author also includes information about major gatherings of modern
humor researchers, such as conferences held by the International Society for
Humor Studies.

Christian F. Hempelmann ''Computational humor: Beyond the pun?''
The paper presents formal perspective on humor research. The computational
approach challenges the idea that humor is a specific feature of human
interaction. It poses the question of whether a computer can be taught to
recognize humor and to tell jokes. The paper outlines the basics of
computational linguistics and introduces major problems of modeling humor
understanding and production. Unlike humans, computers lack real intelligence;
instead their choices are limited to a number of schemas and scripts. The main
focus of the paper is implementing formal linguistic theories of humor (namely,
the GTVH and ontological semantics) in computational modeling of puns.

Giselinde Kuipers ''The sociology of humor''
The author starts with a brief survey of classical theories of humor and then
switches to the functionalist approach developed by anthropologists and
sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s. According to this approach, joking reflects
social hierarchy and maintains social order. However, early functionalist
explanations were untestable. Modern sociological research of humor tends to
combine a functional perspective with an analysis of content. Kuipers also
discusses alternative approaches to humor. The conflict approach focuses on
aggressive forms of humor and explains how humor functions in potentially
offensive interactions. The symbolic interactionist approach views humor as a
tool for the construction of social relations and norms. The phenomenological
approach combines textual, historical and sociological data to show how humor
constructs the social world and at the same time shapes the world view of
individuals. Finally, the historical-comparative approach looks at the social
role of humor in different epochs. A separate section of the paper is devoted to
the most popular issues in sociological humor research. According to Kuipers,
these topics include the relations between humor and aggression, humor and
laughter, as well as different forms that humor can take. Kuipers concludes that
sociology of humor shares the ideas and research perspectives with other
disciplines and this openness of sociology makes up for its weak boundaries.

Tarez Samra Graban ''Beyond 'Wit and Persuasion:' Rhetoric, composition, and
humor studies''
The paper outlines rhetorical approach to verbal humor and irony from ancient
philosophers to modern feminist writings. The paper also discusses teaching
humorous composition and classroom humor. The latter is viewed as an important
way of enculturation because it makes students appreciate the richness of
language and of a particular culture associated with that language. The author
also discusses various aspects of the rhetoric of humor. Special attention is
given to parody and the its role in instructing beginning writers. Another
interesting aspect is the application of GTVH to rhetorical formalization of
humor in guidebooks for writers. The third section of the paper is devoted to
the rhetoric of humor in current written political discourse. This is an
important issue since humor in political discourse becomes a rhetorical tool
just like in feminist discourse.

John Morreall ''Applications of humor: Health, the workplace, and education''
The paper concerns the question of how individuals and groups benefit from
creating and comprehending humor. Because humor positively influences an
individual's state as well as in-group relations, it is integrated into multiple
personnel trainings by various companies. Thus humor consulting is a practical
application of existing theories of humor. What is new in humor therapy is the
idea that humor is a set of skills that can be learned and practiced. Morreall
gives an overview of the literature on using humor for therapeutic purposes and
on using humor in the workplace. There is currently a need for new management
techniques with more emphasis on the quality of communication. Education is yet
another area for application of humor therapy because humor creates an ideal
atmosphere for learning.

Rod A. Martin ''Humor and health''
The paper starts with the discussion of relations between physical and mental
health and humor. There are several mechanisms by which humor can influence
health: laughter, positive emotion of mirth, etc. The researchers and
practitioners of therapeutic humor need a clear idea of what exactly constitutes
a ''sense of humor''. Further problems arise when it is necessary to distinguish
between potentially healthy and unhealthy forms of humor as well as between
different forms of laughter. The next section of the paper describes how humor
influences physical health, e.g. its influence on the immune system, the ability
to tolerate pain, blood pressure and longevity. Another important issue is the
influence of humor on mental health. Martin surveys various ways of assessing
this influence and shows that there is no direct correlation between mental
health and sense of humor. More research is needed for distinguishing between
different kinds of humor and different mechanisms that allow people to benefit
from humor both physically and mentally.

Katrina E. Triezenberg ''Humor in literature''
In a very brief historical sketch of literary humor Triezenberg names the most
significant authors who employed humor in their works. The sketch includes
ancient Greek comedy, works by Dante, Bocaccio, Chaucer, Rabelais and
Shakespeare. Among the 18th century authors Swift, Voltaire, Pope, Congreve are
mentioned. The 19th century starts with Jane Austen's name, and among the
Victorians Charles Dickens and William Thackeray are singled out. Literature of
the 20th century is divided in two eras: before and after television. Early 20th
century authors known for their sense of humor are Wodehouse and Wilde. Literary
humor of the second half of the 20th century is closely associated with
different television and cinema genres. The next section of the paper is very
useful for a non-specialist since it introduces a glossary of frequently used
literary terms. This is necessary for understanding what the research of humor
in literary works is like. The rest of the paper is devoted to application of
the logical mechanism of GTVH to literary humor.

Dineh Davis ''Communication and humor''
The author starts from the provocative point that existing theories of humor
inform us more about the personalities of their authors than of humor itself.
Davis analyzes existing definitions of humor and suggests a broad definition of
the concept: humor is understood as ''any sudden episode of joy or elation
associated with a new discovery that is self-rated as funny'' (p. 547). The next
point of the paper is the discussion of literature devoted to humor research in
the field of communication. Using Lasswell's formula of communication (''Who says
what in which channel to whom and with what effect'') (Lasswell 1948) the author
illustrates the complexity of humor. Among the most important issues discussed
in communication studies are humor and gender relations and also the possibility
of creating something that is universally humorous.

Delia Chiaro ''Verbally expressed humor and translation''
In this paper, the translation of verbal humor is compared to the translation of
poetry. Because humor is language-specific, the issue of equivalence becomes
particularly relevant. Another important issue discussed in the paper is that of
the translatability of jokes. Languages are linked to the cultures in which they
function; consequently, translatability and funniness of jokes largely depend on
sociocultural information. Translators of verbal humor face the problem of
conveying social facts which are necessary for joke comprehension. Multimedia
sources employ verbal humor as well as visual. The semiotic nature of multimedia
texts makes the translation of humor even more complicated as they employ
different technological means for information encoding. Chiaro claims that
audiovisual translation requires even more attention than translation of a
written text. For instance, the translator has to keep in mind the problem of
lip-synchronization. If the film is subtitled, the audience should be able to
have time to read the lines and simultaneously watch the action on the screen.
Although translation affects only one of the components of the movie (the
dialogue), the major question here is whether the audience appreciates
translated humor the same way as in the source text along with other visual and
audial information. In the concluding section of the paper Chiaro discusses the
role of translation studies in the field of humor research predicting that
further interaction of the two branches can be mutually beneficial.

Christian F. Hempelmann and Andrea C. Samson ''Cartoons: Drawn jokes?''
The last paper of the volume is devoted to visual humor. It discusses the
properties of cartoons, which are considered to be a prototypical genre of
pictorial humor. Cartoons are also compared to verbal humor. Their major
difference is in their semiotic nature: while verbal humor uses symbolic signs,
visual humor employs iconic signs. The authors choose a cognitive perspective
for their analysis of cartoons. In a brief historical overview they show how the
genre of cartoons evolved. The authors focus upon the formal differences of
visual and verbal humor and present their findings in a table. They proceed to
the discussion of aesthetics and cognitive aspects of visual humor. Hempelmann
and Samson conclude that many questions in the field of visual humor remain


As indicated in the title of the book, this volume is designed as an
introduction to the multi-discipline field of verbal humor studies. However, the
volume is also a good reference for experienced linguists interested in verbal
humor, because it presents non-linguistic approaches to humor in a clear and
compact way and enables linguists to link their research with other disciplines.
Substantial bibliographies on the subject offered by the authors of almost every
paper are another big advantage of the volume.

The editor's introductory paper emphasizes that humor research in its
contemporary state has nothing in common with the still-existing stereotype that
humor research is not something a real scientist would engage in. The volume
summarizes research approaches and results from various disciplines and as such
it is a valuable source for those who wish to make further steps in examining
different aspects of humor. Although there are no straight contradictions among
the various approaches, the variety of theories of verbal humor discussed in
this volume by leading scholars such as Willibald Ruch, Christie Davies, John
Morreall, Salvatore Attardo and many others shows that the nature of humor is
still a controversial issue. Humor production and appreciation can be treated as
a type of behavior from psychological and cognitive perspectives. Alternatively,
humor can be described as a kind of text organized and interpreted by its own
rules. These rules are either language-specific or culture-specific; therefore,
there are no jokes which would be considered universally funny. Also,
understanding a joke involves multiple cognitive processes, which are still to
be studied from both theoretical and experimental perspectives.

To sum up, the volume covers a wide range of topics that arise when one wants to
research verbal humor. It is an excellent collection of state of the art papers
that introduce empirical and theoretical perspectives of humor research to the


Attardo, Salvatore (1994). Linguistic Theories of Humor. Berlin, New York:
Mouton de Gruyter.

Attardo, Salvatore (2001). Humorous Texts. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Freud, Sigmund (1959). Humor. In: J. Strachey (ed., 1959). Collected Papers.
Vol. 5. 215-221. New York: Basic Books. [Reprinted from 1928]

Lasswell, Harold (1948). The Structure and function of communication in society.
In: L. Bryson (ed.). The Communication of Ideas. 37-51. New York: Institute for
Religious and Social Studies.

Raskin, Viktor (1985). Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

Spencer, Herbert (1891). The Physiology of Laughter. In: Essays: Scientific,
Political and Speculative. Vol. II. 105-119. London, Edinburgh: Williams and
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Ksenia M. Shilikhina is an associate professor of linguistics at Voronezh State University, Russia. She is interested in semantics and pragmatics of communication. Her current research interests include indirect forms of communication, with a particular focus on verbal irony.

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