Humor, also known as comedy, can be visual, or be in the form of short stories called jokes, but whatever its form, it makes us laugh. This essay explains why. Put briefly, we laugh when relieved from something which is anxiety provoking. Imagine a caveman confronted by a bear. He is terrified, but when the bear walks off without harming him, he gives a smiling sigh of relief. Putting this in a contemporary situation, picture someone who arranged a meeting with a loved one at a specific place and time. On arriving, that person is not there, but then, following several anxiety provoking minutes, he appears. Relief brings on a smile. All humor, including every joke is based on this psychological principle.

To expand on the above, analysis of a joke is in order. A truck driver comes to a road sign, “Train Trestle Ahead, Clearance 11”5’,” His passenger says, “We can’t go through because our truck is twelve feet high.” The driver retorts, “Yes we can. There are no cops around.” The set up of this joke establishes the anxiety inducing situation of having to find a way around a roadblock. The driver’s response, “…there are no cops around,” would be appropriate in another situation, such as a warning not to make a u-turn,but is completely absurd in this context. It is this absurdity that tells us that the whole thing did not occur. The quick relief of this punchline brings the laugh. The more anxiety inducing the set up and relieving the punchline, the funnier the joke. Note the classic pattern in the following: In WWII Europe, two Jewish partisans are captured by the Nazis, and are put before a firing squad. As the officer is instructing the gunmen, one of the Jews asks for a cigarette. His companion reprimands him with, “Stop making trouble.”

That a joke can be purely physical is what inspired slap stick silent comedy. Imagine a man slipping on a banana peel. We hear the thud of his fall, followed by an agonizing groan. This is certainly not funny, but in silent slapstick, the movement is artificially sped up, and when he falls the thud and groan are replaced by a whistle or other sound that has nothing to do with what an actual fall sounds like.The artificial speed, and unrealistic sounds are the punchline which tells us that nobody fell.

Why something is funny to one person or group while not funny to others is due to reference points, specifically, what raises anxiety levels of a particular audience. A three year old is new to the world and therefore has a shaky grasp of physical reality. This is why, if an adult makes a funny face, the child will interpret it as a face becoming deformed, and react with terror, but a four year old, though still anxious, is sophisticated enough to realize that the adult’s face has not really become deformed, so he laughs. Adolescents, new to sex, explains their love of sex jokes. Middle aged people, anxious about their children and finances, enjoy jokes on those subjects. Finally, old people favor jokes about sickness. Objects and situations by their nature can be or not be anxiety inducing. While accountants do not bring out anxiety, dentists do. Airplanes make better subjects for jokes than buses. Personal experience and philosophical outlooks also effect what is funny. Jokes offensive to a particular ethnic group are not funny to them, but to the bigot who harbors fear and hatred towards them, they can be hilarious.

Note that knowledge of the above will not help you tell a joke better.