Explaining the Incongruity Theory of Comedy

Updated on July 16, 2018
Jamie Cahill-Kear profile image

Jamie is an English graduate/ comedy enthusiast who studied at Queen Mary University of London. He wrote his dissertation on comedy theory.

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Introduction

There are several main theories that aim to explain why things are funny, how laughter works and why exactly we do it. One of these theories is Incongruity Theory (the other two are known as Relief Theory and Superiority Theory). Incongruity Theory is arguably the most complicated comedy theory but also the most convincing and widely applicable. We will be focusing on understanding it in this article. To do this, we will discuss the ideas of the leading thinker behind this theory- a man called Arthur Schopenhaeur (he explains his theory in his work The World as Will and Idea but you don't have to read that text to understand this article).

'The Ludicrous'

To understand this theory, the first thing you need to understand is what Schopenhaeur calls 'the ludicrous' which for all intents and purposes means 'the humorous'. To do this, we need to discuss how incongruity theory states we see the world.

Our Perceptions vs the Real World

Schopenhaeur believes we relate to everything in the world through our perceptions. This seems fair- to think about something as a human is to have a certain understanding or perception of that thing. But the Incongruity Theory says that our perceptions of things in the real world only ever relate to part of that thing- they are incomplete. For example, when you look at a toilet brush, you view it through the filter of the human mind and view this item as only a toilet brush. When in reality, it is simply a medium-sized tool for brushing. Your perception of the item is incomplete. According to Incongruity Theory, things that are funny- or 'ludicrous'- show us the differences between how we perceive the world and how it in fact exists. If you were to see a character brushing their teeth with a toilet brush in a slap-stick comedy show, it would be amusing. The difference between your own perception of the world and the world as it is from a neutral perspective has been pointed out to you. Who's to say that object is only a toilet brush? You're the one saying it, not the toilet brush. Your perception only relates to part of the object- one of its possible uses.

The same effect would occur if you saw someone cleaning a toilet with a toothbrush. To you, the brush would seem comically small for the task at hand- everyone knows it's a toothbrush, not a toilet brush. However from a neutral unshaped perspective, it is simply a brush. Your human perspective makes this use of the brush seem incongruous (def. not in harmony or keeping with the surroundings or other aspects of something) with your understanding of the world. Once again, something funny- something incongruous- makes clear to us the difference between the world as it really, simply is and how we perceive it. These moments constitute 'the ludicrous'. For simplicity, we will call the ways in which we refer to and perceive the world and its contents as abstract knowledge and the world as it simply exists from a non-human perspective sensuous knowledge (trust me, it'll make it simpler in the long run!)

Remember

Abstract knowledge refers to the way we understand things through our human filters- our words for things in the world and the categories we assign them into. Sensuous knowledge refers to the world as it exists from no perspective at all. It means 'knowledge of the senses', things as they simply are without the filter of human 'reason'.

A toothbrush- or is it?
A toothbrush- or is it? | Source

Why This Realisation Makes Us Laugh

  1. According to the theory, when 'ludicrous' events show us that our abstract knowledge is inadequate/ incomplete, our complicated, human way of viewing the world is shown to be inferior to a more natural, unshaped way of seeing things- one based solely off sensuous knowledge.
  2. Realising that this more 'natural', instinctive way of seeing the world is in this moment a better way of seeing things as they really are gives us pleasure. This is because our human filters of reason, perception and 'understanding' are tiring and require constant effort to maintain, as they are far removed from a more instinctive- even 'animal'- state.
  3. Laughter is also a pleasant sensation and so when we experience the pleasure of incongruity, we- as Schopenhauer puts it- "give ourselves up gladly to the spasmodic convulsions which this apprehension [understanding] excites.” We feel good, laughter feels good and so we laugh.

'Wit' vs 'Folly'

So now you understand the basics of Incongruity Theory, there is just one final part for you to understand- don't worry, we're almost there! According to Schopenhauer, Incongruity Theory allows all of the 'ludicrous' to be divided into two categories. One is called 'wit' and the other 'folly'. The difference between the two is all about how the contrasts between abstract knowledge and sensuous knowledge are shown.

Wit- this is where we laugh with someone intentionally making a joke. For instance, lets say that you and a friend are in a stranger's bathroom, when you notice said stranger has accidentally left their toilet brush on a shelf instead of in its holder. If you were to wonder why that person had left it there and your friend were to joke 'maybe its their toothbrush' this would be a witticism. Your friend has started out with two pieces of sensuous knowledge- a medium brush we use for toilets and a small one we use for teeth- and intentionally grouped them both under the abstract knowledge of 'toothbrush'. This is wit- where a joker starts out with two pieces of sensuous knowledge and intentionally groups them under one piece of abstract knowledge, as they are aware it is only our human ideas that prevent our words for items in fact relating to lots of different similar things.

Folly- this is where we laugh at somebody unintentionally doing something funny, because they don't understand that our abstract ideas can in fact be used to relate to more than one thing in the real world. In this instance, a person starts out with a piece of abstract knowledge and unknowingly connects it to two pieces of sensuous knowledge. The humorous character in a slap-stick show who uses a toilet brush as a toothbrush doesn't understand that the only thing that stops our word for 'toothbrush' applying to a toilet brush is abstract knowledge- a human invention. They ignore this fact and so foolishly use one as the other. They have created a moment of incongruity for the audience, helping us realise the inadequacy of our abstract knowledge, without realising this themselves and therefore making themselves look silly.

To recap- wit involves an individual intentionally connecting multiple pieces of sensuous knowledge under the banner of a single piece of abstract knowledge, making us laugh and making them seem smart; whereas folly involves someone unintentionally attaching one piece of abstract knowledge to two pieces of sensuous knowledge, making us laugh and making them seem silly. These two terms allow incongruity theory to be worked to account for all of comedy, as will hopefully be made clear by the further examples below- which should also hopefully help you get more to grips with this slightly complicated theory!

Maybe it's a toilet brush, maybe it isn't
Maybe it's a toilet brush, maybe it isn't

Some Further Examples


Remember, regardless of whether we are talking about wit or folly, what makes us laugh is the incongruity we realise exists between abstract and sensuous knowledge. The realisation our abstract knowledge isn't able to fully link to/ account for sensuous knowledge is pleasurable to us because abstract knowledge is an exhausting filter through which to see the world. When we are shown it is inadequate, we feel we can relax our reliance on it.

Wit and folly simply allow us to account for the two different types of humour this theory lets us to model.

Examples of Wit

  • Your friend welcomes you to their home for the first time and says "Let me introduce you to my furry little friend" before opening another door onto their bearded husband, where they had led you to expect a dog. Here, two pieces of sensuous knowledge- a dog and a bearded husband- are deliberately put together under a single piece of abstract knowledge- the concept of a 'furry friend', which usually means a dog, but which you now see could refer to either.
  • You and your friend are at a bar one summer and your friend has a paper fan. They offer to 'cool you down' and you agree. They then proceed to pour their drink over you. This is a rather cruel witticism but a witticism all the same. Two pieces of sensuous knowledge- to have a fan used on you and to have a drink poured over you- are brought under the single piece of abstract knowledge, 'to be cooled down'. You didn't realise both actions would fit under this heading but now you do. Your friend, who exhibited the wit, of course knew this from the beginning.
  • Your mother asks you to give your aunt a ring. You reply with "Why, am I marrying her?" This is specifically a wordplay used as a witticism. Here, you have brought two pieces of sensuous knowledge- to call someone on a telephone and to present them with a wearable ring- under the single piece of abstract knowledge, a word that has multiple definitions, 'ring'. Whereas the previous examples involved ideas that can relate to multiple pieces of sensuous knowledge, here the piece of abstract knowledge is a single word with multiple applications, not a wider concept or idea, hence it is a wordplay.

Examples of Folly


  • You are revising for a test with a friend. There is a scientific fact that you need to learn but neither of you know it. You tell your friend to 'Look up the answer'. The next day, it transpires they have broken into the teachers office and found it out by stealing the information from the test answers, where you simply meant them to google it. Here your friend has unknowingly brought two pieces of sensuous knowledge- the acts of looking up an answer online and of stealing it from the answers to the test- under the single piece of abstract knowledge, the idea of 'finding out an answer'. They did not realise this could be done and therefore did not realise they were doing it. They now look silly but you have had it pointed out to you that abstract knowledge is insufficient in this sense. Incongruity Theories' mechanism of causing laughter then goes to work on you.
  • A friend is performing at an open mic night. They lean too close to a candle and their sleeve catches fire. From the audience, you shout "You're on fire!" they reply simply with "Thank you!" Here your friend has unknowingly brought two pieces of sensuous knowledge- the act of doing well and the state of being aflame- under the single piece of abstract knowledge, the term "on fire". Here the piece of abstract knowledge applicable to multiple pieces of sensuous knowledge is a word-'fire'- and so here we have an example of wordplay creating folly.

So there you have it! You're now up to speed with incongruity theory- give yourself a pat on the back!

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Jamie Cahill-Kearns

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