An Outline of Humor: Being a True Chronicle From Prehistoric Ages to the Twentieth Century
Speaking exactly, an Outline of the World’s Humor is an impossibility.
For surely the adjectives most applicable to humor are elusive, evasive, evanescent, ephemeral, intangible, imponderable, and other terms expressing unavailability.
To outline such a thing is like trying to trap a sunbeam or bound an ocean.
Yet an Outline of the History of the World’s recorded humor as evolved by the Human Race, seems within the possibilities.
First of all, it must be understood that the term humor is here used in its broadest, most comprehensive sense. Including both wit and humor; including the comic, fun, mirth, laughter, gayety, repartee,—all types and classes of jests and jokes.
The earliest reference to this mental element is that of Aristotle, and the word he uses to represent it is translated the Ridiculous.
His definition states that the Ridiculous is that which is in itself incongruous, without involving the notion of danger or pai
Coleridge thus refers to Aristotle’s definition:
“Where the laughable is its own end, and neither inference nor moral is intended, or where at least the writer would wish it so to appear, there arises what we call drollery. The pure, unmixed, ludicrous or laughable belongs exclusively to the understanding, and must be presented under the form of the senses; it lies within the spheres of the eye and the ear, and hence is allied to the fancy. It does not appertain to thereason or the moral sense, and accordingly is alien to the imagination. I think Aristotle has already excellently defined the laughable, τò γελοíον, as consisting of, or depending on, what is out of its proper time and place, yet without danger or pain. Here the impropriety—τò ἄτοπον—is the positive qualification; the dangerlessness—τò ἀχίνδυνον—the negative. The true ludicrous is its own end. When serious satire commences, or satire that is felt as serious, however comically drest, free and genuine laughter ceases; it becomes sardonic. This you experience in reading Young, and also not unfrequently in Butler. The true comic is the blossom of the nettle.”
Yet, notwithstanding Coleridge’s scientific views on the subject, Humor is not an exact science. It is, more truly, an art, whose principles are based on several accepted theories, and some other theories, not so readily accepted or admitted only in part by these who have thought and written on the subject.
A true solution of the mystery of why a joke makes us laugh, has yet to be found. To the mind of the average human being, anything that makes him laugh is a joke. Why it does so, there are very few to know and fewer still to care.
Nor are the Cognoscenti in much better plight. A definition of humor has been attempted by many great and wise minds. Like squaring the circle, it has been argued about repeatedly, it has been written about voluminously. It has been settled in as many different ways as there have been commentators on the subject. And yet no definition, no formula has ever been evolved that is entirely satisfactory.
Aristotle’s theory of the element of the incongruous has come to be known as the Disappointment theory, or Frustrated Expectation.