By John Jennings DTM, Program Quality Director

When I was first asked to write an article about “What makes Humour”, my first thought was, not me! And I guess that’s my point, humour really is very subjective. What one person finds amusing, another won’t. When it comes to analysing what’s funny, and what’s not, Humour has to be considered a grey area. The good practitioner can call themselves an Artist, and the not so good, well, others may call a ham!

So what is humour?

Defined by the Oxford Dictionary, humour is “the quality of being amusing or comic” and, more relevant to Toastmasters, “the expression of humour in literature, speech”. But there is no simple answer to what makes humour. There are many theories, and I will discuss these later. I’ll also look at the evolution of Comedy. What I have found though is that humour is full of inconsistencies. There are some things that need to exist to make something funny. They are easily defined as types of humour. Some of these are:

·       Slapstick:- the Three Stooges were exponents of this, where they would use physical contact and implements to generate the humour;

·       Parody:- an exaggerated imitation of an author, or piece of written work;

·       Farce:- the use of buffoonery and horseplay including crude characterization and improbable situations; and

·       Black Comedy:- the juxtaposing of humour and sadness to make light of a dark or serious matter.

By applying some basic techniques, along with the essential timing and delivery, you might be able to call yourself an Artist. Some of these techniques are:

·       The use of a pun;

·       Wordplay;

·       The use of misunderstanding;

·       Using stereotypes; and

·       The double entendre.

Timing and delivery are essential before you can consider yourself funny. Why you are funny comes back to the inconsistencies of humour. People will find you funny because you have been either predictable, or you have delivered the unexpected. They will find you funny because your humour is familiar, or it is not. It is for these same reasons that other people will find you not funny.


As mentioned earlier there are a number of different theories as to what humour is. They can be broken down into three broad categories; psychological, spiritual and mystical. There are however three that appear regularly in the literature about humour. They are:

·       The relief theory;

·       The superiority theory; and

·       The incongruity theory.

The relief theory calls social convention into question. By doing this it affords us relief from those social conventions. We often feel laughter rising within us when we feel this release. Freud referred to this as “outwitting the censor”, the “censor” being our internal inhibitions. He argued that the censor repressed our aggressive and sexual impulses. One such comedian who utilised the relief theory was the British comedian Benny Hill. His humour challenged our social conventions in a time where it was deemed inappropriate.

The superiority theory requires the person laughing to look down on the other person, thereby making them feel superior. Self-deprecating humour falls into this category.

The incongruity theory is the most popular theory. It revolves around the idea that we laugh at things that seem out of place, and that they surprise us. Things like a politician telling the truth, a clown with big shoes, or someone wearing a Groucho Marx costume.

Research doesn’t provide a consensus about which is the most viable. What is coming to light is that the proponents of each theory now recognise that other theories, apart from their own, can also explain what humour is.


Comedy originally was a dramatic play. It was the opposite of a tragedy. Comedy usually revolved around normal people trying to move up in the world and would usually have a happy ending, while a Tragedy involved important characters, usually falling from grace. It would often end badly after having explored themes of power or betrayal.  Out of this came the concepts of high comedy and low comedy. High comedy usually involved wit and intellect, often set among the elite, and exploring complex situations, while low comedy used slapstick or farce. It was the lower socio-economic society trying to find its way in the literary world.

What is humour? What makes us laugh? What causes us to smile in mirth? I don’t know. What I do know is that it is subjective. It is biased. And it really is the best medicine.