Internet Humor: An Introduction to Humor


For years I have been a passive consumer of the comedy produced specifically for distribution on the Internet. No longer content to merely laugh at every captioned cat that comes my way, this summer I will combine my recently acquired knowledge on the theories of humor and my experience on the Internet. Get ready for a deluge of lolcats, memes, viral videos, and (almost) scholarly articles.

But first, some background. Up until the 18th century, the widely accepted explanation for “Why did I just laugh at that?” was the Superiority Theory. In this theory, we laugh at others when they act stupidly and we feel superior to them. This explains why it feels so bad to be laughed at: it means that the other person sees you as below them or you did something stupid. It also fits with the feeling that it is more acceptable to laugh at someone if they are also laughing. Since pity can come out of situations that also inspire laughter, the natural tension that arises from feeling sorry but also being amused is resolved if the object of the laughter also finds humor in the situation. Plato believed that laughter is always directed at someone, commonly know as the “butt” of a joke. The Superiority Theory can also be described in terms of winners and losers, with the winner directing their laughter at the loser. This makes sense especially in terms of competition and battle.

Beginning in the 18th century, two new theories of laughter, the Relief Theory and the Incongruity, gained more acceptance. The Relief Theory, based on physiological knowledge of nerves and the brain, states that laughter is actually the release of pent up energy. According to such thinkers as Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud, aroused emotions cause an increase in nervous energy; this energy either stems from sex or aggression desires and is inappropriate, as taught by Freud, or from a build up in something funny (such as a joke leading up to a punchline) and is therefore unnecessary, as said by Spencer. A more widely referenced theory today is the Incongruity Theory. Humans work on learned patterns, and disruption of those patterns leads to incongruity. Enjoyment of this incongruity creates humor. This theory does not require any discharge of emotional energy or comparison between a winner and a loser. More intellectual than emotional, the Incongruity Theory addresses many types of humor that do not fall under the Superiority or Relief Theory, such as intellectual jokes dependent on previous knowledge.

For the purpose of this blog, that which we consider to be “humorous” or “comedic” are those things which make us laugh. Though this may differ from person to person, laughter is the greatest sign that something is considered humor or comedy. Rather than start with the theories and find examples which fit them, I would rather take things considered funny and analyze them in context of all the theories. No one theory of humor is complete, and to only focus on the few theories of humor studies would place a limit on discussion. I generally use “humor” and “comedy” interchangeably, and do not mean “comedy” as in reference to story lines or characters, as I would if we were discussion Shakespeare or Aristophanes.

Next time, I will give a brief introduction to what I consider to be “Internet Humor” with explanations of the more obscure terms and elements of the Internet.


  1. imhirama says:

    This is so interesting! I can’t wait to read more of your blog posts! (and I love graphjam. Nice graph :D)

  2. Taylor Charest says:

    I admire how unique your research idea is! Very inventive and current. I look forward to reading your future posts!