I just got an invitation to the 25th Anniversary of the Purple Crayon, an improv group I was a founding member of back at Yale (I also came up with the name...more on that in some other blog). The Purple Crayon is the source of some of my happiest memories and strongest relationships so I'm really looking forward to the event. There's something about instantaneous co-creation in front of a crowd that brings people together. Like being in a battle but much more fun.
That brings up this theory I came up with back at Yale to explain what humor really was. I came up with it because my fellow Crayon Ian Jacobs was trying to figure out a theory of humor. I don't remember what he came up with but I thought my idea was pretty good.
Here it is.
Humor is a breakdown of the rules of language.
In this context I mean language in the semiotic or anthropological sense as the system of rules and conventions which is independent of, and pre-exists, individual users. English is a language, cinema is a language, walking down the street has a language to it. A system of rules and conventions that we're expected to follow.
Humor always involves a breakdown of a language where the rules and conventions are broken or subverted or called into question. A pun is a breakdown involving the sounds of a particular language (or several languages). A pratfall calls attention to the way we expect people to move through space by thwarting those expectations. Social comedy points out the rules and conventions of race, religion or class that we live with by breaking those rules.
We start laughing at the world when we're figuring out the rules, around six months old. Three year olds can find the weirdest things funny because they don't understand language very well. The fact that they don't understand jokes but get them anyway is, ironically, hilarious.
This is a pretty good theory, I think. I haven't found any exceptions. The problem is that while I haven't disproved it, it's not particularly useful. While all humor is a breakdown of language, not all breakdowns of language are humor. In fact most are not.
Having said that I have to say this:
Farting is hilarious. The sound is funny. The smell is funny. The social context is always funny even if you're alone. Farts breakdown a whole host of rules and conventions all at once.
Finally I have to say that while I came up with this idea on my own, I'm sure I'm not the first to suggest it and certainly not the best. There's a bunch of stuff on the web about it and several books.