Take My Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor

Course No. 4156
Professor Steven Gimbel, Ph.D.
Gettysburg College
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Course No. 4156
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What Will You Learn?

  • Explore the relationship between humor and concepts like tragedy and truth.
  • Study humor through the lens of great philosophers like Aristotle, Freud, and Kierkegaard.
  • Unpack the implications of six theories about the importance and purpose of humor.
  • Learn how humor has been used throughout history as a critical tool for social change.
  • Untangle ethical quandaries about what kind of jokes to tell–and when to tell them.

Course Overview

Humor is everywhere in our lives. It seems we’re hardwired to be funny and to be receptive to humor, even when we don’t always agree on what is funny. And it’s this ubiquity that makes humor an essential part of being human.

Great thinkers from around the world have examined humor for thousands of years. In recent decades, the philosophy of humor has been recognized as a legitimate subfield, complete with professional organizations, academic studies, and an extensive body of literature. Now, it seems, people are taking the subject of humor quite seriously.

The reason for this? Because to understand how humor works is to better understand the nature of human experience. Some of the facets of humor you will explore include:

  • What does it mean for something to be called a “joke”?
  • Is humor defined by the teller’s desire or the listener’s response?
  • Does framing something as “just a joke” take one off the hook morally?
  • Is the underlying nature of humor different for different cultures?
  • Should there be places and subjects that are off-limits for humor?

 

These and other provocative, intriguing questions form the backbone of Take My Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor. In 24 insightful, informative, illuminating, and (yes) humorous lectures, Professor Steven Gimbel of Gettysburg College takes you through the philosophical theories and explanations of humor, from blatantly obvious puns to complex narratives to sly twists of language. Drawing from both analytical and continental philosophy, the natural and social sciences, and the observations of thinkers ranging from Aristotle and Jonathan Swift to Sigmund Freud and Immanuel Kant, this course will leave you with a stronger appreciation of the jokes you tell and the jokes you hear. What’s more, it may just leave you with a clearer idea of the true meaning of life. And that’s no laughing matter.

Explore Common Forms of Everyday Humor

All philosophers, including philosophers involved in the study of humor, begin their examinations with a series of definitional questions and central notions about their subject. And in Take My Course, Please! the question is “What is humor?”

It’s a question that leads to a host of others, each of which you’ll explore in the first third of Professor Gimbel’s course. As you ponder whether humor is universal across cultures, define objectivity versus subjectivity, and dig deep into the complex relationship between comedy and tragedy, you’ll look at several forms of humor that we encounter every day on television, on our social media feeds, in the newspaper, on the radio, and nearly everywhere people are communicating. These forms include:

  • Irony: While some humor is just plain silliness, a lot of it employs irony, which is the result of coming to see how things are not as you thought they were—which, interestingly, requires you to have a sense of how things really are. Indeed, irony, according to Professor Gimbel, is where Western philosophy starts.

 

  • Satire: There are parodies and there are spoofs, but only satire is the form of mockery that aims at trying to make a point about human culture that extends beyond the joke. Satire is defined by four characteristics: It’s a work of fiction, it refers to real life, it’s intended to be humorous, and its humor derives from pointing out real-life flaws.
  • Jokes: Many philosophers who work on humor study jokes, which are speech acts whose structure and internal mechanisms are fairly easy to see. The philosopher Victor Raskin, who enumerates 45 logical mechanisms used to generate humor, notes that all verbal jokes come from switching what linguists call “scripts” in the middle of the joke.

 

Unpack Fascinating Theories about Humor

To better explain and understand humor, philosophers have concocted several humor theories: sets of necessary and sufficient conditions that are claimed to define the concept of humor.

In straightforward terms, Professor Gimbel unpacks each of the six major theories of humor, from classical theories to more contemporary ones—and even reveals one of his own.

In Take My Course, Please!, you’ll delve into these approaches to humor theory:

  • Superiority Theory: According to Thomas Hobbes, humor is the realization of sudden glory; that is, of superiority. To joke is to mock, and to mock is to put someone or something else down beneath our level. Laughing at a joke is always laughing against someone.

 

  • Inferiority Theory: In opposition to superiority theory, inferiority theory suggests that jokes reflect acceptance of the target of the joke, rather than a put-down or exclusion. Joking is something done with those you feel comfortable with and a joke can be a form of acceptance, empathy, and solidarity—laughing with someone.
  • Play Theory: Play theorists argue that the anthropological and psychological evidence points to an account of humor that makes it a species of the general phenomenon of play. If someone’s joking, they say they’re only “playing around.” This, play theorists contend, should be taken quite literally.

 

  • Relief Theory: For these theorists, humor is the result of the mind summoning up energy to solve what it sees as a puzzle, only to then realize it’s a joke and that it doesn’t need all that energy. The body then releases that extra energy as explosive laughter, and humor is the relief we feel from that.
  • Incongruity Theory: According to this view, the central concept involved in creating humor is an incongruity, two things that clash with each other, that do not fit together. Theorists that ascribe to this framework believe it is the reason for the success of many verbal jokes, in which we are set up with certain expectations that are suddenly undermined in the end.

 

  • Cleverness Theory: Professor Gimbel’s own theory of humor starts from a different place than others. He claims there is no necessary connection between humor and laughter, and that jokes can be used for as many purposes as any other type of utterance, including to tell (or to distract from) the truth.

Professor Gimbel also devotes several lectures to examining ethical questions related to humor. In addition to wrapping your head around the ethics of ethnic and dirty jokes, you’ll consider whether there is such a thing as an inherently immoral joke, whether professional comedians have different moral standards when making jokes, and whether a sense of humor is a requirement for a well-lived life.

Appreciate the “Ridiculousness of Ridiculousness”

Professor Gimbel is a masterful teacher whose lecturing skills and range of knowledge have rightfully earned him acclaim as one of our popular Great Courses instructors. He has previously investigated formal logic and the implications of science on our modern world—and even reality itself. Humor may seem an odd companion to these challenging philosophical inquiries, but it is a personal passion for Professor Gimbel, and one to which he applies the same rigorous philosophical approach with illuminating results.

When he’s not being playful and curious about the many fascinating aspects of humor, he’s amazing you with his power to make seemingly complex, lofty questions and topics so down-to-earth. You don’t need a philosophy degree to explore the philosophy of humor. All you need is an open mind. A funny bone or two helps, as well.

If you think Take My Course, Please! will take the fun out of humor, think again. These lectures are informative and academic, yes. But they’re also just a delight to listen to—and may even add several new jokes to your own repertoire.

“Instead of killing humor, analyzing it allows us to truly appreciate the ridiculousness of ridiculousness,” Professor Gimbel says. “And hopefully you’ll find that funny.”

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    The Universality of Humor
    Starting with the first “joke” most of us experience (“peek-a-boo!”), explore the underlying nature of humor in different cultures and at different times in our lives. Consider whether or not humor is culture-dependent, and how societies view humor as both an expression of life and a mark of vice. x
  • 2
    The Objectivity of Humor
    Most people would say that humor is subjective, but this claim is entirely false. In this lecture, Professor Gimbel explores the objectivity of humor by first considering what philosophers mean by “objectivity,” then by drawing several important distinctions between the subjective and objective notions of laughter, funniness, and humor. x
  • 3
    The Science of Laughter
    Consider some thought-provoking questions about laughter and its relationship with humor. What happens in the brain to trigger laughter? What environmental factors make it more likely for us to laugh at something? Why do human beings develop the ability to laugh? What social functions are served by our laughter? x
  • 4
    Truth and Humor
    Jokes aren't intended to be statements conveying new information about the world-and yet they can be true. Start building a clear definition of humor by examining the relationship between truth and humor, rooted in the four main philosophical accounts of truth: correspondence theory, coherence theory, pragmatism, and subjectivity. x
  • 5
    Comedy and Tragedy
    We’re told that “comedy equals tragedy plus time.” Here, probe the fascinating relationship between comedy and tragedy. Central to this lecture is Aristotle’s Poetics (in which tragedy and comedy are distinct forms) and the ideas of Arthur Asa Berger (who sees comedy as a reaction to a tragic world). x
  • 6
    Irony and Truth
    Perhaps the place where humor and philosophy most strongly overlap is with the notion of irony, and, in fact, a lot of humor employs irony. From the ancient Greeks to the ironic humor of the present day, consider how irony can make humor not just silly—but profound. x
  • 7
    Satires, Parodies, and Spoofs
    Visit a corner of the world of humor that takes itself very seriously: satire. Topics include ancient Greek satyr plays; the philosophies of satire put forth by Horace and Juvenal; Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (one of the most famous modern works of satire); and the relationship between satire, parody, and spoofs. x
  • 8
    Stop Me If You've Heard This One: Jokes
    Most of the work involved in the philosophy of humor centers around jokes: speech acts whose structure and mechanisms are easy to see. Professor Gimbel guides you through some of the many logical mechanisms used to generate verbal humor, including accidents, burlesque, facetiousness, stereotypes, and more. x
  • 9
    Theories of Humor
    Begin your search for a theory of humor with an introduction to the philosophical methodology best suited for the task: analytic philosophy. This methodology, as you’ll learn, seeks rigorous and clean accounts of what we mean by the words we use—so we can tell which questions are real questions. x
  • 10
    Superiority Theory
    When we tell a joke, we're making fun of someone or something. In this lecture, investigate superiority theory: the view that humor is the expression of one's superiority over another. Consider ideas put forth by thinkers like Plato and Hobbes, as well as possible arguments against this theory. x
  • 11
    Inferiority Theory
    Inferiority theory, which is the inverse of superiority theory, posits that we find humor funny because we’re bringing ourselves down mentally to the level of the butt of the joke. Is this idea successful as a humor theory? Is it necessary—or sufficient? Find out in this lecture. x
  • 12
    Play Theory
    What makes play theory unique among humor theories is that humor is not in the joke (or the reaction to the joke) but in the relationship between joker and audience. Humor, as you'll learn, can be seen as a sort of play that makes for a well-lived human life. x
  • 13
    Relief Theory
    Turn now to relief theory (or release theory), a purely response-side theory of humor that focuses on how humor affects the mind of the listener. Thinkers you'll turn to for a better understanding of this include the Reverend Francis Hutcheson, Sigmund Freud, and contemporary philosopher Robert Latta. x
  • 14
    Incongruity Theory
    Take a poll of contemporary philosophers of humor and they'll overwhelmingly say they support the incongruity theory. Learn how this particular theory takes as its central concept the incongruity of two things that don't connect with one another, and how it helps us understand how verbal jokes work. x
  • 15
    Cleverness Theory
    Here, analyze Professor Gimbel's own theory of humor, called the cleverness theory. According to this theory, humor is a conspicuous act of playful cleverness in which there's no necessary connection between humor and laughter, and jokes can be used to make yourself attractive, to distract from the truth, and more. x
  • 16
    Humor Theory Revisited
    Take a more holistic view of the six different approaches to humor theory you examined in earlier lectures. Using a joke that introduces the lecture, Professor Gimbel walks you through how each humor theory would account for the humor of that particular joke to arrive at a possibly synthetic idea of humor theory. x
  • 17
    Humor Ethics: Boundaries and Limitations
    Is there a moral responsibility to think about when we tell a joke? Are there rules to joking? Are there only jokes certain people can tell, or times and places where joking is wrong? Can joking be a morally good act? These and other questions are the subject of this lecture. x
  • 18
    Who Can Tell Ethnic Jokes?
    In this lecture, take into philosophical consideration ethnic jokes, or jokes that have as their butt an entire group. Are they always impermissible? Are they just jokes? Are they only sometimes allowed? Work through the arguments for several versions of each possible stance, making the best case for each. x
  • 19
    Comic Moralism
    Some philosophers argue the morality of telling a joke depends on how funny it is. Others believe the funniness of a joke depends on its morality. Explore the quandary of comic moralism with a close look at three types of positions: comic moralists, comic immoralists, and comic amoralists. x
  • 20
    Situational Ethics and Humor
    Investigate three ways in which the situation may be relevant to the morality of joke-telling. You’ll consider the ideas of a comedic “waiting period” for a joke, the ethics of places where jokes are morally forbidden (like funerals), and topics that some philosophers consider to be ethically off-limits. x
  • 21
    The Necessity of Humor
    Ponder the notion of whether humor is not just good but necessary to human life. Using the work of thinkers like Kierkegaard, examine whether we’re wired for humor, and how the necessity of humor depends upon the picture we have of the human soul—or the human mind. x
  • 22
    Comedian Ethics
    Professor Gimbel offers possible answers to these questions about comedy as an art form: What are the moral differences when a joke is told by someone hired to entertain us? Should we hold comedians to higher moral standards, or do they get a longer moral leash because of their profession? x
  • 23
    Socially Progressive Comedy
    Another way to look at humor is as a (possibly skewed) instrument of change, a tool of liberation, and a means of progressive activism. Study the history of American humor as a way confront oppression and to humorously expose the inequities of society. x
  • 24
    Ridiculousness and the Human Condition
    Is it true that laughter is the best medicine? Conclude the course with the relationship between humor and living a good life. Using insight you've gained from previous lectures, consider how to think of humor as a medication allowing you to live your life to the fullest as a biological being. x

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Your professor

Steven Gimbel

About Your Professor

Steven Gimbel, Ph.D.
Gettysburg College
Professor Steven Gimbel holds the Edwin T. Johnson and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where he also serves as Chair of the Philosophy Department. He received his bachelor's degree in Physics and Philosophy from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and his doctoral degree in Philosophy from the Johns Hopkins University, where he wrote his...
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Reviews

Take My Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor is rated 3.9 out of 5 by 30.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best courses I've found In my view, this course ranks among the best in the Great Courses catalog. Professor Steven Gimbel’s lectures remind me of Robert Greenberg on music, Arthur Benjamin on math, and Timothy Spurgin on reading and literature. Besides presenting a comprehensive, balanced overview of this particular topic, he demonstrates the way philosophers formulate questions and then explore a problem, employing arguments that prompt counter-arguments. As he emphasizes throughout, these questions “may not have answers.” In presenting various approaches to understanding humor, he is eminently fair in presenting and critiquing each theory, even the one he has developed himself. His language is clear, direct, and precise; his style is conversational rather than professorial; and his tone is friendly and good-humored rather than monotonous. Reflecting on his own experience as a stand-up comedian must have enhanced his ability to present complex material in an engaging manner. The course is well organized, and each lecture begins with a few apt jokes that illustrate the points to be made in that session. (As he acknowledges, some of these jokes are even funny.) Anyone who expects a series of stand-up comedy routines instead of an introduction to philosophical reasoning about humor is likely to be disappointed, I suppose; but someone who wants to hear a thought-provoking discussion by a clever expert in the field is likely to share my enthusiasm. He has presented a course that excels in making philosophy accessible to non-specialists and in recognizing humor as a crucial element in our lives.
Date published: 2019-05-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from More of a sociology course than truly understanding humor and how to write humor.
Date published: 2019-05-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyable course, but less than profound A philosopher's analysis of some of the multidisciplinary literature on theories of humor. Clear presentation, well organized, lots of funny illustrative jokes that are then analyzed in the light of the various contrasting theories of what makes for humor. I wish that the professor had focused a little more on the relevant work in psychology and even neurology and a little less on grand social theory and ethics, but overall, an interesting and enjoyable course.
Date published: 2019-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A true philosophy course, not a jokebook I listened to the course over the span of 12 weeks, and I will probably listen to it again. This is a true philosophy course, and with Dr. Gimbel's style, ties the practical and subtle (humor vs. jokes vs. "funny") with history/historic philosophy, medical science, sociology, and so on. Yes, there are jokes sprinkled through. Some are funny, all are topical. The course is split into thirds, loosely, kinds of humor (spoof, satire, etc.), theories of humor (what are the conditions for something to be considered "humor": deprecation of others, of yourself, cleverness, etc.), and ethics of humor. Within the limits of the course (24 30-minute lectures do not a full semester make), the base concepts are well presented and fairly well integrated. I found the middle third (theories) a little dry, but this is the section that is the most hard-core, philosophically, and the most tied to a rigorous presentation. And it is precisely the rigorous presentation that allows the comparison/contrasting of the theories. This foundation, further, is leveraged in the final section. The final third is the most 21st-century topical. Its material is easily related to modern society and much of modern "live" comedy (as opposed to TV sitcoms and movies). From this, it provides insight into politics and individuals' psychological states. The course is well worth taking a second time. The repetition, and the ability to integrate with later material, leads to expanded insight into earlier lectures. Further, a second listening provides a greater understanding of the integrated nature of each lecture. I have spot-listened to a few, and will continue to do so. All in all, a worthwhile course. If you're looking for an understanding of the nature of humor instead of a stream of jokes.
Date published: 2019-04-12
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Horribly redundant! I'm a presenter and really thought this course would help. I've never seen a subject so re-hashed with re-stating the obvious and restating the same thing. It was totally useless.
Date published: 2019-04-08
Rated 2 out of 5 by from The Philosophy of Humor The name of the course is the Philosophy of Humor. Make sure that this is what you want. Philosophers may love this course. I am not well schooled in philosophy and cannot distinguish an erudite philosophical discussion from mere sophistry or pedantry. This is not, and, did not advertise itself to be, an analysis of the types of humor and the structure of humor, nor provide any insights into the construction of humorous stories or jokes. There are a few examples of jokes or humorous stories. I did not find any of these particularly amusing. If you are looking for an occasional good belly laugh, or for tips on developing your craft as a stand up comic, look elsewhere. However, if, indeed, you are looking for a course on the Philosophy of Humor and have no illusions about being entertained, you may find this course very satisfying.
Date published: 2019-03-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from The course should have greater appeal to people more interested in philosophy than a practical analysis of humor. The course is true to its title.
Date published: 2019-03-24
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I’ll be asking for my money back. Cute tittle, but the course is a bomb. You’d be better off watching YouTube videos. The course is like a bad public access show and a total waste. I tried to watch it . Even tried to just listen. Big looser. I can not believe the other reviews. Makes me now question all the Great Courses reviews
Date published: 2019-03-17
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