Distinguishing humour: signs that a text is intended to be funny

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At 5 Minute Bible I have begun podcasting examples of humour from every book of the (Hebrew at least)1 Bible.

But five books in, I accepted that David Ker’s other challenge. Scripture comes to us from long, long ago and from far, far away, cross cultural humour is always difficult. What is riotously funny to a Japanese may not tickle a Kiwi funny bone. Even among cultures that speak the same language (more or less) senses of humour may be significantly different. Just think of American and British TV comedies…

Spotting humour is easier in speech than writing, in speech there are often signals in the tone, timing and other features of the speech that signal humour. Scripture comes to us as plain vanilla written text.

However, there’s a whole academic discipline studying humour and biblical scholarship has used these studies.

One of the best summaries of this is the chapter F. Scott Spencer “Those Riotous – Yet Righteous – Foremothers of Jesus: Exploring Matthew’s Comic Genealogy.” In Are we amused?: humour about women in the biblical worlds, edited by Athalya Brenner, 7-30. Continuum, 2003. After discussing some earlier attempts to speak about genre signs of humour, starting with Ovid and ending in the 20th century, Spenser lists clues that humour is present. He begins with Greenstein’s list from the ABD2 says incongruity, lighthearted mood and surprise are hallmarks of humour.

Spenser adds to that list, and splits Greenstein’s “surprise” into “spontaneity” and “imperceptibility or hiddenness” (I prefer “surprise”), and I have also modified his list by adding the revelation of human pretension. Giving the following signs a text is intended to be humorous:

  • incongruity
  • lighthearted mood
  • surprise
  • ingenuity (cleverness is often a mark of humour think of puns)
  • inferiority
  • disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else
  • “inelasticity” (following Bergson)
  • human pretension revealed in all its lack of glory!

David Ker, in comments over there, adds hyperbole. This is quite right, exaggeration, things being bigger, brighter and more cartoon-like is often a sign of humour (just think of the story of Jonah). So the list of characteristics likely to be found in humorous texts (remember these rarely all present, but the presence of many of them together provides a strong suggestion):

  • incongruity
  • lighthearted mood
  • surprise
  • ingenuity (cleverness is often a mark of humour think of puns)
  • hyperbole
  • inferiority
  • disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else
  • “inelasticity” (following Bergson)
  • human pretension revealed in all its lack of glory!

What do you think? Are there other common signs of humour, do these signs work? I am especially interested in anyone with cross-cultural experience who can comment on how these work in different contexts. FWIW they do not seem to contradict my experience…

  1. Someone else can do the NT if they like, though I am less sure there is humour in every book there, apart from Jesus they seem a rather serious bunch ;) []
  2. Greenstein. “Humour and Wit: Old Testament.” In The Anchor Bible dictionary, edited by David Freedman, III:330-333. New York: Doubleday, 1992. []

15 comments on “Distinguishing humour: signs that a text is intended to be funny

  1. Bob MacDonald

    You don’t have irony or satire present. Various forms of mocking such as in Psalm 78 are spotted when the words are slightly varied. But is this funny? I am not an expert. Re incongruity, my brother years ago suggested that juxtaposition is key – as also is timing. Also tone of voice is important. I have always found the wisdom sequence in 1 Cor 1 very funny. Greeks seek wisdom etc.

  2. Murray Gow

    Hi Tim, I guess it often depends how we stand in relation to the issue under discussion whether we think something is funny. I was in stitches when I read some of Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita.” My father in law said he never laughed at all — not that he couldn’t understand the humour — probably he understood it much better than I, but the reality satirized was too much a part of his own experience to be funny in any light-hearted way. One of the things that interest me is that humour even when light-hearted may have a very serious message. Witness Boaz, who had earlier prayed for Ruth , whom he said had come for shelter under the wings of YHWH, being challenged to be the answer to his own prayer. Prayer is a risky business!!

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  4. David Ker

    I would put in a vote for the three mentioned in Bob’s comment. I’m reading James Thurber and he mentions funny things said by children and foreigners as stock humor material. Racist jokes certainly are a common fom of mockery.

  5. Tim

    My aim is a list of characteristics that suggest the presence of intended humour. The problem with listing all the common topics, as with listing stock characters is that such topics and characters are about as likely to occur in deadly serious no humour intended speech as in contexts that intend laughter or smiles. So while I agree with you both that these things, and sorts of speech, are often funny, I don’t plan to add them to the list of criteria :(

  6. Tim

    PS, on mockery, again, sometimes it is intended to raise a smile or a laugh, but sometimes its intent is altogether less desirable!

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  9. Christian Lee

    I found your blog through David Ker’s – ain’t the internet grand?

    As a touring Christian comedian, I appreciate people noticing, (and announcing) that the Bible DOES have humor in it. A stuffed shirt, Jesus was not.

    When people question whether Jesus joked I always ask, “When have you ever been around 13 guys for more than ten minutes and one of them hasn’t tried to crack each other up? Church? Nope. Lunch? Nope. A funeral? Nope. – And these guys were together for years?? They couldn’t have joked around with each other. Sure… that would have been a more impressive miracle than the loaves and fish.”

    1. tim

      Perhaps as “impressive” though hardly as divine! God created humans, that shows a marked (if somewhat mischievous) sense of humour ;)

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  11. Adrianne @ PS Home Items

    I’ve been reading the bible a lot lately and it has really helped me get through some depressing experiences. It also lightens my day a bit. Ever since I started doing this, I have even become a better person.. By the way, well written article^^

  12. robin @ portedegarage

    I would put in a vote for the three mentioned in Bob’s comment. I’m reading James Thurber and he mentions funny things said by children and foreigners as stock humor material. Racist jokes certainly are a common fom of mockery.

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