Comments on Humor as a Double-Edged Sword: Four Functions of Humor in Communication by John C. Meyer

Meyer views humor as unifying or divisive–hence the “double-edged sword” reference.


He presents three theories of humor:

  1. relief, which focuses on physiological release of tension
    Example: People feeling threatened by budget cuts in their organization, for instance, laugh with relief at a joke told at the start of a luncheon meeting on the budget to the effect that, “Well, it turns out we still can afford to have lunch-but I don’t think the cook is accepting complaints.”
  2. incongruity, singling out violations of a rationally learned pattern
    Example: People laughed, for instance, at a comedian responding to criticism with a loud “Excuuuuse me!” because that is not normally how one is expected to respond to criticism; such a response is surprising, whereas an attempt to defend oneself or deny responsibility might not be.
  3. superiority, involving a sense of victory or triumph
    Examples: Television shows like Candid Camera, as well as many situation comedies, allow audiences to laugh at people caught in unenviable or idiotic situations.

Though these are interesting delineations, in practice, any or all are identifiable in humorous components of rhetoric. He cites a “printed announcement in a church bulletin–noting that Weight Watchers will meet at 7:00 PM. Please use the large double door at the side entrance as a case that’s interpretable via all three theories.

Primacy is also put on audience reaction, for their reaction is the ultimate determiner of intended effects.

Therefore, Meyers turns to “how rhetors use humor when constructing messages”–what he calls, “effects-based usages” or “functions”–that cause “unification” and “division.”

As an example of the latter, Ronald Reagan–sidestepped the issue of his advanced age in a presidential debate by forgiving Walter Mondale for “his youth and inexperience.” That united the audience behind him and differentiated him from his opponent.

The “four key communications functions” include

  1. identification
    An audience highly sympathetic to and quite familiar with a topic of humor may experience identification with the user of humor.
    Example: Ross Perot responded to the other candidates’ plans by saying that “if there are some good plans out there, I’m all ears.” (I’m human too.)
  2. clarification
    An audience with lower degrees of agreement and familiarity with a humor topic may receive clarification of an issue through humor use.
    Example: The Reagan/Mondale exchange given earlier.
  3. enforcement
    An audience with some disagreement or unfamiliarity with an issue communicated through humor may experience enforcement of a social norm.
    Examples: One teacher had children write letters to God with questions they would like to ask. One girl wrote, “Are you really invisible or is that just a trick?” A boy wanted to know, “why is Sunday school on Sunday? I thought it was supposed to 320 Humor as Double-Edged be our day of rest.”
  4. differentiation
    An audience in strong disagreement with a subject of humor, even with great familiarity with the issue, will experience differentiation through humor use.
    Examples: One type of differentiation humor that is pervasive in our society attacks attorneys. Several collections of lawyer jokes make the rounds, including comments such as this: Q: Why don’t snakes bite attorneys? A: Professional courtesy. Even more cruel is the one that asks: How can you tell that an attorney is about to lie? A: His lips begin to move.

Again, Meyers argues the four key communications functions are clearer delineations of humor than the three theories of relief, incongruity and superiority. The effects of these functions are dichotomous: either unifying the audience or dividing them.


Many of Meyer’s examples are situated in political contexts, but he does not distinguish between figure and ground–McLuhan’s references to content and medium. Is there research indicating that humorous content translates across different media, particularly if one of the modalities in the original delivery is missing? For example, does the famous “Who’s on first?” skit have equal effect without the visual component, or if presented textually, like a script ensconced in a webpage or downloaded as a PDF?

In the political context (independent of medium), what if the audience is undecided (i.e., not dichotomous)? For example, Dole’s stumbling into the audience at a rally, which he characterized as a pratfall, might have won him sympathy, but that didn’t necessarily translate into votes. What I’m alluding to here is something akin to a knee-jerk laugh.

I think Meyers over-characterizes humor as a social phenomenon, though people may laugh more in groups and humor-minded people are “more popular.”

For example, I think-up things in my own mind that are funny–or see things that make me laugh–even things that others might not notice–like the spot-light unwittingly mounted upside-down above my neighbor’s garage.

I also think the claim that a joke be only mildly familiar (tenuously understood so there is a “surprise” aspect to the part that isn’t) as a necessary condition to evoke laughter is tenuous, because I still laugh at jokes or skits I’m well familiar with.

For example, Monty Python’s Philosophers Football.



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