New Directions in Aesthetics

Series editors: Dominic McIver Lopes, University of British Columbia, and Berys Gaut, University of St Andrews

Blackwell’s New Directions in Aesthetics series highlights ambitious single- and multiple-author books that confront the most intriguing and pressing problems in aesthetics and the philosophy of art today. Each book is written in a way that advances understanding of the subject at hand and is accessible to upper-undergraduate and graduate students.

1. Interpretation and Construction: Art, Speech, and the Law by Robert Stecker

2. Art as Performance by David Davies

3. The Performance of Reading: An Essay in the Philosophy of Literature by Peter Kivy

4. The Art of Theater by James R. Hamilton

5. Cultural Appropriation and the Arts by James O. Young

6. Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature ed. Scott Walden

7. Art and Ethical Criticism ed. Garry L. Hagberg

8. Mirrors to One Another: Emotion and Value in Jane Austen and David Hume by Eva Dadlez

9. Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor by John Morreall

The Art of Videogames by Grant Tavinor


For Jordan, who’ll probably cure cancer and Alzheimer’s before all these issues get resolved


Robert Mankoff

People tell me I have the best job in the world. They’re wrong, because actually I have the best jobs in the world. For my day job, I’m cartoon editor of The New Yorker magazine, which means I get to see over one thousand cartoons, every week, from the best cartoonists there are. From those thousand, I get to pick the best of the best–the crème de la crème, de la crème de la crème, if you will. I also moonlight as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, contributing over nine hundred cartoons to the magazine since 1977. By the way, as a cartoonist, I use the pen name Mankoff, which, coincidentally, is the same as my real name.

However, as much fun as these jobs are, I take cartoons, and the humor they represent, very seriously–or, at least, very semi-seriously. I have to, because surveys done by The New Yorker magazine show that 98 percent of its readers view the cartoons first and the other 2 percent are lying.

Now, that last statement is itself a lie, but you didn’t think of it as a lie, because you knew it was a joke, which, in this case, though not literally true, expresses through exaggeration (“98 percent of its readers”) and fabrication (“2 percent are lying”) a truthful insight. Further ana­lysis of this joke might classify it as a certain type, a “one liner” that has the structure of a “set-up” and a “punch line.” Still further analysis might bring to mind the famous quip of E. B. White: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Well, he was joking too, but was he also on to the truth?

Perhaps he was, back then, some 60 years ago, but times have changed. In the first place, a search on Google brings up 196,000 results for “frog dissection,” so a lot of people are interested in the topic, plus, there are even virtual frog dissection kits online, which means, mirabile dictu, the frog lives!

Secondly, as fascinating as frog dissection is, and with all due respect to its legion of pithy devotees, the search results it brings up are quite meager when compared to the staggering 25,000,000 you get for “humor analysis.”

So, compared to the frog, interest in humor is definitely an elephant. Unfortunately, in the past, it has been the proverbial elephant in the room of human experience, ignored by the social sciences, whose attention was focused on the twin 800-pound gorillas of aggression and depression. Lately that has changed with a growing understanding that attention must be paid to positive feelings like humor that not only make life enjoy­able, but endurable and comprehensible as well.

Of course, this turn of events has enraged the 800-pound gorilla of aggression, and caused his depressive twin to go into such a deep funk that even the antics of the funny elephant couldn’t alleviate it–that is, until he accidentally stepped on the frog, which caused everyone to burst into laughter, except the frog, who was already burst.

The hilarity quickly came to an end, however, when a bunch of glum blind men wandered in from another proverb by way of the department of social sciences to examine the elephant. Each glumly sought to explain it from within their particular discipline, which they did to their own satisfaction, but not to each other’s, or, I might add, to someone like myself, for whom humor pays the rent.

What they, and I, and you need is an interdisciplinary approach. Fortunately we have it in this book, Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor, by that interdisciplinarian nonpareil, John Morreall.

John is a philosopher by training who combines the temperament of a scholar with the timing of a stand-up comedian. This book entertains as it educates us in what we find funny and why. It is both comprehen­sive and comprehensible. I guarantee you’ll find it interesting and in­formative. If you don’t, then, well, I’ll warrantee it, and if that doesn’t work for you, there’s always the fascinating field of frog dissection to explore.


In college I stumbled into the philosophy of laughter and humor while looking for Aristotle’s Politics in the stacks. Where it should have been was his Problems. Opening that book at random, I lighted on the question, “Why is it that no one can tickle himself?” A few seconds later I moved on to, “Why are drunks more easily moved to tears?” but the Tickle Question had lodged in my brain. Ten years later, as an assistant professor looking for a new research topic, Aristotle’s question came back to me, triggering many more about laughter and humor. The big one was why humor is so important in ordinary life, but so neglected or frowned upon in traditional philosophy.In Taking Laughter Seriously (1983), I wrestled with that and a dozen other questions about laughter and humor. That book is still in print and has been translated into Japanese and Turkish.

I went on to collect what traditional philosophers have said about laughter and humor, and put it together with contemporary essays, in The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor (1987). That book brought some media attention, which led to invitations from medical and business groups to talk about the benefits of humor. So, printing up 500 business cards, I became a humor consultant to the likes of AT&T, IBM, and the IRS. That led to a practical book, Humor Works (1997). Then, following my wife’s career, I joined a department of religion, where I started off with a course on humor in Zen. That got me thinking about humor as a world-view, and its competitors, especially what literary people call the Tragic Vision. So I wrote Comedy, Tragedy, and Religion (1999).

This book returns to the philosophy of humor. The philosophy of X asks what X is and how X fits into human life; it describes X and assesses it. We’ll be asking some standard questions such as whether humor has an essence and when it’s wrong to laugh. But we’ll also consider neglected questions such as why humor is associated with the odd facial expressions and breathing patterns known as laughter; why laughter is contagious; and whether comedy is as valuable as tragedy. While most academic treatments of humor concentrate on fictional texts such as jokes, I will favor humor that we create spontaneously, as in conversation, and that we find in real situations. And to make sure my descriptions and assess­ments are reasonable, I will test them against lots of real examples.

The central idea of this book is that in humor we experience a sudden change of mental state – a cognitive shift, I call it – that would be disturb­ing under normal conditions, that is, if we took it seriously. Disengaged from ordinary concerns, however, we take it playfully and enjoy it. Humans, along with the apes that have learned a language, are the only animals who can do this, I argue, because we are the rational animals.

We’ll focus on the playful disengagement in humor as we explore issues in psychology, aesthetics, and ethics. In psychology, comic disengage­ment differentiates amusement from standard emotions. In aesthetics, it explains why humor is so often an aesthetic experience, and it helps us contrast comedy with tragedy. In ethics, comic disengagement is the key to understanding both harmful humor and beneficial humor. In a chapter on philosophy and comedy, I’ll argue that most philosophers have been either obtuse or perverse in not recognizing the value of comic disengagement, since they advocate a similar kind of disengagement.

Early in the writing of this book, I put “Comprehensive” in the subtitle to remind myself that I was aiming for at least three kinds of explanations. First, I wanted to clarify the concepts of laughter, amuse­ment, and humor. Secondly, I wanted to provide two causal explanations: a psychological account of what causes what in amusement, and an evo­lutionary account of what in early humans led to humor, and how it then developed. That evolutionary explanation, being based on the survival value of humor, would lead to a third kind of explanation – an evaluation of the benefits humor has had for our species. To what extent I’ve succeeded in any of these explanations, I leave to you to determine.


“Please enjoy this culturally, …” © The New Yorker Collection 2006 Michael Shaw from cartoonbank. com. All Rights Reserved.

“We’re from the FBI …” © The New Yorker Collection 2001 Handelsman from cartoonbank. com. All Rights Reserved.

“Thin crust, no onions, with extra zebra and wildebeest” Drawing © John Morreall 2008

“I don’t get it. You never get it” © The New Yorker Collection 1987 Robert Mankoff from cartoonbank. com. All Rights Reserved.

“Have a good day, God bless, and for heaven’s sake, lighten up” © The New Yorker Collection 1985 Dana Fradon from cartoonbank. com. All Rights Reserved.

“But, seriously …” © The New Yorker Collection 1996 John Jonik from All Rights Reserved.

“By God, for a minute there it suddenly all made sense” © The New Yorker Collection 1986 Gahan Wilson from cartoonbank. com. All Rights Reserved.

“I heard a bit of good news today. We shall pass this way but once” © The New Yorker Collection 1973 George Price from cartoonbank. com. All Rights Reserved.