The mystery of humor

I am not a naturally funny person.  Try as I might, I’m hopeless at telling jokes or coming up with a brilliant off-the-cuff quip.  J.A. Konrath, I ain’t.

But I do know how to laugh, and I certainly laughed when I came across this recent article: 

Police: Woman bites man after being called fat

Police say a 24-year-old man is missing a chunk of his right ear that was bitten off by a woman who didn’t like being called “fat.” Police spokeswoman Katie Flood said officers were called to a Lincoln hospital around 3:25 a.m. Wednesday to talk to the injured man.

He told them that he’d been bitten at a party.

Flood said officers later learned that the injured man and two others had been arguing with other people at the birthday party. Flood says the man told 21-year-old Anna Godfrey that she was fat.

Officers said Godfrey then tackled the man (after chasing him for half a block) and took a bite.

Flood said the ear chunk was not found.

Godfrey was arrested on suspicion of felony assault and remained in custody Wednesday. Case records don’t yet list her attorney’s name.


Did you laugh?  Why?

If you dissect the incident, the elements of what happened are not particularly funny:

— A drunken man insults a woman and calls her fat. What a jerk.  

— A man is attacked and sustains permanent damage to a body part.  That’s tragic.

— A woman is arrested and will probably be convicted of felony assault.

Yet add all those elements together, and suddenly you’ve got prime fodder for Dave Letterman.  What makes a story about assault and mutilation funny?  Is it funny to everyone — or just to a few sick minds (like mine)?

First, let’s consider a definition of humor, and for this I turn to Wikipedia: “Humor: The tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement… Though ultimately decided by personal taste, the extent to which an individual will find something humorous depends upon a host of variables, including geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, intelligence and context.”

What strikes some people as funny will not be funny to others.  And I’m betting that there are some people who don’t see any humor at all in the above woman-bites-man story.  In fact, some may be outraged that I think it’s funny and they’ll accuse me of a double standard when it comes to violence.  “What if this were a man mutilating a woman?” they’d ask me. 

No, I would not find that funny.  

So am I operating under a double standard where it’s okay for women to abuse men, but it’s not okay for men to abuse women?  

I don’t think the explanation is as simple as that.  Nor do I think that I’m alone in finding humor in woman-bites-man stories.  Think back to Lorena Bobbitt, who lopped off her philandering husband’s you-know-what.  Remember how all the comics (most of them male) went to town on that story? Obviously, they saw the humor in a story about spousal mutilation.  But if it were a man who lopped off his wife’s breast, no one would be cracking any jokes.  Instead, there’d be outraged demands to put the jerk behind bars.  

Let’s go back to that Wikipedia article, which tries to explain what makes something humorous.  One theory has to do with the “Incongruity Theory,” where an expectation comes to nothing.  Another is “the perspective twist,” where there’s an unexpected shift in perspective.  Finally, the article mentions a theory proposed by Arthur Koestler, who argues “that humor results when two different frames of reference are set up and a collision is engineered between them.”

Now, back to the woman who bit the guy.  Analytically speaking, it’s funny because it’s incongruous as hell.  You don’t expect a woman to beat up on a man.  You certainly don’t expect her to chase him half a block and tackle him.  

 But the part that makes it truly hilarious?  She’s so angry about him calling her fat that she … eats his ear.  Which I suppose would be called a perspective twist: the guy’s hurtful insult turns out to be absolutely accurate. She really will eat anything.

Being alert for the incongruities in humor helps us understand why a big dog attacking a kitten isn’t funny, but a kitten attacking a big dog is.  Why an adult spouting profanity isn’t funny, but we’ll laugh when a five year old does it. 

Sometimes, though, we’re better off not thinking too hard about why something’s funny and just enjoy the laughter.  Because, as E.B. White once warned, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.”  

19 thoughts on “The mystery of humor

  1. Alafair Burke

    The fact that she responded to being called fat by trying to eat something – his ear – was precisely why the story was funny to me as well. And, Tess, I’ve met you: You are the best kind of smart-funny.

  2. Karen in Ohio

    Humor is so subjective. Just look at the "war" between fans of all the late night hosts. Some find Letterman freakin’ hysterical, and others think he’s a doofus, but Leno is screamingly funny. It’s hard to please everyone, I guess.

  3. Flash Bristow

    Hi Tess, thanks for explaining why that was funny. I didn’t get it. But I do love the black humour in 6 Feet Under – an early episode revolved around a foot that went missing from the funeral home, and that was hilarious. That kind of humour isn’t too far from what you posted, so I wonder why I didn’t get it, maybe I am taking things too literally or just considering them one sentence at a time. I also just don’t get a lot of cartoons that my husband loves – but then he doesn’t understand why I laugh at LOLcats! Thanks for posting and making me wonder!

  4. Louise Ure

    I did think it was funny in a "man bites dog" way. But it would have been even funnier if the final line of the article had read: "Case records don’t yet list her weight.".

  5. tess gerritsen

    Alafair, thanks for calling me "smart-funny," which is the best kind of compliment!

    Karen and Flash, your comments perfectly illustrate how comedy is indeed subjective. This is why so many publishers will tell you that humor doesn’t translate well, which is why humorous books have a tough time selling foreign rights.

    Louise, that would have been the perfect closing line. (The headline itself was a comedic work of art)

  6. Cornelia Read

    My favorite part of the original story is "after chasing him for half a block." Especially since I’m picturing this chase occurring with at least one of the participants wearing a rather large and brightly colored muumuu.

  7. Dana King

    Cornelia beat me to it. What makes this funny for me is the idea of her chasing him. Either she’s not as fat as he indicated, or he’s kind of a porker himself, in which case irony comes to the fore, and I loves me some destructive irony.

  8. Bob DiPasquale

    Hi. Humor has always intrigued me. It seems most humor includes tragedy and distance from it as your story does. I created an experiment recently where I plan to study more on humor and let people that want to know, put a number on how funny they are. It’s done by having members both vote and submit to a daily cartoon caption contest. A members ‘humorq’ is based on both how popular their captions are, and how well they do at picking the most popular choice when they are voting. Membership is free, and we sure could use more curious about humor people at .

  9. Camille

    It’s about timing, and it’s about angle. Timing allows us to see the irony in it clearly. But the angle allows us to get past the not-funny aspects.

    If you notice, Letterman has become a master of turning such an incident as a commentary on things OTHER than the people involved. (In the old days, he made fun of such people, and still does, but now days, he tends to use them as a jumping off point to poke fun at bigger targets.)

  10. pari noskin taichert

    A thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I know that I write humor — at least my readers think so in my Sasha books — but I’m not sure how I do it.

    A few observations:
    1. A person’s/reader’s sense of humor is likely to change over the years. I don’t know if it’s life experience that causes this, sophistication . . . whatever. It does happen for most people though.
    2. Certain things are funny because WE fill in the details — whether it’s a naturally incongruous situation, a collision of disparate pieces — the observer is the one that creates the humor for him or herself.

    To the latter point, I think often of what Thurber said about his cartoons — he always provided the middle of a conversation or experience rather than the beginning so that the viewer would have to provide the context; that’s what made so many of his drawings so funny.

  11. Allison Brennan

    I, too, found the most humor in the woman chasing the guy half a block.

    I can’t write funny to save my life, but apparently I’m funny when I speak. I don’t know quite how to take that! The only humor I’ve managed to successful work in a book is sarcasm. Maybe because I have five kids, two of them teenagers, I’m comfortable using it.

  12. Berenmind

    The chase is definitely amusing. All sorts of images come to mind starting from the probable drunken obese abusive argument scene at the party to the horrified looks on street witnesses faces as the two barreled down the block to a climactic Lainie Kazan clad tackle. The funniest part of the story, to me, was that the journalist had asked the question and decided the answer was significant enough to mention, that "the ear chunk was not found". Can you crime writers tell me why this is important?

    Speaking of sarcasm; I think that Cornelia is ONE of the most humorous authors I have read. I can quote pages and pages of hilarious stuff from all of her books, but at the moment her riff on Laura Ashley when Maddie and her sister are picking up bridesmaid dresses in Invisible Boy still has me cracking up….

    "Do you feel like we died and got relegated to tufted-chintz hell?"

    "I’m getting this creepy feeling that someone wants to reincarnate me as an overstuffed love-seat."

  13. Berenmind

    Sorry. I hit the post button before I included this other Cornelia remark on the Laura Ashley showroom…

    "How can you tell who works here and who’s just shopping? They’re all remote-controlled zombie-assassin Stepford-pod androids enslaved by the receiver units tucked inside those humongous plaid hairbows."

    See what I mean?

  14. PK the Bookeemonster

    Humor is very subjective. I can’t watch sit-coms because I don’t find them funny. I didn’t like Seinfeld but love Monty Python. <shrug> I think it falls under the category of there’s something for everyone just like there are for books. And thank goodness.

  15. Dave Clark

    I taught a couple of courses in comedy writing and I came up with a formula that–unfortunately–is dust-dry, but it works. But my point is that comedy is subjective, that something can be recognized as funny but not necessarily to you, and even comedy and humor that has an underlying point is still largely unappreciated. Oh… the formula? Comedy is an uplifting surprise in a social context. I’d suggest studying that at some length, but wouldn’t you really rather spend the time enjoying something funny? After all,
    Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana. — Groucho Marx


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