In an advert for Cheezles (a cheese flavoured snack) two mice are discussing the risks of trying for a Cheezle. One says “It’s worth a crack, Nigel”. Nigel apparently tries for the Cheezle, and there is the crack of a mouse trap, and the other mouse says “Nigel? Nigel?”. Now the original ad was, most people would agree, very funny, even if my exposition lacks something. However it deals with something which could be considered tragic, the death of the unfortunate Nigel.
Humour is strange, almost beyond belief. The tragic is often funny. Death is a constant theme in humour. Disfigurement is also a common factor. Other factors are sexuality, criminality, embarrassment. From a different point of view, it’s about surprise and conflict, and a certain discontinuity. But I think that it is impossible to define humour.
It is probably the only human trait which might be totally absent in ‘lower’ animals. I don’t know of any case where a human trait is totally absent in animals, but it may be merely that I haven’t come across humour in animals. It is my contention that no trait in humans is not demonstrated to a lesser extent in ‘lower’ animals. Maybe there is a chimp snatching another chimp’s plaything and then sniggering when his victim can’t find the toy. Maybe. The Internet has anecdotal evidence that animals can demonstrate humour, but nothing too convincing. Or maybe I didn’t search for long enough to come across any in-depth studies.
Animals show joy, a certain self-awareness, disappointment, anger and many other supposedly human traits. They can learn, remember and generally demonstrate that they share our attributes, maybe to a lesser extent (though I feel that for many animals it is not much lesser than humans).
But animals don’t appear to have the capacity to experience humour (to my knowledge). If this is so, it is significant. It would be the only uniquely human attribute. My dog demonstrates joy, affection, desire, and many other things, but doesn’t demonstrate humour. A dog will never tease you. A dog is direct and forthright. You can’t share a joke with a dog. I’m fairly sure that you can’t share a joke with a chimpanzee or a gorilla, but I’d defer to an expert on that.
If humour is endemic to humans it is at least part of what distinguishes us from other animals. It may be the only thing that distinguishes us from them, as there is nothing else that I can think of that does. All animals have intelligence, at least to a degree, above a certain level of complexity. Some animals show preference for attractive appearance or display (particularly birds) which may be the basis of our aesthetic sense, but no animal, so far as I know shows a sense of humour.
There is a variety of humour that seems somewhat different to the ‘mainstream’ and that is the pun. Puns are plays on words in the majority of cases, but they may be visual. A pun can be based on homonyms, words which sound the same but which have different meanings, and even different spellings. For instance there is a village in Southern England called Brede, so if someone announces that “We are going to Brede” one can understand that a bystander might be somewhat taken aback. Another example is George Carlin‘s statement that “Atheism is a non-prophet institution”.
As I said above, humour often involves some sort of mishap or disaster for someone. In such cases it may act as some sort of tension release mechanism. That’s a fairly obvious, therefore suspect, suggestion, though in practise it seems to work and can be a recommended way to break the tension in difficult situations. Puns don’t give the same sort of release (generally), and mostly involve language so seem to be on a higher intellectual level than mainstream humour. In summary however, I’d say that humour is a facet of human beings, but it still seems mysterious to me. Strangely, infants seem to develop a sense of humour early in life. There’s not many things more infectious than a laughing child.