Some years ago I was invited to write an assessment of what made people laugh and why. I was given eight categories to work through and then a further, longer list of comedy types and examples. Now, as Barry Cryer once said “Disecting comedy is like disecting a frog. No one laughs and the frog dies.” My lofty aim was to write a piece that would be genuinely insightful, genuinely funny and not result in even a single amphibian fatality. With permission of the original commissioners, I am reproducing it here, with just a few edits, in a serialised form.

The following eight descriptions are intended to shed light on to some of the ways in which successful comedy programmes achieve their aim of making the audience laugh. The list is not exhaustive, nor is it an infallible recipe. Comedy is a delicate art and a small misjudgement can mean the difference between hysterical, amusing and tedious. John Cleese has described spending hours finding the perfect branch with which to beat his recalcitrant car in the “Gourmet Night” episode of Fawlty Towers, believing that if it were too flimsy then the scene would lack power, but too rigid and the scene would be grim.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that great comedy moments and certainly great comedy stories are almost invariably combinations of more than one of the below elements, and their relative strengths will also to some extent determine how funny a given audience finds the scenes presented.

I hope this is useful and interesting.

The Eight Theories

  1. Superiority Theory, which I call King-Fall-Over, which is really about STATUS.
  2. Incongruity Theory, which I call Mangoes-In-Syrup, which is really about JUXTAPOSITION.
  3. Ambivalence Theory, which I call Just-A-Flesh-Wound, which is really about EMOTIONAL RESPONSES
  4. Configuration Theory, which I call Oh-I-See, which is really about INSIGHTS.
  5. Release Theory, which I call Saw-It-Coming, which is really about TENSION and ANTICIPATION.
  6. Surprise Theory, which I call Balloon-Go-Bang, which is really about SUDDENNESS.
  7. Psychoanalytic Theory, which I call Sounds-A-Bit-Rude which is really about SOCIAL TABOOS.

And, standing on its own slightly

  1. Biological Theory, which I call All-Laugh-Together, which is about WHY PEOPLE LAUGH IN GROUPS.

We’ll look at the first of these in part one, in a few days’ time…