The main functions of humor, both personal and social, have been summarized by Ziv (1984) as follows:
1. Airing social taboos
Humor provides a safety valve for the expression of taboo thought, especially those relating to sex and aggression. These are natural needs and tendencies that have to be socially regulated, but total suppression is unrealistic. In the same way that watching or participating in a boxing match provides a socially acceptable outlet for aggressive impulses, so humor is an arena for controlled release of impulses that are potentially threatening to civilized society.
2. Social criticism
Satire is a form of humor in which social and political institutions and individuals in the public eye are ridiculed and humanized. This may be simply a means of realizing tension, and hence supportive of the status quo, or it may lead to change in the system (Paletz 1990).
Since frustration is one of the main causes of aggression it is not surprising that those who frustrate our aims and pleasures are the prime targets of humor (e.g. judges, police, government officials, parents, teachers, or indeed anyone in authority). The humorous pleasure obtained from a joke can be enhanced by raising the social power of the victim )e.g. guitar-player changed to bank manager) and his degree of alienation from the audience (Cantor and Zillman 1973). Outright aggression towards people in power whom we fear and despise is not permissible, so humor gives indirect satisfaction.
Interestingly, the PC (political correctness) movement has raised certain previously disadvantaged groups to the status of ‘sacred cows’ that society protects. This means, paradoxically, that ‘alternative’ comedians such as Andrew Dice Clay (‘The Dice man’) fill their routine with attacks upon women, blacks, homosexuals and disabled people.
3. Consolidation of group membership
The social function of humor is seen in its development. The smile is the earliest positive communication from infant to parent, appearing about two weeks after birth and meaning, primarily, ‘I feel good’. But it also has a component of recognition, first to human faces and voices in general, then after eight weeks becoming selective, with infants smiling only at their own parents, and not strangers.
In young children smiling and laughing are both associated with contentment and enjoyment and tend to accompany play, and they mostly occur in a social context. Humor thus becomes an important basis of social cohesion – a private language of the in-group. When an audience laughs at the jokes of Bernard Manning or ‘The Dice Man’ they are asserting common values (or prejudices), sharing attitudes or, as one journalist put it, ‘validating their hostilities’. Recognition that other people think the same way as ourselves and share our problems and experiences is a major source of humorous pleasure. At the same time, the victimization aspect of humor (whether the target is an individual such as Joan Collins or Dan Quayle, or a group such as mothers-in-law) is one reason why it can easily become offensive.
Humor may also be a way of bringing group members back into line with the norms of the group. For example, a group of hippies might laugh at one of their group who turns up clean-shaven. In this case, the laughter directed at him is a form of social sanction. At the extreme, a group member may be totally rejected (excommunicated) by ridicule and mockery, a process that is seen at its cruelest among children in a school playground.
4. Defense against fear and anxiety
By laughing at things which frighten us we bring the under control and render them less menacing. Typical is Woody Allen’s comment, ‘It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens’ (Dorinson 1986). Gallows humor, ‘black’ humor and jokes about disasters (such as those circulating shortly after the space shuttle blue up on a television mission) operate as a king of defense mechanism. Self-disparagement, a form of humor that is the specialty of certain comedians such as Woody Allen, may be adaptive in the same way (for the joke teller as well as the audience).
5. Intellectual play
As noted, humor may also be primarily cognitive. Intellectual humor gives us momentary freedom from the tyranny of logical thought. It allows us to escape the bounds of reality and indulge our capacity for originality and creative. The humor of Spike Milligan, for example, features a childlike, slightly schizoid, fresh perspective on the world. Any analysis which ignores this most advanced ‘human’ function of humor is bound to be limited.
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