Volume XV, Number 1, 2019

"Review of The Language of Humor. An Introduction" by Zsófia Anna Tóth

Zsófia Anna Tóth is a senior assistant professor at the Department of American Studies, Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her general research interests are film studies, cultural studies, gender studies, humor theories as well as British and American literature and cinema. Her current research topics are humor theories, humor and gender, women’s humor, and especially the work(s) (and the phenomenon) of Mae West. Email:

The Language of Humor. An Introduction
Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018
387 pages
ISBN 978-1-108-41654-2 (Hardback), ISBN 978-1-108-40396-2 (Paperback)


The Language of Humor. An Introduction written by Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen is a complex, interdisciplinary, multicultural, and quite challenging book about the many facets humor in our cultures. It is a challenging project because it covers an incredible lot of different fields and presents humor through the lens of anthropology, ethnic, business, gender, geography, law, music, sociology, etc. At the same time, it includes the most important researches and theories about humor within the fields of linguistics, literature, psychology and philosophy. In addition, as everything is written from an American viewpoint, the book provides invaluable amount of material on American humor, culture, history, literature, politics and many other fields by trying to connect various terrains through specific examples. Since the book encompasses such a wide scope it is a brave endeavor to take in all of the information provided, and eventually see humor on a large societal scale.

It is exactly because of this wide scope that the book might appear to be slightly superficial in certain parts because it is virtually impossible to go into detail about each topic. The theoretical depth is not characteristic of this volume because it calls itself a “textbook” (69). Nevertheless, the book is very informative with “quickie histories,” concise definitions, and real teaching situations, which are indeed helpful for easy accessibility. Every chapter is equipped with a part called “points of departure,” which serves as an educational tool by offering possible directions for further thinking, discussion and research. Moreover, the authors also provided online Power Point presentations for every chapter and topic to aid teaching and classroom work. Yet, a slightly disturbing aspect is that there are a number of repetitions throughout the book, which might be left there precisely with methodological aims in mind: to help the imprint of the material. As I mentioned before, this is a brave project because it dares taking up such a vast issue as the humor by managing to pull it through discussing even sensitive or problematic issues, all with the application of a realistic approach.

The book consists of 25 chapters focusing on topics such as religion, gerontology, politics, performing arts, journalism and so on. The books’ chapters discuss and cover most of the significant names and works alongside several case studies. In the “Introduction,” Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen clearly specify their aim in creating a book where humor gets first place because, as they suggest, it is typical that researchers and scholars finally dealing with humor just happen to “come across” this topic within their specific field of study thus making humor only a secondary research terrain (this was my case, too). They state that,

[T]he field of Humor Studies is different from other academic areas in that it is typically a secondary consideration. Humor scholars in various universities are most often assigned to an academic area […] And then within their particular field they specialize in humor studies. (1)

Afterwards, the authors define the sense of humor by admitting that for them everything is humorous. They claim that the sense of humor is affected by various features of identity and life situations, making it clear that there is no such thing as a static “sense of humor” but rather “senses of humor.” The Nilsens also paid attention to include most known scholars and theoreticians, who contributed to the study of humor in significant ways throughout human history.

Chapter 2 “Anthropology and Ethnic Studies,” examines African American, American Indian, Gaelic, Hispanic and Jewish humor and points out that all of them address issues related to inside and outside as well as marginalization and otherness. In a similar mode, Chapter 3 “Irony, Parody, and Satire in Art” examines Dadaism and minimalism through the works of painters as William Hogarth, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol and focuses on the link between humor and visual culture through certain caricatures and cartoons, comics and graphic novels that get central stage here. Chapter 4 “Business,” addresses management and marketing issues first by citing John Morreall, who stated that the world of business would be much more fun and consequently, happier and more successful if it was less hierarchical and more democratic (44) through the employment of humor. Apart from the democratic aspect of humor, authors emphasize the existence of positive and negative humor. Additionally, the “danger” of humor is also mentioned. For example, when we are amused or laughing, we let our defensive mechanisms down and let ourselves influenced by what we hear, making us more likely to believe, learn or accept things. Chapter 5 “Computer Science” starts with Alvin Toffler’s work, followed by Arthur Koestler’s famous “bisociative click” and the so-called “Comic Inspiration” (56), ending with the famous American “Tall Tales” of the West. Here, memes are also revealed through their humorous power in giving a new perspective on history, social networks and social media.

Chapter 6 “Education and Children’s Literature,” addresses issues related to teaching, children’s and young adult literature and humor by pointing out that “understanding humor is usually the last skill that non-native speakers develop” (70). The chapter gravitates around Morreall’s claims that humor fosters analytical, critical and divergent-thinking skills. With humor, students’ attention can be held longer, and they can retain the learned material easier because it relieves stress and so students become more involved in the class material; it also improves the relationship between the teacher and the students (75). Chapter 7 “Gender Studies” discusses the Humane Humor Rule created by Emily Toth by advising readers to “[n]ever target a quality that a person cannot change” (86). Interestingly, traditional essentialist concepts of gender are dealt with in this part, which uncritically claim that men are the joke tellers while women are mostly listeners (or that men use more negative humor, their humor is competitive, hierarchical and exclusive or ego-promoting, generally more aggressive). Moreover, the chapter further argues that women use more the positive facets of humor in that their humor is more social, interactive, inclusive and less focusing on the self; it is rather telling anecdotes or real life stories, sometimes even spontaneous humor as opposed to canned jokes (typical of men). Feminist humor is also a target for further discussion here: the old concepts of feminists as “Old Grouches” or humorless “Prudes,” are today challenged primarily by feminist themselves (91). Nevertheless, this part also says that as gender relations are changing, all of these gendered features are also changing in the contemporary world and the boundaries of using certain forms of humor become more and more blurred.

Chapter 8 covers the geographical aspects of humor including also humorous place names or the humorous specificities of certain countries. Chapter 9 deals with the relation of age and humor suggesting that humor is a necessary part of the aging process because it can change perspectives and can help seeing different points of view as our life itself is changing. Chapter 10 is about the history of the development of humorous expressions, jokes, genres, sitcoms, shows, and so on. It also discusses the most important historical milestones in American humor in visual culture such as I Love Lucy up to current shows like The Big Bang Theory alongside that of folk humor. Chapter 11 concentrates on how humor affects news stories, even political news, television shows and reports, journalism and newspapers, many online types of stories and humor in the digital media. Chapter 12 dissects humor in the terrain of the law and governance giving examples of the jokes about lawyers along a number of funny laws that still exist in certain states, and even discussing current issues about humorous legal aspects of tweets. Chapter 13 examines the linguistic aspects of humor and clarifies the differences between Horatian vs. Juvenalian satire and reviews the power of the double-entendre, the barbed jokes, funny scripts, etc. Chapter 14 discusses literature and humor explaining why and how a story becomes a comedy (or a tragedy) by taking theory as well as examples from ancient times to our current days from works such as Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Voltaire’s Candide, Austen’s Emma up to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Chapter 15 is about medicine and health, and as such, about how humor can (or cannot) help in case of health issues. Chapter 16 is about music and humor and concentrates on the historical aspects of the medium such as the development of musical theater by enlisting humorous composers. Chapter 17 is simply about humorous names, while Chapter 18 focuses on the performing arts: theater, dance and music and their relation to humor, by starting with the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, then moving on to movies, and even to the darker humor in movies.

Chapter 19 addresses philosophy, a field that has long concentrated on the understanding of the phenomenon of humor. Here we get a plausible explanation of why a “Universal Theory of Humor” is an impossibility (251) along the explanation of the three humor theories, namely the Superiority Theory, the Relief Theory and the Incongruity Resolution Theory. All major philosophers’ contribution to humor are discussed in this chapter from Aristotle through Kant, Spenser, Kierkegaard to Bergson, Sartre and Camus. Chapter 20 is looking into physical education, sports and sport mascots in relation to humor and the theoretical focus in on the work of Guiselinde Kuipers, who states that promoting laughter is an invitation to come closer to one’s peer, and also on the work of Salvatore Attardo, who points out that all sorts of even non-humorous stimuli can make one laugh (263). The next chapter concentrates on politics and humor. Here, one of the most important attributes of humor is highlighted in providing a double vision i.e. you have to be able to hold two opposing views at the same time in your mind in order to understand (or produce) humor (278). The examples are taken from an impeachment of a governor, and about how politicians joke in general. Chapter 22 deals with another important field concerning the study of humor: psychology. This part of the book examines the tragic vs. the comic vision of humans, including various humorous traits, states and behaviors, issues of health psychology and the Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ), the issue of affiliative humor, self-enhancing humor, aggressive humor, and self-defeating humor but also that of sarcasm as well as that of cruel practical joking. Chapter 23 targets religious humor and the worship of God, all in relation to humor. All kinds of religions are taken under scrutiny from the point of view of humor in Christianity to Zen Buddhism. Chapter 24 concentrates mostly on rhetoric and composition and gives a birds’ eye view on how ethos, pathos and logos can be combined with humor while explaining the difference between errors and rhetorical devices. The last chapter focuses on sociology and humor with a special emphasis on clowns, and especially dealing with the case of the Scary Clowns of 2016.

The Language of Humor. An Introduction is the result of decades of research and teaching since the authors (who retired from Arizona State University in Tempe after over 35 years of teaching and are the intellectual force behind the founding of the International Society for Humor Studies as well as initiators of a long series of international conferences on humor) attempted to cover almost everything possible about this vast topic considering its production, appreciation, history, the trans- and cross-cultural contexts, the national (specifically American) as well as trans-and international aspects of humor as well as features of gender issues, politics, sociology, religion, teaching, etc. Their volume is, despite the small deficiencies shown above, a great work because it includes many facets of humor in global context and pays attention to both local, regional and global features of humor and bring up good examples from various cultures and languages, which support the idea why and how humor can be a truly cross-cultural phenomenon and how it can connect many people of diverse cultural, social, linguistic, etc. contexts.

I recommend this book to researchers, scholars, teachers, educators, students and practitioners of humor alike because it is, on the one hand, an enjoyable treasury of humor lore; on the other hand it provides a good theoretical background in understanding the targeted concept, while it can act as a practical tool, too, in teaching us what we have to know and how to use this knowledge about humor.