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Components of Humour

Rowan Atkinson has said that an object or person can become funny in three different ways:

  • By being in an unusual place

  • By behaving in an unusual way

  • By being the wrong size

It is, however, possible to define certain elements that are often used for humorous purposes:


Humorous devices:

Absurdity: Something may be described as “absurd” when it lacks meaning or seems absolutely insane.

Ambiguity: Something is ambiguous when it may be interpreted/understood in more ways than one.


What do you call a short sighted dinosaur?
A do-you-think-he-saw-us!”

Bathos:“Low” comedy. Often deals with excrement, sex, farting etc.

Black comedy: A sub-genre of comedy where topics and events that are usually treated seriously (death, disease, domestic violence, drug abuse, terrorism, etc.) are treated in a humorous or satirical manner.

Carnival: The carnival element is employed in humour when the social scales are inverted.

Example: The King becomes the bum, or the bum becomes king (often for a short period of time.) It is funny to see how people perform outside their natural environment.

Caricature: A drawing or portrait that exaggerates or oversimplifies certain traits in a person's looks in order to make him look funny or stress a certain part of that person's character.


Chief Wiggum is a caricature of a policeman because his nose is a pig's snout. This “piggishness” stresses his corrupt nature etc.

Confusion: Classic comic device in which people mistake somebody for somebody else and an embarrassing situation occurs.

Exaggeration: Humour often depends upon exaggerated characters, events or situations.

Gags: A visual gag (a sight gag) is something that conveys humour visually, often without words being used at all. Silent films often employed this type of humour.

Incongruity: Something may be described as incongruous if it does not meet our expectations or does not fit into a realistic depiction of the world.


It is incongruous when an adult (such as Mr. Bean) acts like a child.

Intertextuality: Intertextuality is when a work of art (a book, a film etc.) quotes another work of art or deliberately makes the reader/viewer think of another work of art. It may be used for humorous purposes.


When Green Day's floating stage sinks during The Simpsons Movie, the band start playing classical music in what is an intertextual reference to Titanic. Lisa's lecture is also called “An Irritating Truth” which is a reference to Al Gore's climate film An Inconvenient Truth.

Irony: Irony is when somebody says the opposite of what he/she means. Read more here

Lazzi: A short physical act of comedy; for instance a short interlude of funny exaggerated violence, somebody falling etc.

Litote: Understatement.


Homer Simpson is not a model father.”

Paradox: Something is paradoxical when it contradicts itself – a contradiction in terms.

Parody: A parody is an imitation of something where the aim is to poke fun at the original.


Movies in the Scary Movie series are parodies of other horror films.

Pathos: Pathos has to do with emotions. Pathos can be used for humorous purposes when a character is so emotional that it becomes laughable.

Sarcasm: Closely associated with irony. The term is often used to describe a kind of mean irony that is intended to hurt somebody.

Satire: Satire is a witty attack on something somebody disapproves of. Satire is usually meant as a critique of mankind's or society's vices, follies or shortcomings.

Stereotype: A stereotype is an exaggerated example of a specific type of character. We laugh at the stereotype because we recognise him/her in people we know or know of. Maybe we even recognise the stereotype in ourselves to some degree?

Surprise: Being surprised is often funny. As a humorous device, surprise is related to incongruity.

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