Humor is defined as a social message intended to produce laughter or smiling. As with any social message, it fulfills certain functions, uses certain techniques, has a content, and is used in certain situations. These aspects of humor can be understood as relating to the questions of why people use humor (its functions), how it is transmitted (techniques), what it communicates (content), and where and when it is communicated (situation). Some of these aspects of humor are universal, characterizing humor everywhere. Others are more influenced by culture.
Mr Spike Milligan, the comedian, wrote: ‘Comedy is a way of making money. The trouble is that everyone nowadays tries to make it into a philosophical system.’ He was wrong. Humour is philosophy, the trouble is that everyone nowadays tries to make money out of it. This, however relevant, is beside the main point. The point is that great minds, from Aristotle through Bergson and Freud to Mr Milligan make desperate, and often brilliant, efforts to define humour and they always fail.
Ferenc Molnár, the great Hungarian playwright and equally great connoisseur of good coffee, once said, after drinking a cup of the suspicious-looking black liquid called coffee which was available in Budapest after the First World War: ‘It contains one good thing, one bad thing and a mystery. The good thing is that it contains no chicory; the bad thing is that it contains no coffee. And the mystery is: what makes it black?’
The same with humour. The good thing is that it’s amusing; the bad thing is that it’s aggressive; and the mystery is: what the hell are we really laughing about?