Wit and Humor

WIT and humor are such elemental, fundamental things, that it has always been found difficult to analyze them. Upon some points, however, those who have essayed this puzzling task agree, for they all hold that wit is an intellectual, humor an emotional, quality; that wit is a perception of resemblance, and humor a perception of contrast, of discrepancy, of incongruity. The incongruity is that which arises between the ideal and the fact, between theory and practice, between promise and performance; and perhaps it might be added that it is always, or almost always, a moral incongruity. In the case both of wit and humor there is also a pleasurable surprise, a gentle shock, which accompanies our perception of the hitherto unsuspected resemblance or incongruity. A New England farmer was once describing in the presence of a very humane person the great age and debility of a horse that he formerly owned and used. “You ought to have killed him!” interrupted the humane person indignantly. “Well,” drawled the farmer, “we did — almost.”

A humorous remark or situation is, moreover, always a pleasure. We can go back to it and laugh at it again and again. One does not tire of the Pickwick Papers, or of Jacobs’s stories, any more than the child tires of the nursery tale which he knows by heart. Humor is a feeling, and feelings can always be revived. But wit, being an intellectual and not an emotional impression, suffers by repetition. A witticism is really an item of knowledge. Wit, again, is distinctly a gregarious quality: whereas humor may abide in the breast of a hermit. Those who live much by themselves almost always have a dry humor. Wit is a city, humor a country, product. Wit is the accomplishment of persons who are busy with ideas: it is the fruit of intellectual cultivation, and abounds in coffeehouses, in salons, and in literary clubs. But humor is the gift of those who are concerned with persons rather than ideas, and it flourishes chiefly in the middle and lower classes.

Wit and humor both require a certain amount of idleness, time enough for deliberation, — that kind of leisure, in short, which has been well described as a state of receiving impressions without effort. Thus we find wit in the drawingroom, humor in the country-store, and neither in the Merchants’ Exchange.

Humor is inherent in the nature of things, and even the dumb animals have some sense of it. When your dog welcomes you home, wagging his tail and contracting his lips so as half to disclose his teeth, he is really smiling with pleasure; and if, as more often happens, he does the same thing in a moment of embarrassment, as when he rather suspects that you are about to scold him, then his smile is essentially a humorous smile. There is a joke on him, and he knows it.

Rightly considered, the whole universe is a joke on mankind. “Humor is the perception of those contrasts and incongruities which are a part of the very texture of human life.” If, as we believe or hope, man is an immortal being, is it not a joke that his earthly existence should chiefly be taken up in maintaining and repairing that frail shell in which the immortal spirit is contained? “Humor,” as Hamilton Mabie finely said, “has its source in this fundamental contrast between the human soul, with its far-reaching relations and its immortality, and the conditions of its mortal life. ... If the mistake which the boy makes in his Latin grammar involves permanent ignorance, there is an element of sadness in it; but if it is to be succeeded ultimately by mastery of the subject, it is humorous, and we smile at it.” And so of man’s life viewed as a fragment of eternity. Humor and faith go hand in hand.

But humor is not only the sudden encounter with some moral incongruity. There is in addition the sense of superiority. The victim, for there must always be a victim, either of his own folly or of some accident, is placed in a position of inferiority, which constitutes the joke. But is this all ? Why do we laugh ? The mere misfortune of the man is not enough to make us laugh. We do not laugh when he loses a dollar bill. Nor is the mere unexpectedness of the incongruity sufficient to make us laugh. We seldom laugh at wit, which is equally unexpected. The something further is the sympathetic element. Humor is not simply the sudden perception of a moral incongruity; it is the sympathetic perception of it. Thackeray described humor as a mixture of love and wit. He really meant sympathy and wit. Humor, it has been said, is laughing with the other man, wit is laughing at him. The incongruity that amuses us, that makes us laugh, is the incongruity which exists between the victim’s state of mind and his conduct or situation, and that incongruity we cannot appreciate unless, by the exercise of imagination, we are able to put ourselves in the place of the victim. Unless we attain this sympathetic point of view, his conduct may appear to us right or wrong, logical or illogical, wise or foolish, fortunate or unfortunate, — anything except funny. If an ordinary man under ordinary circumstances should step in a hole and tumble down, the incident would not be a humorous one. But if the same accident should occur to a pompous person who was at the very moment engaged in making a theatrical gesture, the incident would be humorous; the incongruity between the victim’s state of mind, sympathetically apprehended by the observer, and his situation, would be felt as laughable.

One who has the sense of humor well developed can even laugh at himself, taking an external but sympathetic view of his own character, conduct, or circumstances. Without this sense, a man is liable to be deficient in self-knowledge. Who is not familiar with that non-humor - ous, solemn person who commits the most selfish or cruel acts from what he conceives to be the holiest motives? “A man without a sense of humor,” declares an anonymous writer, “is occasionally to be respected, often to be feared, and nearly always to be avoided.”