David Woods On Humour

Posted on 05 February 2013

This Sunday David Woods kicked off a series known as The School of Life Secular Sermons at the Wheeler Centre. This is a free talks program meant to stimulate thought and conversation on the issues we face in everyday life. Woods’s stated purpose was to break down people’s barriers to comedic experience. The event itself was staged to assist his aims.

This “secular sermon” was held in the Dome Reading Room of the State Library of Victoria, which does have a sacred solemnity about it. The space was superb for the canticle of nonsense Latin chanted by singers Mark Jones and Adam Murphy. They were also marvelous in leading the audience in a round of “We Love to Laugh”. Sadly, the space has so much echo, it was difficult hearing what Woods had to say—which is a shame. His insights are worth listening to.

Our biggest barrier to comedy, according to Woods, is our desire to be taken seriously, to be validated and seen as important in some way. However, take a look at any newspaper dating section and the highest aspiration in a relationship is GSOH (good sense of humour).

To get at the experience of comedy, many would say you must know the rules of comedy. So, what are those rules? Ironically enough, the first rule is simply to be heard. You have to be bold enough to say something, you have to be in a forum where people will listen. Of course you have to listen yourself in order to have something funny to say. The second rule is to BE FUNNY!

Many people have theories as to what is funny. According to Woods the theories fall into three categories: incongruity, relief, and superiority.

According to Emmanuel Kant, “Something absurd must be present in whatever is to raise a hearty convulsive laugh”—incongruity. According to Sigmund Freud humour is a safety valve for expressing hidden thoughts and feelings, in this way it provides relief. Plato was of the opinion that the humour of comedies is an example of how “the soul experiences a mixed feeling of pain and pleasure”. His seems to be an early description of schadenfreude, or pleasure at another’s pain, ergo a superiority theory.

David Woods then focused on his own theory of not what is funny, but what are the categories of funny. He came up with four comedy “humours” which he said worked best when they are in balance with one another.

  • toxic humour
  • sentimentality
  • functional humour
  • soul humour

Toxic humour runs a fine line between joke vs insult. It is at its best when it’s racy not racist, edgy not offensive. The humour of sentimentality is the realm of safe humour, such as “dad jokes” and Christmas cracker riddles. It’s what you use to amuse children. Functional humour is the craft of performing humour, being able to make many things in the telling funny due to inflection, body language, and the like. Soul humour is the humour of sentiment over sentimentality. It must be filled with real feeling and aspire to creating something bigger than yourself in life.

David Woods has a PhD on comedy from the University of Kent. This talk clearly just skimmed the surface of his research. It would be great to hear from him again in more depth and more audible circumstances. We shall see what we can do. In the meantime The School of Life Secular Sermons is also offering a talk by the ever amusing John Safran Sunday 24 February at 6:30am! The subject is “On Unrest”, but perhaps it will be about lack of rest.

Peace and kindness,


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