I read a recent IO9 blog post about the superiority theory of laughter with some interest:
dominant theory about why people laugh at each other also happens to be
the meanest theory. It’s called the superiority theory of humor, and it
goes all the way back to the classical Greeks. (Everyone knows they
were a laugh riot.)
insisted that we laugh at the ugly or the stupid to express the joy we
feel that we’re better than them. Socrates added that we also laugh at
those who are delusional about their own abilities, because we flatter
ourselves that we’re more clear-sighted. Thomas Hobbes claimed that
laughter was a moment of “glory,” in which we feel ourselves to be above
There’s definitely a ring of truth to it. As Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I get a paper cut. Comedy is when you fall into a sewer and die.”
But I don’t feel comfortable endorsing this theory. Perhaps its because I frequently make jokes and try to laugh as much as I can…I’d rather not believe I do so because I’m a snooty egomaniac.
A bigger issue for me is that it doesn’t fit with the standup comedians I’ve read about. Without fail, every standup comedian who has ever lived has both a superiority and an inferiority complex. The superiority complex allows them to mock others, and help us feel better about themselves. But the superiority complex isn’t enough.
For example, how many famous comedians came from millionaire families? Jerry Seinfeld, for example, was the son of a sign-maker and grew up on Long Island. Adam Sandler’s parents were an electrical engineer and a kindergarten teacher.
How many famous comedians were star quarterbacks or head cheerleaders? (I did find one comedian, Anjelah Johnson, who had been an NFL cheerleader, but she was clearly the exception)
It is their inferiority complex, the need for approval and attention, that drives standup comedians to tackle their terrifying, exhausting, and largely unremunerative calling.
The truly superior shouldn’t feel the need to flaunt it; it’s their secret sense of inferiority that drives them to do so.