Humour in the TV series 'Gilmore girls'

Thesis (M.A.), 2009

97 Pages, Grade: 1,8


Table of contents

List of abbreviations

1. Introduction

2. Humour and humour research
2.1 Definition
2.2 Theories of humour
2.2.1 Superiority theories
2.2.2 Incongruity theories
2.2.3 Release / relief theories
2.2.4 Other theories
2.3 Context
2.4 Functions of humour
2.4.1 Psychological and physiological functions
2.4.2 Social functions
2.4.3 Interpersonal functions

3.1 Overview about the series
3.1.1 Setting
3.1.2 Background
3.2 Comedy Drama
3.2.1 Genre
3.2.2 Conceptual characteristics
3.3 Humour in GILMORE GIRLS

4. The Study
4.1 Categories
4.2 The Episodes
4.2.1 01x01: Pilot
4.2.2 01x02: The Lorelais’ first day at Chilton
4.2.3 01x03: Kill Me Now
4.2.4 01x04: The Deer-Hunters
4.2.5 01x05: Cinnamon’s Wake
4.2.6 01x06: Rory’s Birthday Parties
4.2.7 01x07: Kiss and Tell
4.2.8 01x08: Love and War and Snow
4.2.9 01x09: Rory’s Dance
4.2.10 01x10: Forgiveness and Stuff
4.2.11 01x11 Paris is Burning
4.2.12 01x12: Double Date
4.2.13 01x13: Concert Interruptus
4.2.14 01x14: That Damn Donna Reed
4.2.15 01x15: Christopher Returns
4.2.16 01x16: Star-Crossed Lovers and Other Strangers
4.2.17 01x17: The Break-Up, Part 2
4.2.18 01x18: The Third Lorelai
4.2.19 01x19: Emily in Wonderland
4.2.20 01x20: P.S. I Lo
4.2.21 01x21: Love, Daisies, and Troubadours
4.3 Summary

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

List of abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1. Introduction

Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the caveman had known how to laugh, history would have been different.

Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chapter 3

Proverbs like ‘laughter is the best medicine’, ‘he laughs best that laughs last’, ‘the laugh is always on the loser’ and such phrases as ‘to laugh oneself silly / stupid’ or ‘to give one a horse laugh’ show the impact humour has on everyday life.

Humour is widely used in the mass media: on TV, there is an abundance of sitcoms and comedy shows and, moreover, humour is increasingly used for advertisements; websites on the internet collecting jokes, humorous incidents or stories are as countless as the number of humorous books; in almost every newspaper jokes and/or cartoons can be found. In some cultures, a lack of a sense of humour is even regarded as a fault in character.

It is however difficult to make generalisations on why things are funny. Humour is both highly subjective, dependent on the context and, like personal taste in general, often changing over time.

After a short introduction to the state of humour research in general, this thesis is going to give an overview about the different humour theories and types of humour. After a short excursion to Stars Hollow and the setting of GILMORE GIRLS, the actual study of humour in GILMORE GIRLS on the basis of the 21 episodes of season one will follow. In that last part I will try to examine what exactly is so humorous about the GILMORE GIRLS and if any conclusions can be drawn on what Americans in general find humorous and what they laugh about.

2. Humour and humour research

2.1 Definition

Humour has been researched already long ago, in ancient times. One of the first to write about his research on humour was supposedly Plato. Especially in the last decades, the field of humour research has become very popular for a lot of disciplines besides linguistics. One problem is that “philosophy, psychology, linguistics, sociology and anthropology have each applied a particular set of objectives and methodologies” which “intersect with each other” (Günther 2003: 6).

Moreover, as mentioned before, humour is subjective; hence what is perceived as funny and humorous differs from person to person. The range of what we may find funny is wide:

We laugh at absurdity; we laugh at deformity. We laugh at a bottle nose in a caricature; […] (a) dwarf standing by a giant makes a contemptible figure enough. Rosinante and Dapple are laughable from contras, as their masters from the same principle make two for a pair. We laugh at the dress of foreigners, and they at ours. […] Country people laugh at a person because they never saw him before. Any one dressed in the height of the fashion, or quite out of it, is equally an object of ridicule. One rich source of the ludicrous is distress with which we cannot sympathize from its absurdity or insignificance. It is hard to hinder children from laughing at a stammerer, at a negro, at a drunken man, or even at a madman. We laugh at mischief. We laugh at what we do not believe. We say that an argument or an assertion that is very absurd, is quite ludicrous. We laugh to show our satisfaction with ourselves, or our contempt for those about us, or to conceal our envy or our ignorance. We laugh at fools, and at those who pretend to be wise – at extreme simplicity, awkwardness, hypocrisy, and affectation (Hazlitt 1903; cited in Raskin 1985: 2)

What we find funny depends – besides the personal sense of humour – also on such criteria as the cultural background, the education, environmental conditions, age, the level of maturity, etc. Therefore, as these intrinsic conditions are different in each person and as there are so many different fields dealing with it, it is almost impossible to find a universal definition of the term ‘humour’. Ross (1998:1) gives a rather general definition of humour by saying “something that makes a person laugh or smile”, whereas Raskin (1985: 1) specifies that a person “finds the audial or visual stimulus funny” and responds to that stimulus in a specific way, namely by laughing or at least smiling. The stimulus must hence constitute an anomaly from the normality, otherwise it would not be perceived as funny.

Although people “will not necessarily find the same things equally funny […] the ability to appreciate and enjoy humor is universal and shared by all people, even if the kind of humor they favor differ widely” (Raskin 1985: 2). This means that everybody is born with the ability to enjoy humour, although certain preferences and likings may be acquired later and change with experience and age. Moreover, humour and laughter are what distinguishes man from animal, for

humour is a mark of humanity and civilisation […] at the same time however, the comic is frequently associated with the subversive, the instinctual and the animal; all that is low and which constitutes a threat to decent society. (Pye 2002: 18)

Despite all those difficulties, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists two principal meanings, ‘I. Physical senses’ and ‘II. Senses denoting mental quality or con­ditions’. Its oldest meaning of ‘fluid, moisture’ derives from Latin humorem/umorem, but came into English from Old French humor via Anglo-Norman humour (cf. From there, it progressed to the antique and medieval conception presented in the following entry:

2 b In ancient or mediæval physiology, one of the four chief fluids (cardinal humours) of the body (blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy or black choler), by the relative proportions of which a person’s physical and mental qualities and disposition were held to be determined.

This humoral theory goes back to Galen, a Roman physician and philosopher of Greek origin who lived in the 2nd century AD and extended Hippocrates’ already existing theory. The above mentioned body fluids were closely connected to the four elements fire (hot), water (moist), air (cold), and earth (arid) – each body fluid was believed to incorporate two of the above mentioned qualities. The character of a person (and with it certain mental or physical attributes) depended on the surplus of one of the body fluids.

Since the middle of the sixteenth century, the term began to be used in the sense of mood. ‘Bad humour’ was seen as an imbalance of the four liquids, originating in a short-term surplus of one of the humours, whereas a balance of the four resulted in ‘good humour’. A choleric person, for example, was thought to have too much choler or yellow bile which was connected to the element fire. This meaning still had nothing to do with today’s meaning, nor was it connected to something funny yet (cf.; Dopychai 1988: 13-15; Walte 2007: 11; Günther 2003: 6-7).

When humour became linked to pleasure, this particular meaning gradually became archaic and is today only preserved in the expression ‘good / bad mood’. The concept of humour underwent semantic narrowing in the process of developing into nowadays’ modern sense:

7 a That quality of action, speech, or writing, which excites amusement; oddity, jocularity, facetiousness, comicality, fun.

b The faculty of perceiving what is ludicrous or amusing, or of expressing it in speech, writing, or other composition; jocose imagination or treatment of a subject.

This modern definition of humour goes back to Ben Jonson, an English dramatist and critic, who at the turn to the seventeenth century used the concept for figures that diverge from society’s norm and makes them the butt of mockery. He was the first to use the term ‘humour’ in the meaning of enjoyment and fun. A century later, this had found its way into general linguistic use (cf. Dopychai 1988: 15-17).

For some time in the seventeenth century, both meanings were in parallel use. The theory of the four humours in the body was still in use in 1695 as shown by entries in the OED, whereas the first reference of the ‘new’ concept of humour as something funny dates from 1682 (cf. Günther 2003: 6-7). As Walte (2007: 11) puts it: “After that, people were said to possess humor rather than to be constituted by humors.”.

The differentiation of related concepts like joke, satire, sarcasm, irony, or the German ‘Kabarett’ in contrast to comedy, etc. is likewise difficult, because on the one hand each of the concepts shares different of the characteristics of humour and on the other hand the individual taste is once more essential. Wehn (2003: 2) states: “Humor ist das, was Leute als Humor bezeichnen”. Furthermore, humoristic concepts can also change. With the broadcast of ‘RTL Samstag Nacht’ in 1993, new (American) elements of humour were brought into German TV, resulting in a change from ‘Kabarett’ to come­dy:

Statt der traditionsbewussten Witzstruktur, die auf eine Endpointe setzt, sind nun bewusst sinnentleerte Blödeleien und Witze mit einer Reihe von Pointen, aber ohne den Höhepunkt der Endpointe gefragt. (Bleicher 2004: 92)

This kind of non-sense humour is especially popular among younger viewers (cf. Wehn 2003: 14) who are more used to the special American humour (cf. Bleicher 2004: 89). Bärmann (1993: 76-77) traces this back to what he calls ‘Cultural Imperialism’; i.e. the fact that because of such products as Coca Cola, people all over the world are fa­mil­iar with the American way of life and the typical humour.

Additionally and despite the various theories of and approaches to humour, there seems to be no general, prototypical structure of the humour act. As it is difficult to defin­e, most researchers have preferred to deal with verbal humour, because its structure is more obvious (cf. Raskin 1985: 41).

2.2 Theories of humour

Despite the diversity of the field of research, there are three kinds of general or conventional theories of humour, namely the superiority, the incongruity and the release / relief theories. In the superiority theories, as the denotation already indicates, the emergence of humour is explained through a feeling of superiority towards others. In the incongruity theories, in contrast, humour arises due to the discrepancy of what we expect and what is really happening. Finally, the release / relief theories state that by laughing the tension that has built up is released as a kind of reward.

Raskin (1985: 31) classifies the superiority theories as social-behavioural, the incongruity theories as cognitive-perceptual and the release / relief theories as psychoanalytical. He specifies it further by stating that the superiority theories deal with the relationship the speaker and hearer have; the incongruity theories with the stimulus itself; and the release / relief theories with the hearer’s feelings. Similarly,

Wickeberg (sic!) claims that […] [s]uperiority is the emotional (social) root of laughter, incongruity is the intellectual (cognitive) one, and relief is socio-psychological [sic!] root of laughter. (Walte 2007: 19)

A short explanation of each of these theories can be found below, followed by two other important and well-known theories based on the conventional approaches.

2.2.1 Superiority theories

There's no possibility of being witty without a little ill-nature; the malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick. Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Of the three conventional types of theories, the superiority theories are probably the oldest. As already mentioned in the introduction to the different theories of humour, feeling superior to other people can lead to humorous situations.

Already Plato and Aristotle, followed later by Cicero, are associated with humour research. However, humour was considered obscene at these times, especially in the upper-class. Imitating others was seen as socially unacceptable and therefore not welcome: jokes and laughter were associated with uneducated, stupid people of lower classes only. The aristocracy joked only outside their own class. It was much later, du­r­ing the Middle Ages, when humour and joke telling became acceptable and were used for entertainment purposes and no longer only to humiliate others (cf. Walte 2007: 12).

Aristotle as well as Cicero and much later Freud thought that humour is connected with something ‘ugly’ and a certain ‘deformity’ (cf. Raskin 1985: 36-38). Already Plato stated that “malice or envy is at the root of comic enjoyment and […] we laugh at the misfortunes of others for joy that we do not share them” (cited in Raskin 1985: 36; cf. Kotthoff 2003: 4). Raskin (1985: 11) agrees to this statement by saying that “laughter is born of hatred and hostility”, but, although it can be used to humiliate others, it is not necessarily always a negative phenomenon. Hobbes thought that people who laugh at or about others did so because they “are forced to keep themselves in their own favour by observing the imperfections of other men” (cited in Pye 2002: 20). Freud “emphasized the breakthrough of sexual and/or aggressive drives manifested in a socially acceptable manner” (Mio & Graesser 1991: 89) and also that physical as well as intellectual advantages in comparison to other people can lead to a feeling of superiority (cf. Hünig 2002: 26). An example for this is the animated movie ‘Shrek’, featuring the large and strong, but at the same time not very intelligent ogre of the same name. Both his clumsiness and his missing prudence are the frequent cause of laughter.

Although we tend to laugh at accidents and weaknesses of others, we only do that as long as one or more of the following conditions is fulfilled:

1. The object of the aggression is not seriously injured.
2. There are social/environmental cues for laughter.
3. The object is a hated rather than a loved object.
4. There is an equal level of aggressive retaliation.
5. The object is a member of a different class than the aggressor and/or the audience. (Mio & Graesser, 1991: 89)

Thus, the superiority theories are also based on the fact that we tend to find a situation funnier if the mishap happens to somebody we do not like particularly much and outside our own social group. We might not laugh at all at the funniest misfortune if it happens to a friend. A study by LaFave / Haddad / Maesen (1976) came to the conclusion that jokes with disliked or even hated people as butts are perceived as funnier than those with liked or neutral ones (cf. Günther 2003: 12). However, the action stops being funny altogether if the aggressive notion is presented in a too direct way (cf. Hünig 2002: 26).

A good example for the effect of the superiority theories are ethnic jokes. They are to a large part based on stereotypes and are similar in many countries, although the butt of the jokes is a different ethnic group in each nation. These groups are often a minority and usually differ not much from the people living in the rest of the country, but they are nevertheless attributed some distinctive features. Ethnic jokes exist foremost about groups that are thought to be either stupid or canny. Stupid jokes exist about the East Frisians in Germany, the Irish in the United Kingdom, the Belgians in the Netherlands (and vice versa) or the Polish in the United States; although the latter are attri­bu­ted a nastiness and filthiness that is missing from the earlier mentioned jokes where the butts are indeed stupid, but still in a loveable way. (cf. Davies 1990: 85; Hünig 2002: 30)

In the past, Jews used to be the butt of canny jokes. More recent examples for canniness are the Swabians in Germany or the Scots in the United Kingdom, although “Schottenwitze” can be found very frequently in Germany, as well.

2.2.2 Incongruity theories

There are many humorous situations where the funniness does not originate from a sensation of aggressiveness or superiority. These incidents can rather be explained by the second kind of conventional theories, the incongruity theories, where humour comes from unfulfilled expectations or surprise. Mindess described the mode of operation of this kind of humour with “we are led along one line of thought and then booted out of it” (cited in Raskin 1985: 31).

Immanuel Kant is often supposed to be the originator of incongruity theories, although he had only dealt briefly with humour and laughter in general in his 1790 Kritik der Urteilskraft:

Es muss in allem, was ein lebhaftes, erschütterndes Lachen erregen soll, etwas Widersinniges sein […]. Das Lachen ist ein Affekt aus der plötzlichen Verwandlung einer gespannten Erwartung in nichts. (cited in Günther 2003: 9)

A few years later, in 1819, it was Arthur Schopenhauer who referred these theories explicitly on humour by saying that humour arises through the “sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects […] and the laugh itself is just the expression of this incongruity” (cited in Raskin 1985: 31).

Generally speaking, incongruity theories build on two actually incongruous elements that are combined surprisingly and somehow processed, often leading to a certain extent to inappropriateness. They “focus on the humour per se or, in other words, what makes humour what it is: a funny experience” (Günther 2003: 9). Incongruity theories particularly emphasise the importance of ‘suddenness’ in a joke. This element of surprise is usually associated with a punchline in jokes, which “is at variance with expectations established in the body of the joke” (Mio & Graesser 1991: 88). With the surprise missing, a joke stops being funny, for example when told more than once or if a sequence of jokes is too similar and thus undistinguishable (cf. Raskin 1985: 33; Attardo 1994: 197).

Incongruity theories have also been researched in the field of psychology with emphasis on cognitive processes, “leading to the formulation of the ‘incongruity – resolution model’ which states that humour results from the resolution of an incongruity. In other words, for humour to occur the incongruity has to be resolved by the recipient” (Günther 2003: 10).

2.2.3 Release / relief theories

The third kind of theories deals with the psychological motivation for the production of humour. It is often argued that after tension is built up – for example through certain conventions, laws or ‘constraints’, as Raskin (1985: 38) puts it – a certain type of jokes can be used to release this tension by triggering laughter. Ross (1998: 63) even talks about a threat that is thus overcome.

This theory also deals with the hearer’s response to humour. Usually, laughter is considered the main indicator if something is perceived as funny, although “(s)miling and laughter can also be a sign of fear or embarrassment” (Ross 1998: 1).

The by far most influential supporter of the relief theories was Sigmund Freud with his work Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten (1905). Günther, however, points out that Freud wrote in this work only about jokes and not humour in general. According to her, he makes a distinction between jokes and humour in Der Humor (1927):

[W]hereas both can be described in terms of a release mechanism (due to ‘saved’ emotional expenditures) only humour possesses an element of superiority. […] That Freud incorporated the aspect of superiority as an essential part in his ‘theory’ of humour is often overlooked not least because most scholars seem to have focused on Freud’s earlier work where no such claim can be found. (Günther 2003: 8)


Excerpt out of 97 pages


Humour in the TV series 'Gilmore girls'
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Fachbereich Geisteswissenschaften, Institut für Anglophone Studien)
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ISBN (Book)
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Gilmore girls, Humor, Humortheorie
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Claudia Uhlig (Author), 2009, Humour in the TV series 'Gilmore girls', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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