Humour theory and practice: A study on a jumping frog

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


I. Index

II. Introduction

III. Two Humour Theorists of the 20th Century and their Works
III.1. Henry Bergson: Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
III.1.1. Introducing Bergson
III.2. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
III.1.1. How to Produce Comic
III.1.2. How to Create a Comic Character
III.2. Sigmund Freud: The Joke and his Relation to the Unconscious
III.2.1. Introducing Freud
III.2.2. "The Joke and his Relation to the Unconscious"
III.2.2.1. Introduction
III.2.2.2. Analytical Part
III.2.2.3. Synthetic Part
III.2.2.4. Theoretical Part

IV. A Study on a Jumping Frog
IV.1. Mark Twain
IV.2. The Celebrated Jumping Frog - Humour in Literature
IV.2.1. The Frame

V. Summary

VI. Bibliography and Picture Index

II. Introduction

It's not yet a hundred years ago, that Sigmund Freud published his book "The Joke and his Relation to the Unconscious" (orig. "Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten", 1905). With his work began the predominance of psychologists and analytics in studies concerning humour. Before Freud it has been the working area of philosophers, such as the French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose "Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic" (orig. "Le Rire", 1900) has been very influential.

Meanwhile their theories have been developed further. Especially Freud's students have changed the meaning of some theories, for example with the introduction of new observations (e.g. shock) that were yet unknown to Freud. However, besides that both men and their works can help understanding jokes, wit, humour, in short: everything that seems to be funny. While Freud concentrated on the process inside a person who makes a joke (whereas the modern research work concerning humour proceeds from the consumer), Bergson basically worked on the question, what makes people laugh.

In this paper Bergson and Freud will be used to examine a short story by Mark Twain, who is concerned to be the most famous American writer of his time and one of the most humorous as well. Therefore it starts with an introduction to the two humour theorists of the 20th century and their works already pre selected with regard to the further examination of Twain's story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country" (1865). After that there will be some words about Mark Twain himself, his time and the story, before beginning the examination.

III. Two Humour Theorists of the 20th Century and their Works

III.1. Henry Bergson: Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic

III.1.1. Introducing Bergson

The following part of this work is going to deal with a French philosopher who was awarded with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927 - Henry Bergson. He enjoyed the status of a cult figure in the years between the World Wars. At this time his lectures attracted large crowds. Bergson's work was considered the main challenge to the mechanistic view of nature.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Henri Bergson was born in Paris as the son of a prosperous Jewish musician and an English mother. He studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure from 1877 to 1881 and spent the following 16 years as a philosophy teacher in a succession of lycées. In 1900 he became a professor at the Collège de France, resigning in 1921 in order to dedicate himself to his writing and to his work on behalf of the League of Nations.

Although not a practising Jew, Bergson refused the Vichy government's offers to excuse him from the scope of their anti-Semitic laws. He decided to join the persecuted and registered himself at the end of 1940 as a Jew, although his religious thinking had brought him closer to Catholicism. Bergson died on January 3, 1941.

Bergson and his works had strong influence on personalities like Arnold Hauser, Claude Simon, William James, Whitehead, Santayana, furthermore on such authors as Péguy, Valéry and John Dos Passos. Bergson also gave the idea for Marcel Proust's great novel of reminiscene "À la recherche de temps perdu".[1] Even Sartre paid tribute to him, and Martin Heidegger used some of Bergson's concepts.

However, Bergson's influence on existentialism is not straight forward. On the other hand, Bergson's argumentation frustrated such philosophers as Bertrand Russell, who criticized his thoughts in 1914 and later returned to them in "History of Western Philosophy". Philosophers have pointed out that Bergson did not satisfactorily show how intuition could work apart from intellect. Albert Einstein found serious mistakes in Bergson's work dealing with Einstein's theory of relativity.[2]

As we will see, in "Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic" Bergson also didn't satisfactorily explain his ideas. In most cases he tells, that something is funny, but he didn't explain, how and why it is funny.

One also misses the distinction between laughter and comic. Comic mustn't necessarily produce laughter and laughter isn't necessarily produced by comic (one need just think of tickling). Furthermore he doesn't distinguish between different types of laughter, which are involved in a single situation. The illuminating theories aren't neither discussed and analyzed satisfactional nor prooved by simple or weak, pre selected examples proving his idea. Even theories expressed as laws are sometimes soon refuted.

Surely one must take in mind, that Bergson and his book stand at the beginning of modern humour theories. It is now a framework for studying comic. Philosophers and scientists such as Sigmund Freud developed or refused his ideas. So, reading Bergson one should keep in mind all the critic, but his theories are too interesting to skip them while studying humour.

III.2. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic

III.1.1. How to Produce Comic

In his essay Bergson examines the reasons for people to laugh and what laughter means. He starts with a discussion of laughter in general. In the second part he focuses on the comic of situation and words, while in the final part he discusses the comic in character. The following examination of Bergson is going to be concentrated on the comic. What is comic and how can it be created?

The main thesis of Bergson is that every time, when there is something mechanical in something living or something living in something mechanic, we can speak of a comic effect. His argumentation circles a bit one-sided only around the keyword "automatism".

So, in his opinion attitudes, gestures and movements are funny when the body reminds us of a machine and the person gives us the impression of being a thing. He calls that "mechanization of the human body".[3]

The other way, a mechanic thing imitating life, is funny, too. He prooves that statement referring to the jack-in-the-box, marionettes and snowball, which give us the illusion of life and are mechanical arrangements at the same time.

Furthermore, Bergson himself speaks of his leitmotif when he writes: "Rigidity of body, mind and character is the comic. Laughter is the corrective."[4] He explains that on the situation of a man falling in a street. Influenced by absendmindness the comic is a result of rigidity or momentum here. It's the body, who falls, unable to react to a new situation that seems funny.[5]

Absendmindness here functions as the main source of comic. However, as Bergson writes, "absendmindness is essentially laughable, and so we laugh at everything rigid, ready-made, mechanical in gesture, attitude and even facial expression."[6]

Furthermore, professional callousness belongs to rigidity.[7] The begin of comic, according to Bergson, is a growing callousness to social life. So, a fault of the others is always laughable, because we laugh about their unsociability.

Important for the comic is also the physical structure of a person, animal or thing. Bergson means, we only laugh about an animal, when we find some human attitude in it. A person is comic, when embarrassed by his body, for instance somebody sneezing in a pathetic speech, because the incident calls our intention away from the moral side of the person to the physically needs. From that results, to speak with Bergson, a "fear of the body".[8] So, for an author it was at least in Bergson's time common to avoid showing the physical needs of his hero.

A next important ascertainment is, that events become comic when repetition, inversion and reciprocal interference are used. Repetition hereby means, to bring the character into different settings and repeat the same series of incidents or accidents. Inversion simply means to change the parts in a certain situation, the robber robbed for example. The same functions within a sentence, when subject and object are inverted. The definition for reciprocal interference Bergson gives as following: "A situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time."[9] Within a sentence one can find this reciprocal interference, when we have two different meanings in one expression (e.g. in a pun). Those three are processes that result from seeing life as a repeating mechanism, repeating actions or relations, sometimes upside down.

The comic effect is always obtainable by transposing the natural expression of an idea into another key. Here one can speak for instance of parody, when the solemn is transposed into the familiar. Another form of transposition is degradation.[10]

That are the most connected thoughts. As it was said before, most of Bergson's ideas are written like laws. Therefore the following table will shortly inform about the other Bergsonian rules.

Having described what is funny and makes people laugh about, in the third part of his book Bergson deals with the comic in character.

III.1.2. How to Create a Comic Character

According to Bergson, a funny character can be created by isolating him. He must be a parasite organism in society, having an independent existence. Consequently, he must be isolated and he mustn't try to be adapting and readapting himself to the society.

Now the author has to concentrate on the gestures of the character, meaning attitudes, movements and language. A comic character doesn't care much about life; he's just slacking through his days, abending social conventions and logic. He is absent in doing no work and taking things easy.

In that way a comic character is a type. It's not important whether he is good or bad. It is comic to fall into a ready-made category. Even more comic it is to become a category oneself. In that way, a comic character also functions through automatism. So, Bergson summerizing leads back to his main statement, it is comic when something living is turned in something mechanic.

However in the third part of his essay, Bergson writes, too, that comic absurdity is of the same nature as that of dreams.[11] Here he invents a thought, that the founder of psychoanalysis Siegmund Freud, will make to one of the main points of his explanation of joke-production some years after Bergson. So, now it's time to take a closer look to Freud's theories.



[2] for further reading: Antliff, Mark: Inventing Bergson, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992

[3] Bergson, p. 48

[4] Bergson, p. 24

[5] Apart from Bergson one can surely argue here, that it may also be a laughter of surprise resulting from incongruity. When one thinks of the banana-skin-scene, it may also be laughter of pleasure resulting of fulfilled expectations.

[6] Bergson, p. 103

[7] Bergson, p. 159

[8] Bergson, p. 51

[9] Bergson, p. 90

[10] Bergson, p. 113

[11] Bergson, p. 167

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Humour theory and practice: A study on a jumping frog
European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder)  (Cultural Studies department)
Humour in Literature – From Sermon to Cabaret
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
636 KB
Humour, Literature, From, Sermon, Cabaret, Mark, Twain, Springfrosch, Kurzgeschichte, short, story, humor, freud, frosch, sigmund, joke, witz, unconscius, unbewusst, unbewusste, unterbewusstsein, laughter, lachen, Comic, Komik, Bergson, henri, Calaveras, Traum, Traumdeutung, dream, dreams, Kalaveras
Quote paper
Corinna Hein (Author), 2000, Humour theory and practice: A study on a jumping frog, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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