The Syllogisms of Seinfeld:
The Connections Between Logic and Humor

There is more logic in humor than in anything else. Because, you see, humor is truth. — Victor Borge

At first glance it might appear that humor and logic belong to completely separate spheres. Humor is playful, lively, and unbounded by procedural standards. Logic, in contrast, is serious, strict, and completely circumscribed by rules and processes. Humor is tied to emotion while logic is above such non-rational ephemera. Comedians aren’t often known for their critical thinking skills and Mr. Spock — the Vulcan embodiment of cool logic — wasn’t known for his jokes. But in a recent article in Philosophy Now, Julia Nefsky argues that logic has a very real and very important role in humor:

The range of humour in which there is logic and logical fallacy is huge. By logic and fallacy being in humour I mean that there is some logic or fallacy there that is necessary to what makes it funny. In other words, if you hypothetically removed that logic or fallacy, the joke would not work. You ‘

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • bevets

    Comedians are the philosophers and preachers of our culture. People are hungry for the truth, but they don’t want it to hurt.

  • blestwithsons

    Well… my favorite joke ever is, I suppose, uses equivocation for its essence. (ooh, I feel so intellectual!)
    Two guys walked into a bar…
    You’d have thought the second one would have ducked.

  • John Schroeder (Blogotional)

    Ah Joe — I hate to disturb such a serious post with pop culture trivia, but…
    DR. Spock – late 50’s early 60’s baby doctor, wrote wildly popular books, didn’t believe much in disciplining a child — might be responsible for a lot of problems we see to day.
    MR. Spock – Star Trek character, science officer, Vulcan, totally logical very funny
    Why the long face?

  • Nick

    What did the fish say when he swam into a wall?
    Does the frequent use of homophones in humor fall under your category of equivocation? It’s not quite the same as referring to different meanings of the same word.

  • Jordan

    My favorite joke currently:
    Why does Snoop Dogg carry an umbrella?
    Fo’ drizzle.

  • Kevin T. Keith

    There’s a long history of logical analysis of humor. Freud had a logical/psychological book on the subject – one of his classic works. I wrote a paper on puns for an undergraduate logic class myself.
    As for this person’s analysis, there’s probably something to it, but I don’t think she’s said the last word on the subject (or that anybody ever will). Unfortunately (or, if you’re Alanis Morisette, ironically), I don’t think most of your examples actually illustrate what she’s talking about.
    None of your “equivocations” is actually an equivocation. Equivocation involves using the same word with two different meanings. (“Blestwithsons”‘s joke above is an equivocation joke: “Two guys walked into a bar” sets up an expectation of bar=drinking establishment; when she refers to “ducking” it shifts the meaning to bar=overhanging projection. The humor comes from the derailed expectation; the derailment comes from playing on the two meanings of “bar”, which is an equivocal word.)
    “Converting to Judaism for the jokes offends me as a Jew/offends me as a comedian” is a derailment joke, but not an equivocation. The derailment does not come from a shift in meanings of a word but rather in the expected priorities of the speaker (he is more concerned about an offense to his identity as a comedian than by an offense to his religion).
    “You are not a man / Then why do I have ties and sports jackets?” is also not an equivocation. It is a non-sequitur joke: the fact that he has ties and sports jackets is not a logically relevant response to the claim that he is not a man (he could be Mia Farrow). (Conceivably it is a slight equivocation on the literal versus the figurative meanings of “man” – he is male but not a “real man” – but the humor does not come from the realization that they are using the word in two different ways, it comes from the absurdity of his response.)
    The same is true for the other examples. None of them hinges on the realization of a different meaning for a seemingly-obvious word, which is what equivocation requires. There are words being used in unusual ways (“watching” clothes means wearing them), but not with two completely different meanings.
    The “contradiction” example is not a contradiction, it is simply an absurd dialog.
    The “hasty generalization” examples are close but not quite right. For a hasty generalization, you must have one example of a thing and then conclude your observation is true for all things of the same type. (If your English teacher was mean, then all English teachers are mean.) In the “alcohol/sex” and “bald men/hats” examples, people are making absurd statements about large groups of people, but those statements are not generalized from individual examples. The humor simply comes from the absurdity of the conclusions (95% of all people can only date because of alcohol; all men were bald in the 30s). The “sex/nudity” example seems to be a false analogy (a man and woman being naked while having sex is not like two boys being naked in a locker room), not a hasty generalization.
    As for “logical mechanism”, most of those examples are not logically valid arguments. The last two are simply absurd dialogs. The “fake house in the Hamptons” is just weird. And “believe in God for the bad things” is an example of hypocrisy (made funny because he is openly hypocritical and oblivious to why that’s bad). Only the first example is a logically valid argument (he gives an effective counterexample to her claim), but even here I think the humor comes not from the logic of the argument but from the absurd lengths he goes to to prove that not all jokes are true. (An example of logic that leads to humor is the old joke about the doctor: “Doc, it hurts when I do this! – Well, don’t do that!” – the doctor’s advice is relevant and effective, but it’s exactly the opposite of the relevant and effective assistance we expect a doctor to give.)
    It’s very hard to analyze the logic behind humor – in part because, as you demonstrate, many humorous exchanges don’t follow an explicit logic. But most of the examples above, I think, don’t quite fit the categories you have put them in.

  • Greg Forster

    The “you are not a man / then why do I have ties?” joke is indeed an example of equivocation. Scroll back to the definition of “equivocation” – when two different meanings or *senses* of a word are used as equivalent.
    Here it is not the meaning – the denotation – that changes, but the sense – the connotation. When she says “you are not a man,” she doesn’t mean that he isn’t a male-gendered person, but that he fails to live up to the expectations society has for male-gendered people. Indeed, by pointing out that he doesn’t live up to the expectations we have for male-gendered people, she is affirming that he is in fact a male-gendered person; otherwise the statement would be absurd. But he treats her statement as though it were saying that he *isn’t* a male-gendered person. The humor is in the equivocation between “man” meaning “a male-gendered person” and “a male-gendered person who lives up to the social expectations of male-gendered people”.

  • Kevin Holtsberry

    Well, I think what the Kevin above has posted is true but it sure ain’t funny!

  • Jim Gilbert

    Two faves that fit:
    Steve Martin: Being a comedian requires a command of language, and let’s face it, some people have a way with words, and others…uh….er…….uh……not…have…way.
    Steven Wright: What’s another word for thesaurus?

  • Pat L

    Okay, here’s a biblical joke I coined.
    Why was the Witch at Endor to whom Saul went to summon Samuel so sad?
    She was a mantic depressive.

  • Joe Carter

    KevinNone of your “equivocations” is actually an equivocation.
    Since Greg already responded to that one, I

  • the elder

    Have you read “Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing”?
    Considering your interests, it sounds like it would be right up your alley.

  • Mumon

    Thanks for the links… I think you just wanted to post Seinfeld quotes.
    BTW, IMHO, “The Chinese Restaurant” is truly Shakespearian in its enduring humor potential:

    “It’s not fair that people are seated first-come, first-serve. It should be based on who’s hungriest. I feel like just walking over there and taking some food off somebody’s plate.
    “I’ll tell you what, there’s fifty bucks in it for you if you do it.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “You walk over to that table, you pick up an eggroll, you don’t say anything. You eat it, say thank you very much, wipe your mouth, walk away, I give you fifty bucks.”
    “What are they gonna do?”
    “They won’t do anything. In fact, you’ll be giving them a story to tell for the rest of their lives.”
    “Fifty bucks? You’ll give me fifty bucks?”
    “Fifty bucks. That table over there. The three couples.”
    “Okay, I don’t want to go over there and do it and then come back here and find out there was some little loophole, like I didn’t put mustard on it.”
    “No, no tricks.”
    “Should I do it George?”
    “For fifty bucks? I’d put my face in their soup and blow!”
    “Alright, alright. Here, hold this. I’m doin’ it.”

  • Marla

    Logically based or not, any excuse to quote Seinfeld works for me ;) One of my pasttimes is making up Seinfeld plots–I’ve even thought about starting a blog for them, but it just wouldn’t be the same without the actors. Written humor is still funny, stand-up is beter, and actual portrayals (or real conversations/situations) are the best.

  • Nathan

    Like when Bill and Ted use the logical implications of time travel to manipulate their present environment in the police station scene of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
    Totally under rated movie.

  • Matthew Goggins

    I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in a movie theater in Montana. I dont’ remember anything about it except that it was very funny, and that at the end everybody is exhorted to party in an enthusiastic manner.
    Why do clothes retailers make lousy golfers?
    They keep saying “3.99!” instead of “Fore!”
    How many mystery writers does it take to change a lightbulb?
    One, but he has to give it a good twist.
    Why did the chicken cross the beach?
    To get to the other tide.

  • Macht

    Speaking of walking into bars and long faces: A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Why the long face?”

  • Chris

    It’s interesting to think about humor from the perspective of logic and fallacy, but it would probably be better to note that the reason that logical fallacies are occasionally, or perhaps often, used in humor is that humor is largely a result of violating expectations. In fact, there is a pretty large body of research on this, especially in the context of relevance theory.

  • Zsa Zsa

    What do you get when you cross Saddam, Mugabe, or Castro with a potato?… A dictator