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 an article for 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’ll find logic and logical fallacies in all kinds of humorous works, including those of Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, Stephen Leacock, Douglas Adams, and even television shows like Beavis and Butthead. Also, logic and fallacies are used in many different comics, including Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and Peanuts. And there are lots of great examples in the work of stand-up comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, and Henny Youngman. In fact, basically everywhere you look in humour there will be some bits in which logic or fallacy is used in a significant way – sometimes just a couple can be found, and other times they are all over the place!
Every time logic or a fallacy is used in humour it serves a specific role. I have found that a convenient way of classifying examples is in terms of three roles that seem to cover all the significant ways logic and fallacy are used in humour: essence, enhancer, and mechanism.
In the article, Nefsky explains each of these terms and provides examples of how they are used. Although she provides adequate illustrations, I’ve taken the liberty of using her roles but replacing the examples with ones from episodes of Seinfeld.
Roles of Essence — The logic or fallacy used serves as the essence of what makes it funny. In these cases other aspects might enhance the humor, but the logic or fallacy is precisely what makes it funny, such that without it there is no humor left.
Type #1 — Equivocation: the name of the most common informal fallacy used in humor and usually it is the essence of what is funny. Equivocation occurs when two different meanings or senses of the same word(s) are used as if equivalent. In humor equivocation is often played out with two people – where one person says something implying one meaning and the other person takes it as if another meaning was intended.
“I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism purely for the jokes.”
“And this offends you as a Jewish person?”
“No, it offends me as a comedian.”
– Jerry and Father Curtis, in “The Yada Yada”
“You are still afraid? You are not a man.”
“Well, then what are all those ties and sports jackets doing in my closet?”
– Gina and Jerry, in “The Suicide”
“I still can’t believe you’re going out on a blind date.”
“I’m not worried. It sounds like he’s really good looking.”
“You’re going by sound? What are we, whales?”
– Jerry and Elaine, in “The Wink”
“Wait. Those are the clothes from the bag!”
“The guy never came back.”
“He asked you to watch them, not wear them.”
“I’m still watching them.”
– Jerry and George, in “The Muffin Tops”
Type #2 — Contradiction — One thing in logic that is often used in humor and that usually serves the role of essence is known as contradiction or absurdity. This occurs when contradictory statements are given or implied, producing a nonsensical, absurd situation. In terms of formal logic, this is like having both “A” and “not A” (where A could be substituted with anything). In formal logic having both “A” and “not A” simultaneously is considered always false, or as some logicians say: absurd.
“What if something happens?”
“What could happen?”
“What if it felt good?”
“It’s supposed to feel good.”
“I don’t want it to feel good.”
“Then why get the massage?”
– George, discussing a massage given by a male masseuse, with Elaine, in “The Note”
Type #3 — False Cause — There is an informal fallacy called False Cause that is used in humor and that often has the role of essence. False Cause happens when it is assumed that simply because A has preceded B, that A has caused B.
“No doctors for me. A bunch of lackeys and yes-men all towing the company line. Plus, they botched my vasectomy.”
“They botched it?”
“I’m even more potent now!”
– Kramer and Jerry, in “The Andrea Doria”
The Role of Enhancer — the logic or fallacy adds to the essence of what is funny to make it even funnier.
Type #1 — Hasty Generalizations — occurs when a generalization is made from too few cases or, as often seen in humor, when the generalization is obviously not true as a literal statement (a clear exaggeration).
“So, what you are saying is that ninety to ninety-five percent of the population is undateable?”
“Then how are all these people getting together?”
– Elaine and Jerry, in “The Wink”
“What is it about sex that just disrupts everything? Is it the touching? Is it the nudity?”
“It can’t be the nudity. I never got into these terrible fights and misunderstandings when I was changing before gym class.”
– George and Jerry, in “The Deal”
“All bald people look good in hats.”
“You should have lived in the twenties and thirties, you know men wore hats all the time then.”
“What a bald paradise that must have been. Nobody knew.”
– George and Elaine, in “The Parking Spot”
The Role of Mechanism — the logic or fallacy is what gets you from one thought to another. When formal logic takes on the role of mechanism, valid logic is used to get the reader or audience to make a certain inference from one idea to another.
“Well, behind every joke there’s some truth.”
“What about that Bavarian cream pie joke I told you? There’s no truth to that. Nobody with a terminal illness goes from the United States to Europe for a piece of Bavarian cream pie and then when they get there and they don’t have it he says, ‘Ah, I’ll just have some coffee.’ There’s no truth to that.”
– Sheila and Jerry, in “The Soup Nazi”
“God would never let me be successful. He’d kill me first. He’ll never let me be happy.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in God?”
“I do for the bad things.”
– George and his therapist, in “The Pilot”
“I’ve been lying about my income for a few years. I figured I could afford a fake house in the Hamptons.”
– George, in “The Wizard”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m not saying anything.”
“You’re saying something.”
“What could I be saying?”
“Well, you’re not saying nothing. You must be saying something.”
“If I was saying something, I would’ve said it.”
“Why don’t you say it?”
“I said it.”
“What’d you say?”
– Jerry and Elaine, in “The Red Dot”
“It’s a write-off for them.”
“How is it a write-off?”
“They just write it off.”
“Write it off what?”
“Jerry, all these big companies, they write off everything.”
“You don’t even know what a write-off is.”
“No, I don’t.”
“But they do. And they’re the ones writing it off.”
“I wish I had the last twenty seconds of my life back.”
– Kramer and Jerry, in “The Package”
[Note: This was originally posted in July 2005.]