In the realm of psychology, there are three general theories that explain how humor works. According to the most common explanation for humor—the tension release theory—we experience, for a brief period after hearing a joke or looking at a cartoon, a tension that counterbalances what we assume about the situation being described or illustrated against what the comedian or cartoonist intends to convey. The tension is released only when the joke or cartoon is understood.

The second most popular theory of humor, the incongruity resolution model, involves the solving of a paradox or incongruity in a playful context. This theory is based on the deep relationship that exists in the human brain between the laughable and the illogical. As a species, we place great value on logic. Even so, we will playfully accept a situation that is highly unlikely or even impossible … as long as the scenario depicted in the cartoon is coherent and logically consistent with its theme. Incongruity resolution usually takes a little longer than tension release and occurs in two stages. First, expectations about the meaning of a joke or cartoon are jarringly undermined by the punch line of the joke or the caption of the cartoon. This leads to a form of problem solving aimed at reconciling the discrepancy. When we solve the problem, the pieces fall into place and we experience the joy that accompanies insight. Failure to get the point of a joke or cartoon causes the same discomfort we feel when we cannot solve a problem.

Finally, the superiority theory emphasizes how mirth and laughter so often involve a focus on someone else’s mistakes, misfortune, or stupidity. … The superiority theory lends itself especially to an explanation of cruel and hostile humor: the situation depicted in the joke or cartoon could never happen to us, hence our amusement. In a word, we feel superior to the person suffering misfortune.

In practice, most humor incorporates aspects of all three of those theories.

Theories of how humor works.