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Today, I was thinking about a few species I've designed, and I realized that while I had some quite fleshed-out ideas about their cultural values, language, rituals, history, and biology, my vision for them was sorely lacking in terms of what everyday, friendly communication would look like--small talk, if you will. I've come up with insults, honorifics, ranks and stations, terms of endearment and deference, but it's all so terribly serious: excellent for dramatic standoffs and climatic set pieces, but not very applicable for the more mundane situations that would form the bulk of any real people's lives. As it stands, my people feel decidedly like a severe, monolithic fantasy race, and lack a sense of relatableness or tangibility. A critical element of lightheartedness is missing.

The element that I think is most sorely absent from my species is humor. I have no idea what my species laughs about, how they demonstrate wit, or how they keep each other amused on long hunts in the desert (or long nights in the cybernetics lab, as the case may be). I can imagine them enthralling an audience with tales of glory and bloodshed, or reciting myths of ancient warriors and vengeful spirits, but I draw a blank when trying to picture them laughing around a fire and think about what they're laughing about. And I think it really diminishes the "fullness" of their conceptualization.

There are several different species I'm thinking about, so rather than go into specifics for each one right away, in this question I'd like to address the wider issue of designing a sense of humor for a species. I know that humor is a notoriously subjective phenomenon among humans; indeed, the fact that ideas of what is and is not funny varies so wildly between cultures and individuals is a large part of what inspired this question.

So, on to the meat of what I'm asking:

  • Are there aspects of humor that are universal or nearly universal among humans that we would expect to arise in other sapient species? Or is literally anything fair game?

  • What cultural, linguistic, historical, or biological factors can influence a species' sense of humor? Or do these things have no effect?

  • Assuming a non-human sense of humor might would probably not be funny to most humans, how can I make a sense of humor be convincing for the species even if it's not funny to us?

  • Can a culture have no sense of humor? If so, what other types of interactions might take its place as a lighthearted social glue?

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    $\begingroup$ For an example of a culture with no sense of humor, you might look to Star Trek's vulcans. It is perhaps not so much that they have no sense of humor though as that they keep it contained. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 13 '17 at 7:43
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    $\begingroup$ I remember reading about researches showing humor has some common traits. One of these it the contrast between the appeareance and the action (e.g. a serious businessman slipping on a banana is humorous, a crippled man slipping on a banana isn't) $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Apr 13 '17 at 8:02
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    $\begingroup$ Some theories suggest that humor is neccesarily comes with intelligence. However, I think, that a completely serious, humorless society would simply use irrelevant pieces of information in the place of humor, since they know that this gossiping can turn out useful later. $\endgroup$ – b.Lorenz Apr 13 '17 at 9:22
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    $\begingroup$ youtube.com/watch?v=wbqtF91IE1k $\endgroup$ – Cem Kalyoncu Apr 13 '17 at 10:02
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    $\begingroup$ I personally find "Oh freddled gruntbuggly, Thy micturations are to me, As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee." absolutely hilarious. YMMV. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Apr 13 '17 at 14:18
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One universal is that we laugh about things that hurt. It's as you say, a measure of lightheartedness. When you don't want to deal with a particular hurt, you find a way to make light of it. When it comes to jokes, we try to tell them in a way so that the person is in pain over the answer and chooses to laugh about that pain. There's a very good reason it's called a "punchline."

One place to find a cultural sense of humor is to look at the fundamental characteristics of the culture. These are easy to spot. They are the places in a culture where the culture's strengths and the culture's weaknesses line up to be the same thing. Consider, as Americans, one of our nation's great strengths is its parliamentary government founded on the principles of democracy. As we are finding out right now, one of our nation's great weaknesses is its parliamentary government founded on the principles of democracy. This is a fundamental characteristic of our nation. We can laugh about it, because it's our strength. We have to laugh about it, because it's our weakness.

Comic

If your cultures are sufficiently well established, they will likely have several such fundamental characteristics where their strengths and weaknesses align. This is where your culture would make jokes about.

This is, of course, why jokes can be lost across cultural gaps. If I may take an example from a comment on your question by L.Dutch: "Serious businessman slipping on a banana is humorous, a crippled man slipping on a banana isn't." This is because in our culture, our handling of the handicapped is not aligned with a strength. We view it as a straight up weakness. It's not funny to us. Meanwhile, a successful businessman is a symbol of our economic strength, but there's a weakness in the knowledge that there are things like happiness that that economy simply cannot buy for you. Thus, it's funny to us.

As for not having a sense of humor at all, that could be a bit tricky because typically social traits don't deal in absolutes. However, I can think of a few extremes on might look for a lack of humor:

  • A culture which does not admit to their weaknesses to others. Such a culture would not be willing to find anything humorous.
  • A culture whose strengths are dying under their weaknesses, and may not have the strength to laugh.
  • A young culture may not have had time to find its fundamental characteristics. Its strengths and weaknesses may not have aligned enough yet. Such a culture would find things not as funny, but as refinements to be made.
  • A very old culture that is focused on conservation of energy. Such a culture might have rounded out its strengths and weaknesses enough that there's simply no point in paying attention to them. I like to think that any good old culture should have its own very subtle peculiar sense of humor (at the very least, a sense of a cosmic joke of existence), but that might be sufficiently subtle that you or I would fail to realize they were being humorous when they were.
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The key thing about humor is that it must involve the unexpected. For your aliens, take a piece of the human humor repertoire and expand it. Puns substitute terms with similar sounding unrelated terms. Silliness Monty Python style involves things behaving in ways which are inappropriate or unexpected for the context. Stooges style physical humor involve suffering or humiliation which is unexpected by the recipient and amused third parties. Obscene limericks and the like are funny in that they step outside of the boundaries of what is culturally expected and allowed. I read an account of autistic savants who were taking turns speaking numbers, and one said a number that caused the other to crack up - clearly the numbers were in a series and the funny one was one which was unexpected but not random - funny because it cast the whole series into a new light.

I could imagine your severe and monolithic race finding humor in unexpected excess. It would be great as narrative especially as your reader who has come to understand these people as serious and austere reads about successive, serial and apparently pointless feats of excess until finally the whole group breaks down laughing.

The good thing about this is that if you do it right, your reader should also find it funny. It is funny in and of itself that these serious aliens turn out to have a sense of humor.

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The book Inside Jokes:Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind By Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett and Reginald B. Adams presents an intriguing theory of humor. The only one have ever seen that explains the broad range of humor and what could cause the behavior to evolve.

Humor is your brain bribing you with pleasure to find false assumptions and mutually exclusive beliefs. It basically boils down to your brains making a prediction based assumptions about the world, when your prediction is wrong it is surprising. when the prediction is so wrong some of your assumptions must wrong it is humorous. Weak tentative assumptions can be easily changed and strongly held beliefs can actually lead to ignoring evidence to their incorrectness. Humor works on the middle ground between the two. Assumptions that are held strongly enough that you treat them as reliable but not so strongly that you are unwilling to change them.

Any intelligent creature is going to be a prediction/connection machine, constantly seeking new connection so it will need some kind of mechanism to weed out bad predictions. Humor lets us weed out bad predictions by rewarding us for finding bad ones. If bad assumptions made us feel bad we would just not check for bad ones by getting a little unique jolt of pleasure for finding them we are far more willing to acknowledge them and change them. Some things are funny across cultures some are not. That becasue our assumptions about the world differ across cultures with varying levels of universality. This is also why a joke about god might be funny to a lax catholic but might not be to a very devout one, the belief being challenged by the joke may be too strongly held to be changed so cognitive dissonance is triggered instead.

Now your creatures you just need to decide what assumptions they may have that is different from humans what similarities and differences does their culture have with ours. The possibilities for humor are really just limited by your own inventiveness, maybe they love caste system jokes or maybe they laugh everytime they see a human drink a can of coke because it looks like a common standardized waste disposal container they use. Maybe they chuckle(or whatever outward sign of humor they use) every time someone formally introduces themselves as an ambassador from the UN because UN sounds exactly like the sound a common housepet makes on their planet. Mismatched symbols can be a good source of humor, they think it is funny all human medical supplies are marked with a red cross becasue that is the symbol they use for intoxicating beverages, and they make jokes about humans who looks small and weak are secretly super-macho becasue they go for liquor instead of bandages.

Now for humor between each other you can look at similar human cultures for some inspiration, some cultures prefer simple snarky humor. Example, we call him "runs through trees" hunter leans in and adds quietly "Not because he is strong but becasue he is too stubborn to go around". Or may play of gender roles human don't get, a super masculine hunter who secretly carries a brass knife it's funny to them becasue brass is a woman's metal. Of course you have an easy out because some of their humor may make no sense to a human observer and the reader is human. This is why a joke explained isn't funny you aren't making the assumptions it relies on.

You mentioned mythic story, often even epic heroic sagas had humor mixed into them. this may help. For example a weak character may challenge of much stronger one over a point of honor. the contest may be so one sided it is actually funny but at the same time it expresses the bravery or strong sense of honor of the weak character. Then of course you have the classic comedy of errors type of story. Without knowing anything about your creatures and culture it is hard to make up anything specific.

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Making the Humor Funny

Others have done a good job explaining why things can be funny, so I'll focus on how to make your non-human humor amusing to the audience.

I think the best way to go about it is to find a way to get the audience to laugh at the alien's sense of humor, rather than with. The audience most likely won't get the joke, either due to a lack of understanding of the societal relevance of it or because the joke falls outside of the person's idea of comedy. However, you can still make this scene humorous.

Have a human-like character interact with the aliens and have them comically misunderstand the joke, or have them simply not get it and let the aliens poke fun at the human for not understanding what was said. The reverse also works. Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy had no understanding of human figure of speech, but his serious reactions brought about by the misunderstanding was very funny. His own attempts at being humorous, by contrast, would also be funny for the viewer because watching someone fail can also be a form of comedy. Maybe the alien gets annoyed when their attempts at humor are disregarded by their human companions, or when they fail to understand the comedy of the human's jokes.

Because of our love of subversion and humor that plays on the discomfort and confusion of others even a character who doesn't understand puns and thinks a metaphor is a type of bird can still be hilarious.

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You are facing an interesting problem here.
Let's suppose you came up with a sense of humour that fits your species. You still need to transport it to your audience. If their sense of humour does not correspond to ours, explaining it will still leave it somewhat sterile and academic.
A joke that needs explaining is not funny.

So the easy way out is have their humour resemble our own.
If you feel it needs to be different, and you want your audience to understand that it is indeed humour, you could describe their not-funny humour in a funny way, so that you transport the feeling in the description where it cannot be in the thing you describe.

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    $\begingroup$ "A joke that needs explaining is not funny." I know it's cliche, but really, show, don't tell! Assuming that there is more than a single individual in a scene (and realistically, how much fun is it to constantly joke about yourself, to yourself?), don't tell the reader that the joke was funny; rather, show how another individual in the story shows how they found the joke to be funny. Look at Weasel in Animals of Farthing Wood: Essentially nobody else finds Weasel's jokes to be funny, but Weasel is clearly amused by them, without any narrator needing to point out either. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 13 '17 at 8:37
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Your answer to what they might find funny will be bound up in:

cultural values, language, rituals, history, and biology

Which you have already figured out.

I can imagine them enthralling an audience with tales of glory and bloodshed, or reciting myths of ancient warriors and vengeful spirits...

If it's a warrior culture, take your cues from ancient warrior types in human culture. Reversal of cultural norms tends to be funny. In much of our culture, the browbeaten husband was deemed funny because the power lay with males in our society, for example.

This article defines 7 types of humor. Let's go through a few of them and apply them to your culture, with a couple of others I've added in.

Malicious Humor:

We laugh at someone we consider beneath us. Often times such laughter expresses our prejudice against a certain group, as when we tell jokes about Polish people or African-Americans or those whose religious or political views are different than ours. “How many Poles does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” “It takes five; one to stand in the chair and hold the bulb, and four to lift the chair and turn it around and around.” People also laugh at outcasts or scapegoats, making them the target of their pent-up hatred; they are also engaging in malicious humor.

So in a warrior culture, there might be jokes about a lack of prowess for a segment of society that is more eggheaded. You already know what their culture values,and what the subsets of their culture values, so you can start picking targets. Or, they might not understand this type of humor at all...

Jokes:

As Freud noted, jokes are about breaking the rules, and there is always some anger beneath them. Dirty jokes break the rules of societal censorship, whatever it may be in a particular society. Breaking the rules releases provides us with a “guilty pleasure.” Dark humor or cruelty jokes also provide the same satisfaction. “Mrs. Wilson, can Johnny come out and play?” “You know he doesn’t have any arms and legs.” “We know, but we want to use him for third base.” When we tell a joke like this there is an unconscious satisfaction not only in breaking the rules of decency by joking about someone less fortunate than you through no fault of their own, but also by challenging authority in an indirect way.

If you know what the rules are for this society, it's now time to break those rules. In reality, using a crippled boy without arms and legs for third base is not funny, but as a joke it IS funny. In this instance, humor doesn't always translate well. Other cultures may well be HORRIFIED at what passes for humor.

Satire

This one also often doesn't translate well, even within cultures. (See A Modest Proposal for a good example of that!)

Body Humor

When it comes to funny, sex is a good place to start. In human culture, the size of a man's junk is the source of much humor. If you have their biology figured, there will be a wealth of humor there--if their color changing abilities get them a mate, there will inevitably be jokes about that.

Lysistrata for example is something you should look at in this realm.

The other direction body humor can go in is potty humor. There's many a fart joke...what's your culture's equivalent? If you know their biology you should be able to come up with something.

Just overlay what you already know about this species on to what we understand as humor.

You also might want to look at this link regarding specific joke structure, which follows George Carlin.

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I would figure out what is important to your alien species? What concepts do they think in terms? What is their emotional make up? I would then combine concepts together in the same way that we do. One example of a premise for a joke is that monopoly losses are dark and hard for young children to grasp. See this for more. It's a Louis CK joke about his daughter losing at Monopoly. If I were to repurpose this joke for an alien species, I would ask what sort of economy do they have? If it is capitalism, then this joke works equally well for the alien species. But say the alien species was a sort of hive mind with telepathic abilities. Then one joke might be about a game where the aliens telepathically connect to properties in the game and that when an alien loses a property, they lose that telepathic connection, something which for them is just terrible. And then telling a story of an alien child who loses all telepathic abilities in this harsh game might not resonate with us, but would be hilarious for the alien species.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for linking your source. However, it is also customary to include a quote of the relevant text in case the link source ever disappears. Than you for your first post. I hope you enjoy your stay here at SE World Builder! $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Apr 15 '17 at 0:32

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