Marcel Kammermann

A Good Laugh. The Power of Humor

Humor smooths our path through life and makes us attractive, resilient and healthy. It enlivens politics and animates our relationships. People don’t find you funny? Don’t worry, humor can be learnt. Eight hypotheses on how humor works and why we need it.  

Text: Thomas Gull und Roger Nickl; translation by Caitlin Stephens

Have you laughed yet today? We hope so. Laughter makes everything seem easier, or so they say. It sounds like an empty platitude, but in this case it’s true – research has shown that humor brings tangible benefits to our lives. Despite that it’s often underestimated, or even dismissed as frivolous. But humor is not always a laughing matter and is not to be taken lightly. It can also be subversive and dangerous, for example when it challenges authority and power – as autocrats from Stalin to Erdoğan have learned to their chagrin. At the same time, humor can help us overcome adversity, solve problems and improve our professional and personal relationships.

Humor’s broad palette means there’s something to suit almost everyone. UZH psychologist Sonja Heintz has identified 21 types of humor that we produce in various situations. They can be roughly divided into three categories: Simple fun and fooling around, e.g. slapstick; mockery, including sarcasm and cynicism; and challenging and thought-provoking humor such as wordplay and black comedy. So: Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the funniest of them all?

For this issue of the Magazin we talked to psychologist Sonja Heintz, Slavonic studies specialist Sylvia Sasse, German literature expert Davide Giuriato, cultural studies scholar Malte Völk and psychologists Willibald Ruch and Jennifer Hofmann. We also asked UZH alumni who make their living from humor – cabaret artiste Patti Basler, comedian Fabian Unteregger and comedy double act UniGAG – for their take on the funnies. And we met US humor researcher Paul McGhee, who has been working with UZH’s Willibald Ruch and his team for many years and gave a workshop at the university at the beginning of the year. The pioneer in humor research began researching humor in children back in the 1960s. He went on to develop a humor training program and a method of measuring our sense of humor, the Sense of Humor Scale (SHS).

After talking to all these experts, we came up with eight hypotheses of our own about humor, outlined below. They are intended to demonstrate how humor works and why we need it. Absurd and slapstick humor are represented in the pictures created for us by Dan Cermak, which accompany our hypotheses. The Zurich photographer visited his subjects at home to take their photographs, and obviously had a lot of fun in the process.