PCP and Humour

W Ramsay (w.ramsay@Strath.ac.uk)
Thu, 02 Nov 1995 10:11:23 +0000

"One more time, Mozart baby"
(Allan Sherman, "The end of a symphony", RCA -I think, around 1960)

Notes on an approach to a PCP Analysis of Humour
(text slightly amended now due to my inability to resist tamperin gwith it
on the fly).

Arising out of a conversation at the Barcelona Congress welcome cocktail party.

Response to humour as a matter of reconstruing in some way.

Humour as thwarting the anticipations of the hearer; the fundamental
postulate; "funny" events as forcing a - non-threatening! - re-construing of
events. Nothing like threat for killing humour!)

Can this be extended using the corollaries as a basis for the analysis? The
sociality corollary is certainly involved in the delivery of "stand-up"
comedy, at least.)

Are there more than the three (popularly supposed) kinds of joke? Is there
a joke catgeory for each corollary, for instance? Or for each therapeutic

Humorous situations or speeches usually involve a focus element, the
construing of which by the beholder is a critical part of the joke. Having
a sense of humour implies the ability to reconstrue rapidly, implying in
turn construing in propositional ways, or permitting forced reconstruing of
the focus element(s) without feeling threatened. ("I don't get it" = "I
haven't reconstrued it yet")

[Query: the more "core" the construct threatened, the funnier?]

The sensible approach would seem to be to analyse jokes and humorous comment
in terms of the varieties of re-construing available to the therapist. For
the moment, pending a fuller development, examples might be:

0. Not really reconstruing, but shifting the construct on to the focussed
element i.e. the beholder has been construing the "wrong" element. This may
be a shift (temporaty?) in the focus of convenience of the construct?
(Range corollary).

Example: ?

1. Slot shifting: re-rate the focus element of the situation under
consideration under the opposite pole of the relevant construct.

Example: Dying John, Maggie and the boiling ham?

[Ethnic joke.
John (recovering consciousness from lengthy coma): "Maggie, that's an
awfu' guid smell o' ham. I could fair go a bit o' it."
Maggie: "Ye canna' have the ham, John, it's for your funeral!"]

"Black humour" may be a fruitful source here since by common
categorisation it involves regarding as funny elements which are normally
construed using distinctly un-funny constructs, or are normally located at
the un-funny poles of constructs.

Understatement as a source of humour may be located here. Does at
least some understatement re-locate the element at the other pole? See also 2.

2. Extending the range of convenience of a construct, or of one of the
constellation of constructs currently deployed.

Example: Gary Larsen's "Far Side" cartoons: "bear with the
coat-hanger"; the bull having desensitization therapy; the frog stuck by its
tongue to the 747.

Cartoon captions as enabling re-construing? Supplied constructs, in
effect? Two of these cartoons have captions which do this, the third (the
frog) needs re-construing without hints. In this case we invoke the
"sociality corollary" to construe the frog's construing of the 747 as
"flying object-prey"?

Some "understatement" may work by extending the range of convenience.

Example: the U.S. Air Force Sabre pilot "punching out early" from his
"unserviceable" aircraft in Korea. The quotations are from his combat
report, in which the F86 had received sustained 37mm strikes from a MiG-15.

in which the range of convenience of "punching in - punching out",
which construes a variety of blue-collar and lesser jobs is extended to a
perilous (and nominally white-collar) employment situation.

2a. Reducing or denying the range of convenience of one or more constructs,
etc. ...

Example: "Them's not sardines for eating! Them's sardines for buying
and selling!"
(as in my earlier posting on a different topic).

3. Changing the hierarchical relationship(s) of a construct, if only

Example: ??

3a. Employing a construct from an unanticipated hierarchical level?
(Structure corollary)

Example: the use of "unserviceable - serviceable" instead of
"battle-damaged - undamaged" in the Korea example, where "unserviceable -
serviceable" is a superordinate construct.

Query: does understatement necessarily involve superordinacy rather than

4. Possibly (presumably?) combinations of all of these?

Query: can we produce a sustainable discrimination of "wit" from
"slapstick" from "situation-comedy" ... etc. using such an analysis?


Bill Ramsay,
Dept. of Educational Studies,
University of Strathclyde,
Jordanhill Campus,
G13 1PP,

'phone: +44 (0)141 950 3364
'fax: +44 (0)141 950 3367
e-mail: w.ramsay@strath.ac.uk