Superiority (and Inferiority) Theory and How It Explains Self-Deprecating Humor

Throughout this week’s class, we have focused on the main theories of humor: the Superiority theory, the Incongruity theory, and the Relief theory. While the Superiority theory does make some compelling arguments as to why people laugh, I think that this theory ignores the great part of self-deprecating humor. To explain why this type of humor occurs, I believe that we need to look at the Superiority theory as an intertwining duality between superiority and inferiority.

Superiority and inferiority are dichotomous; in that, they are essentially opposites. Superiority, as per the reading, is when one places one’s self on a pedestal above all others. Conversely, inferiority is when one places one’s self in a hole, where he or she feels like everyone is looking down on them. One of the main theories in terms of psychology and psychological distress stems from the interplay between superiority and inferiority. Essentially, all humans feel significantly inferior to those around them; a single human is so insignificant in contrast to the massive surface of the earth, the towering nature of skyscrapers, and the incredible shadow that each of us stands in from Nicholas Cage’s dynamic stardom. In order to cope with this distress, most humans tend to think of themselves as “exceptional” or “special” in some matter. This allows us to believe that we have some control over our lives, as well as give ourselves a spike in self-confidence.

Many comedians, such as Patton Oswalt and John Mulaney, tend to stray from this belief in the “Superiority Complex” by focusing on the ways that they are worse than the rest of the population: Patton Oswalt talks about how he’s fat, a comic book nerd, and whiny, and John Mulaney jokes about how he’s pale and looks like he’s 12. What both of these comedians do is simple in terms of the superiority/inferiority complex: they do what is incongruous, what is unexpected and suprising. By staying outside of this focus of “I am exceptional”, they feed into one of the most critical human concerns that we all confront: what makes me special? Am I special? By acknowledging human inferiority, those comedians allow us to examine ourselves simultaneously.

So, my question that I pose to the rest of the class is: Does the Superiority theory really merit individual standing? I believe that of the three theories, the Superiority theory has the shakiest ground to stand on. Additionally, by only acknowledging the Superiority side of the coin, we ignore those who deliberately tear themselves down in front of an audience. But on top of all this, is the Superiority theory really the best theory for individual happiness? I say this because implicitly, the Superiority theory invokes a moral imperative: don’t laugh at people, because that is mean. And even if nothing that I said above is actually true, who would want to live in a world without laughter?

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