Special Paper on Humour



Faculty of Human Sciences, Oxford University

Special Paper – Humour

2pm Monday June 17, 2030


You have 3 hours.

Please use the material from the stack viewed prior to this exam as your resource for comparative examples.


1) Compare the following pair of pictures in terms of their joke dynamics. What problems for explanation might this visual content raise? What other observations can you make about the place of these two examples (and others from the pictures provided), within the overall landscape of the human imagination?




Both of these pictures incorporate a twist. The first is a twist on the visual correspondence between an Original and its Image (in this case, a reflection), and the second is an twist on the Original/Copy relationship. In both cases, the subject is human, but the Magritte picture is primarily a physical twist, with little human interest, whereas the second picture includes both physical and human aspects. This puts the second scene deeper into Social Space because it has what is sometimes called ‘warmer’ content.

Picture One (Magritte)

At first sight, the scene in this picture looks normal. Perhaps this is because we are used to seeing the double of an object in the reflecting surface of a mirror, and that is what we appear to be getting here. Until we realise that the mirror is reflecting what we ourselves see, and not what its own surface ‘sees’. Which means that the normal visual correspondence between the original figure, and the reflected image has been turned, but not quite literally, on its head. This raises the question of what sort of break this anomaly represents. Is the image being fickle, and changing on its own behest, or is it being obstinate, with the original having changed, and the image refusing to do so?  The likely answer seems to be the Fickle Image option. After all, the original head is doing nothing out of the ordinary in this scene, so it seems that the image making surface is responsible for the twist. This being so, then as a fickle image twist, its logic is likely based on a change in property, or a more radical change such as a displacement, wholesale removal, or complete replacement, so which is it?

Well, given that both participants of the O/I relationship are present, and in their correct position opposite each other, neither removal nor displacement can apply here. Which means it all comes down to a choice between the image behaving like either a property or a neighbour of the original. So is the back of the head a property of the head, along with the face, or is it instead a neighbouring object of the face? The safe answer is surely that it is not a neighbour of the face, but that along with the face, it is a property of the head. But as the 2020 manifesto shows in its discussion about objects in Social Space, the idea of physical separation between objects being the defining line between property and neighbour is open to challenge. Not least from the subjective feeling that there is such a great difference (in this case) between the face and the back of the head that it is hard not to see the two as distinctive objects in their own right, even though we know full well that they are two sides of the same head. An impression that is fortified by the following point. Namely, that although the nose or mouth is a property of the face, the hair at the back of the head is not. Meaning that if we start from a different point – the face, and not the overall head – then we end up classifying the face and back of head as neighbours.

So, just as we would classify the various faces of the American presidents carved out of Mt Rushmore as neighbours of each other, rather than say as different properties of the mountain itself, then the two sides of the head are neighbours in the same way. Which perhaps explains why there is a picture of the aforesaid in the stack (see below), along with a comic photo of the same mountain from ‘the Canadian side’.  In fact, we could say that this shot of Mt Rushmore from the Canadian side is the copy equivalent of the Magritte painting in that it shows the back of a representation that is not actually there at all. Though this similarity ends right there because the Original/Copy relationship has no equal to visual correspondence, and in fact the Rushmore twist is actually a copy sidestep. (The original is the front of the body, and the neighbour is the backside, which then provides the basis of the new copy that results from the ensuing sidestep).



Mt Rushmore, ‘as seen from the Canadian side’

(as Mt Rushmore is in S Dakota, this is a misleading, and because of this, a rather clever caption).



Coming back to the Magritte mirror, how do we know that it is not the head rather than the reflection that is to ‘blame’ for the break in visual correspondence? That, for example, the head has turned around from facing us, to then face the mirror, and that the image has been too slow to follow suit and flip its reflection at the same instant? Well, even if that were true, we still blame the image, and not the original, because the dependency between the two only works in one direction, and objects in Physical Space do not rely on their images for their existence. Meaning that the head is entitled to move whichever way it chooses without qualification. Either way then, the image is the source of the break, and whether this is because the image is slow to respond, or changes on its own without, so to speak, the physical permission of its owner, is perhaps academic. It is likely to be the latter though, as this is the more common version of the replacement twist, and there are none of the usual indications that the original has changed (unlike the famous B&H Parrot Cage, where the context of the original makes everything clear). So we can stick with the idea that it is the image, and not the casting object, that is being replaced.

Here then is the diagram that illustrates this twist. The text in blue indicates a graphic presence in the picture.



The legit for this twist hangs on two hooks. One is simply the very well known fact that Magritte is celebrated for his surreal pictures, and has gained himself a blanket legit for anomalies in the process. The other is less about Magritte, based as it is on the visual authority of the painting. But perhaps we could also add that the reflection, by showing us what we ourselves see, helps in the initial illusion that all is well. An impression that even continues after our rationale self has noted the anomaly. As the following example (from the stack) also seems to bear out, this time reflecting the face that is facing us. Because again, it may be wrong, but it also looks right.


Of note in the second of these two pictures is the fact that, because we would normally expect to see two faces in the mirror, due to the presence of the two people facing it, the scene looks perfectly normal. Until we realise that the face of the man standing up is obscured by the small hand mirror that he is holding, and that the second face comes from that very mirror, or at least seems to. Which it shouldn’t be because this repeats the error we see in the picture to the left. (Conceivably, the fault could still lie with the large mirror, but…). So although the large wall mirror is presumably being faithful to the scene before it, we see that it nevertheless reveals a discrepancy in the visual correspondence between the back of the sitting customer’s head, and the mirror held up to reveal that back view. Meaning that the image in the small mirror is imitating the front view of the customer’s head, namely the face, and is therefore an ‘Image replaced, Original stays the same’ twist.


Picture Two (Banksy after Millet)

In this second picture, depicting a woman taking a moment off her work in the fields to have a smoke, we see what is sometimes referred to as a ‘breakout’ twist. That is, we see that a copy has actively removed itself from its copy context, the framed picture, and entered into the holding context of, in this case, an art gallery, where it now resembles a real three dimensional living person. An illusion based on the principle of ‘copy context silent’, whereby all 2D representations of the world are treated as if they were the frame of a window through which we then view reality. Meaning that, in this case, we look at the art gallery as real, and the painting as a copy, as if the former were not a copy as well. An illusion that helps us to see the woman sitting on the edge of the picture frame as a real woman, rather than just another copy (yet that is what she is, and every bit as flat as the women in the painting). And if we look at the following example from the stack, we can see an interesting difference in the result between the two pictures that bears on this principle.



Firstly, the twist in these two pictures is surely based on the same joke logic of ‘Copy like Original’, where the copy comes alive and leaves its copy context behind it. So, just like the woman taking a break, the carousel picture shows us a copy that leaves its immediate context, and in this case for something rather more than just a smoke. But the difference here is telling. Because the figure of a horse is already presented to us as a 3D object in this particular scene. (Yes, in literal terms, it is a 2D picture, but due to the ‘copy context silent’ principle we ignore such niceties). Whereas, in the other scene, the woman starts off as a flat 2D figure in a painting, and then metamorphoses into a rounded 3D figure as she steps into the art gallery – creating a far more dramatic transformation in the process. A move then dramatised further by the scale of her displacement from one context to another. Because although it is not comparable to the ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ made by Neil Armstrong on the moon, it nevertheless marks a considerable leap in semantic terms. Given, that is, how she steps from an Outside and Rural scene of a field from the Past all the way over to an Inside and Urban scene of an art gallery in the Present. Added to this the physical transformation from 2D to 3D, and we have to conclude that this picture, by Banksy, changes the behaviour of matter, space and time in order to exploit the copy imitation twist to its best effect.

A move that completely dwarves the banal and obvious shift of the horses in the carousel picture. Where all we see is two of them jumping off the platform into the immediate surrounds of the field around them. So clearly, given any comparison between the two, we instantly see that the carousel is no match for the double whammy of the picture gallery. Because the latter takes what is the same twist, but then hurls it at us with great dramatic force. Because by thrusting its subject through a transformation that changes dimensional reality itself, and to then propel it in a massive leap through time and space, from a rural field in the past to an urban building in the present, this picture is doing everything it possibly can to turn what is a rather unsurprising twist into a compelling scene.

How then do we define this O/C twist? Is it simply a copy imitating its original, and behaving as a free agent? Well, it certainly seems that way. As long as we resist the temptation to pedantry, and classify the woman sitting on the picture frame as being just as flat as the other women in the painting that is. So this is a copy behaving like its original, to the point where it seems to have actually become that figure in real life.

Now where there is a strong denial of the laws of Physical Space, we often see a strong affirmation of the patterns of Social Space. So if we ask what sense there is to the farm worker ripping herself out of the canvas, and stepping away from the painting altogether, then we find a very good answer in the social logic of the situation. Because what we see here is a very human response on the part of the farm worker to the hard work of bending over for meagre pickings left behind after the harvest. Why not take a break, and a load off the feet, whilst enjoying a cigarette? Hard to get more human than that certainly, and it creates a satisfying sense to the otherwise crazy logic we see before us.

But as noted already, it is the presentation of this twist, based on the qualitative move from the copy context of the picture frame to the apparently real context of the art gallery, that really helps this twist along. And how else could one turn a 2D figure into an apparently 3D figure than by this technique of using the painting as a source of illusion?  Because this is clearly an artifice impossible to achieve in real life. Or is it though? Because a surprising answer to this question lies in this next example from the stack – in this case a video from YouTube.


(The Zach King video of the “Most Realistic Painting Ever’)

So the man in the video is not a copy in a copy context; rather, he is an original in a copy context, which is then made clear when he takes his rightful place, albeit for just a few moments, amongst his fellow humans in the art gallery. Then, for good measure, he returns to the copy context (‘chercher la femme’ supplies the social logic), stopping at another picture on the way, where the copy vase of flowers also turns out to be real, before then jumping back into the third picture frame where the woman awaits him. Then, to complete the sequence, the perfect thing would be to return to the 2D world he came from, and this is contrived neatly, by having a passer by scare the pair back into hiding, which they manage very well by looking as flat and as motionless as possible. Indeed, more than is possible, because the video stops the frame in order to make them look entirely flat, and even slides to one side to emphasise the fact that they have truly returned to flatland.

Again, it seems, that we see a figure from a painting that comes to life in the real world. But in this case, it really does come alive, because the figure was never a 2D copy in the first place – it was just made to look like one – to serve the comic agenda of the video. Nevertheless, the move is still, in effect, a graphic representation of a copy that then becomes its original. (How this is achieved in practice is a different issue from the question of what sort of twist we are looking at here). So, the question of the twist type used to create this video seems to look like a contest between a straight imitation twist, and a displacement twist. The former being a case of the copy figure turning out to be like the real thing, its putative original. The latter being the alternative case, whereby an apparent copy is actually revealed as an original – by being moved from its copy context to its true context. At which point its true nature as a real living 3D figure becomes clear, as does the identity of this twist. Because it is this latter logic, where the copy reveals itself as an original, that fits the situation we find in this video sketch. Indeed, the revelatory nature of this scene, where the subject of the picture suddenly steps out of its frame, all based on the natural duplicity that often obtains between originals and their copies, is very typical of this type of displacement twist.

So this is interesting: the picture of the woman on her cigarette break is based on quite a different twist, yet the net result is that a 2D figure comes alive in a 3D world, just as we see in the very different case of the video. Surely different twists create different results though? Well, admittedly both twists are about the O/C relationship, and both explore the same copy domain of the art gallery and its pictures, but still it seems curious that the two different twists could share the same result. Could it then be because the two cases share other important aspects as well? For example, the picture and the video seem to operate at different but parallel levels. So whilst the picture works inside a virtual world of two levels of copy, the video works in the real 3D world of theatre, which is a copy domain certainly, but real nonetheless. Meaning that the apparent move from painting to gallery in the Banksy picture offers us a virtual simulation of the real move we see in the video, where the painting really does come alive. Comes alive thanks to the clever creation of a stage set, costumes, good acting, and carefully controlled use of angle and video editing it is true, just as the picture exploits the ‘Copy Context Silent’ principle and clever artwork (such as the torn hole in canvas revealing wallpaper behind) to achieve its own carefully contrived displacement.

And there it is. That little word ‘displacement’. Because that is the clue that explains why we get the same result. Both twists achieve a displacement from 2D to 3D but we are obliged to classify the picture twist as an imitation by the copy of the original because it never quite gets to become an original. It just seems to. So the idea that the copy imitates its original is clearly not that far off from the further idea that a copy may become its original for real. But there is still a qualitative difference here. Because a copy imitates its original anyway (that’s its job after all), whilst an original never imitates its copy by adopting its copy context unless, that is, the purpose is humour. So although it may seem that a copy might become an original, because its O/C logic points in that direction, it is not true that an original is likely to become its copy (which is precisely why we make copies in the first place).

Another issue raised by this comparison between both the given and the stack supplied material is the question of how jokes try to dupe and then surprise us.

Duplicity, as any identical twin will tell you, is a source of continual fascination to the viewer. We are hooked on seeing the differences between things, so when they coincide, we are puzzled, and are likely to find the ensuing potential for confusion a compelling matter. A point that humour exploits repeatedly in puns, copies, and images, to name just a few. And often, it can work both ways. So, for example, an apparent copy of a toy duck in the bath can be revealed as a real duck once the bath is finished. Or an apparent cave painting can be revealed as a piece of wallpaper when the curl of one of its corners becomes visible. However, if we look more closely at the O/C relationship, we realise that there is an asymmetry in its logic that favours one direction of revelation over the other. For example, when the copy turns out to be the original, we are probably less surprised than when the reverse happens, simply because the initial presence of the copy immediately summons up the existence of its original much quicker than the other way around. That is, any surprise that starts off with an apparent copy is less surprising than a scene that start off with an apparent original, because in the latter case, we are not thinking about copies at all. Copies recall their originals, but the reverse is not the case. Which is one reason why a cartoon pushing a real duck into its copy context of the bathtub is less compelling than the rather more surprising picture of the cave painting being disclosed as a fake.

Having said that, the video of the art gallery, where we do indeed see an apparent copy turn into its original, is actually very compelling, even though it is pointing in the same way as the duck in the bathtub cartoon. But the video succeeds in this unmasking so very well that this must be explained further. Well, firstly it is effectively a live performance, and this give us a greater feeling of reality, so that when the unmasking of the original occurs, we are deeper in, and duped the greater, making the suprise value greater too. Secondly, the move from 2D to 3D is a major one, making the gap between the painted copy and the original figure a challenge to our visual sense, irrespective of the probably rather familiar idea that a picture can come alive. And then the way the video puts the real figure back into a different picture, so that the trick is performed twice, and with consummate mastery, also adds to the overall dynamism of the sketch as well.

We see this question of direction elsewhere in the O/C relationship, where the way the logic points is an important factor in explaining our evaluation of the quality and force of the twist. For example, a wig that copies the negative properties of its original is going against copy advantage, but at least it is still acting in the same direction dictated by the need for copying fidelity. But for an original to behave like its copy, a reversal of the direction of logic is required, given that the original is almost never required to imitate its copy, and this may well serve to make the twist that contrives this reversal a more powerful one. Though clearly other factors, such as the quality of the legit, are also important in the final evaluation of the joke.

Confusion and Revelation

As already noted, naturally occurring or manmade duplicity is a useful entrypoint to the creation of confusion and deception. But it is not just in humour that we see use being made of ambiguity, leading to deception and eventual revelation, because we humans are fascinated by the idea that ‘Things are not what they seem’. A theme that underlies much of humour, but also drama and story telling, where the apparently obvious quickly gets recruited by the agenda of the particular form of entertainment concerned, adding drama to what is otherwise often boring and normal.

So a story of a murder investigation puts up various false targets before eventually leading the reader or viewer to a conclusion that is engineered to create a surprise, the revelation making sense in retrospect, where all the various pieces fit into a pattern we failed to see right up until the very end. But drama can become something much more than that. It can become a ‘true story’, when people start to believe in the narratives they tell each other. Particularly when those narratives offer hope and meaning to their lives. Because although religious belief is based on fiction, and is fiction, its believers have become adherents to the idea of ’things are not what they seem’ and that ‘there is more to life than this’. A theme which is referred to in the 2020 Manifesto as the ‘joy of the inexplicable’. Where it is used to recognise the delight we feel when something occurs that is not predictable, and not open to explanation or rationale understanding. A joy that is in marked contrast to our disatisfaction with the brute and base facts of the human condition. Because this joy allows us the freedom to imagine a world beyond death, free of loss and pain, where we can reunite with our loved ones in eternal bliss. Or because it supposedly gives us a metaphysical way to change the course of events around us in the physical world with magical powers. Or simply because it makes our world so much wider in its scale of possibility. A place where perhaps ‘anything is possible’ because ‘you never know’ what is really going on around you all the while.

So, where does the revelation that is often a key part of the joke dynamics fit into this rather larger context? Surely, it must be at the intellectual level? Because humour widens the scale of possibility, extending the landscape of the imagination by discovering new patterns, leading to new and impossible places. Places that we find interesting, and even challenging, at least for the moment of the joke. Before then closing them down, and resuming our normal lives, heartened by our quick swoop into a land where fantasy and clever arguement make light of our humdrum existence.


2) Analyse the following cartoon. Use it to assess the issues of Animality and Idealised Public Self in the greater context of human values, and comment on the problems associated with the mapping of such values. Deploy other cartoons from the stack where relevant.



The first and most striking thing we see in this cartoon is the marked contrast between two particular classes of people, who in this case happen to be British. But the situation presented here is an unlikely one. Because the wealthy and upright couple we see here would normally dine in a different kind of restaurant entirely (particularly when dressed ‘up to the nines’, as they are here). This is therefore a displacement of one class into the home context of another. A displacement that has been exaggerated further by increasing the contrast in the appearance and eating behaviour of the truck drivers on one side, and that of the rich couple on the other. This in order to further increase the contrast between the two social groups. But it is the social and spatial displacement of one class into the context of the other that makes that clash possible in the first place. A clash based on the firm recognition that we all know where we belong in life, and that such patterns of belonging are well understood, and well respected by us all.

First look – the visible patterns

There is a useful tool set of categories available for the examination of the visual and verbal presentation of the displacement twist in this cartoon. The reason it is useful is that it breaks down the complex of human properties in a scene to present us with a clear picture of the boundaries between them. But then these categories are anything but trivial, given that they have their basis in the biologicial sciences, where they figure as important parameters of Genetic Space. But rather than using the technical terms appropriate to Biology (though these are added in the brackets below for clarification) we use the following, more human, and therefore more familiar terms of:


Appearance, Manner, Cuisine, Language, Occupation and Location
(Phenotype, Behaviour, Trophic Level, Communication, Niche and Habitat)


Here then are these categories as applied to the aspects of this cartoon, because it is important to describe what is there in the scene depicted, before then explaining why it is there.

1)  Appearance: We see two dramatically opposed dress codes in this cartoon. On one side, we see the sloppy baggy clothes of the workmen, showing their braces, with caps still on their heads, and wearing working boots. On the other side, in stark contrast to this, we note the fox fur and jewellery of the woman and the formal dinner jacket of the man, complete with a decorative buttonhole, as they wait patiently for their food. In addition, the working men have unkempt hair, and grizzled faces, where they have not bothered to shave recently, whilst the smart couple have nicely cut hair, and are well groomed.

2)  Manner: The men are slouched over their food, consuming it voraciously, whilst drinking and smoking at the same time. One of them sits with his legs wide apart in an ‘inappropriate’ manner. They are shown stuffing themselves, without the slightest hint of decorum, and this is particularly obvious in the character shown in the left foreground. We see that his cheeks are stuffed with food, some of which seems to be coming back out of his mouth. In contrast, the elegant couple hold their backs straight, with the woman holding her hand in a decorous manner just lightly touching the table. And when they begin to eat, we know they will eat delicately, and with dignity, even though it is only ‘Toad in the hole’. Moreover, they will converse politely, will definitely eat their food with restraint and discernment, and will never ever think of ogling a porn magazine in public, as we see with the worker in front of them. Meanwhile, the ‘waitress’, who looks as if she has just emerged from hell’s kitchen, is shouting loudly, rather than remembering which table made the order.

3)  Cuisine: Workers like cheap junk food such as sausages and beans, or burgers with ketchup. ‘Toad in the hole’ is both a traditional and filling dish, but does not (normally) reach the heights of ‘Haute Cuisine’, so it is entirely in line with the kind of fare that such a transport cafe is likely to serve its customers. However, the description ‘medium rare’ carries a double layer of subtlety. Not just rare (3 possiblities in the range) but medium rare (9 possible levels of taste and distinction). All of which amply demonstrates the demands and the ‘good taste’ of the couple waiting for their food. Of course in practice, no such level of distinction would ever be applied to what is merely a dish of sausage and batter. But the requirement speaks to the top end of the social spectrum, and oh so concisely at that – being a matter of just two words, that yet speak volumes.

4)  Language: The caption tells us that the ‘h’ has been dropped from the name of the dish (‘toad in the ole’). Such inattention to the niceties of language is generally not a mark of social sophistication, and here it is used to show that the serving woman is a ‘low life’. In addition, if, as seems likely, she is also shouting at the top of her voice, then that would lend further force to this evaluation. But in a transport cafe, elegant parlance and refined speech would be totally inappropriate, so she fits in fine in terms of where she belongs. We also note that the cigarette dispenser bears the unlikely label of ‘Fags’, a slang word never used on a normal cigarette machine. So the combined effect of the slang, and lack of elegant speech, gives us a clear contrast to the ‘medium rare’ requested by the rich couple, the latter apparently showing a level of linguistic discrimination well beyond speech normal in such a place.

5)  Occupation: The truck drivers and the woman serving out the food are the natural occupiers and occupations of this particular local habitat of the transport cafe. In contrast, the couple in their smart clothes and upright manner do not belong in this place, and indeed they may be so rich that they have no occupation at all. But if they do turn out to be gainfully employed, then we know that their job would be paid monthly, as a salary into their bank account, rather than as a weekly wage, paid out in cash. We are also entitled to guess that such a job would not be based on manual labour, but on work requiring more use of mental powers such as intelligence, knowledge, experience in decision making and the willingness to take on responsibility.

6)  Location: This place is not a restaurant. It has no decor, no swish location on a smart street, no elegantly dressed waiters, and no refined customers. Instead, its furnishings and cutlery are cheap and basic. The large truck parked outside in the street suggests that this is a transport cafe, and that what we looking at are mainly truck drivers eating their lunch. So this is the last place we would expect to see a couple of ‘nobs’ like the wealthy pair in this picture. This very clearly defined location therefore forms the basis of the displacement twist around which this whole cartoon scene has its meaning.

So, the humour in this cartoon is based on the unexpected combination of two social groups that normally keep very much to their separate worlds, more or less never meeting in real life. A separation that has been turned into a clash by the displacement twist, which has magically transported the couple away from say a visit to the opera or a chic restaurant, and instead set them down in a transport cafe. In addition, the caption is used to underline the extreme differences between the two groups, making this a social, as well as a spatial, displacement. It does this by employing an ingenious and exaggerated verbal distinction that is totally inappropriate to the immediate social milieu, and indeed to the particular dish ordered by the couple. Nor is any attempt to legitimise this displacement offered in the caption – could the man be returning to his roots on a nostalgia trip for example? However, the fact that the cartoonist has presented us with a displacement twist that is totally unaccounted for does not seem to be an obstacle to our enjoyment here. Because there is plenty of value in the extensive social detail lavished on us by the graphics in this cartoon, and that makes up for such an omission. So although the caption is perhaps the high point of this effort by the cartoonist to dramatise the social abyss that yawns between the two groups, there is much else on offer here. Most particularly, the way that these two poles of the social spectrum are caricatured through the wealth of visual detail on their appearance, manner, eating habits, language and generally on where they belong in life and society.

But this is not the big question. Because we are not asking why this cartoon is funny per se, or even if it is funny at all. Rather, we are interested to see how its visual wealth of detail is consistent with the way in which we human beings organise our value systems. Because it is through an understanding of these underlying values that this cartoon gains it meaning in the first place. So, what does the cartoon tell us about how we organise our meaning in terms of our fundamental human values?