Humor & Health Journal - Vol. XIII, Nr. 3, July/Aug/Sept 2004
Using Humoristic Reduction in Communication
By Michael Titze, Ph.D.
The Principle of Humoristic Reduction

During the course of social interactions, people who communicate with each other usually look for «good arguments» to put forth while conversing because they want to be taken seriously by their social partners. But this attitude is not compatible with humor! Humor emerges from a reduction of intellectual maneuvers in conversation, which results in less logical argumentation. In fact, reduction is a philosophical principle that dates back to Aristotle. René Descartes ([1641]1973) saw reduction as the bracketing of all beliefs connected with the strictly rational interpretation of reality used by intellectually developed adults. Children do not cling to this rationality because their apperceptive style is less developed or automatically «reduced.» Philosopher Edmund Husserl provided the following description of reductive apperception: «A minimum of intellect but a maximum of intuition. The art is to extinguish everything that goes beyond pure apperception.» ([1913]1973).

Therefore, Using Reduction Means To Temporarily Go Back To A State Of Intellectual Organization That Is Typical For A Child. Humor Emerges When A Person Is Able To Adopt The Intellectual, Logical, And Verbal Capacities Of A Child, While Simultaneously Having Access To The Capacities Of An Adult. Arthur Koestler (1978) Coined The Term «Bisociation» To Describe This Oscillation.

The Reason For Intellectual Perfectionism

Having conducted seminars and workshops in therapeutic humor for over 20 years, I have observed that many participants share a common trait: an inclination to be rational in an often scrupulous way, while trying with grim determination to avoid or justify mistakes and inadequacies. The reason for this behavior is the compulsion to be perfect.

Perfectionists have learned in the course of their socialization to hide all weaknesses and failures. In this context, they are trained in the maneuvers of denial and renunciation. Such maneuvers create a cognitive bias, which is revealed in inflexible communicative patterns including apologies, justifications and long-winded explanations for one's behavior. In short, these individuals lack the courage to be imperfect because they equate imperfection with being ridiculous!

  • On The Occasion Of His One Hundred Fifth Birthday, An Old Fellow Was Being Honored By The Local Dignitaries. One Of Them Asked: «How Did You Manage To Reach This Biblical Age?» The Old Man Answered: «I Never Stopped Breathing!»

Irony As A Strategy For Humoristic Reduction

Many participants in my workshops have benefitted from a training program that makes use of a self-ironic strategy. This strategy then immunizes them against the fear of being ridiculous. For the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, irony (which must not be confused with sarcasm) provides an «existential purification.» Kierkegaard writes: «Irony clarifies limits and thus generates truth, reality and content» ([1841]1992). Therefore, training in self-ironic strategies opens the gate to creative processes that may result in cognitive and communicative flexibility, increased social assertiveness, and a growing serenity that typically comes with humor. I will now describe the six simple steps that can actuate this capacity:

STEP 1: Contra-Justification

Justifying One's Imperfect Behavior Is The Number One Humor-Killer!

Alternatively, the conscious readiness to be imperfect or even ridiculous easily creates a humorous atmosphere. In order to learn contra-justification, it is not necessary to be quick-witted or gifted with special rhetorical skills. You simply have to change your attitude - instead of justifications, use contra-justifications.

  • When Someone Is Criticized Because He Or She Made A Mistake, This Can Be Acknowledged In An Enthusiastic Way, Like:
    - «You're Completely Right! I Am Really Impossible.»
    - «You're Right. I Put Chaos Theory Into Action!»
    - «Exactly! I Am The Classic Example of Malfunctioning!»
    - «Congratulations! You've Clearly Recognized That I Am The Antithesis Of Flawless Functioning!»

  • After Examining The Patient, The Doctor Asked: «Are You Suffering From Flatulence?» The Astonished Patient Replied: «Why Suffering? This Is My Only Pleasure!»

STEP 2: Appreciating The Know-It-All

The avoidance of imperfection is ultimately derived from the fear of losing power struggles in social life. People who know it all, who have the better arguments, the last word, are generally looked at as being superior. Consequently, humor is often equated with quick-wittedness or superior rhetorical capacities. But this is a misconception! Humor does not follow the «one man up - one man down» paradigm: humor is generated as a result of the inversion of the superiority / inferiority polarity! The German philosopher Jean Paul wrote approximately 200 years ago: «Humor is the reversal of superiority. Humor lowers all greatness by associating it with smallness. Concurrently, all smallness is raised by associating it with greatness. Thus greatness and smallness are simultaneously destroyed...» ([1819]1980).

  • Here's A Suggested Contra-Justification Standard Reaction After Being Criticized By Someone Else: «Thank You For Correcting Me! This Proves Your Excellent Teaching Skills And Gives Me A Unique Chance To Correct My Intellectual Weakness!»
  • »You Look Pretty Bad Today!»
    - «Yes, You're Completely Right. They've Already Tolled The Death Knell For Me Down At The Graveyard.»
  • »You Always Wear The Same Tie!»
    - «That's Absolutely True. And I Never Change My Underwear.»

STEP 3: Playing With Causality

People who try to justify their behavior usually look for the ultimate «right argument». They use conventional explanations that usually result in rather sad statements! This is illustrated in the following example:

- «Why are you so nervous?»
- «Because I've been working too much lately ..»

Such an explanation is, of course, correct in a conventional sense. But let's be honest: This is not a funny way to create new causal connections. Humor arises only when unconventional causal connections are created. For example:

  • - «Why Are You So Nervous?
    - «Because I'm Waiting For A Reply From The Nobel Prize Committee Of Stockholm!»
    - «Because I Missed The Last UFO.»
    - «Because I'm Trying To Control My Bladder Functions.»

  • The Teacher Asked A Student: «Your Father Buys 6 Bottles Of Wine For 3 Dollars Each. How Much Does This Amount To?»
    - «Two days», answered the student.

  • The Famous Physicist Alessandro Volta Was An Enthusiastic Consumer Of Coffee, Which He Always Drank Without Sugar. When He Was Asked Why, Volta Explained: «Because I Want To Get More Coffee Into My Cup!»

  • A Seriously Injured Man Was Taken To A Hospital. His Examining Nurse Began With The Initial Formalities. She Asked: «Married?» «No,» Replied The Man, «Traffic Accident!»

STEP 4: Playing The Idiot

The Main Demand Of Adulthood Is To Be Intellectually Superior. Reducing This Demand Means To Go Into A More Primitive Level Of Intellectual Performance - A Level That Is Involuntarily Typical For Children And Idiots.

A person who deliberately proceeds into this level is already a practicing humorist! A fine example was given by therapist Frank Farrelly (1991) while addressing a conference about his Provocative Therapy approach in Germany: «I am firmly on the side of the angels. I was thinking how I might begin to talk to you this morning. And I thought I could say I used to know what provocative therapy was. And I think in some ways I know less and less what it is. Now perhaps that's not because it's so complex, perhaps it's because I'm becoming more and more a 'Dummkopf' (idiot).»

  • Someone Asked The Famous Sufi Dervish Mullah Nassrudin: «Which Weekday Do We Have Today?! Nassrudin Replied: «I Don't Know. I Come From Another Town.»

  • The Speech Therapist Asked: «Do You Stutter All The Time?» - «Fo-Fortunately, O-only When I-I'm Speaking.»

  • A Student Was Sitting With His Medical Textbook In The Library Of His University. One Of His Professors Approached Him And Asked: «Is It Possible That You're Reading This Scientific Book? Do You Really Understand The Text?» «No,» Replied The Student. «That's Not Necessary. I'm Only Looking At The Illustrations!»

  • A Patient Asked His Doctor For A Dewormer Prescription. «Is This For An Adult?» Asked The Doctor. The Patient Replied, «I'm Sorry, I Don't Know The Worm's Age.»

  • To Play The Role Of A Confessed Idiot, You Could Use Typical Phrases Like:
    - «I'm A Very Simple Individual. That's Why I Have To Ask You To Repeat Your Question In Very Simple Words!»
    - «Could You Explain This To Me In Really Easy Words? I Only Have A Two-Digit IQ!»
    - «I Don't Understand What You're Trying To Tell Me. Please Repeat It Once Again, Very Slowly. You Know, I Come From The Mountains.»

STEP 5: Non Sequitur Logic

Humorous maneuvers make use of the «reduced logic» exhibited by children. This logic does not follow the central thread of a consistent argument. In fact, this type of logic is inconsistent. It follows the «non sequitur» principle.

  • Mullah Nassrudin Once Said: «If I Should Survive Life Without Dying, This Would Surprise Me!»

The Same Strategy Was Used By Woody Allen Who Stated: «I Do Not Fear My Own Death. I Just Don't Want To Be There When It Happens.»

The conventional logic used by adults is deductive. Deductive logic considers the meaning of verbal messages abstractly, by selecting relevant predicates. Non-sequitur logic is absolutely concrete. It concentrates on the meaning of single words without paying attention to the overall predicative coherence.
When you want to use non sequitur maneuvers, simply concentrate on any one word in the argumentation of your interlocutor. Then start associating your own story to this word! Here's an example:

  • The Notoriously Critical Co-Worker Moans:
    «I Don't Accept That You Come To Work In The Mornings Without Shaking Hands With Our Colleagues ...»
    - Reply: «You're Right! The Morning Is God's Daily Gift.»
    - Objection:«What? I Told You To Greet The Others In The Morning!»
    - Reply: «Oh Yes, The Others Are A Part Of God's Creation. We Should Be Aware Of This Miracle And Unite In The Mornings In A Ritualistic Salutation To The Rising Sun, Forming A Circle, Dancing With Ecstatic Movements And Stretching Our Hands To The Sky. Then We Should Sing: Wonderful Morning, We Greet You!»

  • During An Exclusive Banquet, One Of The Attending Gentleman Had A Problem With Flatulence. He Tried To Suppress It But Could Not Succeed. Finally A Highly Audible Noise Boomed Out! At Once Another Gentleman Got Up And Barked At The First Gentleman: «How Could You Dare To Pass Your Flatulence Before My Wife!» The First Gentleman Replied: «Oh, I Have To Apologize. I Didn't Know That Your Wife Wanted To Start!»

STEP 6: Exaggerations

A special way of being humoristically illogical is to exaggerate all reproaches that might be the subject of an initially serious debate. This maneuver follows the principle of Judo: use the strength of your opponent and combine it with your own strength. To achieve this, you not only have to fully accept the goal of your opponent's attack. you should reinforce the attack! In doing so, you exaggerate all reproaches! This maneuver results in a paradoxical effect: the opponent cannot argue against you because he would then be arguing against himself.

  • A Man's Boss Asked Him In Front Of All His Colleagues, «Did You Put On Weight Again?» The Man Replied: «Yes, The Last Time I Took A Ride On The Bus The Rear Axle Broke Down!»

  • - Objection: «Are You Homosexual?»
    - Reply: «Sure. And I Combine This Unacceptable Conduct With Advanced Sadistic Practices. There Are Now Many «Wanted» Posters Hanging In Sheriffs' Offices In Several States Offering A Huge Reward For My Arrest.»
  • - Objection: «Could It Be That You Drink Too Much Alcohol?»
    - Reply 1: «Absolutely Right. Budweiser Had To Double Its Brewery Output To Satisfy My Cravings!»
    - Reply 2: «That's Only Partially True. In Fact I Regularly Consume Heroin And Cocaine, And Sniff Petrochemical Gases. This Is My Tribute To The Brute In Me!»


The principle of reductionism is perfectly revealed in the unintentional comedy of stylistic blunders that young children make while writing their school essays. Wolfgang Kramer, a teacher from Munich, has compiled the following howlers:

  • Gradually, my cheeks got red and my belly got round - a natural consequence of enjoyable hours.

  • With a powerful big jet the firemen let their water go.

  • In earlier times the cow was led to the bull. Today the veterinarian does it by himself.

  • Christian marriage is called monotony (instead of monogamy!)

  • Our dog is very nice. He eats everything. He especially likes children.

  • The cow gives us milk, butter and cheese. The bull gives us beer.

  • The men and ladies of the Red Cross are fully devoted to love. Some do it for free, some do it for money.

Humoristic reduction is the access road for entering a territory of unconstrained communication! In this territory the rigid rules of plain common sense are invalidated. Subsequently, the rational achievements of adulthood are deliberately surrendered so that the less rational, less logical, and less normative ways of childhood may again take effect. The reduction to the «inner child» then becomes the prerequisite for a new cognitive functioning characterized by unconventional or «eccentric» ways of thinking and arguing, leading to creativity, spontaneity, innovation, imaginativeness, energy and drive. Thus the «inner child» becomes the mentor of the adult humor-trainee!

Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations - Oeuvres IX-2. Ch. Adams and P. Tannery (Eds.)., Paris: Vrin (1973).
Farrelly, F. (1991). Playing The Devil's Advocate - Des Teufels Advokat Spielen. Konstanz: Verlag Robler & Partner.
Husserl, E. (1913). Die Idee der Phanomenologie. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff (1973).
Kierkegaard, S. (1841). The Concept of Irony. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (1992).
Koestler, A. (1978). Janus - A Summing Up. London: Hutchinson & Co.
Paul, J. (1819). Vorschule der Aesthetik. Werke V. Munich: C. Hanser (1980).
Pöhm, M. (1999), Nicht auf den Mund gefallen. Landsberg: mvg
Titze, M., and Patsch, I. (2004). Die Humor-Strategie. Munich: Koesel.