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Regulating Funny: Humor and the Law


Laura E. Little


Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law


Cornell Law Review, Vol. 94, 2009
Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2008-64

Abstract:     
When humor hurts people, they may press claims in court, ascribing blame and demanding redress. Courts respond by matching injuries with legal rules, and choose to insulate, tolerate, encourage, condemn or suppress the humor. Patterns emerge from this humor regulation, with courts systematically preferring some types of humor over others.

Explicit analysis of the law's regulatory effect on different types of humor is conspicuously absent in case law and legal scholarship. Non-legal theorists have, however, for centuries devoted considerable effort to defining and cataloguing humor. Philosophers, literary theorists, natural scientists, and social scientists have created a rich literature explaining how humor affects individual and group well-being. This article analyzes legal regulation of humor through the lens of that literature.

Using tools developed by humor theorists, the article explores how the law regulates humor in three doctrinal areas: contract, trademark, and employment discrimination. Across this diverse array of legal categories, the article identifies remarkable consistency in the types of humor that courts choose to regulate and the types that courts instead allow to flourish unimpeded by legal rules. The cases in all three areas regulate two types of humor with particular vigor: superiority humor and release humor. Superiority humor seeks amusement through a communication that makes one person feel successful at the expense of others. Release humor taps into repressed sources of pleasure, pressure, or anxiety, focusing on taboo or difficult topics such as sex, excretion, or death.

Courts' imposition of liability for superiority and release humor is consistent with civil law's corrective justice goals and with the specific cause of action requirements for contract, trademark, and employment discrimination. What is more surprising, however, is courts' tendency to privilege another type of humor: incongruity humor. Incongruity humor arises from the juxtaposition of two inconsistent or unrelated phenomena. Where the humor in a suit has incongruous qualities, courts tend to avoid liability, thereby placing incongruous humor beyond the law's grip.

Documenting patterns in humor regulation provides important guidance for courts, attorneys, and humorists seeking to understand and predict legal regulation. The article nevertheless seeks to accomplish more than that positive mission, and thus assesses the beneficial and potentially detrimental consequences of current humor regulation. Concluding that the law closely integrates social norms about appropriate humor, the article finds cause for both celebration and concern. The article ends by identifying three bodies of literature to assist with improving humor regulation: law and social norm theory, First Amendment literature, and the current interdisciplinary work of humor theorists.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 83

Keywords: comedy, humor, jokes, funny, parody, satire, contract, trademark infringement, social norms, law and society, sexual harassment, incongruity humor, superiority humor, release humor, puns, employment discrimination

JEL Classification: K12, K20, K29, K42

Accepted Paper Series


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Date posted: May 4, 2008 ; Last revised: May 9, 2008

Suggested Citation

Little, Laura E., Regulating Funny: Humor and the Law. Cornell Law Review, Vol. 94, 2009; Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2008-64. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1124627

Contact Information

Laura E. Little (Contact Author)
Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )
1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States
215-204-8955 (Phone)
215-204-1185 (Fax)
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