By: Kathyrn Kolouch /
Birds are vertebrates, feathered, winged, two-legged, warm-blooded, egg-laying animals.
People like to be amused by birds and representations of birds in media. People find animals funny, especially birds. People act like birds to make other people laugh and people draw motion pictures of birds to make people laugh. The mannerisms of a bird are distinct from other animals in a way that humans find comical. Birds in flight are seen as beautiful whereas birds walking on the ground are funny.
To illustrate this phenomena, I will present a montage of clips and images I have collected from common media sources. I also give a series of slides illustrating the scientific empirical differences between humans and birds. I will then draw my conclusion, uniting the art with the science.
The human’s ridicule of the bird is perhaps influenced by the biological traits of birds. Birds have no normal/average lifespan (in any given population of birds, one dies at any stage in their life) and birds must use their head and feet to manipulate their environment. Humans, contrastingly, have a normalized/average lifespan and use their hands to manipulate their environment. One can witness the funniness of birds primarily in television and film but also in theater and in day to day life.
See survivorship curve:
This is an animated representation of birds. Here we can watch Bob Peterson and Pete Docter discuss the character Kevin the Bird from the Pixar-produced film Up. They mention an inherent humor about birds and show short clips from the film.
This is an indirect representation of birds shown via bodies of actors in a comedic television show, Arrested Development. The character’s interpretation of bird movement is a “running gag” in the show.
This is another indirect representation of birds shown in a situational comedy series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. A character played by Kaitlin Olson resembles a bird and is referred to by the other characters in the show as a bird.
An actor Jim Carrey discusses his inspiration for the character. This representation is even more indirect as we learn that the character Ace Ventura’s mannerisms are inspired by those of a bird, yet not explicitly known as such to the audience members.
Here is an assemblage of images found on the internet which fuse cultural references with images of birds.
After sourcing several instances of bird humor, I investigated more closely the philosophical theories of humor and found professor Aaron Smutz who has defined four distinct theories of humor from his own readings, himself sourcing more than 60 different philosophers. The four theories are as follows:
The incongruity theory has it that a humoristic situation is incongruent with what we see fit for that situation. It was defended, among others, by Kant and (maybe) Aristotle. What sort of incongruities can one agent find humorous? Impossible scenarios, or absurd ones, or those exploiting the vagueness or ambiguity of a description. Now – and this is a major problem for all theories – the agent has to be in a certain sort of relation with the incongruity, otherwise the reaction could be of rage, hate, disgust, or the like; but, how to specify such a relation? In other words, how to explain that a certain agent found a situation humorous, rather than annoying? We shall come back to this later on.
The second is the superiority theory, according to which those who find a situation humoristic do so because they assume an attitude of superiority with respect to that which is under consideration. Thomas Hobbes most famously defended this view.
The third is the relief theory, according to which humor is a mechanism through which human beings can release some of their repression. This view was particularly in vogue at the turn of twentieth century, when social psychology was on the rise. Authors such as Sigmud Freud and Herbert Spencer seem to have suggested such a take on humor.
The fourth theory of humor, which is suggested by Smuts himself, is what he calls the play theory. According to it, humor is a mechanism through which humans play with each other, a mechanism parallel to different ones we observe in other species of mammals and in birds (have you ever observed seagulls during a sea-storm play with the wind?) Playing, as Johan Huizinga as suggested in Homo Ludens (1938), should not be confused with mere laughing. It absolves a much deeper social function, including social bonding or exclusion and stress relief.
Clip from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Clip from Arrested Development