The important thing to understand is that these components of comedy and the underlying elements didn’t all arrive on the human scene at once. In fact, millions of years separate the beginning state from the current state.

In evolutionary biology, scientists struggle to explain the evolution of complex traits, since they don’t appear all at once, but evolve over time. Then in the 1980s biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba hypothesized that evolved traits are sometimes co-opted to create new capabilities. This process they called exaptation (as distinct from adaptation).

The standard example of an exaptation is the feathers on a flightless dinosaur. This feature appeared many thousands of years before the first dinosaur was able to take flight. So how did it evolve? Scientists now theorize that the proto-feathers were selected for some other purpose – possibly regulating body heat. Over time, the feathers evolved, and so did  the animals, until flight was possible.

Comedy is an example of a very complex exaptation: in fact, let’s call it a metaptation, because it occurs not just in the one domain – the physiological, but in four separate domains: physiological, the cognitive, the emotional, and the semantic. And we could easily add a fifth: the cultural domain. As humans evolved, the physiological mechanism of laughter was overtaken by the cognitive mechanism of the funny, which was itself subsumed into the emotional mechanism of humor, which was incorporated into the semantic mechanism of the comic, all of which developed into the cultural human phenomenon of Comedy.

So though comedy has evolved (and rapidly) in the last two thousand years, the underlying mechanisms of comedy have evolved over a much longer time. The primary elements of comedy: laughter and humor have little to do with the phenomenon of comedy, as we know it. Really, comedy is a recent arrival that makes use of these underlying states and mechanisms to create its effect. And we make use of comedy according to our own intentions.

Trying to understand the elements all at once is pretty difficult. Most philosophers have generally looked at comedy through the lens of only one its components: Plato through the physiological, Kant through the cognitive, Freud through the psychological, and Aristotle through the semantic[1]. If we look at all the elements, one by one, and try to analyze them separately, maybe we can begin to comprehend the relationships and understand this remarkable human creation known as comedy.

[1] A vast oversimplification of all but Plato, but a helpful one.