If it bends, it's funny...
The Economist has an interesting but brief article on humor research explaining two of the prominent explanations of why some things are funny. It's especially interesting to me, I guess, because I wrote my undergrad senior thesis on the place of humor in Habermas' theory of communicative action (I didn't think there was one) and in the process reviewed a lot of the theory and research on humor. At the time, I was fascinated with the Situationists and anxious to indulge my interests in political theory and comedy simultaneously. I concluded then that humor research would probably advance more as an empirical enterprise, which was one of my first steps from political theory to quantitative political science. I'm pleased to learn that people are still doing this research even though I discovered that studying humor wasn't nearly as much fun as enjoying it.
In the interest of being humorless, I note that the superiority and incongruity theories that are presented here date back a lot longer than this article credits them. Superiority as an explanation of humor is usually attributed to Thomas Hobbes, while the incongruity explanation goes back at least to Immanuel Kant, although Arthur Schopenhauer (a personal favorite of mine) has a more elaborate treatment. The roots of superiority theory can be traced back even to Plato and Aristotle, who were both hostile to laughter as a form of mockery or derision, although Aristotle was a bit more accommodating to laughter. Unfortunately we don't have the mythological second book of the Poetics on comedy that serves to motivate much of the action of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
Another track of humor theory focuses not so much on the object of humor as much as the subject who finds it. George Santayana and Freud explained humor as a dissipation of or relief from pent up energy, a relaxation of mental strictures. This approach finds root in Herbert Spencer, I think, who believed humor had a physiological basis. I don't think this is at all inconsistent with either of the other approaches and all seem to have some validity. The difficulty in explaining humor is that one must simultaneously explain why certain things are (more) funny than other things and that certain things are (more) funny to certain people than to other people.
The title quote from Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors isn't as appropriate as another from the same movie, "comedy is tragedy plus time", but I like it better. The "tragedy + time" formulation could be applied to the initial example in the Economist article, but since Allen attributes this theory to a character in the movie who is supposed to be a pompous ass, I'm not sure we can infer that it's his point of view.