Essay by Emmica Lore for Contextualising Practice


Welcome to my essay, where humour takes a tumble into the realm of the surreal. It’s hard to shake the feeling that analysing why something is funny is just, uncool. I find myself at a crossroads of intellectual curiosity and scepticism as I attempt to dissect the enigmatic romance of humour and surrealism. But alas! We are here, and we will try our best to enjoy following the yellow brick road together[1]. Very soon, you will meet two characters, Julie and Victor. Reflecting on these artworks, I experienced a kind of ‘chicken and the egg’ situation[2]. Are the foundations of these works humour with a splash of surrealism or surrealism with a dash of humour?! Honestly, I’m not too sure. Together, we shall dive headfirst into the rabbit hole[3] of academic analysis, fully aware that we may emerge with more questions than answers. But, you know, isn’t that kind of neat? After all, life is a bit like a surrealist joke – unpredictable, absurd, and filled with delightful surprises.

The not so fun art of dissecting humour

According to Clements the three major theories of humour are Superiority Theory, Relief Theory and Incongruity Theory (2020, Morreall 2009). My work hovers slightly within the second, and greatly within the third, thus I am gleefully skipping over the first[4].

Relief Theory explains humour by focusing on the idea that laughter is a form of relief from tension or anxiety. As Stick and Ford have noted humour occurs when there is a build-up of psychological stress which is then released through laughter (2021). The champion of this theory (I’m sure you’ve guessed it) Sigmund Freud, saw humour as the triumph of the pleasure principle. As Chao has argued he believed that comedy and jokes were a way to express repressed desires and momentarily satisfy the pleasure-seeking instincts of the unconscious mind (2018). Relief Theory asserts that laughing is a complicated physiological reaction that can rid us of negative emotions and generate positive health outcomes (Strick and Ford 2021).

Incongruity Theory is chiefly interested in the relationship between similarity and dissimilarity (Nerhardt 1976). As humans, we exist within a world of patterns. We undergo experiences and those experiences prepare us for future experiences (Clements 2020, Morreall 2009). Still with me? As a child, you most likely had an experience of touching a hot item on the stove and burning yourself. This shaped your future experiences as you developed an expectation that stoves are hot and dangerous. Morreall (2009) provides the following example – if a possum[5] is running towards you, your assumption is that it will just run straight past you, rather than say hurling itself at your jugular. If you do indeed end up in hospital, incongruity has occurred as there’s been a break in regular expectations (Morreall 2009). Of course, experiencing a break of regular patterns is not always funny, but incongruity can be a valuable tool when it comes to eliciting humour. Many jokes utilise this by setting up a familiar storyline and then turning it on its head (Morreall 2009).

Martin and Ford (2018) specifically discuss incongruity resolution whereby a joke is set up, and the listener makes a predication. When the punch line is not what was expected, the listener is surprised. They need to work out how it can still make sense. Once they’ve figured it out, it’s funny…hopefully (Martin & Ford 2018). Whereas others, like Nerhardt (1976), assert that you don’t necessarily need to resolve the incongruity for it to be funny; the conflicting representations can be enough to evoke laughter. This is particularly understandable with nonsense humour whereby the purpose is to create humours confusion (Yus 2017).

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know. – Groucho Marx (Galef 2011, p1) – (a classic example of a joke employing the tool of incongruity)

As we continue down the road of yellow bricks, you’ll see that the principle of breaking patterns and expectations is extremely similar to core concepts of surrealism. Humour also, as Clements has stated, brings sensitive subjects to the surface, allowing people to confront them in a light-hearted and accessible way (2020). It also has the power to expose the inner workings of the unconscious mind. Humour taps into the deep layers of our thoughts and emotions, revealing aspects that may not be readily apparent in our conscious awareness (Clements 2020). Again, just like surrealism!

An extremely brief ‘can only do so much within the word limit’ overview of Surrealism

Born off the back of Dada, Surrealism was birthed in 1924 by poet, André Breton. Heavily influenced by the psychoanalytic work of Freud, he was deeply interested in dreams and the irrational (Bigsby 1972, Lusty 2022). In his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton outlined principles and objectives (such as automatism, liberation from reason etc.) centred around the belief that Surrealism could revolutionise both art and society (Breton 1969). Surrealists expressed the power of imagination and free association, emphasising the irrational, fantastic, and dreamlike elements of the human experience (Bigsby 1972, Lusty 2022). Artists often created strange juxtapositions, unexpected combinations of objects, distorted figures, and symbolic imagery. They frequently explored themes of desire, sexuality, identity, and the human condition (Bigsby 1972).

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak. – André Breton (1969:14)

Surrealism operates between the emergence of new ideas and the resurgence of fundamental certainties. It accepts, according to Fijalkowski and Richardson, incongruity, diversity, and irrationality in this process (2016). The movement seeks to challenge established norms and delve into the depths of the human psyche. Ultimately, it encourages us to question reality and reinterpret the world around us (Fijalkowski and Richardson 2016). Surrealism was built by different levels of thinking and therefore it will be ever evolving and changing. Although the historical movement may have ended, the concepts endure. To this day, surrealism remains influential across popular culture and fine art (Chao 2018).

Time to meet Julie

A blue and orange sculptured faun stands beside a large hot pink, bright green and yellow beetle.
Figs 1 & 2. Emmica Lore, ‘Julie’, 2023, papier mâché, plaster, modelling compound, polymer clay, acrylic

Julie collected dead beetles. She kept them on her windowsill and made tableaus. Beetle birthday party, beetle school play, beetle funeral. Sarah and Tiffany thought she was weird, but Julie didn’t care.

The above story within the sculptural artwork, Julie, features moments of incongruity as we are presented with elements and ideas that are unexpected and out of place (Yus 2017). Julie’s choice of collecting dead beetles and using them to create tableaus is an unusual behaviour (to most of us!). This becomes particularly pronounced when we consider that the scenes she creates are human activities and, at least as far as we know, not something we see beetles do. Additionally, the reactions of Sarah and Tiffany further emphasise this as we see a contrast between Julie’s interests and the normative expectations of her social group.

The juxtaposition of these ordinary human events with the insect world is also inherently surreal. The story subverts our usual understanding of how things should be, creating a sense of surprise and amusement. Julie is also a made-up creature with no real face, and the beetles are overemphasised in colour and appearance. Surrealism often involves blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy (Chao 2018, Adcock 2022). The personification of Julie as a fictional creature, along with the dream-like beetles, contributes to this blurring.

Say hello to the illustrious Victor

A light grey animal with four legs, white hooves and red demon horns stands looking in a mirror. The mirror has a short story written on it.
Fig 3. Emmica Lore, ‘Victor’, 2022, papier mâché, joint compound, recycled brass, acrylic

Victor was a deep thinker. He often pondered the meaning of life, whether he lived with purpose, and what it meant to be truly happy. He also happened to be devilishly handsome. Victor would never admit it, but sometimes that felt like enough.

Victor can be seen as ironic humour. Whilst irony is not limited to the bounds of Incongruity Theory, it often operates within this framework. Irony involves an incongruity between what is expected or intended and what occurs (Diack 2012, Klein 2006). The artwork evokes humour through the contrast between Victor’s deep contemplation and his handsome appearance. It is unexpected and contradictory for someone who ponders life’s purpose to also find solace or contentment in their own attractiveness. This irony adds a twist that can also be seen as a form of satirical humour. Satire often aims to expose flaws, vices, or absurdities through humour (Diack 2012, Klein 2006). The contrast of Victor’s inner thoughts gently critiques societal values or misplaced priorities. The satirical elements of the work prompt the viewer to consider the potential disconnect between one’s internal contemplations and external priorities.

Just like his compatriot[6], Victor is a made-up creature with no distinct facial features. He is also looking into a mirror which emphasises the personification and creates a surreal quality to the work.

“No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative…”

But seriously, what does all of this mean? If we recall back to my ‘chicken and the egg’ comment, it’s hard to say whether humour or surrealism is the driving force behind Julie and Victor. Do the surreal and absurd qualities add a layer of humour or is the humour supported and expressed through surrealism?  know, I know, this is where I am meant to dazzle you with my keen intellect. Well prepare to have your expectations subverted! In the case of both artworks, I don’t think it really matters whether Team H or Team S reigns supreme. It’s entirely probable that the works are effective because the lines between humour and surrealism are instinctively blurred.

A blue and orange sculptured faun.
Fig 4. Emmica Lore, ‘Julie’, 2023 [detail], papier mâché, plaster, modelling compound, polymer clay, acrylic
Both surrealism and humour involve a playfulness with reality and a departure from conventional norms (Morreall 2009). Julie and Victor employ humourous and surrealist tactics to spark both moments of joy and moments of gentle reflection. I am deeply interested in how humour can act as a buffer, enabling people to explore difficult topics without feeling overwhelmed or defensive (Morreall 2009). Likewise, how the fantastical and otherworldly elements of surrealism can further create a safe space for reflection as it distances the subject matter from direct reality (Fijalkowski and Richardson 2016). The fantastical presentations of both Julie and Victor allow us to better see ourselves reflected in them. In the case of Julie, perhaps we have judged others for their seemingly odd behaviour. Within a soft cushioning of humour and surrealism, we can quietly unpack that idea and consider if this is who we want to be. If we are the ones who have been ostracised, the cushioning enables us to be vulnerable. Through Julie’s indifference to the opinions of others, we can be open to feeling secure in ourselves. And on that note, we’ve well and truly made our way back home to Kansas. I hope that you are not more perplexed than you were at the beginning. I’m sorry if you feel robbed of answers and irritated for giving away your time so freely. As an empathetic human, I offer you another story of mine as a form of compensation.

Stanley and Stanley liked going for walks together. Stanley listened intently as Stanley explained his latest crime novel. Stanley complained about his colleagues at the soap factory. When they came to a forest, Stanley always walked slightly ahead of Stanley. Stanley was afraid of drop bears. Absurd I know.



[1] See what I did there? I’m being clever by referencing a place in the famous surrealist film, The Wizard of Oz.

[2] A common idiomatic expression referring to when it’s difficult to determine what came first, to establish a cause-and-effect relationship.

[3] I did it again but with Alice in Wonderland. Probably not as clever.

[4] Superiority theory largely revolves around something being funny at another person’s expense (Clements 2020, Morreall 2009). And who wants to do that!

[5] He actually said chipmunk but I’m being Australian.

[6] Although I’m not too sure that Julie and Victor would be friends!


Adcock C (2022) ‘Surrealist Resonances in Contemporary Art’, in Strom K The Routledge Companion to Surrealism, Taylor & Francis Group, doi:10.4324/9781003139652.

Bigsby C (1972) Dada and Surrealism, Taylor & Francis Group, London.

Breton A (1969) Manifestoes of Surrealism, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Chao S (2018) ‘A tomato is also a child’s balloon: Surrealist Humour as a Moral Attitude’, in Westbrook W and Chao S Humour in the Arts: New Perspectives, Taylor & Francis Group, doi:10.4324/9780429455827-11.

Clements P (2020) The Outsider, Art and Humour, Taylor & Francis Group, doi:10.4324/9781003031369.

Diack H (2012) ‘The Gravity of Levity: Humor as Conceptual Critique’, RACAR: Revue d’art Canadienne/Canadian Art Review, 37(1):75–86, doi:10.7202/1066735ar.

Fijalkowski K & Richardson M (eds) (2016) Surrealism: Key Concepts, Taylor & Francis Group, doi:10.4324/9781315622071.

Galef J (2011) “That’s Funny…” Incongruity In Humor, Art, And Science, 3 Quarks Daily website, accessed 26 May 2023.

Klein S (2006) Art and Laughter, I.B.Tauris, doi:10.5040/9780755604197.

Lusty N (2022) ‘Dreams and Humour’, in Strom K The Routledge Companion to Surrealism, Taylor & Francis Group, doi:10.4324/9781003139652.

Martin R A & Ford T (2018) The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach, 2nd edn, Academic Press, London.

Morreall J (2009) ‘That Mona Lisa Smile: The Aesthetics of Humor’, in Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, doi:10.1002/9781444307795.

Nerhardt G (1976) ‘Incongruity and funniness: toward a new descriptive model’, in Chapman, A J & Foot H Humour and Laughter: Theory, Research and Applications, John Wiley & Sons, doi:10.4324/9780203789469-4.

Strick M & Ford T E (eds) (2021) The Social Psychology of Humor, Taylor & Francis Group, doi:10.4324/9781003042440.

Yus F (2017) ‘Incongruity-Resolution Cases in Jokes’, Lingua, 197:103–122, doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2017.02.002.

Essay – Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana: the ethical non-monogamy of humour and surrealism
Tagged on: