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The 4 Humor Styles and the Comedians Who’ve Mastered Them

As the old adage goes, laughter is the best medicine — but just like there are different types of medicine, there are also different types of humor. For some of us, the only thing that can make us double over with giggles is the absurd, fantastical, or shockingly raunchy. For others, the proper dose of comedy might be wry, dry, and sardonic. (Our favorite type of humor? The kind that’s eminently quotable, of course.)

And while gut-busting comedy is incredibly subjective, the four styles of humor are a bit less abstract: Originally defined in 2003 by psychologist Rod Martin, the types include affiliative, aggressive, self-enhancing, and self-defeating.

These humor styles tend to focus on specific subjects relative to their category, from everyday happenings to relationships to society. The four categories act as frameworks upon which comedians and even everyday jokesters can build their wisecracks. So, which of the four styles of humor is best at tickling your funny bone?

Affiliative Humor

First on the list is perhaps the most inclusive style of comedy: affiliative humor. This style capitalizes on universally relatable topics such as the hilarity of everyday life — think traffic, chores, or workplace woes — with the ultimate purpose of fostering connections between people.

Comedians who’ve based their careers on affiliative humor include Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Birbiglia, Paula Poundstone, and Mitch Hedberg. Each of these comedians excels at offering laughable takes on otherwise mundane aspects of life, highlighting how naturally comical the human experience really is.

I saw a commercial that said, “Forget everything you know about slipcovers,” so I did. And it was a load off my mind. Then the commercial tried to sell slipcovers, but I didn’t know what the hell they were.
Mitch Hedberg

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What late people don’t understand about us on-time people is that we hate you, and the reason we hate you is it’s so easy to be on time. You just have to be early, and early lasts for hours. And on-time just lasts a second, and then you’re late forever.
Mike Birbiglia

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Why is McDonald’s still counting [customers served]? This is really insecure, isn’t it? 40 jillion, 80 million, zillion, billion, killion, tillion — what is this? Does it mean anything to anyone? “89 billion sold.” OK … Look, we all get it, you’ve sold a lot of hamburgers. Just put up a sign — “McDonald’s: We’re doing very well.”
Jerry Seinfeld

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Aggressive

As the name implies, aggressive humor takes a more confrontational approach to comedy. Rather than focusing on more general aspects of life, aggressive humor makes other people — either individuals or groups — the butt of the joke. Aggressive humor is often categorized as controversial or raunchy, as the comedians who employ it purposefully push the boundaries of what’s considered socially acceptable.

Aggressive comedians include Joan Rivers, George Carlin, Don Rickles, and Jimmy Carr. These humorists are known for saying exactly what’s on their mind, even if (or especially when) it’s impolite, sarcastic, or contentious.

Kim Kardashian — I was at [her] wedding, and I caught the bouquet. Isn’t that exciting? The first thing to catch from her that didn’t need a shot of penicillin.
Joan Rivers

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Frank [Sinatra], Dean [Martin], Sammy Davis [Jr.], Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford — they made Las Vegas what it is today: the off-ramp between Sodom and Gomorrah.
Bob Hope

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On a serious note, just looking at all the faces here [at the Golden Globes] reminds me of some of the great work that’s been done this year … by cosmetic surgeons.
Ricky Gervais

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Self-Enhancing

Not to be confused with self-defeating humor, self-enhancing comedy is basically the ability to laugh at oneself in a lighthearted and even positive way. By pointing out their flaws or shortcomings as they relate to universal concepts such as aging, relationships, or work, these comedians allow the audience to laugh at their own imperfections, too. This type of good-natured roasting is similar to affiliative humor but with a greater focus on the self and personal experiences.

Some popular self-enhancing comedians include Ali Wong, Jon Stewart, Bo Burnham, and Hannibal Buress. These performers don’t take themselves too seriously and encourage others to do the same.

If you want to receive emails about my upcoming shows, then please give me money so I can buy a computer.
Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow) in “Friends”

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We’ve been together now for five years, and for five years, I’ve packed [my husband’s] lunch every single day. I did that so that he’d become dependent on me, ’cause he graduated from Harvard Business School and I don’t wanna work anymore … I don’t feed him out of the goodness of my heart. I do it as an investment in my financial future.
Ali Wong

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I haven’t got the slightest idea how to change people, but still I keep a long list of prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out.
David Sedaris

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Self-Defeating

The darker sibling of self-enhancing humor, this style takes self-deprecating comedy to the next level. Comedians who specialize in self-defeating humor use the shock value of making morbid, mocking, or vulnerable observations about themselves to get a rise out of their audience. While it’s perhaps not the healthiest form of self-expression, many great comedians have built their careers on this type of humor.

Notable examples of self-defeating comedians include Rodney Dangerfield, John Mulaney, Patton Oswalt, and Maria Bamford. Think of this category as the emotional version of slapstick comedy: jeopardizing one’s own mental well-being for the entertainment of onlookers.

When I was born, the doctor told my mother, “I did all I could, but he pulled through anyway.”
Rodney Dangerfield

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You guys ever leave the house without headphones? Whew! Thoughts are not good. My god, this whole time I thought I loved music; turns out, I just hate my brain. I’m just being attacked all day long with this insecurity playlist on shuffle.
Mark Normand

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I was hoping by now that I would look older, but it didn’t happen. I don’t look older, I just look worse, I think. Honestly, when I’m walking down the street, no one’s ever like, “Hey, look at that man!” I think they’re just like, “Whoa, that tall child looks terrible! Get some rest, tall child!”
John Mulaney

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Featured image credit: E.Va/ Shutterstock

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About the Author
Melanie Davis-McAfee
M. Davis-McAfee is a freelance writer, musician, and devoted cat mom of three living in southwest Kentucky.
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