Appeal to Humor as Fallacy

Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog puppet
Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. Derek Storm / Getty Images

The appeal to humor is a fallacy in which a rhetor uses humor to ridicule an opponent and/or direct attention away from the issue at hand. In Latin, this is also called argumentum ad festivitatem and reductio ad absurdum.

Like name calling, red herring, and straw man, the appeal to humor is a fallacy that manipulates through distraction.

Examples and Observations

Winifred Bryan Horner

"Everyone loves a good laugh, and usually the person who uses humor at the right time and place will earn the goodwill of most audiences. But a joke can be used to divert attention or to make an opponent look foolish. By trivializing the speaker and the subject, the issue can be what one writer calls 'lost in the laugh.'

"A well-known example is from a debate on evolution when one speaker asked the other:

Now, is it on your mother's side or your father's that your ancestors were apes?

When proponents fail to respond to the humor, they are accused of taking the matter too seriously. This can be a devastating technique for clouding and confusing the issue. In addition, jokes can undermine an argument. When an opponent of the Meramec Dam repeatedly referred to the construction site as the 'damn dam site' it succeeded in diverting the attention of the audience from the real issues."
– Winifred Bryan Horner, Rhetoric in the Classical Tradition. St. Martin's Press, 1988

Gerry Spence

"Every good closing argument has to start with 'May it please the court, ladies and gentlemen of the jury,' so let me start out that way with you. I actually thought we were going to grow old together. I thought maybe we would go down to Sun City and get us a nice complex there and sort of live out our lives. I had an image in my mind [with] the judge at the head of the block and then the six jurors with nice little houses beside each other. I hadn't made up my mind whether I was going to ask [criminal defense lawyer] Mr. Paul to come down, but I didn't think this case was ever going to get over. As a matter of fact, as Mr. Paul kept calling witnesses, I got the impression that he's fallen in love with us over here and just didn't want to quit calling witnesses..."
– Attorney Gerry Spence in his summation at the civil trial concerning the death of nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood, quoted by Joel Seidemann in In the Interest of Justice: Great Opening and Closing Arguments of the Last 100 Years. HarperCollins, 2005

"Avoid sarcasm, scorn, and ridicule. Use humor cautiously. Hold back insult. No one admires the cynic, the scoffer, the mocker, the small, and the petty. Giving respect to one's opponent elevates us. Those who insult and slight do so from low places.

"Remember: Respect is reciprocal.

"The employment of humor can be the most devastating of all weapons in an argument. Humor is omnipotent when it reveals the truth. But beware: attempting to be funny and failing is one of the most dangerous of all strategies."
– Gerry Spence, How to Argue and Win Every Time: At Home, at Work, in Court, Everywhere. Macmillan, 1995)

Paul Bosanac

"Humor and ridicule are often targeted at an individual's character—ad hominem (abusive) epithets frequently convey that humor and ridicule. Little can be done, inside or outside the courtroom, to respond to successful humor or ridicule, as the audience (judge or jury, for example) will likely consider the humor or ridicule as having trumped any factual claim or argument. A quick reply with a counter example of humor or ridicule is the best response, but quick-wittedness at critical moments is a hit-or-miss proposition."
– Paul Bosanac, Litigation Logic: A Practical Guide to Effective Argument. American Bar Association, 2009

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Appeal to Humor as Fallacy." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Appeal to Humor as Fallacy. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Appeal to Humor as Fallacy." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 2, 2023).