Humor can be dissected, as a frog can,
but the thing dies in the process
and the innards are discouraging
to any but the pure scientific mind.
- E.B. White
Despite having aired its last episode 28 years ago, The Golden Girls is still influencing all sorts of facets of our culture.
Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia shattered countless norms about what women were supposed to be. They challenged societal expectations around age, marital status, and chosen family. They championed progressive causes and continued to learn new things and change their minds about preconceived notions. But perhaps most important to their longevity, the Golden Girls were funny as hell.
Over its seven-season run, The Golden Girls won multiple awards for comedy. The Writer’s Guild of America West named it one of their 101 Best Written TV Series, and esteemed writers like Susan Harris, Mitchell Hurwitz, and Marc Cherry worked hard to get the jokes right for Bea, Rue, Betty, and Estelle. As writer/producer Terry Grossman put it:
These four actresses are sensational. To have the entire cast be able to give such high-caliber performances means you don’t have to adjust your material. You write the material, and they deliver. If they can’t make it work, there’s something wrong with the material.
That hard work in crafting quality comedy material meant that within the 180 episodes of The Golden Girls, there is every conceivable type of joke and style of humor imaginable.
Luckily for us, three different scholarly explorations of the types and styles of humor have been outlined exhaustively. Use your pure scientific mind and read on to see how The Golden Girls flexes its comic muscle on each and every variety.
First: What is 'Comedy,' Anyway?
Before we dive into studying types of comedy, we have to define what ‘comedy’ is. How does one even explain it?
We often think of things that are funny being “positive,” or having to do with the “happier” side of life. But psychological scientists Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren think that negativity is actually an essential part of comedy.
A joke just isn’t funny unless it “violates a norm” or some kind of rule. This is called the Benign Violation Theory, in which “humor only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling or threatening (i.e., a violation), but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable, or safe (i.e., benign).”
Here’s an example:
When the ladies are discussing whether they’d like to volunteer to babysit for a walk-a-thon, Blanche says, “I like to sit.” Sophia comes right back and says, “We know, it’s your second-favorite position.” To go against what E.B. White is saying in his sassy quote above, let’s dissect this:
The reason people giggle at Sophia’s line is that she’s crossing a boundary — she’s literally violating the societal norm that you don’t discuss other people’s sex lives, particularly in a social setting and particularly when you’re not even remotely discussing the topic of sex in the first place. So it’s funny.
But, importantly, she doesn’t go so incredibly far as to admonish Blanche for her choice in sexual positions, or insult her to the point of cruelty, or to say something out of the blue that’s commenting harshly on Blanche’s sex life. It’s accepted by Blanche and the girls that Blanche is more promiscuous than most, and thus a comment like this that’s toeing the line is okay.
Sophia’s zingers are always neat and packaged up in a way that’s juuuuuuuust on this side of acceptable. And that’s why her zingers are consistently hilarious.
Of course, this ‘benign violation’ theory is just one of the philosophies of comedy. There’s also the Superiority Theory, which is that we find something funny because we feel “above” it. Self-deprecating humor, irony, or esoteric jokes fall into this category. There are a lot of Rose put-downs that could be seen as humorous because, well, we agree that Rose is being a moron.
There’s also the Incongruity Theory, which is that conflict itself or a contradiction of ideas makes something funny. This comes up a lot when Rose is surprisingly the voice of reason or a leader in a particular scene — it’s the exact opposite of her being a lovable doofus, and it’s hilarious.
Another philosophy of comedy is the Relief Theory, which is that humor releases a tense feeling or discharges anxiety or emotions — essentially, catharsis. An argument could be made that the entire act of watching The Golden Girls reruns and laughing along with every type of joke could be seen as catharsis.
Humor is more than just a fun time. It bonds people, especially through inside jokes and referential humor, and helps smooth out rough edges in dealing with society’s shittier parts. Mary Beard in the New York Review of Books put it thusly:
Laughter is one of the most treacherous of all fields of history. Like sex and eating, it is an absolutely universal human phenomenon, and at the same time something that is highly culturally and chronologically specific. Every human society in the world laughs, and whatever their race or language, people make almost exactly the same sound in doing so.
Humor also establishes hierarchy, and, depending on the style or type of humor used, can be used to make a statement about beliefs — Dukakis sticker covering up the Mondale one, anyone? — or separate out people by “in crowd” or “out crowd” (you know — the hip group, the not-so-hip group, and the broken hip group). But for the most part, what The Golden Girls did best with their comedy style was show everyone that funny is funny, no matter where you’re coming from.
PART 1: Right in the Middle of Uncle Miltie
Psychologist Rod Martin and his colleagues have studied types of humor and have developed the Humor Styles Questionnaire, which measures four distinct humor styles that can be neatly plotted on a graph:
As you can see, these four categories of humor either move closer to enhancing the self or enhancing relationships with others, and can take either a more friendly and benign tone, or more insulting or injurious.
Dig in to each of these below:
1. Affiliative Humor: Jokes about things most everyone will probably find funny.
Think ‘Jerry Seinfeld, what’s the deal with airplane food?’ type of humor. This is humor most people can recognize, as it’s pointing out idiosyncrasies and silly everyday things humans have to deal with. This is a style of humor that brings people together and creates a sense of camaraderie and fellowship.
The Golden Girls often uses affiliative humor in a specific elder context, for their primary target audience — that is, jokes that most older people, and older women, will find funny. But it also covers a wide variety of jokes that most people would find funny, too — like incontinence.
2. Aggressive Humor: Insults targeted toward others.
This is a put-down style of comedy that involves slinging insults and barbs toward another party, similar to a Joan Rivers-style snark.
Sophia is the best example of using aggressive humor — most notably in her consistently and constantly calling Blanche a slut and Rose a moron — but nearly all of the girls are guilty of leveraging aggressive humor now and again.
3. Self-enhancing humor: The ability to laugh at yourself light-heartedly.
When something bad has happened to you and you make a joke to find the humor in it in a good-natured way, you’re using self-enhancing humor. Blanche does self-enhancing humor pretty well, but Rose is the true star of self-enhancing humor. Many St. Olaf stories involve Rose or another citizen of Scandinavian heritage in a predicament in which they end up as the punchline in a charming way.
4. Self-defeating Humor: Putting yourself down in a negative manner.
This has Dorothy’s dry delivery all over it. Often, Dorothy delivers these self-inflicted zingers as a defense mechanism once someone else has made a joke at her expense (see “aggressive humor” style #2), but they’re still self-defeating — and still funny.
PART 2: I Look Like the Mother of a Solid Gold Dancer
The brainiac team of Ruch, Heintz, Platt, Wagner, and Proyer identified eight distinct comic styles* by using an assignment system of “comic style markers.” By qualitatively assessing humor, they understood that humor can reflect a mood (by being bitter or cheerful, for example), refinement (‘low comedy’ like slapstick, or ‘high comedy’ that focuses on wordplay), structure (what genre of comedy a joke is drawing from), or modality (how it’s used and leveraged).
Their study revealed that, depending on the comic style people usually use, a sense of humor might be related to a variety of character strengths. Fortunately for The Golden Girls, that applies to all four of our main characters.
The goofy storylines throughout the series are just plain fun, following the girls on madcap adventures in Miami.
Rose (singing): Three bottles of beer on the wall / Three bottles of beer / Take one down, pass it around / Two bottles of beer on the wall. Well, I'm off to bed.
Dorothy: TWO BOTTLES OF BEER? Rose, you get all the way to two bottles of beer and you quit?!
Rose: Just drives you nuts, doesn't it, Dorothy?
This classic 'humor' category is the benevolent side of making light of life. It’s found in Rose stories where she giggles about the good old days, or Sophia when she gets wistful talking about Sicily.
Mangiacavallo: I was a kid. I was scared that if I got married and had a family, I never would get out of that village. Leaving you was the toughest thing that I ever did.
Sophia: Yeah. I was quite a dish back then.
Most of Rose’s St. Olaf stories end up here.
Rose: Well, you said to get something I’d buy for myself! You see, I’ve always wanted a tiara. Ever since I was a little girl back in St. Olaf. I mean, every year I’d blow out my birthday candles and wish for one. And every year, I’d get a freshly carved pair of wooden shoes. Except for one year, during the Depression when I just got a block of coal, which I carved into a pair of high-top Keds.
Dorothy tends to be incredibly witty, especially when a more subtle response to a ridiculous situation is warranted, but Sophia gives her a run for her money in a number of wordplay situations.
Blanche: I am abhorred!
Sophia: We know what you are, Blanche, I'm glad to hear you finally admitting it.
Blanche: Sophia, I said abhorred.
Sophia: A whore, a slut, a tramp — they're all the same.
Made infamous by that Alanis Morrissette song, “irony” usually means “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects.” The punchline to many of Sophia’s tales of Sicily ends up being quite ironic. Actually, the punchline to many of Sophia’s tales about anything usually ends up being ironic.
Sophia: I never have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. I go in the morning. Every morning, like clockwork, at 7am, I pee. Unfortunately I don't wake up til 8.
Dorothy is damn funny and leverages satire to point out society’s ills and where we can improve. The best example of satire, though, is the episode Letter to Gorbachev, as the entirety of its A story is skewering the fact that a good idea for world peace means nothing when it comes from a woman instead of a little girl.
Dorothy: But… why would he want to meet the same woman who once said, ‘If the city of Atlantis is lost, how can Bobby Vinton appear there twice a year?’
Sophia’s style, often, and Dorothy’s style, nearly always.
Dorothy: Oh, Ma, Ma, a hotel on the beach! Doesn’t that sound like fun?
Sophia: I get to go with you? I don’t have to stay here and get gassed with the termites? Oh, Dorothy, you’re such a good daughter.
Dorothy again, nailing the failings of society with grumblings about how ridiculous the world can be.
Rose: What are you doing, Dorothy?
Dorothy: Oh, looking up at the stars... pondering the universe.
Rose: I've been doing the same thing! Thinking how wonderful it would be if there really were aliens — maybe it'd be just like Cocoon. They'd take us away, and we'd never grown old.
Dorothy: See, I don't know. I like my life. I mean — I'm not president or anything, I'm just a teacher. A substitute teacher. A divorced substitute teacher who can't even afford her own place to live — BEAM ME UP!
PART 3: Hubba Hubba Zing Zing, Baby, He’s Got Everything
A third categorization of humor falls to none other than the online dating site, eHarmony, and its data scientists. People often cite a “sense of humor” as one of the most important qualities in a potential partner, but surely thinking Ernest Scared Stupid is a quality film is very different than finding cartoons in The New Yorker amusing.
So, why not break down exactly what that means? The eHarmony researchers divvied up ‘humor’ into nine different types:
Does what it says on the tin. Physical humor is all about pratfalls and slapstick. When Dorothy grabs Sophia’s mouth to cover up a potentially offensive comment, or when Rose gets smacked in the head with a newspaper and we all giggle, that’s physical humor.
Blanche: Can we help you? Alexi: I am Alexi Bovanov from the Russian embassy. Premier Gorbachev read Rose's letter and would like to meet with her. Blanche: [spits out her drink right in his face]
Similar to Rod Martin’s “Self-defeating humor” above, self-deprecating humor is when you put yourself down as the butt of the joke — or at least play into it. It has Dorothy Zbornak written all over it.
Dorothy: Ok, girls. Which goes better? The silver chain, or the pearls? Rose: The chain. Blanche: An amateur's mistake. Can't you see that the chain accentuates the many folds of that turkey-like neck? Rose: Well that may be, but the pearls draw attention to the nonexistent bosom. Blanche: Yes, but, the chain leads the eye even lower to that huge spare tire jutting out over those square manly hips. Dorothy: Why don't I just wear a sign that says 'too ugly to live'? Blanche: Fine, but what are you going to hang it from, the chain or the pearls? Dorothy: Neither! I'm going to spray paint it on my hump!
Surreal humor is super weird — like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, you don’t know what bonkers direction it’ll go. It certainly reminds one of Rose’s St. Olaf stories.
Stationmaster: Now, y'all may think this sounds kinda silly, but we actually printed 'Our Trains Leave Early' right on the town seal! Rose: You have a town seal? Can he play a song on those little horns? Stationmaster: No, but he can balance a ball on his nose if you throw him a catfish first! Blanche [to Dorothy]: This is like The Twilight Zone... somehow we got on a train that ended up inside Rose's mind.
The best description of improvisational comedy is to take a topic or phrase and just go where it takes you. By that measure, nearly every one of Rose’s St. Olaf stories are just an improvisational riff off of the subject at hand. But the girls often find themselves in situations where they’re making shit up as they go along.
Dorothy: You know, I never had a sponge cake that was quite so... moist. Jerry: Extremely moist. Rose: The moistest. Sophia: I found the tea rather moist as well. Dorothy: [gives Sophia a dirty look] Sophia: What, I can't be uncomfortable too?
Puns and wordplay are the best examples of wit, as well as the ability to rapidly respond to a comment with humor. Needless to say, these are hallmarks of Dorothy Zbornak.
Rose: You know, back in Minnesota, I was known as the Sherlock Holmes of St. Olaf. Dorothy: Figured out which one was Shinola, did you, Rose?
The Golden Girls definitely nails topical humor — just ask all of the kids born in the 2000s that are looking up “Anita Bryant” on Google.
Sophia: Let me tell you girls the three most important things I learned about life: Number one, hold fast to your friends. Number two, there's no such thing as security. And number three, don't go see Ishtar. Woof.
Most closely matching Rod Martin’s “affiliative humor,” observational humor is finding amusing quips and comments to make about the world around you. One of the reasons The Golden Girls was so relatable is because even if the four main characters were “old ladies,” they still went through all of the same kinds of trials and tribulations as other types of people and other types of families.
Sophia: Jean is a nice person. She happens to like girls instead of guys. Some people like cats instead of dogs. Frankly, I'd rather live with a lesbian than a cat. Unless a lesbian sheds. That I don't know.
Bodily humor is fart joke humor — straight up. And of course, the girls don’t stray from these kinds of giggles, either.
Sophia: What is this, Nova? I don't have all the answers. Blanche: I'm afraid you'll have to excuse Sophia, Jack. Sophia: Oh you heard that? I thought I was safe backed up against these pillows.
Laughing about unsettling things on the more depressing side of life is as old as life itself — it’s a great way to cope. Our girls are no strangers to the dark side of humor, and there are more funeral jokes in the series than you can count.
Lady at Funeral: Yes, Celia Rubinstein loved all mankind. She was — Dorothy: Who?! Lady at Funeral: Celia Rubinstein. Blanche: This funeral isn't for Celia Rubinstein. It's for Frieda Claxton! Mr. Pfeiffer: The Rubinstein funeral is down the hall. Lady at Funeral: Oh, I'm so sorry for the intrusion! Uh... Frieda Claxton? Wasn't she the woman who owned that old house on Richmond Street? Rose: Yes! Lady at Funeral: [turns around and kicks the casket]
Whether you’re more of a witty Dorothy, a self-enhancing Blanche, a nonsensical Rose, or a sarcastic Sophia, The Golden Girls has a giggle for everyone.
Watch some funny moments spanning multiple humor styles from our friends at Stay Golden:
The Humor Code & the Science of How Comedy Works
Broadening Humor: Comic Styles Differentially Tap into Temperament, Character, and Ability
The CEO of eHarmony says there are 9 different senses of humor that determine compatibility
* From four to nine styles: An update on individual differences in humor [this is an update to the 'Broadening Humor' article mentioned above, but the 9th comic style overlaps with Rod Martin's humor styles -- so we opted to go with the original article's 8 styles.]
The Four Styles of Humor by Psychologist Rod Martin:
The Eight Comic Styles by Ruch, Heintz, Platt, Wagner, and Proyer:
The Nine Types of Humor by eHarmony researchers: