Script-Based Semantic
Theory of Humour

Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humour

What is the Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humour?

The Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humour (SSTH) was proposed by Victor Raskin in 1985 in his book entitled, ‘Semantic Mechanisms of Humour’.

SSTH is a linguistic model of humour which is broadly aligned with the general principles and concepts of the incongruity theory of humour.

It is considered to be one of the first theories of humour which identified its approach as being exclusively linguistic.

Therefore, due to its linguistic focus, SSTH only focuses on verbal humour.

The Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humour was later developed by Raskin and one of his colleagues, Salvatore Attardo, in 1991 which led to the proposal of the General Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH)

Verbal humour is considered as both written and spoken word, used in narrative, conversations, riddles and jokes where a humorous ending is present.

As the title suggests, the Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humour focuses on the use of linguistic scripts (or ‘frames’).

Scripts include, for any given word, large chunks of semantic information surrounding the word and evoked by it and a cognitive structure internalised by the native speaker.

These scripts extend well beyond the lexical definition of the word as they contain the speaker’s fully knowledge and experiences associated with the concept as it exists in their personal world.

Therefore, native speakers will have similar (but not identical scripts) for words they have in common.

Check Out This VIDEO on Humorous Learning Cultures

Example of the Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humour

Raskin proposed that in order to produce humour via verbal joke, the following two conditions must be met:

  1. The text is compatible, fully or in part, with two different (semantic) scripts.
  2. The two scripts with which the text is compatible are opposite – the two scripts with which the text is compatible are said to overlap fully or in part on this text.

Humour is produced when there is a stimulus or trigger present at the end of the joke – commonly known as the punch-line.

The punchline will cause the audience to abruptly shift their interpretation of from the primary script (the more obvious script) to the secondary script (the alternative and less obvious script).


Raskin provides the following example to demonstrate his theory:

“Is the doctor at home?” the patient asked in his bronchial whisper. “No,” the doctor’s young and pretty wife whispered in reply. “Come right in.”

For this example, the two scripts found within the joke are ‘Doctor’ and ‘Lover’.

The shift between scripts is triggered by our understanding of the ‘whispered’ reply from the wife. This reply only makes sense in the script of the ‘Lover’, but makes no sense in the script of a bronchial patient seeking the doctor (not the lover).

Raskin explains that the two scripts overlap and oppose each other which is why the joke is humorous.   

In order to meet the second condition of a joke, Raskin introduces different categories of script opposition.

A partial list includes:

  • Actual (Non-Actual)
  • Normal (Abnormal)
  • Possible (Impossible)
  • Good (Bad)
  • Life (Death)
  • Obscene (Non-Obscene)
  • Money (No-Money)
  • High Stature (Low Stature)

A complete list of possible scripts oppositions for jokes is finite and culturally dependent.

An example of this cultural dependency could be the different opposing scripts that would exist for Jewish humour and Soviet Political Humour.

However, for all jokes, in order to generate the humour, a connection between the two scripts contained in a given joke must be established.

This leads us back to the incongruity theory which suggests that humour is produced by an identified incongruity and the resolution of that incongruity.

However, the Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humour makes the very important point that although an incongruity is required to produce humour, the incongruities must overlap or be associated in some way.

Without the connection between the two incongruities, or scripts in the case of this theory, humour will not be produced.

"One cannot simply juxtapose two incongruous things and call it a joke, but rather one must find a clever way of making them make pseudo-sense together”.

Victor Raskin


What is the Benign Violation Theory?

If you are interested in exploring other humour theories you should check out this article on the Benign violation theory.

Just click the image or the link above.

Author: Jonathan Sandling