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International Journal of Humor Research

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Volume 31, Issue 2


Chimpanzee and gorilla humor: progressive emergence from origins in the wild to captivity to sign language learning

Paul McGhee
Published Online: 2018-04-28 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/humor-2018-0017


This article examines available (mainly anecdotal) evidence related to the experience of humor among chimpanzees and gorillas in the wild, in captivity and following systematic sign language training. Humor is defined as one form of symbolic play. Positive evidence of object permanence, cross-modal perception, deferred imitation and deception among chimpanzees and gorillas is used to document their cognitive capacity for humor. Playful teasing is proposed as the primordial form of humor among apes in the wild. This same form of humor is commonly found among signing apes, both in overt behavior and in signed communications. A second form of humor emerges in the context of captivity, consisting of throwing feces at human onlookers—who often respond to this with laughter. This early form of humor shows up in signing apes in the form of calling others “dirty,” a sign associated with feces. The diversity of forms of signing humor shown by apes is linked to McGhee, Paul E. Humor: Its origin and development. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman & Co, McGhee, Paul E. Understanding and promoting the development of children’s humor. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt. model of humor development.

Keywords: Chimpanzee; coping; gorilla; humor; mischief; play; pretend; scatological; sign language; slapstick; teasing

The editors of this special issue of Humor were kind enough to allow me to offer a final expression of my view of the capacity for humor among both apes in the wild and signing apes. This question was as much at the core of my initial commitment to a lifelong focus on humor research as my initial research on children’s humor. After beginning to investigate the topic in the 1970s, I failed to re-address the challenge of identifying humor among the great apes in the wild in subsequent years. That failure is rectified here.


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About the article

Published Online: 2018-04-28

Published in Print: 2018-04-25

Citation Information: HUMOR, Volume 31, Issue 2, Pages 405–449, ISSN (Online) 1613-3722, ISSN (Print) 0933-1719, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/humor-2018-0017.

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