My six-year-old granddaughter has a top that lights up when spun. It doesn’t just light up, it shoots out multicolored rays of spinning light from its edge and will merrily twirl about for 20 seconds or more.

“Mom,” she said, “how about we go in the bathroom, close the door, and turn off the light? That way when we spin it, the lights will be really bright.”

“Great idea,” her mother said.

They went into the bathroom, turned off the light, sat on the floor, and my granddaughter gave the top a healthy spin. The result was marvelous. Red and green and blue lights danced about the room, providing just enough illumination to see.

As the top spun, my daughter had an idea. What if when the top stopped and the room was momentarily dark, she puffed out her cheeks, made a scary face, and leaned forward?

What she imagined is that her daughter would laugh, and then want to make scary faces in return as her mom spun the top. However, what we imagine will happen and what actually happens are often two different things.


The top slowed down, began to wobble, then fell onto its side. In the sudden darkness, my daughter puffed out her cheeks, made a face, and leaned forward. The girl felt around for the top and spun it. In the eerie glow of the renewed light, there was a scary face inches from her own. She gave a shriek and instinctively slapped her mother across the face.

The girl was momentarily horrified that she had slapped her mother, and her mother was stunned to have been slapped. Then they both exploded into laughter. The more they tried to stop, the funnier it became, and the situation turned into one of those odd, unexpected, precious experiences that will be funny forever.

When our daughter told my wife and I, it was such a great bit of comedy, we, too, laughed.

Our granddaughter did her part, as well. She wrote up the incident — using her first-grade handwriting and spelling — and took it to school to share with her teacher.

There are many theories of humor, ranging from Aristotle, who believed we laugh at people because if gives us joy to feel superior to them, to Freud, who thought humor provided a relief from sexual tension (of course, Freud thought that), to modern theories such as the computational-neural theory, the ontic-epistemic theory, and the detection of mistaken reasoning.

I think in this case the humor comes from a mis-fulfilled expectation. My daughter had an idea of what her action would cause, but the result was surprisingly different from her expectation, making it funny.


That’s not to say that all mis-fulfilled expectations are humorous, but rather that most humor involves mis-fulfilled expectations of some sort.

Police took a kindergartner into custody for resisting a rest.

The expectation is that the word following resisting will be arrest. The words “a rest” defy that expectation in a way that tickles us.

Take that, Aristotle.

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