Someone once told me that puns are the lowest form of humor, but I have realized that that can't be true. Puns have to be at least the second lowest form of humor, because the lowest form of humor is teasing.

Teasing is actually a subcategory of another form of humor. Let’s call it “insult humor.” The subcategories of insult humor are teasing, self-deprecating humor, and bigoted jokes (which I will not mention again in this article, because racism/sexism/ableism/homophobia/antisemitism/transphobia/islamophobia/etc. is never funny and therefore doesn’t actually count as a form of humor at all). The difference between self-deprecation and teasing is who the insult is directed at: the joker, or another person.

So why do I specify that teasing, as opposed to all insult humor, is the lowest form of humor? It comes down to power dynamics. But before I talk about power, I need to talk about what (allegedly) makes teasing funny.

A tease consists of a mocking, negative comment made by one person about another person, directly to that other person, sometimes with an audience. In other contexts, we would call this kind of behavior rude, insulting, and inappropriate. But in this context, the two people know and like each other. The teaser is insulting someone that they would not truly ever be mean to. Most humor hinges on reversal of expectations like this. But not all kinds of humor involve hurtful language.

Consequently the teaser is exerting a kind of power over the target, by saying mean things at their expense in the context of a joke. And in order for the joke to work, the target cannot otherwise participate. They cannot respond. They can neither argue against the insult nor take offense without "ruining the joke".

In self-deprecating humor, the teaser and target are one and the same. There is no power imbalance, no risk of hurting the feelings of any unwilling participants. The audience is free to relate to the self-deprecatory feelings and take joy in the joke. In self-deprecating humor, having an audience actively agreeing with you about the insult is an asset to the humor.

Teasing cannot handle agreement any better than it can handle disagreement. A big part of my personal sense of humor these days, which doesn't go over as well as I wish it did, involves responding to other people's teasing with agreement. I call it "back-teasing." I reply to the tease as if it is normal, expected, and taken seriously. The way I see it, if someone pokes fun at me, why shouldn't I be able to poke fun back?

But teasing is a form of humor so low that it cannot tolerate participation. Whenever I back-tease someone, they become very uncomfortable. "I was only kidding," they say, clearly not having fun anymore. By participating, I have somehow "ruined" the joke.

This is because of the power dynamics I mentioned before. The key part of the tease is that the teaser has control of this "not real" situation. They define when it begins and when it ends, and dictate that the insult is not something they would "actually" say. If the target responds to the tease, they take that power of definition away from the teaser. By responding, they lengthen the scenario beyond the intentions of the teaser. And because they responded, it is undeniable that the teaser did in fact actually say the insult, making the scenario potentially real and therefore actually insulting.

Jokes are supposed to create joy between people. A joke that denies participation, that insists that one person have fun while another person is unable to enjoy it, is the lowest form of humor. Even knock-knock jokes encourage participation. And so do puns – it is possible to bounce puns back and forth between people (“Can I tell you a yolk?” “I’d rather crack one.” “Egg-xactly!”), for hours on end, prolonging the fun and creating joy for all who like puns. No insults necessary.